Just past the midseason point of the first 17-game NFL schedule in 2021, there’s another big logjam of AFC teams contending for the playoffs with every team in the conference having at least two losses.
After Week 9, the AFC South-leading Titans (7-2) and the AFC North-leading Ravens (6-2) stand out a little from the pack and look on track to get into the playoffs. While Tennessee is on the brink of running away with a second consecutive division title, Baltimore is set on taking back its crown after settling for a wild card last season.
There are nine other AFC teams with winning records going into Week 10, all at either 5-3 or 5-4 depending on byes. The Steelers (4-3) should join that former group with an expected win over the Bears on Monday night.
But assuming the Titans and Ravens don’t collapse in the second half, there are only five available AFC playoff spots through No. 7. That means four of those nine five-win playoff hopefuls will be going home after the new Week 18.
With either nine or eight games left to go, here’s a breakdown the postseason chances for the Chiefs, Raiders, Bills, Chargers, Bengals, Browns, Patriots and Broncos.
Chargers (5-3) first place, AFC West
Current playoff seed: No. 3
The Chargers are here because they have the same record as the Raiders and have the head-to-head tiebreaker. They’re also a half-game ahead of the Chiefs, whom they beat at Arrowhead Stadium. Their mild surprise has planted Brandon Staley as the clear NFL coach of the year favorite.
Los Angeles has the easiest nine-game slate remaining in the AFC. Its second-half opponents have a combined winning percentage of .468, and that’s when even factoring in four division games. The Chargers’ hardest games out of the West are against the Bengals and Steelers, balanced by the Texans, Giants and Vikings.
Run defense is by far the Chargers’ biggest issue and that can cost them in a few more games. But they have a top-flight QB in Justin Herbert leading a dynamic, versatile offense. Their defense, with Staley’s influence, is very tough against the pass when healthy. Their key AFC loss to the Patriots, but they also have a big win over the Browns.
The Chargers’ coaching and personnel say they should be better down the stretch and continue to challenge the Chiefs in the division. They have the profile of falling back on a wild card.
Projected finish: 11-6
Bills (5-3), first place, AFC East
Current playoff seed: No. 4
The Bills were 4-1 after Week 5, but they have lost two of the past three games to AFC South opponents Tennessee and Jacksonville. Their other loss also was in conference, at home against Pittsburgh in Week 1. Their lead in the division is down to a half-game.
Second-place New England is on the schedule twice, Week 13 at home and Week 16 on the road. That’s balanced by having two left with the Jets. Outside of the division, the Panthers, Colts and Falcons are the most favorable games, but the Bills also need to play the Saints and Buccaneers on the road. Overall, their remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .487.
Buffalo should have gotten a wake-up call in Jacksonville and should make some key offensive adjustments around Josh Allen. It will consistently have a strong defensive backbone for Sean McDermott. The team is too loaded everywhere to slip out of the playoffs.
Projected finish: 12-5
Raiders (5-3), second place, AFC West
Current playoff seed: No. 5
The Raiders still have their big wins over the AFC’s Ravens, Steelers and Broncos to stamp their resume. But they also lost to the NFC’s Bears and Giants on top of the Chargers. With their no Jon Gruden status, they feel like a dice roll every week, the ultimate unpredictable team for Las Vegas, much of that tied to boom-or-bust Derek Carr.
Their remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .538. There are only two real “breaks” left against Washington and the Colts, but bad teams also have been the Raiders’ bugaboo. They have four division games left, including the Chiefs twice. They also play the Cowboys, Bengals and Browns outside the division.
The Raiders teased like this last season, showing flashes of playoff status. But there’s no statistical story that points to them winning enough games out of those final nine given how inconsistent their offense and defense can be.
Projected finish: 8-9
Steelers (4-3), second place, AFC North
Current playoff seed: No. 6
The Steelers have rallied from a 1-3 start to get above .500 with a month-long winning streak. They have key early wins over the Bills, Broncos and Browns to make up for the Raiders and Bengals stumbles. Last season’s division winners will have eyes on displacing the Ravens, but they profile more as a wild-card team with their offensive limitations around Ben Roethlisberger, even with rookie running back Najee Harris providing a big spark.
After the Bears in Week 9, the Steelers also get the Lions and Vikings for beatable foes from the NFC North. But their remaining strength of schedule is at .536 because they draw everyone around them except the Patriots: Titans, Ravens (twice), Chargers, Chiefs, Browns and Bengals. Having already split against Buffalo and Las Vegas, Pittsburgh has much in its control in AFC play. From Week 10, it won’t be easy, but the Steelers’ defense and coaching can keep them above .500 with a good shot at the final two wild card.
Projected finish: 9-8
Patriots (5-4), second place, AFC East
Current playoff seed: No. 7
Bill Belichick, like Mike Tomlin, also has coached his traditional AFC powerhouse out of a 1-3 hole into a winning record. The Patriots’ padded resume includes two wins over the Jets and one each against the Panthers and Texans. But Week 8’s road upset of the Chargers was a good sign they can be a factor in the AFC, now only a half-game behind the Bills.
The Patriots’ strength of schedule for their remaining eight games stands at .500. They still draw the Dolphins, Jaguars, Colts and Falcons. They also get the Titans and Browns at home for tight matchups when not playing the Bills. New England has its flaws, also tied to offensive limitations. But like Pittsburgh, defense and savvy coaching will allow it to maximize its record.
Projected finish: 9-8
Chiefs (5-4), third place, AFC West
Current non-playoff position: No. 8
The Chiefs still have a grind ahead in their final eight games after fighting again to get back above .500. They have the most difficult schedule left in the NFL as their opponents have a combined winning percentage of .606. But they are the back-to-back reigning AFC champions with Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. They figured out a few things defensively at midseason and you can bet the offense will adjust and get well sooner rather than later.
Despite their unfamiliar low position with Mahomes, they will be an intimidating force. They still have five division games left, with the Raiders and Broncos twice in addition to the key road rematch with the Chargers. They also get the Cowboys and Steelers in Arrowhead Stadium and face the fading Bengals in Cincinnati.
Kansas City’s resume is built on beating up NFC foes, three fourths of the East and the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers. The Chiefs’ only AFC win came against the Browns at home in Week 1, but they can make up a ton of ground with seven conference games remaining. Losing to the Titans, Ravens and Bills make it almost certain the Chiefs won’t be the top seed with the lone bye and home-field advantage again. But look for them to get as hot as the primary color of their jerseys in the second half, stealing back in the division in a tiebreaker over the Chargers.
Projected finish: 11-6
Browns (5-4), third place, AFC North
Current non-playoff position: No. 9
The Browns have battled a lot of injury issues to get back above .500 after a 3-1 start out of a weaker schedule. They have no bad losses, when looking at the Chiefs, Chargers, Cardinals and Steelers results. They also beat the Broncos and Bengals.
Their offense is back to dominating in the running game with Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield looks like he’s headed to another sizzling second half minus Odell Beckham Jr. The defense had all of its key pieces together in Week 9, and it showed on every level against Cincinnati.
Assuming the Browns stay healthy and get healthier, they should have a 2020 vision under Kevin Stefanski. Although they face a .576 strength of schedule with only a Week 11 game vs. the Lions as a bingo free space, they have the talent to beat almost anyone when they’re firing on all cylinders. They have four division games left and the Patriots, Packers and Raiders loom outside of the North.
Projected finish: 10-7
Bengals (5-4), fourth place, AFC North
Current non-playoff position: No. 10
The Bengals have been a feel-good turnaround story with Joe Burrow and just two weeks ago were in the top AFC position af 5-2 after having won in Baltimore. But their regression to the mean is happening with pressure on Burrow and some key holes being exploited in their improve defense.
They have the same .576 remaining strength of schedule as the Browns, to whom they just lost at home. They are 2-1 in division play with three rematches left. They also draw the entire tough AFC West and have one last tricky NFC game left against the 49ers. Cincinnati did well to take advantage of a weak first-half slate, but reality will bite it hard in the second half.
Projected finish: 8-9
Broncos (5-4), fourth place, NFC West
Current non-playoff position: No. 11
The Broncos blew out the Cowboys in Week 9 and it didn’t matter much vs. the rest of the AFC winning teams. Before beating Washington and Dallas to get back above .500, they were in total freefall with a four-game losing streak. Three of their wins are against NFC East teams and they can easily turn in a home clunker vs. the Eagles in Week 10. Their only AFC wins still have come against the Jaguars in Week 2 and the Jets in Week 3.
Their strength of schedule is a manageable .485. But despite the spike against the Cowboys, the Broncos still profile more as a last-place team than playoff contenders. The Broncos do benefit from a bonus NFC game against the Lions, but they also face the Bengals and five division games against everyone ahead of them after already losing at home to the Raiders.
Projected finish: 7-10
So who makes the playoffs from the AFC?
While the Titans and Ravens battle for the No. 1 seed, the Bills and Chiefs will get out of their respective funks and lock down repeat division titles behind them. From the group of five-win teams, it’s easiest to feel best about the Chargers and Browns next. That leaves one spot between the Steelers and Patriots. Given the law of playoff team displacement from one year to the next, give the edge to New England over Pittsburgh based on schedules.
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