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NFL playoff picture 2021: Making sense of the muddle in the AFC

By Nat Coombs

Published: 18:32, 23 December 2021

The race for the playoffs typically goes to the wire in the NFL.

It must be said, though, that at this stage of the season, that typically involves a few teams scrapping for one or two final spots. In this sense, the NFC is sticking to type, with only the Eagles or the Saints with any realistic shot at unseating the San Francisco 49ers or the Minnesota Vikings for a Wild Card spot. In the AFC, however, the battle that we are witnessing for postseason football is the wildest in recent memory.

The Denver Broncos, with a 7-7 record, currently sit 13th in the 16-team conference — but remain very much alive in the race for the playoffs. The Broncos are one of four teams with a .500 record (along with the Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns), with the Pittsburgh Steelers just above them, with a 7-6-1 mark. 

All seven playoff berths in the AFC are theoretically available, but the 10-4 Kansas City Chiefs, despite two road games in a difficult last three, seem a lock for qualification. Though they’ve not been winning games as stylishly as in seasons past, the Chiefs have a dramatically improved defense, and are doing what they must to win. With their offense once again starting to chime, the Chiefs, improbably, given their early-season struggles, look to be in control of the AFC’s top seed. 

The Chiefs’ Thursday night OT win over an impressive Chargers team (pictured above) all but secured the AFC West, while putting the Chargers in a spot where they must dispatch the lowly Texans easily this weekend, and then defeat either the Broncos or the Raiders in their final two games, to nab a playoff spot.

As Denver’s starting QB, Teddy Bridgewater, was hospitalised after their Week 15 loss to the Bengals following an awful head injury, the Broncos will be turning to backup Drew Lock for their stretch run. Based on what we’ve seen from Lock as a starter in the NFL, despite the minimal wins-losses gap, it’s a reach to envision Denver leapfrogging half of the conference and grabbing a playoff spot.

Meanwhile, the Raiders’ walk off win over a depleted Browns was representative of their season so far — gutsy, but deeply flawed. The Raiders will likely wind up as gallant losers. Given the challenges they’ve faced this season, it’s impressive that Vegas are even in a position to take it to the wire. 

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In Week 16, the Chiefs host the Steelers, who, as you’d imagine, are also still very much in the AFC North race. In what could be Ben Roethlisberger’s final games in the NFL, the Steelers are looking ahead to divisional matchups against the Browns (at home) in Week 17 and the Baltimore Ravens (away) to close out the season. The Steelers’ path to the playoffs looks more promising now than it did a few weeks ago, though they too must jump multiple teams — both in the conference and their own division — and are likely going to be without emerging Tight End Pat Freiermuth, who suffered a concussion in their Week 15 win over the Titans. 

The Browns, meanwhile, head to Green Bay on Christmas Day desperately needing a win. It’s not a great position to be in. Complicating matters are questions around who’s even going to be eligible. Not only were 20+ members of the team placed on the COVID list prior to the Raiders game, Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner Myles Garrett is battling a groin injury, while QB Baker Mayfield, on his return from the COVID list, will still be dealing with an ongoing shoulder injury. 

The 8-6 Bengals seem the most likely winners of the AFC North, as they currently sit in first place and hold the tiebreaker over Baltimore, with the two squaring off this weekend in Cincinnati. Reports state that Ravens superstar QB Lamar Jackson will be back in the lineup for this one. Even if he is, as he’s been sidelined with an ankle injury, it’s unlikely that he’ll be at his devastatingly mobile best, and that the Ravens will have to limit their offensive playbook. Making matters worse is the fact that Baltimore must deal with Joe Burrow, JaMarr Chase, Tee Higgins and a potent Bengals attack with a depleted defensive secondary. A win for the Ravens will blow the division wide open, though the edge here must go to Cincinnati. 

A few weeks back, the AFC South looked the most straightforward division to call. And while the 9-5 Titans remain in control of their own destiny, the resurgent and surging 8-6 Colts will make them go to the wire. It’s a tall order, as Tennessee currently holds not only a one-game edge, but also the head-to-head tiebreaker. However, the Titans remaining schedule includes two of the NFL’s most in-form teams — the 49ers this weekend, and Miami the next. Indy could conceivably run the table with a fading Arizona team up next, followed by winnable games against the Raiders and the Jaguars. The Colts could end 11-6 after a 1-4 start, and would be a dangerous proposition in the playoffs, with a smart offense led by the remarkable Jonathan Taylor. 

The AFC East is also far closer than we’d have expected earlier in the season, with the Patriots and Bills meeting this weekend in the game that will surely decide the division. Heavy preseason favourites, Buffalo has stumbled in recent weeks, but got back to winning ways against a weak Panthers side. The Pats have leaned heavily on their ground game all season, though rookie QB Mac Jones has played impressively is his debut season, making intelligent decisions and limiting mistakes. A win here offers Buffalo a golden opportunity to wrestle back the division, as their final two games are against the Falcons and Jets, while New England, after a tuneup against Jacksonville, closes against the 7-7 Dolphins, in a matchup that’s often tricky for the Pats. If Miami can put up back-to-back wins in the next two against the Saints and the Titans, they’d only need a win to make the playoffs…

NFL Week 16 predictions

49ers @ Titans
Browns @ Packers
Colts @ Cardinals
Giants @ Eagles
Rams @ Vikings
Bills @ Patriots
Bucs @ Panthers
Jags @ Jets
Lions @ Falcons
Chargers @ Texans
Ravens @ Bengals
Bears @ Seahawks
Steelers @ Chiefs
Broncos @ Raiders 

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Full predictions @ 291/1 with Sky Bet
Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.

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