How the NFL playoff picture changed on Thanksgiving: Bills repeats the AFC East lead

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Welcome to a special Thanksgiving Day edition of our NFL playoff image. If you only kept an eye on the games, or even if you watched them closely, we have a lot to discuss. The results of two matchups shook the playoffs in both conferences. Among takeaways:

  • The Buffalo Bills regained AFC East supremacy, at least temporarily. The Bills could, of course, be back among the wildcard challengers if the New England Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans this weekend.

  • The Bills’ win over the New Orleans Saints lifted the San Francisco 49ers into the NFC wild-card race. They are currently No. 7 in the NFC standings, while the Saints’ fourth loss in a row makes them look up on the NFC field.

  • The Las Vegas Raiders’ victory over the Dallas Cowboys stopped a mid-season slide and put them back in the fight to move into the AFC wild-card race if a current challenger falters.

  • The Cowboys’ lead in the NFC East is not yet threatened, but the rising Philadelphia Eagles can no longer be ruled out in the divisional race.

We have updated these situations and more below. Look for another update after Sunday’s matches as week 12 continues.

Jump to: AFC | NFC

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No team has exemplified this unpredictable season better than the Titans, who won seven of their first nine games despite facing the NFL’s toughest schedule over that stretch. They then embarked on a much easier schedule, only to suffer an amazing home loss in Week 11 to the Texans. The defeat allowed the Colts to continue to close the gap in AFC South, reducing the Titans’ lead to two games with six left. (Tennessee won both games with Indianapolis.) Whether the Colts can catch them, it’s hard to see the Titans as the clear AFC favorite when two of their losses have come to the Texans and Jets – who have an overall record of 4- 16. And now the Patriots, who are without a doubt the hottest team in the league, are waiting for them on Sunday.

Next: at the Patriots


Even without quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 11, the Ravens managed to retain their team in first place in the AFC North. They have not been beautiful in a while, after losing to the Bengals and Dolphins and winning an overtime victory over the Vikings over the past month. But maybe that’s just the way it is for them.

Next: vs. Brune


Will a convincing victory Thursday in the Superdome be enough to pull the Bills out of a mid-season spiral? They went into Week 12 after losing two of their last three games, including an unexplained defeat to the Jaguars and a 26-point loss to the Colts. The Bills should rather hope that they have figured things out, for they are about to go into a brutal stretch of their schedule. They will play against the Red-hot Patriots twice in four weeks, with a game of the Buccaneers mixed there as well. But in a few days, they have at least returned to the top of the AFC East.

Next: vs Patriots (week 13)


The Chiefs roll their fourth win in a row, a series that has brought them from under .500 to the top of AFC West. There does not seem to be much doubt that the Chiefs will be among the seven teams representing the AFC in the playoffs, and more likely than not, they will be the AFC West champion.

Next: vs. Broncos (week 13)


It took the Patriots less than two months to recover from their 1-3 start and even briefly displace the Bills at the top of the AFC East. The Bills regained first place with a Thanksgiving victory over the Saints, but the Patriots will repeat the position if they beat the Titans in Week 12. Five consecutive wins – and six in their last seven games – have not only given them a divisional advantage, but also place those within reasonable reach of the top seed of the AFC. It’s all in front of them now. The Patriots have a random home game against the AFC-leading Titans this week and then play the Bills twice in a three-game stretch next month. If you judge postseason seedings by how the teams are currently playing, it’s hard to see past the Patriots as the best-placed team in the AFC (right now, of course).

Next: vs. Titans


There was a time when many people were worried about Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow’s health when he returned from last season’s knee injury. Through 10 matches we can say that the concern was mostly unfounded. Just making it through 10 games did not seem certain when the season began, but he has the Bengals’ offensive buzzing, most recently with a 32-point outburst in Week 11’s victory over the Raiders. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gives the Bengals around a 50-50 chance of reaching the playoffs, but in an open AFC, they have definitely put themselves in the position of joining the December talks.

Next: vs. Steelers


The Chargers did everything they could to drop out of the AFC’s top seven in Week 11, but in the biggest sign so far of turning a corner under coach Brandon Staley and quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers stopped doing Chargers stuff. long enough to regain lead. There is still a lot to question the Chargers, especially their special team, but they showed that they need to be taken seriously in the AFC playoffs.

Next: at the Broncos

In the AFC hunt


Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1)

The Steelers have not won in their last two games and are now out of the AFC’s top seven. It’s not getting any easier when they travel to Cincinnati this weekend.


Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

The Colts have won three games in a row and five of their last six, but before Week 11, the quality of the teams they beat was not that impressive. That changed with a blowout win over Buffalo. The Colts are trending in all the right directions and the Buccaneers are their next test.


Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)

We can do nothing but tip our cap to the Raiders, whose roller coaster after Jon Gruden seemed well underway during a three-game losing streak that went into Thursday’s game at the Cowboys. They entered the AT&T Stadium and won a war of attrition and now have 10 days to prepare for a winning home game against Washington in Week 13.


Cleveland Browns (6-5)

It’s incredible that the Browns have won six games given the obvious influence quarterback Baker Mayfield’s left shoulder injury has on his performance. Oh, and do not forget the messy presence and departure of wideout Odell Beckham Jr. If you pick a team to drop out of the wildcard race due to exhaustion, it’s the Browns. They have a road trip to Baltimore on deck.


Denver Broncos (5-5)

The Broncos will return from a farewell with a record of .500, but consecutive games against the Chargers and Chiefs are likely to beat them further from the AFC wild-card race.

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Let’s give our cap to the Cardinals, who have traveled an entire journey since their last-minute loss in Week 8 to the Packers. They play without quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and have won 2-1 with victories over division rivals San Francisco and Seattle. The Cardinals have become the fourth team in NFL history to start a season 6-0 in road games and will get their MVP-caliber quarterback back sooner rather than later. FPI calls them a virtual lock to get into the playoffs and gives them a better than 90% chance of winning NFC West.

Next: at Bears (week 13)


In most scenarios, the Packers with Aaron Rodgers are a legitimate Super Bowl challenger. But what about a Packers team that loses key players to injury on a weekly basis? They are still in really good shape in NFC North, leading the Vikings by 2½ matches, with a week 17 match against Minnesota at Lambeau Field on the way. But at least the Packers’ depth will be tested during football in December.

Next: vs. Aries


The defending Super Bowl champions broke a mildly alarming two-game losing streak Monday night with a convincing victory over the Giants, a team that came into the game ranked No. 23 in the NFL with an average of 18.9 offensive points per game . The track is there for a high seed in the NFC bracket as their remaining schedule only includes two teams with winning records (Colts and Bills).

Next: vs. Colts


Oh oh. The Cowboys were expected to leave when they got quarterback Dak Prescott back from injury. Instead, they have lost three of their last four matches. Their lead in NFC East is not yet threatened; The Eagles would still be two games behind in the losing column, even if they beat the Giants on Sunday. But it’s still an open question whether the Cowboys will go into the playoffs as a true contender or will be in the offseason, simply because they are the least flawed team in a weak division.

Next: at Saints (Week 13)


It’s been a quick tumbling for the “all-in” Rams, who have fallen from first place in the NFC to the wildcard picture with two consecutive losses. Either way, the Rams’ Week 11 said goodbye at a good time. They had two weeks to get newcomers Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. more acclimatized to their program, in addition to figuring out why quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown four interceptions over two-game slipping. They should rather hope they find out, for their upcoming schedule includes not only the Packers, but the Cardinals, Vikings, Ravens and 49ers. It’s going to be a tough race.

Next: at Packers


When you seem to be playing close matches every week, the math says you should at least win some of them. The Vikings’ Week 11 victory over the Packers boosted their division and conference records. Both are key categories for tiebreakers, and their 4-2 NFC record is why they are ahead of the Saints and 49ers (which they play next week) in the NFC playoffs. Overall, the Vikings have played in seven consecutive games that have been settled with seven or fewer points, a stretch that has either hardened them to a playoff or will ultimately cost them the entrance to the off-season in total.

Next: at 49ers


The 49ers have won three of their last four and they were able to jump from the Saints in the wildcard race after Thursday’s action. No one can say for sure if the 49ers really are a playoff team, but sometimes those issues are settled in the off-season. Their remaining schedule is ranked No. 25 in the league. One caveat to keep in mind is that the Eagles, another NFC wildcard competitor, have the NFL’s easiest remaining schedule.

Next: vs. vikings

In the NFC hunt


Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)

The Eagles have also won three of their last four, each with more than 10 points. And when you see two games show up against Washington and the Giants back, as well as a matchup against the Jets, you see a pretty favorable schedule for staying in the wildcard race. Philly has an away game against the Giants this week.


Carolina Panthers (5-6)

Can the Panthers really be a playoff candidate with a quarterback who they signed out of free agency and put in the starting lineup within two weeks? Cam Newton may be Superman, but he’s not a magician. Carolina travels to play the Dolphins on Sunday.


New Orleans Saints (5-6)

It’s now four consecutive defeats for the Saints since starting quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a knee injury that ended the season. Their attack had no blows Thursday night against the Bills, and they are now looking up to the NFC playoffs. They are due to play against the Cowboys in Week 13, but one bright spot is that four of their last six opponents have lost records.


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