The clock was ticking toward midnight on Sunday when we got the official word: The Ravens are in the driver’s seat in the AFC bracket. Their 16-10 victory over the Browns elevated them to the top spot in the AFC, replacing the Titans and just ahead of the surging Patriots.
Are the Ravens the best team in the AFC? It’s way too early to say that. They might not even be there when they return from their bye in Week 14. But for one week, at least, we can say that the Ravens rose to the challenge.
In more ways than one, the NFL’s Week 12 playoff picture is a mess. It’s foolhardy to try identifying the top two or three teams in the AFC at this point, while on the NFC side it’s impossible to say whether there are seven legitimate playoff teams in the making. For now, the 5-6 Vikings are clinging to the No. 7 spot, among a total of six teams that have five or six wins. If Washington beats the Seahawks on Monday night, it will bring that number to seven.
Let’s take a closer look at where the league stands after all but one game of Week 12. As always, we’ll use ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) and a a bit of our own gut instincts to guide us.
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FPI chances to make playoffs: 83%
FPI chances to win division: 54%
The quarterback of the AFC’s top seed threw four interceptions Sunday night — and his team still won. You can view that as a sign of strength for Lamar Jackson’s Ravens, or the relative inability of the Browns to capitalize. But at the end of the night, the Ravens had supplanted the Titans atop the AFC.
Their presence at the top of the rankings reflects a conference that is truly up for grabs among a half-dozen teams. Can the Ravens truly hold off the Patriots, Titans, Chiefs and Bills? We don’t often say this, given the competitiveness of the rivalry, but the Ravens have a strong chance of advancing their quest when they play the reeling Steelers in Week 13.
Next up: at Steelers
FPI chances to make playoffs: 93%
FPI chances to win division: 33%
The Patriots keep giving us reasons to think they’re one of the best teams in the NFL. Sunday’s 23-point victory over the Titans was their sixth victory in a row. They’ve won by at least 18 points in five of those, and overall, they lead the NFL with a point differential of plus-144. And it’s wild that this has all come with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who is playing well but isn’t among the league’s top 10 in Total QBR.
Amazingly, at least to some, the Patriots can begin the process of locking down the AFC East in Week 13 when they travel to Buffalo. FPI doesn’t like their chances of winning the division, much less earning home-field advantage, but they’re all legitimate possibilities for the Patriots. Had the Ravens lost on Sunday night, the Pats would have ended Week 12 with the AFC’s top seed.
Next up: at Bills
FPI chances to make playoffs: 98%
FPI chances to win division: 97%
The good news for the Titans is that a two-game losing streak hasn’t really damaged their standing in the AFC South, where they have a two-game lead with five games left to play. They’ll have a bye in Week 13 and then return to play the Jaguars and Steelers, two teams who are going in the wrong direction. The question with the Titans is not whether they’ll make the playoffs, but rather — given their health and the results of their past two games — whether they can be considered likely to make a deep run. At the moment, the answer is very much in doubt.
Next up: vs. Jaguars (Week 14)
FPI chances to make playoffs: 80%
FPI chances to win division: 55%
The Chiefs will return from their bye week with their playoff positioning unchanged. But they now have a full game lead in the AFC West, where the other three teams are all 6-5. With that said, the division remains very much in play. Four of the Chiefs’ final six games will be against AFC West foes, including two against the Broncos and one each against the Raiders and Chargers.
Next up: vs. Broncos
FPI chances to make playoffs: 64%
FPI chances to win division: 30%
The Bengals look like a different team than the one that lost consecutive games heading into their Week 10 bye. Since then, they’ve defeated the Raiders and Steelers by a combined 57 points. They’ve gotten themselves to the point where FPI likes their chances of at least making the playoffs, and they have a roughly one-in-three chance of winning the AFC North. Had the Ravens lost Sunday night to the Browns, the Bengals would have supplanted them atop the division. That’s how close they are right now.
Next up: vs. Chargers
Joe Mixon rushes for 165 yards with two touchdowns in the Bengals’ dominant victory over the Steelers.
FPI chances to make playoffs: 94%
FPI chances to win division: 67%
Will a convincing win Thursday in the Superdome be enough to pull the Bills out of a midseason spiral? They entered Week 12 having lost two of their past three games, including an inexplicable defeat to the Jaguars and a 26-point loss to the Colts. The Bills better hope they’ve figured things out, because they’re about to head into a brutal stretch of their schedule. They will play the red-hot Patriots twice in four weeks, with a game at the Buccaneers mixed in there, as well.
Next up: vs. Patriots
FPI chances to make playoffs: 53%
FPI chances to win division: 26%
Sunday’s loss to the Broncos was the Chargers’ fourth defeat in their past six games. They’ve clearly turned in the wrong direction after a 4-1 start, but for now, they’re still among the AFC’s top seven thanks to their head-to-head victory over the Raiders in Week 4. As to whether they can stay here is another story. Had the Browns won Sunday night, they would have supplanted the Chargers at the No. 7 spot, and all told, the Chargers haven’t been playing consistent playoff-level football since mid-October. They’re teetering on the edge.
Next up: at Bengals
In the AFC hunt
Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)
We can do nothing but tip our cap to the Raiders, whose post-Jon Gruden slide seemed well underway during a three-game losing streak entering Thursday’s game at the Cowboys. But they went into AT&T Stadium and won a war of attrition and now have 10 days to prepare for a winnable home game against Washington in Week 13. FPI says they have a 19% chance to play beyond Week 18.
Denver Broncos (6-5)
The Broncos came out of their bye with a dominant performance against the Chargers, their third win in their past four games. It drew them even with the rest of AFC West and set them up to at least have a chance down the stretch. In fact, FPI has Denver at 32% to make the playoffs. Four of the Broncos’ remaining six games are against divisional rivals, starting in Week 13 at the Chiefs.
Indianapolis Colts (6-6)
The Colts’ three-game winning streak ended with an odd home loss that featured 27 consecutive pass plays from their offense, presumably in part to beat a Buccaneers defense that was geared to stop tailback Jonathan Taylor. We found out, to no surprise, that quarterback Carson Wentz can’t carry this team. They’ll have a chance to get back on track, however, in Week 13 against the Texans. Indianapolis still holds a 39% chance to make the playoffs, per FPI.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1)
Yeesh. The Steelers don’t look like anything close to a playoff team after a 41-10 loss to the Bengals, their third consecutive game without a win. FPI is giving them just a 10% chance to make the playoffs, and the path won’t get any easier in Week 13 against the Ravens.
Cleveland Browns (6-6)
The Browns had a golden opportunity to get back into the playoff picture Sunday night but couldn’t win in Baltimore despite intercepting Jackson four times. They would have finished Week 12 in the No. 7 spot if they had won. Instead, they’re heading into their bye with losses in two of their past three games, and they will face the Ravens again when they return in Week 14.
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 96%
The Cardinals entered Week 12 knowing they would also exit it at the top of the NFC, no matter what happened in between. And now comes the final playoff push, presumably with quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins back in the lineup.
They’ll need to be at full strength. The Cardinals’ strength of their remaining schedule ranks No. 18 in the NFL, based on FPI, but the eyeball test suggests it’s more difficult than that. Three of the five games are on the road, and two are against teams that currently have winning records (Rams and Cowboys). Plus, their Week 16 opponent (Colts) will be a tough out, as well. Fortunately for the Cardinals, they have the league’s best record on the road (6-0) through Week 12.
Next up: at Bears
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 98%
The Packers rebounded from a Week 11 loss in Minnesota to put themselves in great position heading into their bye. They’re right on the heels of the Cardinals, with whom they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers now has an extra week to rest his fractured toe — and possibly even have surgery on it — and injured left tackle David Bahktiari could potentially get back on the field.
And of their five remaining games, three will be at Lambeau Field, where the Packers are 5-0 this season. One of the two road games will be at Ford Field, where they’ll play the winless Lions. The Packers are very much in the running to be the NFC’s top team, both on the field and in the playoff standings.
Next up: vs. Bears (Week 14)
Aaron Rodgers beats Jalen Ramsey on the edge for the 1-yard touchdown to get the Packers on the board.
FPI chances to make playoffs: 99%
FPI chances to win division: 98%
The Buccaneers have now won consecutive games, scoring 68 points in the process, since a two-game losing streak had everyone around the NFL losing their minds. They got some help Sunday from the Colts, who tried to protect a 10-point halftime lead by ignoring tailback Jonathan Taylor and throwing the ball on 27 consecutive plays, but it’s hard to argue that the Buccaneers aren’t back on track. Their remaining strength of schedule ranks No. 22, and at the moment, it includes only one opponent with a winning record (Bills, Week 14).
Next up: at Falcons
FPI chances to make playoffs: 95%
FPI chances to win division: 90%
Uh-oh. The Cowboys were expected to take off once they got quarterback Dak Prescott back from injury. Instead, they have lost three of their past four games, most recently to the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day. As we have said often in recent years, the NFC East leader is protected by poor competition from their division rivals. The Eagles’ loss Sunday to the Giants means no one is within two games of the Cowboys. But it remains an open question whether the Cowboys will head into the playoffs as a genuine contender or will be in the postseason simply because they’re the least-flawed team in a weak division.
Next up: at Saints
FPI chances to make playoffs: 90%
FPI chances to win division: 4%
At this point, it’s fair to ask if the Rams are going to make the playoffs at all. They have now lost three games in a row, with quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing a pick-six in each of them, and appear in significant disarray. Even coach Sean McVay seemed overwhelmed by the moment Sunday at Lambeau Field, making an inexplicable decision on run on third down with no timeouts on their final possession, forcing a hurried field goal attempt as the clock ticked.
They’ll get the best chance they could to regroup in Week 13, with a home game against Jacksonville, but overall, their remaining schedule is the fourth-most difficult in the league.
Next up: vs. Jaguars
FPI chances to make playoffs: 76%
FPI chances to win division:
The 49ers are figuring things out at just the right time. They have won three consecutive games and four of their past five, and Sunday’s victory over the Vikings will supply them with an important head-to-head tiebreaker should it be needed at the end of the regular season. The strength of their remaining schedule ranks No. 24, and an argument could be made that they’re playing better right now than all but one of their final six opponents (Bengals in Week 14). At this rate, they’ll overtake the Rams in the NFC West and the playoff standings in a matter of weeks.
Next up: at Seahawks
FPI chances to make playoffs: 49%
FPI chances to win division: 2%
The only thing keeping the Vikings in the playoff picture is a complex set of tiebreakers that ultimately broke on their conference record (4-3), which is better than the Falcons (2-5). Washington could knock them out of the top seven on Monday night with a victory over the Seahawks.
The Vikings’ loss to the 49ers on Sunday illustrated most of the reasons why the Vikings have some work ahead to get into the postseason, much less make a run. Their defensive personnel is decimated; they played Sunday without their starting defensive line and then lost linebacker Anthony Barr during the game. Running back Dalvin Cook appeared to suffer a significant shoulder injury Sunday, and quarterback Kirk Cousins can’t be trusted to play consistently well in pressure situations. The Vikings are fortunate to have road games coming soon at the Lions and Bears, but wins in both of those games might not be enough if someone below them catches fire.
Next up: at Lions
In the NFC hunt
Atlanta Falcons (5-6)
The Falcons started 1-3 and then went on another 1-3 bender before holding on for a seven-point victory Sunday over the Jaguars. As improbable as it might seem, the Falcons are one game out of the sloppy NFC wild-card situation, thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Saints. Stranger things have happened, but they have a pretty significant obstacle in Week 13 when they host the Buccaneers. FPI has Atlanta at just 5% to qualify for the postseason.
New Orleans Saints (5-6)
That’s now four consecutive losses for the Saints since starting quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending knee injury. Their offense had zero punch Thursday night against the Bills, and they’re now looking up at the NFC playoff field. They’ll play the Cowboys in Week 13, but the one bright spot is that four of their final six opponents have losing records. FPI says New Orleans has a 34% chance to make the playoffs.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The Eagles flunked a pretty basic test of playoff worthiness on Sunday, scoring just seven points in a loss to the equally anemic Giants. Had they won, the Eagles would have put themselves squarely in the wild-card mix while also putting some pressure on the Cowboys in the NFC East. Instead, it’s fair to ask if they’ll squander one of the NFL’s easiest remaining schedules, which continues in Week 13 at the Jets. Philadelphia still has a 24% chance to make the playoffs, per FPI, but their division winner likelihood fell to 5% this weekend.
On the Eagles’ final play, Jalen Hurts lets it fly to Jalen Reagor. Reagor can’t haul in the catch, sealing the win for the Giants.
Carolina Panthers (5-7)
The Panthers have now lost seven of nine games since a 3-0 start. Their fade from the playoff picture is nearly complete, but they’ll have a bye week followed by a winnable game in Week 14 against the Falcons to delay the inevitable for a little longer. FPI is giving them 3% of hope.
Washington Football Team (4-6)
It’s not often that a four-win team is in the playoff picture in Week 12, but if it beats the Seahawks at home Monday night, Washington will have the same record as the Vikings, Falcons and Saints. FPI thinks Washington has a 13% chance of finishing in the NFC’s top seven.