2021 NFL Playoff Picture: Steelers, Chargers play on Sunday Night Football while AFC race stays hot


The Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Chargers will meet in Los Angeles on Sunday Night Football for an important conference matchup that will impact the NFL playoff picture. Live coverage begins tonight at 7:00 p.m. ET with Football Night in America. The match-up will also be available via live stream on Peacock.

Sunday night’s game between the Steelers and Chargers is crucial for both teams as they fight for the top spot in their respective divisions, the AFC North and AFC West. Let’s take a closer look at the playoff race in each division and the implications on the conference as a whole.

AFC North playoff race:

The Baltimore Ravens (6-3), Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3), Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) and Cleveland Browns (5-5) have been jockeying back and forth for the top spot in the division since the start of the 2021 season.

Injuries to the Steelers:

In Week 11, a shorthanded Steelers team tied the winless Detroit Lions, 16-16, in what turned out to be Detroit’s first non-loss of the season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list prior to the game and did not play. In Roethlisberger’s absence, backup Mason Rudolph got the start under center. A third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Rudolph turned in a solid performance against the Lions, completing 30 of 50 passes for 242 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It wasn’t enough to win though as the Lions snapped the Steelers’ four-game winning streak, causing Pittsburgh to fall to second place in the AFC North.

Star wide receiver Chase Claypool also missed the Week 10 contest due to a toe injury and the defense suffered a major blow when a hip and knee injury to Pro Bowler T.J. Watt caused him to leave the game early. Earlier this week, the defense took another hit when safety Minkah Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19. It it still unclear if he will be able to play in Sunday night’s matchup.

In his media availability this week, head coach Mike Tomlin said that Roethlisberger has the opportunity to start on Sunday night as long as he is able to provide the required negative tests. Claypool is expected to practice this week and Watt’s status remains uncertain.

RELATED: How to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers vs LA Chargers: Live stream, TV info, kickoff time for Sunday’s game

Playoff picture around the AFC North:

The first-place Ravens lost in shocking fashion to the 3-7 Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football in Week 11 but managed to hold on to the top spot due to losses by their AFC North counterparts. Throughout Weeks 12-14, Baltimore will play three division opponents: the Browns, Steelers and Browns again before facing the Bengals in Week 16 – a team that defeated them convincingly earlier this season – and the Steelers once more in Week 18. These weekly tests will impact the NFL playoff picture as each team vies for the top spot in the division. And in Week 11, the Ravens will be without QB Lamar Jackson – the 24-year-old was ruled out with non-COVID illness shortly before the start of the game.

The Bengals remain just one game back in the standings after having a bye last week. The off week provided Cincinnati with the opportunity for a much-needed reset as the team dropped its Week 8 contest to the New York Jets, 34-31, and its Week 9 game to the Browns, 41-16. Due to poor performances by the other teams in their division, the Bengals remain in playoff contention and will look to get back on the winning track when they play the struggling Las Vegas Raiders in Week 11.

Baker Mayfield and the Browns dropped to the last spot in the division following a 45-7 rout by the New England Patriots in Week 10. They remain on the bubble in the ever-changing AFC playoff race but need to take advantage of a rebound game against the Lions on their home turf.

AFC West playoff race:

The postseason race in the AFC West is just as competitive. The Kansas City Chiefs have the top spot in the division with a 6-4 record while the Chargers and Raiders are tied for the second spot at 5-4. The Denver Broncos round out the division with a 5-5 mark.

The Chargers’ dwindling momentum:

The Chargers enter Sunday night’s contest having lost three of their past four games after posting a 4-1 start to the season. Entering Week 10, the Chargers managed to lead the division by virtue of wins over the Chiefs and Raiders earlier in the season. Los Angeles is seeded seventh in the AFC playoff race and has the worst point differential of the top seven teams.

After winning the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2020, quarterback Justin Herbert has slowed down this season, but continues to come into his own as a signal-caller under new head coach Brandon Staley. Herbert is tied for fifth in the league with 19 touchdowns and sixth in total yards through 10 weeks.

Los Angeles will also be without some of its major playmakers on the defensive side of the ball in Sunday’s matchup as linemen Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery entered the league’s reserve/COVID-19 protocol on Tuesday. Bosa is tied for the league lead in strip-sacks with three. He has a sack in three of the past four games, including the last two, and will be missed by the Chargers’ edge rushing unit.

Playoff picture around the AFC West:

With a win over the Raiders last week on Sunday Night Football, the Chiefs found themselves back where they were always expected to be upon entering this season: first place in the division. After a 41-14 win over Derek Carr and the Raiders, the Chiefs secured their third straight victory. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for over 400 yards and five touchdowns while tight end Travis Kelce had one of his best games of the season with eight receptions and a team-leading 119 yards.

RELATED: How Patrick Mahomes led Chiefs to get back on track with NFL Week 10 win vs. Raiders

The Raiders, however, continue to look lost on the football field as their Week 10 loss to the Chiefs marked their second straight dropped contest after being upset by the New York Giants two weeks ago. In wide receiver DeSean Jackson‘s first game as a Raider, he made one impressive, yet head-scratching catch for a 40-yard gain only to have the ball punched out by the Chiefs’ Rashad Fenton and picked up by Tyrann Mathieu for a turnover that all but extinguished the Raiders’ momentum.

The Broncos fell to fourth place in the division following a 30-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last week. With a bye week this week, Denver will have ample preparation time for a key matchup against the Chargers in Week 12.

Where do things stand in the NFC?

In Aaron Rodgers‘ return to the roster, the Green Bay Packers shut out the Seattle Seahawks, 17-0, in a snowy game in Green Bay to move into the top spot in the NFC. The Packers have the tiebreaker against Arizona because they defeated the Cardinals earlier in the season.

The Cardinals fell to the No. 2 seed in the conference after being upset by the Carolina Panthers in Week 10. Arizona was without quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins – both of whom were severely missed. Murray has sat out the past two games with an ankle injury and Hopkins has not played since Week 8 due to a nagging hamstring issue.

Dallas, the No. 3 seed in the conference, bounced back from a surprising loss to the Broncos in Week 9 with a 43-3 rout of the Atlanta Falcons last week.

While the Cowboys suffered from the wrong side of an upset in Week 9, it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who were surprisingly defeated by the 3-6 Washington Football Team this past week. Tom Brady threw an uncharacteristic two interceptions in the first half alone, which Washington turned into 10 points en route to a 29-19 victory.

The Los Angeles Rams remain in the hunt with the No. 5 spot in the AFC, but they suffered a blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers this past Monday night – their second straight loss.

RELATED: NFL schedule 2021: Dates, times, TV, how to watch, channels for every game in all 18 weeks

Current 2021 NFL Playoff picture

AFC Standings

Tennessee Titans (8-2)

Buffalo Bills (6-3)

Baltimore Ravens (6-3)

Kansas City Chiefs (6-4)

New England Patriots (7-4)

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1)

Los Angeles Chargers (5-4)

On the bubble:

Las Vegas Raiders (5-4)

Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)

Indianapolis Colts (5-5)

Cleveland Browns (5-5)

Denver Broncos (5-5)

NFC Standings

Green Bay Packers (8-2)

Arizona Cardinals (8-2)

Dallas Cowboys (7-2)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3)

Los Angeles Rams (7-2)

New Orleans Saints (5-4)

Carolina Panthers (5-5)

On the bubble:

Minnesota Vikings (4-5)

San Francisco 49ers (4-5)

Philadelphia Eagles (4-6)

Atlanta Falcons (4-6)

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Super Bowl LVII storylines: Defending Mahomes, Hurts


The three things you need to know about Super Bowl LVII, per Next Gen Stats, that I think could play big parts in who wins:

The Eagles do not need to blitz to affect Patrick Mahomes. This is the craziest thing about a formidable Philadelphia front: Of their league-best 77 sacks in 19 games, including playoffs, 57 came when the Eagles rushed four players. That means 74 percent of their sacks have come on non-blitzes. Which, of course, means that Mahomes will likely most often be trying to complete his passes with a battered receiving corps against seven men in coverage. Tough duty for even a great one like Mahomes. No team in the seven-year history of Next Gen Stats has had such success rushing the quarterback without blitzing as the ‘22 Eagles.

Kansas City must be considering offensive alternatives with its beat-up receiver corps. Much has been said about the lack of Tyreek Hill in this offense, and it’s remarkable that the team has been so explosive—and Mahomes so productive—with all the new receivers in his arsenal. New, and not as fast. In 2018 through ’21, with Hill onboard, Mahomes threw 47 “deep TD passes,” defined as passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In 2022, minus Hill, Mahomes threw one. We’ve seen all year that Mahomes is far more of an intermediate thrower this year, and he’s been great at it. One more NGS nugget that could come into play: Kansas City has scored 35 touchdowns this year—most in the NFL—with two tight ends on the field. If Travis Kelce isn’t a 100-yard factor in this game, I’ll be surprised.

Steve Spagnuolo beat the 18-0 Patriots with an unpredictable pass-rush in the 2007 season. Will he blitz Jalen Hurts in the same way in Super Bowl LVII? Hurts, per Next Gen, had the sixth-worst success rate against the blitz this season. His success rate is 47.7 percent against non-blitzes. One thing Hurts has going for him is the best offensive line in football, a line well-suited to defend against great rushers. He’ll need it against Chris Jones and Frank Clark.

Lots of great angles in this tight, competitive matchup. Those are just three.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Concrete takeaways from Broncos’ deal with Sean Payton


The late Giants’ GM, George Young, once had a great truism about coaching searches: “They’re never done till they’re done.” Reporters in this time of intense media would be wise to keep that in mind.

Reading about the Denver job in the two weeks before the hire of Sean Payton last week left these impressions: He wouldn’t want the job because of a conflict with an owner. Or he had a bad interview, didn’t have a second interview as others did, and was out of the running. Or Broncos owners never wanted Payton as their coach. Or the Broncos wanted DeMeco Ryans and got jilted, and so went to Payton as a fallback.

For someone so unwanted as Payton, it seems funny Denver traded first- and second-round draft choices (getting a third- in return) to New Orleans for Payton, then made him one of the highest-paid coaches in NFL history, with a five-year deal worth at least $18 million a year. The Broncos once were interested in Jim Harbaugh and then Ryans—neither of whom would require draft-choice compensation, and neither of whom would cost upwards of $18 millon a year. But things change during the process of looking for a coach, so it’s wise to not speak in absolutes till it’s over.

A few things we do know about the Payton deal with Denver:

  • Denver talked with Saints GM Mickey Loomis about two deals for Payton, who required compensation because he was still under contract to New Orleans: a first-round pick and a third-round pick, or a first-rounder and second-rounder, with the Broncos getting a third-rounder in return. Denver wanted the second option, because it would leave them with an equal number of day-two picks instead of being down one. Officially, Denver trades the 30th pick this year and a second-round pick in 2024 and gets a third-round pick in 2024 in return.
  • Payton had the best chance of turning Russell Wilson around. The first time I ever met Wilson, at Seahawks training camp, he said to me: “Who’s taller—me or Drew [Brees]?” I think he was genuinely curious about it. (I’d guess Wilson, by a fraction.) But Wilson and Brees have gotten to be friends, and Wilson has great admiration for him. So, Wilson’s at a low point after his disastrous first year in Denver. He wanted Payton to get the job, and he’s willing to be coached hard by him. Wilson has been reaching out to Brees to get a preview of coming attractions. History lesson: Brees was a free agent coming off shoulder surgery in 2006, and Miami was iffy on signing him because of his shoulder, and the Saints went after him hard. Brees came under Payton’s wing with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Sound familiar?
  • The presence in the interview process of minority Broncos owner Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, was a plus. Payton was impressed by her, and one of the majority owners, Greg Penner. He thinks he’ll be able to form the kind of close relationship with GM George Paton that he had with Loomis, who remains one of his best friends, in New Orleans.
  • Payton is wide open about his defensive staff, and won’t be in a hurry to fill it out. He’ll take his time to find a coordinator he thinks he’ll mesh with. He won’t be afraid to pick a strong-minded tough guy like Brian Flores, who he’s scheduled to interview. The defensive coordinator of the Broncos, as Dennis Allen was under Payton in New Orleans, is going to be the head coach of the defense.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column