2021 NFL Playoff Picture, Standings: Bills and Saints both in postseason hunt ahead of Thanksgiving matchup


The Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints will close out the Thanksgiving Day slate with a game that has important implications on the NFL playoff picture. Live coverage begins at 8:00 p.m. ET with Football Night in America. The match-up will also be available via live stream on Peacock.

After getting off to a 4-1 start to the season, the Bills have dropped three of their last five games and the Saints have lost three straight games since upsetting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8. Thursday night’s contest provides both teams with the chance to get back on track entering the latter-half of the season. Let’s take a closer look at the implications of Thursdays’ game on the AFC and NFC and look ahead to Sunday night’s division matchup between the first-place Baltimore Ravens and last-place Cleveland Browns.

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2021 AFC East playoff race

The postseason race in this division features two teams: the surging New England Patriots, who currently occupy first place with a 7-4 record and the 6-4 Bills. The 4-7 Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets, who have a 2-8 mark, round out the division with losing records.

Can the Bills defeat good teams?

The Bills’ 6-4 record does not tell the full story of the team’s performance this season. Though Buffalo boasts a winning record through 10 games, their only victory against a team with a winning record came in Week 5 when the Bills defeated the Kansas City Chiefs. The Bills’ six wins have come against teams that have a combined record of 23-40 (counting the 4-7 Dolphins twice). Three of the Bills’ four losses have come against teams with winning records: the Steelers (5-4-1), Titans (8-3) and Colts (6-5). But Buffalo also dropped one surprising game to the 2-8 Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 9. In last week’s 41-15 drubbing by the Colts, Buffalo suffered its worst home loss since 2018. With four losses through 10 games, Buffalo has already dropped more games than it did in all of the last season when it finished with a 13-3 record.

It doesn’t help that Buffalo is facing its toughest stretch of the season in the coming weeks. After traveling to New Orleans, the Bills will play a key division matchup against the 7-4 Patriots. Then, Buffalo will travel to Tampa Bay to take on the first-place Buccaneers before playing the 5-6 Carolina Panthers in Week 15 and the Patriots again in Week 16 in New England. This stretch of games, particularly the two contests vs. Bill Belichick’s Patriots, will impact the NFL playoff picture as the Bills continue to fight for a postseason spot.

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2021 AFC Playoff Picture:

The standings in the AFC continue to change every week as teams vie for a spot in the postseason. There are 12 teams with records of .500 or better through 11 weeks. The conference also features five teams that are within a half-game of the No. 6 and No. 7 playoff spots.

The Titans have a two-game lead over the Colts in the AFC South and continue to sit atop the AFC by maintaining a half game lead over the Baltimore Ravens. Even with a surprise 22-13 loss to the Houston Texans last week that snapped a six-game winning streak, the Titans maintained control of the conference.

The Ravens hold the No. 2 spot in the AFC behind the Titans after bouncing back from a tough loss in Week 10 to defeat the Chicago Bears last week.

After a 2-4 start to the season, the surging New England Patriots have established themselves as worthy contenders for the AFC crown. Bill Belichick’s team has won five straight games with rookie QB Mac Jones under center. But the next four matchups will play a major role in determining the Patriots’ fate as they face the Titans, Bills, Colts and Bills again.

The Chiefs have the fourth spot in the AFC following a convincing win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11. The Kansas City defense has allowed 17 or fewer points in its last four games.

The Bengals round out the top five teams in the conference after a much-needed win over the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 11 that snapped a two-game losing streak.

What to expect when the Ravens host the Browns in a key AFC north matchup on Sunday Night Football:

The Ravens are in first place in the AFC North and the Browns are in fourth but just two games separate the division rivals, underscoring the importance of Sunday night’s matchup on the NFL playoff picture.

Baltimore managed to pull together a win against the Bears last week even though the team was without star signal-caller Lamar Jackson, who was sidelined with a non-COVID related illness and missed just the third game in his four-year career. In Jackson’s absence, Tyler Huntley made his first NFL start. An undrafted player from the University of Utah in 2020, Huntley managed to lead the Ravens to a game-winning drive to defeat the Bears and retain a one-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

Head coach John Harbaugh said in his media availability this week that he is hopeful Jackson will be able to start on Sunday. The Ravens will need Jackson as their remaining schedule features opponents that all have a winning record and five of their last seven games are against division opponents.

Meanwhile, the Browns have been inconsistent in recent weeks, posting a 3-4 record after starting the season at 3-1. They showed signs of promise with a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 7 and a 41-16 rout of the Bengals in Week 9. But the offense, despite featuring one of the best rushing units in the league, has been largely quiet. Excluding the win against the Bengals, the Browns have not scored more than 17 points in their last six games.

RELATED: 2021 Sunday Night Football schedule: NFL live streams, how to watch on TV, channel, kickoff times

2021 NFC South division race

The NFC South is led by the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, who have a 7-3 record. The Saints are in second place in the division at 5-5, followed closely by the 5-6 Carolina Panthers and lowly 4-6 Atlanta Falcons.

Can the Saints find consistency under center in the post-Drew Brees era?

For the first time since 2005, the Saints needed to field someone at quarterback other than franchise great Drew Brees. Adjusting to life without Brees has not been easy though.

Sean Payton and the Saints elected to start QB Jameis Winston under center to start the 2021 season. Winston spent the first five seasons of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before joining the Saints in 2020. He led New Orleans to a 4-2 start this season before suffering a torn ACL and MCL in Week 8.

The injury paved the way for Trevor Siemian, a seventh-round pick by the Denver Broncos in the 2015 NFL Draft, to get the start. Under Siemian, the Saints are 0-3 and have fallen to .500 on the season. In the wake of the team’s recent poor performances, fellow QB Taysom Hill reportedly agreed to a four-year contract extension on Monday. When filling in for an injured Brees last season, Hill led the team to a 3-1 record.

With potentially three different quarterbacks under center for the Saints this season alone, the transition to the post-Brees era is still in flux.

2021 NFC Playoff Picture:

Unlike the AFC, the NFC features heavyweights at the top of the conference. The 9-2 Arizona Cardinals are back in the No. 1 spot after grinding out a road win in Seattle. The Cardinals managed to win without Kyler Murray, who is still recovering from an ankle injury, and star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has a hamstring issue.

With their win over the Seahawks, the Cardinals knocked the 8-3 Green Bay Packers into the No. 2 spot in the conference standings. While the Packers remain in first place in the NFC North, they failed to win a thriller vs. Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11, falling just short, 34-31.

The 7-3 Buccaneers are at No. 3 in the AFC after a much-needed win against the ailing New York Giants in Tampa on Monday night. The win snapped a two-game losing streak that included dropped contests against the Saints and Washington Football Team.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys failed to stay ahead of the Packers by getting beat, 19-9, by the Chiefs in Week 11.

The Los Angeles Rams were on a bye last week but managed to stay within the top five of the conference due to the performances by other teams. The Rams will seek to rebound in Week 12 after two straight losses to the Titans and 49ers.

RELATED: When do the 2022 NFL playoffs start: Dates, schedule, TV channels, live streams, format

Current 2021 NFL Playoff picture

AFC Standings

Tennessee Titans (8-3)

Baltimore Ravens (7-3)

Buffalo Bills (7-4)

Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

New England Patriots (7-4)

Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)

Los Angeles Chargers (6-4)

On the bubble:

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1)

Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

Las Vegas Raiders (5-5)

Cleveland Browns (6-5)

Denver Broncos (5-5)

NFC Standings

Arizona Cardinals (9-2)

Green Bay Packers (8-3)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3)

Dallas Cowboys (7-4)

Los Angeles Rams (7-3)

Minnesota Vikings (5-5)

San Francisco 49ers (5-5)

On the bubble:

Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)

Carolina Panthers (5-6)

New Orleans Saints (5-6)

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Analyzing Bears sending No. 1 NFL draft pick to Panthers


This is the day NFL free agency begins, the day when agents and teams can legally begin to negotiate contracts that they’ve already been, you know, illegally negotiating. But a Molotov cocktail got thrown into the top 10 of the draft over the weekend, so that takes precedence this morning.

And well, that escalated quickly.

The top of the draft got turned upside-down by Ryan Poles and the desperado Carolina Panthers just after 5 Eastern Time Friday afternoon, six days after he told me it’d take a ransom for the Bears to deal the top overall pick.

Poles got a lot from Carolina for the top pick: the ninth and 61st overall picks this year, a first-round pick in 2024, a second-round pick in 2025, and the Panthers’ number one wideout, D.J. Moore, healthy and entering his age-26 season. Moore’s not a top-10 NFL receiver, but he’s certainly in the top 20, after three 1,000-yard years in his first five NFL seasons.

Minnesota Vikings v Carolina Panthers
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Because the trade cannot be announced until Wednesday, the start of the 2023 league year, the Panthers and Bears were zipped up tight over the weekend. But I’ve gathered a few nuggets.

The prevailing wisdom: Chicago got enough for the pick, assuming D.J. Moore can be the primo receiver Justin Fields desperately needs. Carolina paid through the nose, and recent draft history is littered with lousy tradeups into the top five for quarterbacks who didn’t pan out (Robert Griffin III, Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold). “If Carolina doesn’t pick the right quarterback, the trade’s a disaster,” said former NFL wheeler-dealer Jimmy Johnson.


This deal was not getting done without D.J. Moore in it. The Bears had a bottom-five group of wideouts in 2022, even after trading for Chase Claypool in midseason. Darnell Mooney, Claypool and Equanimeous St. Brown, as a group, weren’t going to give Fields his best chance to emerge as a quarterback and developing Fields is priority one for the ’23 Bears. The free-agency wideout crop is a D-minus, and unless Poles wanted to use his only pick in the top-50 on a receiver, Moore (or a number one receiver like him) was vital. Certainly Carolina didn’t want to deal one of its best five players, in his prime; in the span of six months, the Panthers have dealt their two best offensive players, Christian McCaffrey and Moore. But if they wanted to be sure of having their choice of quarterbacks come April 27, Moore had to be sacrificed.

I don’t think Carolina has decided which quarterback it wants. Of course the GM, Scott Fitterer, and scouts who’ve investigated quarterbacks have their leanings. Of course coach Frank Reich and his staff have their opinions after watching tape and meeting the passers at the Combine. But 45 days out from the first round, this isn’t a done deal. It wouldn’t be smart for it to be a done deal.

I’ve heard the same rumors everyone else has—that Frank Reich loves Florida QB Anthony Richardson. And he may be the pick. But I’m a bit skeptical. Nothing against Richardson, who is one of the most interesting QB prospects in the past few drafts. I wonder, though, about trading two first-round picks, two second-round picks and one of your five best players for a player with a high ceiling but with one year as a college starter. Trading to number one and choosing Richardson might turn out to be brilliant. But picking Richardson number one after dealing five prime pieces for him is a major risk.

However, if Richardson become The Guy, I expect Carolina to consider a minor trade-down. This would be tricky. When teams make draft trades, the team trading up doesn’t usually admit who the player target is. In this case, the Panthers, if trading from one to, say, Houston at two, would have to be assured the Texans weren’t taking the quarterback Carolina wants. That would require some trust, obviously. Going much beyond two would be a chancy venture.

Reich has never coached a short quarterback, and Bryce Young is 5-10. Is that meaningful? I give it a little weight. In Reich’s 17 years as a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator or head coach, his starting quarterbacks in Indianapolis, Arizona, San Diego, Philadelphia and Indianapolis (again) have been 6-6 (Nick Foles, John Skelton), 6-5 (Peyton Manning, Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Rivers again, Wentz again), 6-4 (Curtis Painter, Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Ryan), 6-3 (Ryan Lindley) and 6-2 (Sam Ehlinger). The 6-3 and 6-2 guys totaled six starts, and I suspect that starting Ehlinger twice in Reich’s last two games in Indy was not Reich’s idea. So in 17 years, all but six games Reich coached were started by quarterbacks 6-4 and taller. Reich’s a traditionalist. He played in an era with big quarterbacks. To stake the future of the franchise on a great player, but a 5-10 player, would be unconventional for him. However, Fitterer comes from Seattle, where the 5-10-ish Russell Wilson was a major outlier for a decade. Young has gotten rave reviews for his football smarts, and just finished two years with a demanding NFL QB teacher, Bill O’Brien, at Alabama. So never say never about the short QB.

One other thing about Bryce Young that Reich and his staff will love and could sway them toward a 5-10 QB. There probably wasn’t a quarterback in college football last year who was as smart and resourceful as Young. Case in point: On most snaps at Alabama, Young called two plays in the huddle and decided which to use—himself, not with a signal from the sidelines—once he read the defense at the line. “That’s very NFL,” said one league quarterback authority who has studied Young. “I think that’s one of the reasons his height isn’t as big a deal as it might be—he’s dealt with figuring out the right play all the time based on what he sees from the defense, and I’m sure he factors in not getting in traffic with a bunch of 6-5 guys.” Two other points to consider about Young: He didn’t have many balls batted down. And Reich is not an inflexible person—if he thinks Young’s markedly the best prospect, he’ll be good taking him.

Does Young’s size mean 6-3 C.J. Stroud has the best chance to be the pick? Two veteran front-office people I spoke with Saturday think Stroud makes the most sense, but those two men are not making this call. Stroud did play the single-most impressive game of any of the four first-round prospects (including Kentucky’s Will Levis) this year—putting up 41 points on Georgia in the college playoffs, throwing for 348 yards with four TDs and no interceptions—so that counts for something.

Where is Chicago left? My column last week focused heavily on the Bears, and now that the deal’s been done, Poles faces a few truths. He knows he needs to bulk up on the offensive line; he has the cap room (a league-high $69.9-million in effective cap space, per overthecap.com) to afford one of the top three tackles in free-agency—Orlando Brown, Mike McGlinchey or Kaleb McGary. Re the draft: Being at nine takes him out of the ballgame for the best pass-rusher, Will Anderson of Alabama, and likely puts number two edge player Tyree Wilson of Texas Tech out of range. But the top offensive-line prospect, Peter Skoronski of Northwestern, could be there at nine. Poles could be smartest spending on one tackle in free agency, and one defensive linemen—Dre’Mont Jones or the pricey Javon Hargrave, or perhaps Frank Clark to beef up the pass-rush.

It’s amazing how different the Bears could look come training camp. Imagine Fields throwing to D.J. Moore outside or in the slot, with Brown protecting his blind side, and Skoronski plugged in either at guard or tackle as a day-one starter. Imagine Jones and Clark buttressing a needy defensive line. That’s all fantasy football, of course, but Poles has the cap room and draft picks (9, 53, 61, 64 overall) to make some plug-and-play decisions between now and May 1.

Re Carolina: Anyone who scouts the quarterbacks comes away thinking Young and Stroud are good candidates for the top pick. The game has changed in the past few years. If you love Young the most, you’re going to deploy an offense that’s 97-percent in shotgun and let him be the smart guy at the line he was at Alabama. Stroud showed the ability to drive the football with confidence; clearly, he’ll be able to make every NFL throw, and he’s afraid of nothing. But then there’s Richardson. It’s certainly possible in the next six weeks the Panthers could talk themselves into the versatile Florida quarterback with the great arm and 80- and 81-yard college TD runs.

I wish I could tell you a good gut feel on who Carolina will pick, but I can’t. As I say, I’m sure those who will collaborate to make the pick have leanings today. Leanings can change in 45 days.

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

Dolphins make statement with Jalen Ramsey trade


Jalen Ramsey to the Dolphins made too much sense, for both Miami and the Rams. It happened Sunday afternoon. We should have seen it coming for weeks.

The trade—Ramsey to Miami for a mid-third-round pick, 77th overall, and an invisible tight end from the 2021 third round, Hunter Long—seems light for the Rams. And it is, but the market for a cornerback entering his age-29 season who wants a contract extension and who gave up 65-percent completions to his man in coverage last year wasn’t as robust as the Rams had hoped. There was also the matter of Ramsey wanting to go to Miami.

The Dolphins are all-in for 2023. The Rams are all-in for 2025. It’s now officially official: L.A. is a bleep-them-picks franchise no longer, and will build for the future with their 11 picks this April.

Miami will contend if Tua Tagovailoa can stay on the field most or all of the regular season. That’s a certainty. But this deal is an admission the Dolphins won’t be a title team without major improvement on defense. The new coordinator, Vic Fangio, is piece one of the rebuild. Ramsey is an important second piece. The Dolphins in 2022 allowed 113 more points (one TD per game) than the Bills and had interceptions in just five of 17 games. The pricy free-agent cornerback from 2021, Byron Jones, may be too injured to count on. If Aaron Rodgers signs with the Jets and if Lamar Jackson plays with Baltimore, Miami will have nine games in 2023 against premier quarterbacks: Josh Allen and Rodgers (two each), with one against Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, Jackson and Dak Prescott. Ramsey and Xavien Howard should be a formidable cover duo in Fangio’s new defense.

The Rams are going to build through the draft for the foreseeable future, reversing course from the Super Bowl LVI title team. In the last two years, they’ve had one pick in the top 100, total. This year they’ve got three in the top 77 (36, 69 and 77, and I would look for GM Les Snead to try to swap the 36th overall for two or three picks). Long has done zero in two years for two head coaches in Miami, so I wouldn’t count much on him.

Two teams traveling different roads, both using present-day logic. This weekend of big transition will continue with the first week of the new league year and more transition.

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