2021 NFL Playoff Picture, Standings: Broncos and Chiefs contend for top spot in AFC West on Sunday Night Football


The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs will meet on Sunday night in a game that has important implications on the NFL playoff picture. Live coverage begins at 7:00 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 3-4 start to the season, the Chiefs have won four straight games entering Sunday’s matchup. The Broncos have been inconsistent throughout the season, starting out strong with three straight wins before dropping four consecutive games in October. Heading into Sunday night, Denver has won three of its last four games. With a win over the Chiefs in this Week 13 matchup, the Broncos would be in first place in the AFC West.

Let’s take a closer look at the impact of Sunday’s game on the division and the AFC postseason race.

2021 AFC West playoff race

All four teams in the stacked AFC West are poised to compete for the No. 1 spot in the division. At 7-4, the Chiefs sit atop the division. The Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos are all tied up with 6-5 marks and are just one game out of first place.

The Quarterback Carousel in Denver:

The last time the Broncos won the Super Bowl was 2015, which is also the last time Denver advanced to any round of the postseason. Since Peyton Manning‘s departure following the 2015 season, the Broncos have fielded 11 different signal callers. Below is a complete list of the Broncos QB’s from 2016 until now.

  • Trevor Siemian
  • Paxton Lynch
  • Brock Osweiler
  • Case Keenum
  • Joe Flacco
  • Brandon Allen
  • Jeff Driskel
  • Brett Rypien
  • Kendall Hinton
  • Drew Lock
  • Teddy Bridgewater

The lack of consistency under center has impacted the Broncos’ performance. The last time the Broncos finished a season with a winning record was back in 2016. In 2017, the Broncos finished at 5-11 and then 6-10 in 2018 before posting a 7-9 mark in 2019 and 5-11 record last season. At the start of this season, the Broncos had the worst Total QBR (45.2) in the NFL since 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Prior to the 2019 season, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen had taken snaps under center until the Broncos drafted Drew Lock in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Lock took over at quarterback at the end of the 2019 season and won four of his five starts to enter the 2020 season as the unquestioned starter. That offseason, general manager John Elway focused his attention on bolstering the offense by making additions to the offensive line and selecting explosive wide receivers while also hiring a new offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur to oversee the unit.

Lock, however, led the league interceptions in the 2020 season with 15, forcing Elway to resume his search as the quarterback carousel continued to spin.

This past offseason, the Broncos traded a sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to the Carolina Panthers for journeyman QB Teddy Bridgewater. This season, Bridgewater has thrown for 2,518 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions while posting a QBR of 50.1. Last week against the Chargers, Bridgewater suffered a shin injury in the first quarter and had to leave the game. Lock finished out the first half before Bridgewater returned in the second half to lead the Broncos to a commanding 28-13 win.

The Broncos have lost their last 11 contests to the Chiefs dating back to 2015. Bridgewater will try to help end that drought on Sunday night.

The Turnaround of the Chiefs’ Defense:

After advancing to the Super Bowl last year, the Chiefs got off to an unexpectedly poor start to the season, dropping key games to the Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans. While issues emerged on both sides of the ball, the defense in particular was a weakness.

In September, the Chiefs had the worst defense in the league. Then in October, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo tinkered with the defense, replacing free safety Juan Thornhill with Daniel Sorensen in the starting lineup. Plagued by injuries at the start of the season, the unit got healthier with each passing week as Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Charvarius Ward and linebacker Willie Gay returned. In the month of November, the defense has emerged as the strength of the team.

During the team’s four game winning streak, the Chiefs surrendered less than 20 points in each game, the longest such streak of the season. The last time the unit achieved this feat was over a five-game stretch late in the 2019 season – the same season the Chiefs went on to win Super Bowl LIV.

Defensive end Chris Jones is leading the charge on the Chiefs’ defense as he logged 3.5 sacks, four tackles, three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, one pass defended, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11. With four division contests to close out the season, the defense could be the reason the Chiefs advance to their seventh-straight postseason.

RELATED: Peter King examines the NFL’s 10 best teams with six weeks left in the season

2021 AFC Playoff Picture:

The AFC remains up for grabs as 11 teams in the conference have six or more wins.

The Baltimore Ravens sit atop the conference with an 8-3 record after defeating the Browns at home on Sunday night despite four interceptions by Lamar Jackson. After the game, Jackson told reporters that he “looked like a rookie.” The Ravens have four division games left on their schedule and two daunting NFC opponents in the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. Baltimore has not scored more than 16 points in its last three games.

The surging New England Patriots are ranked second in the AFC and have momentum on their side as they extended their winning streak to six games in Week 12 with a convincing 36-13 victory over the Titans that impacted the NFL playoff picture. During their winning streak, the Patriots have won by at least 18 points in five games. They lead the NFL with a point differential of plus-144 despite rookie quarterback Mac Jones falling outside the league’s top 10 in Total QBR. Bill Belichick’s team will have another challenge in Week 13 as they host the Bills in New England.

The Tennessee Titans occupy the third spot in the AFC standings. After winning six straight games from Weeks 5-10, the Titans have dropped their last two contests to the Houston Texans and Patriots. The two-game losing streak has not impacted their standing in the AFC South though as they maintain a two-game lead in the division with five games left to play. With a bye week this week and then two games against the lowly Jaguars and struggling Steelers, the question for the Titans is not whether they will make the playoffs but rather, how far they will play into the postseason.

With a 7-4 mark, the Chiefs occupy the No. 4 spot in the AFC. Despite not playing last week, their playoff positioning did not change. The road ahead is not easy for Kansas City as it has the toughest remaining schedule in the league with opponents posting a combined record of 36-29-1.

The Cincinnati Bengals round out the top five in the AFC. After dropping two straight games to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, the Bengals have bounced back in recent weeks to defeat the Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. Cincinnati won those last two contests by a combined 57 points and are now in second place in the AFC North behind the Ravens.

The Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers would clinch the remaining two playoff spots if the season ended today. The recent play of both teams has raised questions though. The Bills have dropped two of the their last four games, including a surprising 9-6 loss to the Jaguars and a 26-point loss to the Colts. After losing to the Broncos this past Sunday, the Chargers fell to 2-4 in their last six games.

2021 NFC Playoff Picture:

The NFL playoff picture in the NFC is less crowded than the AFC.

The Arizona Cardinals sit atop the conference at 9-2 despite ongoing injuries to key players, including quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The Cardinals have won two of their last three games with backup QB Colt McCoy under center. Because the Cardinals have a half-game lead over the Green Bay Packers and have played one less game, they control their own destiny for the No. 1 seed. Four of their remaining six games are against teams that are at .500 or worse but they will need to be at full strength to come out on top.

The Packers occupy the No. 2 seed after bouncing back from a Week 11 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in a victory over the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday. The Packers can ride that energy into their bye week this week, which will also give Aaron Rodgers extra time to rest his fractured toe. Of their five remaining games, three will take place at Lambeau Field, where the Packers are undefeated this season.

Despite a two-game losing streak to the Saints and Washington Football Team at the end of October and beginning of November that caused some panic, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the third playoff spot in the AFC. Over the past two weeks, the Bucs have defeated the Giants and Colts by a combined 68 points to improve to 8-3 overall. Their stock should only continue to rise as five of their last six games are against teams with losing records.

The Cowboys have the fourth spot in the NFC and while they continue to remain in postseason contention, there is cause for concern in Dallas. The Cowboys have dropped three of their last six games, including a 36-33 overtime loss to the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day. The Cowboys maintain a two-game lead in the NFC East but Washington is just two games behind and both teams have yet to face each other. Dallas is likely to maintain its first place status in a division in which the three other teams have losing records but momentum is not on their side.

The Los Angeles Rams are ranked No. 5 in the NFC entering Week 13 but they may not remain there for long. After getting off to a 7-1 start in the first half of the season, the Rams have dropped their last three games and Matthew Stafford has thrown a pick-six in each of them. The Rams have a get-right game against the Jaguars in Week 13.

The 49ers and Washington Football Team occupy the final two spots in the conference playoff standings. The 49ers have won three straight games and have found their stride at the right time. For the first time this season, Washington has entered the NFL playoff picture. The Football Team has won three straight and its remaining schedule features five division matchups that could make or break their postseason chances.

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

Current 2021 NFL Playoff picture

AFC Standings

Baltimore Ravens (8-3)

New England Patriots (8-4)

Tennessee Titans (8-4)

Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)

Buffalo Bills (7-4)

Los Angeles Chargers (6-5)

On the bubble:

Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)

Denver Broncos (6-5)

Indianapolis Colts (6-6)

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1)

Cleveland Browns (6-6)

NFC Standings

Arizona Cardinals (9-2)

Green Bay Packers (9-3)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3)

Dallas Cowboys (8-4)

Los Angeles Rams (7-4)

San Francisco 49ers (6-5)

Washington Football Team (5-6)

On the bubble:

Minnesota Vikings (5-5)

Atlanta Falcons (5-6)

New Orleans Saints (5-7)

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