We’ve reached clinching season in the NFL. If all goes well in the coming days for the Saints, they’ll have secured the NFC South by this time next week and become the first division winner of the 2019 season. That’s one of several upshots from an eventful Sunday in Week 12, including a pair of teams reaching 10 wins atop their respective conferences.
Let’s take a closer look at the playoff picture as it stands now through Sunday night of Week 12, using ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to inform our analysis.
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The Patriots are closing in on another AFC East title, but their winning formula is about to be tested. They’ll play consecutive games against the Texans and Chiefs, two of the NFL’s 10 highest-scoring offenses. Will the Patriots’ league-leading defense hold up against them? Or will their offense, which has averaged 16.7 points over its past three games, need to keep pace? Regardless, the Patriots’ favorable schedule thereafter — they’ll finish the season against the Bengals, Bills and Dolphins — makes them a reasonable bet to clinch both the division and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. FPI gives them a 78% chance of the latter.
Next up: at Houston
As they enter Monday night’s game against the Rams, the Ravens are in a great position to win the AFC North and in a really good position to get a first-round bye. FPI gives them a 98.8% chance to clinch the division and a 62.1% chance to wind up with the No. 2 seed. They’ll need some help from the Patriots, however, to get home-field advantage in the playoffs. FPI sees a 20.8% chance of that happening.
Next up: at Los Angeles Rams on Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App
How important was the Texans’ comeback victory Thursday night over the Colts? It returned them to a commanding position in the AFC South and made them a near lock to at least make the playoffs, all while severely diminishing the Colts’ chances to claw back into the race. The Texans now have an 89.7% chance to reach the postseason and a 74.5% chance to win the division. The schedule won’t deal them any favors in Week 13, but at least they’ll have the Patriots at home.
Next up: vs. New England
In a matter of six days, the Chiefs moved from a virtual tie in the AFC West to an opportunity to all but lock up the division by the end of Week 13. First, they held off the Chargers in Mexico City last Monday. Then, the Raiders dropped an embarrassing loss Sunday to the Jets. So if the Chiefs can beat the Raiders at home next week, they’ll complete a season sweep and clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker. In essence, that means they would have a three-game lead in the division with four games remaining. The likelihood of that scenario gives the Chiefs a 96.8% chance to win the division, per FPI.
Next up: vs. Oakland
The good news is that the Bills have some separation from the rest of the AFC wild-card field. They’re likely going to need it as they embark on the most difficult stretch of their schedule. Only one of their eight wins has come against a team that currently has a winning record — Week 5 against the Titans — but four of their final five games will be against teams that are above .500 as of Sunday. That list includes three division leaders. Still, FPI is giving them an 82.3% chance to clinch a spot in the postseason, largely because they might need only one or two more wins the rest of the way.
Next up: at Dallas
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There is no problem too big to be solved by playing the Bengals. Fresh off their disastrous loss to the Browns, the Steelers did just enough to win in Cincinnati. That victory, plus the Raiders’ loss to the Jets, pushed the Steelers to the top of a four-team pileup at 6-5. The Steelers have a better conference record than the Raiders and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Colts. (The Titans would be eliminated from the four-way tie because they lost earlier this season to the Colts.) But there is a long way to go for the Steelers, and FPI sees only a 30.5% chance to make the playoffs.
Next up: vs. Cleveland
7. Oakland Raiders (6-5)
8. Indianapolis Colts (6-5)
9. Tennessee Titans (6-5)
10. Cleveland Browns (5-6)
The 49ers put up an awfully impressive start Sunday night to one of the most challenging late-season stretches we’ve ever seen for a conference leader. They thrashed the Packers at home to keep one step ahead of the Saints (in the NFC) and the Seahawks (in the NFC West). But two taller tasks await: consecutive games at the Ravens and Saints. They looked awfully good Sunday night. But could any team make it through that gantlet unscathed?
Next up: at Baltimore
After squeaking by the Panthers and winning their third division game, the Saints are in position to tie the NFC South record for the earliest clinch of the division title. They’d do it with a win on Thanksgiving against the Falcons and a Panthers loss on Sunday to the Redskins. Whether it happens in Week 13 or later, the Saints are a near lock to win the division at 99.8%, according to FPI. Their chances to clinch a first-round playoff bye also got a boost after the Packers’ loss Sunday night in San Francisco.
Next up: at Atlanta
Sunday’s loss left the Packers clinging by the smallest of margins to the NFC North lead. They have the nominal head-to-head tiebreaker against the Vikings and also a better division record. Even better news: Their schedule eases considerably in the coming weeks with games against the Giants, Redskins and Bears in consecutive weeks. In fact, the only team with a winning record remaining on their schedule is the Vikings in Week 16.
Next up: at N.Y. Giants
The Cowboys would be in trouble if anyone else in the NFC East — namely the Eagles — had their act together. But after losing two of their past three games and failing in four opportunities this season to beat a team with a winning record, the Cowboys remain atop the division. FPI gives them a 70.1% chance to win the NFC East, but the Cowboys should be nervous. The Eagles’ next three opponents — the Dolphins, Giants and Redskins — are all currently 2-9.
Next up: vs. Buffalo
Tim Hasselbeck lists the various reasons contributing to the Cowboys’ 13-9 loss to the Patriots and how weather and mindset may have played a factor.
Sunday’s game in Philadelphia carried one of the largest postseason swings in Week 12. Gathering a conference win gave the Seahawks an additional 19.1% chance to make the playoffs; FPI now puts their chances at 95.0%. Now the question is whether they can catch the 49ers. That question might not be answered until Week 17, when the teams meet in Seattle. As long as the Seahawks are within one game of the 49ers at that point, they can overtake them with a victory on the strength of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Next up: vs. Minnesota
Chris Berman and Tom Jackson recap the weekend’s games with extended highlights and analysis.
The show will stream live at 7:30 p.m. ET each Sunday during the 2019 season and will be available on demand each week until late Wednesday night. Watch on ESPN+
And there it is. The Packers’ loss Monday night put them in a numerical tie with the Vikings in the NFC North. The Packers have a lead in the first two tiebreakers, head-to-head and division record. But the Vikings could render those moot by matching the Packers over the next three weeks before the teams meet at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 16. That is easier said than done, of course. The Vikings play in Seattle in Week 13, while the Packers will play at the Giants.
Next up: at Seattle
7. Los Angeles Rams (6-4)
8. Chicago Bears (5-6)
9. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)
10. Carolina Panthers (5-6)
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