NFL playoff picture tiers: Stacking all 32 teams’ chances, from the locks to the long shots

  • national NFL writer
  • NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
  • Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008

Week 9 delivered us to the midpoint of the 2021 NFL season, and that can mean only one thing. Week 10 is the start of the playoff push, those two months of the NFL calendar when we find out which plans worked, which ones failed and who, if anyone, was able to adjust on the fly.

The addition of a 17th regular-season game, a year after an expansion of the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, changes the calculus a bit. Some of us, of course, are going to trip up on projecting teams to finish with records such as 11-6, 9-8 or 13-4. (Or, in one case, maybe 0-16-1.) Teams that started the season strong face a longer horizon to maintain, while those that needed to make adjustments will have more time to reap the rewards.

Regardless, it’s time to start separating the NFL’s 32 teams in terms of their likelihood to make the playoffs. Perhaps more than in most years, we have a small handful of teams that are locks on either end of the spectrum and then a large blob of maybes. At this point, the best way to think of the playoff field is through the five tiers that follow. We can feel quite good about, say, the Cardinals (8-2) making the playoffs. On the other hand, the Lions (0-8-1) ain’t getting there.

But what about teams such as the Patriots, who are 6-4 and have decent chances to either fall back in the crowded AFC or take control of the AFC East? How about the Saints (5-4), or even the Chiefs (6-4), who have appeared in the past two Super Bowls? What follows will kick off a weekly examination of the NFL playoff field as January beckons. Let’s tier all 32 teams by their current playoff hopes, mixing in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). (Teams are listed alphabetically within each tier.)


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