NFL playoff picture: Saints’ win clinches NFC South on Thanksgiving night

The NFL’s trio of Thanksgiving Day games delivered one divisional championship and put a second team on the cusp of a playoff berth. The Saints clinched the NFC South with a 26-18 victory over the Falcons, securing the first of 12 playoff spots. They are the 15th team to win a division in Week 13 or earlier since the league realigned into eight divisions in 2002. Another of those teams? The 2009 Saints, who also went on to win the Super Bowl.

Earlier in the day, the Bills put themselves as close as they could get to a wild-card playoff berth with an impressive 26-15 victory at Dallas. They now have nine wins and probably need to win only one more to ensure their second trip to the playoffs in three seasons.

Week 13 will pick up Sunday with two more teams in position to join the Saints (and soon the Bills) in the postseason. Let’s take a closer look at the playoff picture as it stands now through the Thanksgiving Day games of Week 13, using ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to inform our analysis.

Note: X denotes a team that has clinched a playoff berth, while Z shows a team that has clinched its division and Y indicates a team that secured a first-round bye (an asterisk shows home-field advantage).

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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. They can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over the Texans and a loss (or tie) by either the Raiders or Steelers.

Next up: at Houston

Can anyone stop the Ravens during the regular season? The Rams had no shot Monday night, getting blown out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Patriots have already tried and failed (in a 17-point loss during Week 9). The next — and perhaps last — chance will come Sunday when the Ravens host the 10-1 49ers. Not only do the 49ers have a physical defense, but they are also fast and athletic on the edge. That will prove an interesting, but hardly insurmountable, challenge for MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson. If they can get past the 49ers, the Ravens have an excellent opportunity to leapfrog the Patriots and grab home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

Next up: vs. San Francisco

How important was the Texans’ comeback victory last 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 in Week 11. Then, the Raiders suffered an embarrassing loss Sunday to the Jets. So if the Chiefs can beat the Raiders at home this weekend, 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 left. The likelihood of that scenario gives the Chiefs a 96.8% chance to win the West, per FPI.

Next up: vs. Oakland

Thursday brought one of the Bills’ most meaningful and impressive victories in two decades. After dismantling the division-leading Cowboys on the road in a short week, the Bills showed they are capable of more than just feasting on a weak schedule. And as a result, they are now a near-lock for a wild-card playoff spot. They’re even in position to swoop into the AFC East lead if the Patriots falter. The Bills’ chance to reach the postseason is now 95%, according to FPI. With one more victory, they’ll have their best regular-season record since 1999.

Next up: vs. Baltimore (Week 14)

There is no problem so big it can’t be solved by playing the Bengals. Fresh off their disastrous loss to the Browns, the Steelers did just enough to win in Cincinnati in Week 12. 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 predicts only a 30.5% chance to make the playoffs.

Next up: vs. Cleveland

Next four

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. San Francisco looked very good Sunday night. But could any team make it through that gantlet unscathed? That said, the 49ers can clinch a playoff berth this weekend with a win over the Ravens and a Rams loss at the Cardinals.

Next up: at Baltimore

With the NFC South division title claimed, the Saints have their sights set on a bigger goal: earning home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs for the second consecutive season. They could leapfrog the 49ers as early as Week 14. That scenario would require a 49ers loss Sunday in Baltimore — a reasonable possibility — and then a Saints victory in the teams’ head-to-head matchup Dec. 8. The Saints wouldn’t have clinched by that point, but they would be in control of the top spot entering Week 15.

Next up: vs. San Francisco (Week 14)

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 left with a winning record on their schedule is the Vikings in Week 16.

Next up: at New York Giants

The Cowboys are now 0-5 against teams with winning records after losing Thursday to the Bills. But here’s the thing: They can still win the NFC East without beating a single team that is currently over .500. If they can defeat the Bears (6-6), Eagles (5-6) and Redskins (2-9), they’ll go to the playoffs with a 9-7 record. If not, they’ll have to hope that the Eagles can’t get their act together and overtake them. All told, FPI is still giving the Cowboys a 64.6% chance to go to the playoffs. As bad as they seemed Thursday, things could be much worse.

Next up: at Chicago (Week 14)

Sunday’s game in Philadelphia carried one of the largest postseason swings in Week 12. Earning a conference victory 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

The Packers’ loss Sunday 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 games 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 on Monday night, and the Packers will play at the Giants.

Next up: at Seattle

Next four

7. Los Angeles Rams (6-5)
8. Chicago Bears (6-6)
9. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6)
10. Carolina Panthers (5-6)

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