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The Brandt Report

Assessing playoff chances of every .500 team going into Week 14 of 2021 NFL season

Ten years ago exactly, the New York Giants sat at 6-6 after losing their fourth straight game. They lost just once more en route to claiming the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLVI.

Of course, the Giants -- as the only 6-6 team in history to win it all -- were an anomaly. Of the 40 teams to have started 6-6 in the nine seasons since, just nine went on to reach the playoffs, with the 2018 Colts being the last squad to do it, per Pro Football Reference.

In other words, it's tough to go this deep into the season without winning more games than one has lost and still find postseason glory. But that doesn't mean teams can't try.

Below, I've assessed the playoff chances of all five teams that sit at 6-6 (.500) going into Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season. Who's in -- and who's going to be watching the postseason from home?


San Francisco 49ers
3rd in NFC West · No. 7 in NFC

REMAINING SCHEDULE: at Bengals, vs. Falcons, at Titans, vs. Texans, at Rams.

The loss to the Seahawks on Sunday hurt -- the second half especially, which included a dispiriting safety and four failed chances to tie from inside the Seattle 10-yard line in the final minute, will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Then again, if Carlos Dunlap hadn't gotten a hand on Jimmy Garoppolo's final pass, the Niners might be sitting at 7-5 (and, by extension, be off this list). Setting aside their fourth one-possession loss of the season, this team is still good enough to win out or, as I wrote last week, at least forge a path to a double-digit victory total, thanks to their balance on offense and defense. Things might not break their way, but they should be meaningfully competitive at worst in every remaining contest, and I like their chances to hang on to a wild-card spot. Yes, Garoppolo and the offense faltered late against Seattle, but the quarterback's overall stat line in San Francisco's last four games is encouraging: 70 percent completion rate, 887 passing yards, 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 9.14 yards per attempt. Getting Deebo Samuel back sooner rather than later would certainly help, but I remain bullish on the Niners.

Denver Broncos
4th in AFC West · 12th in AFC

REMAINING SCHEDULE: vs. Lions, vs. Bengals, at Raiders, at Chargers, vs. Chiefs.

One can find reasons to be pessimistic about the Broncos, including their negative turnover differential (-1), their 20th-ranked offense and their lackluster 9-point showing against the Chiefs on Sunday night. However, one can also find reasons to be pessimistic about almost every other team in the AFC, which is a jumble of flawed groups scrambling for playoff positioning. And I ultimately like Denver's chances of elbowing its way into the postseason, buoyed by factors like a positive point differential (+19), solid-if-unspectacular QB play by Teddy Bridgewater and a defense that ranks eighth in yards allowed and third in points allowed. The Broncos will have to take care of business against the Lions and handle the Raiders and Chargers on the road, but if they can do that -- and I think they can -- they'll have a shot at 10 wins, provided fortune tips their way against the Bengals or Chiefs. And that should give them as good a chance as anyone in this down-the-stretch wild-card melee.

Washington Football Team
2nd in NFC East · No. 6 in NFC

REMAINING SCHEDULE: vs. Cowboys, at Eagles, at Cowboys, vs. Eagles, at Giants.

This one is a tough nut to crack. Based on a side-by-side comparison of talent, I'd have Washington ranked last of the five teams here. And yet ... Quarterback Taylor Heinicke seems to be getting better every week, posting a 110 passer rating and 7:2 TD-to-INT ratio over Washington's four-game winning streak. The running game is rolling, helping the Football Team out-rush its opponents, 548-274, in that span. And the defense has withstood the absence of studs like Chase Young and Montez Sweat, thanks to the contributions of players like Jonathan Allen (Pro Football Focus' top-graded Washington defender in Weeks 10-13), William Jackson (three passes defensed, one pick over the winning streak) and Kendall Fuller (team-high 11 passes defensed on the season).

Somewhat incredibly, Washington still has a chance in the NFC East, with the rest of its schedule consisting entirely of divisional rivals. I could see the Football Team sweeping Dallas just as easily as I could see it being swept by the Cowboys. But perhaps the most important matchup to watch is with the Eagles, who are looking like Washington's stiffest wild-card competition among a swath of shaky sub-.500 groups like Minnesota, Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta. And it is not hard to see Washington coming out on top in that series.


Cleveland Browns
4th in AFC North · 11th in AFC

REMAINING SCHEDULE: vs. Ravens, vs. Raiders, at Packers, at Steelers, vs. Bengals.

The Browns might have the most star power of any team listed here, between Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Myles Garrett. That should be a big boost in the AFC North, which (like the conference at large, as mentioned in the Broncos blurb above) remains open to seemingly anyone with at least 22 players and a little bit of luck on their side. It is entirely possible that Cleveland will storm out of its Week 13 bye behind a rested and rejuvenated Baker Mayfield to beat a vulnerable Baltimore team, then proceed to secure its first back-to-back playoff appearance since 1989. But -- and this is a big but -- the Browns will have to show us they are something other than the inconsistent, out-of-rhythm, underachieving group they've been for most of the season. And transformations like that are difficult to pull off in December. It is hard to bet on a team that is 1-2 in the division and 1-5 against opponents who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Las Vegas Raiders
3rd in AFC West · 10th in AFC

REMAINING SCHEDULE: at Chiefs, at Browns, vs. Broncos, at Colts, vs. Chargers.

I know I included Las Vegas in my list of teams that are better than their records last week. And Derek Carr is continuing to have a strong season at the tiller of the NFL's second-ranked passing attack. But this article is about playoff chances, and there are signs of trouble in that realm for Las Vegas, even beyond Sunday's painful game against Washington. The Raiders' point differential sits at -38, which is the second worst of any team in the conference with six-plus wins (ahead of the Steelers' differential of -42). The 27th-ranked run game, meanwhile, is averaging less than 4 yards (3.8) per carry, while the defense ranks 19th in yards and 26th in points allowed. I felt better about the Raiders' situation before the loss to the Football Team, which makes Weeks 15 and 16 a truly crucial juncture of the season -- coming out of that stretch against the Browns and Broncos at .500 or below would likely crush any remaining postseason dreams.

Don't miss your chance to be a part of the postseason action. Tickets for the 2021 NFL playoffs go on sale on Dec. 16.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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