NFL Week 14: The battle at the bottom of the NFC playoff picture

George Kittle and the 49ers take on Cincy in a game with huge playoff implications.

George Kittle and the 49ers take on Cincy in a game with huge playoff implications.
Illustration: Getty Images

Most NFL fans will tell you that in recent years the AFC has been a better conference than the NFC. Despite an NFC team winning the Super Bowl last season, they also had a 7-9 team (Washington) reach the playoffs by winning their division, along with an 8-8 team (Chicago) as a wild-card. Meanwhile, the AFC had a 10-6 team (Miami) miss the postseason entirely last year.


Well, it looks as though we’re going to have a similar postseason situation in 2021. The top seven seeds in the AFC are all on pace to reach 10 wins this season. In fact, there are four teams sitting at .500 in the AFC who are more than a game out of a playoff position. That’s not the case in the NFC, where not only are two .500 teams (Washington and San Francisco) in position to make the playoffs currently, but the first two teams out of the playoff picture (Philadelphia and Minnesota) are both under .500.

Naturally, this has created an incredibly tight race in the NFC, with every team in contention for the final two spots basically playing must-win football in order to stay alive.

San Francisco has the toughest game of any team in the NFC playoff picture. They take on the 7-5 Cincinnati Bengals. What makes this a tough contest for the 49ers isn’t the team they’re facing. The 49ers actually matchup very well with Cincy, considering they’ve struggled to stop the run this year, but so have the Chargers and Jets and both those teams managed to take down Cincinnati. It’s actually the unfamiliarity the 49ers have with the Bengals.

The last time these two teams played each other was Week 2 of 2019. That’s before Burrow became the Bengals’ starting quarterback. That’s before Ja’Marr Chase came to town. That’s before the Bengals added Trey Hendrickson to their defensive line. Basically, the Bengals are a much better team than they were the last time these franchises squared off. Meanwhile, the 49ers have remained basically the same, if not slightly worse. They no longer have DeForest Buckner, Richard Sherman, Akhello Witherspoon, Raheem Mostert (still on the team, just injured), and there’s still a big possibility that both Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell could miss Sunday’s game with injuries. The Niners have been one of the hotter teams in the NFL as of late, winning three of their last four all while averaging 29.5 points per game, but they’re clearly not at their best right now.

The Washington Football Team has an interesting matchup this weekend as they look to hold onto the NFC’s sixth-seed. They take on the Dallas Cowboys, a team that outclasses them at several positions and is clearly the more talented team in the NFC East overall, but were swept by Washington in 2020. Yes, Dak Prescott wasn’t healthy for either of those games, but Washington also trotted out Kyle Allen and Alex Smith at QB for both of those games. Mike McCarthy’s guarantee that his Cowboys will get a win this weekend also doesn’t help the narrative surrounding this game. Hubris has a funny way of always rearing its ugly head at the worst times. I should know. I guaranteed that Bryce Harper wouldn’t win the NL MVP Award. I guaranteed a Ravens win over the Miami Dolphins a few weeks ago. This is just how the world works. You make a guarantee and the odds laugh. Dallas should win this game, but they’ve also lost three of their last five — two of which were against clearly inferior teams talent-wise.

Finally, there’s the NFC South — a division full of mediocre teams trying to squeeze into the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually have an opportunity to become the first team to clinch a playoff berth in the NFL this weekend. All they need is for the Saints to lose to the Jets, which isn’t too difficult considering the Saints have lost five straight, and for the Falcons to beat the Panthers. They need to win their matchup with Buffalo as well, and that’s probably the toughest leg of this parlay.


The Panthers have been on a downward slope ever since their blazing 3-0 start to the season. They’ve maintained a solid run defense, but their inability to push the ball downfield on offense has hampered this team far beyond what many experts thought prior to the season. Atlanta doesn’t rely on a heavy running game in order to win. I mean, their biggest backfield weapon was a wide receiver for the entirety of his career before 2021. This will be a close game, but it can go either way. Both teams have struggled to find their footing as of late, and it’s a miracle that both teams are still in the playoff hunt at all this late into the season.

The NFC playoff picture is a muddled mess of mediocrity. There was hope that the Ninerscould become a fearsome football force after winning three straight between Weeks 10 and 12, but after their embarrassing loss to Seattle in Week 13, it’s clear that they’re not quite ready to be taken seriously just yet. Hopefully, there will be a team among the ones I mentioned in this piece that takes a leap forward in the final five weeks of the regular season and gives the top teams in the NFC a run for their money.

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