What we learned from Week 18 in the NFL
By Tyler Dunne
The Los Angeles Rams pushed the chips in on this season. That much was clear when the team traded for Matthew Stafford, just the sixth NFL quarterback to throw for at least 40 touchdowns in multiple seasons, last January.
The Rams’ postseason imperative kept getting underscored with the massive acquisitions of linebacker Von Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as the regular season neared its second half.
But the Rams’ goal of winning a Super Bowl in their home stadium next month hinges on Stafford, who has wobbled in Los Angeles’ final regular-season games. He was outplayed by the maligned, injured Jimmy Garoppolo against San Francisco in Week 10, threw three picks against Minnesota in Week 16 and then two more at Baltimore in Week 17.
In Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the 49ers, Stafford’s interception in overtime ended any chance Los Angeles had at the NFC’s No. 2 seed and flagged a troubling concern entering the postseason.
Stafford’s backbreaking interceptions are still a major problem.
The latest blunder came with two minutes left in overtime when, trailing by a field goal, Stafford underthrew a deep pass up the right sideline to Beckham that was intercepted by Ambry Thomas. Stafford finished with a blase 238 yards, with three scores and two picks, on 21-of-32 passing.
With the game-sealing overtime interception, the 49ers secured the NFC’s final wild-card spot with a polar opposite approach. Coach Kyle Shanahan would much prefer to run the ball 30-plus times with rookie running back Elijah Mitchell and versatile Deebo Samuel and force a few turnovers on defense, than rest the offense solely on Garoppolo.
After trading up to No. 3 overall in April to draft Trey Lance, the 49ers have nonetheless stuck with Garoppolo and were rewarded Sunday when he played through a painful thumb injury to finish with 316 yards, one touchdown and two picks.
Stafford is still Stafford.
At 33, he finished the regular season with 41 passing touchdowns. His arm strength and athleticism unquestionably allows Sean McVay to unlock pages of his playbook he never could with the more stationary Jared Goff, the quarterback Stafford replaced. Yet, this trade came with a disclaimer: When the Rams unloaded two first-rounders and a third-round pick to swap Goff for Stafford last year, they knew his past.
McVay looked past Stafford’s 74-90-1 record in the regular season, with zero playoff wins, as the Lions’ starter. Statistically, this season was Stafford’s best since 2011, but he has also thrown four pick-sixes and finished with 17 interceptions.
In the playoffs — when the margin for error shrinks — one such mistake can end a season.
Considering how reliant the Rams are on Stafford, it’s hard to imagine a retooling at this point. Los Angeles can try leaning on the run game with Sony Michel. It can hope the other pick-ups for whom they mortgaged draft capital can make game-changing plays, as when cornerback Jalen Ramsey tipped a sensational interception to himself in the fourth quarter Sunday, with the score tied at 17.
Von Miller had five sacks in his past four games, too. Clearly, he can still torque around the end and disrupt an offense.Those trades are paying dividends.
The Stafford trade? We’ll see next week.
The Colts five-year plan combusted.
For Chris Ballard, Sunday’s regular-season finale was five years in the making. Over that time, Indianapolis’ general manager built a team that was purportedly ready to make the leap in 2021.
Ballard’s Colts teams had amassed a 32-32 record entering this season, and he had developed a reputation for drafting well, trading smartly and resisting overspending. This season’s team boasts a contender for MVP in running back Jonathan Taylor.
With one win over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts had a chance to enter the AFC postseason as absolutely the last team anyone would want to face.
Instead, the Colts laid an all-time egg, losing, 26-11.
The Colts had everything to play for. The Jaguars, amid yet another lost season and having ousted their head coach weeks ago, had nothing at stake save draft positioning. But the Jaguars prodded one of the most physical teams in the NFL for a full game and ultimately upended the AFC’s playoff standings.
With the loss and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh took the AFC’s seventh seed and the final wild-card spot went to the Las Vegas Raiders, who outlasted the Los Angeles Chargers 35-32 in overtime Sunday night.
In retrospect, this Buster Douglas-style upset wasn’t so unexpected. Indianapolis’ strange loss to the Raiders in Week 17 meant the Colts could not afford to rest their starters and would need the victory just to secure a playoff berth that, two weeks ago, had seemed assured.
The Jaguars usually play the Colts hard, having now beaten the Colts at home in every season since 2014, and must have relished the chance to ruin their division rival’s postseason attempt.
Then, there was the absence of former Jacksonville head coach Urban Meyer, who was fired Dec. 16. Without Meyer’s rudimentary play calls, Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall draft pick in April, had finally resembled the strong-armed quarterback who dominated college football, completing 23 of 32 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
However, don’t get it twisted. This game had been the Colts’ to lose.
After the Colts lost to the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round a year ago, veteran quarterback Philip Rivers retired and Ballard went all in by trading for Carson Wentz, who had commanded the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular season en route to their Super Bowl win to end the 2017 season.
Wentz has mainly been a caretaker this season, working off play-action and hitting the occasional deep throw. But Sunday, with the Jaguars holding Taylor to 77 yards on 15 carries, Wentz needed to be a playmaker. He took six sacks, lost a fumble and threw a pick against a Jacksonville defense that ranks as the second-worst unit in the NFL.
His worst mistake was a third-quarter fumble when, trailing 13-3, the Colts had an opportunity to restore some order to a chaotic game. On first-and-10 from the Indianapolis 38-yard line, blitzing linebacker Damien Wilson dinged Wentz for a loss of 9 yards, and Wentz couldn’t turtle atop the ball on his way down. He fumbled, Jacksonville tackle DaVon Hamilton recovered and, four plays later, the Jaguars extended their lead to 16-3 on Matthew Wright’s 39-yard field goal.
The Colts again had a chance to rally, this time from a 23-3 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Taylor was stuffed at the goal line by a horde of teal jerseys.
Now Ballard must sort the blame for this failure.
The Colts had been a choice underdog bet to sneak into the Super Bowl because of Taylor and their brawling defensive line, which Ballard built as a counter to the pass-oriented rosters compiled elsewhere. So many other defenses prop both safeties back in coverage to contain the backyard antics of quarterbacks such as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Arizona’s Kyler Murray and covet linebackers who hover in the light 230-to-235-pound range, all the better to drop back into pass coverage.
Up front, Quenton Nelson is unquestionably the best guard in football. This is also a defense that stole defensive tackle DeForest Buckner from San Francisco for a first-round pick. He has been worth every cent of his four-year, $84 million deal. It’s a defense also built around one of the best playmakers in the sport in linebacker Darius Leonard, who forced an NFL-high eight fumbles with four interceptions in 2021. Not to mention slot cornerback Kenny Moore, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound pinball who is easily one of the most underrated players in the sport.
Indianapolis dusted off some old-school football dogma by bludgeoning defenses with Taylor’s runs to dig itself out of a 1-4 hole early in the season. Taylor’s vision, power and speed had been unparalleled in wins over playoff-bound teams.
Against the Bills, Taylor had a 204-yard, five-touchdown masterpiece. When Bill Belichick stacked the New England Patriots’ line to slow him, Taylor still earned 170 yards, including a late 67-yard blast that ended New England’s seven-game win streak. And with the Colts down to what was essentially its second-string offensive line in December, Indianapolis stymied the Cardinals, 22-16.
And it was all for naught because Indianapolis couldn’t beat Jacksonville, the team with the worst record in the NFL.
That’s about as embarrassing as it gets.
No. 1 Tennessee Titans (12-5) — Bye
No. 2 Kansas City (12-5) vs. No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1), Sunday, 8:15 p.m., NBC
No. 3 Buffalo Bills (11-6) vs. No. 6 New England Patriots (10-7), Saturday, 8:15 p.m., CBS
No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals (10-7) vs. No. 5 Las Vegas Raiders (10-7), Saturday, 4:30 p.m., NBC
No. 1 Green Bay Packers (13-4) — Bye
No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4) vs. No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles (9-8), Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox
No. 3 Dallas Cowboys (12-5) vs. No. 6 San Francisco 49ers (10-7), Sunday, 4:30 p.m., CBS
No. 4 Los Angeles Rams (12-5) vs. No. 5 Arizona Cardinals (11-6), Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN and ABC
All times Eastern.
Around the NFL
Bills 27, Jets 10: Buffalo overcame some egregious punting in swirling winds to discard the Jets and win the AFC East for the second straight season. Devin Singletary scored two rushing touchdowns in the final nine minutes to break the game open in the fourth quarter, and the Bills continued to unleash Josh Allen as a runner: He has 341 rushing yards in his past five games.
Buccaneers 41, Panthers 17: Tampa Bay enjoyed a perfect tune up against Carolina. Tom Brady completed 29 of 37 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski, again Brady’s go-to target heading into the playoffs, looked as smooth as ever, posting 100 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since December 2017.
Dolphins 33, Patriots 24: Bill Belichick’s team is playing its worst football at the wrong time, with New England having dropped three of its final four games. Miami ran for 195 yards on 43 attempts, took a 24-10 lead, and forced Mac Jones to throw the Patriots back into the game, following the formula to beat New England. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combined for only 15 carries.
Saints 30, Falcons 20: This season might have been Sean Payton’s best coaching job since New Orleans’ Super Bowl season. Fielding what seemed at times to be a junior varsity team, Payton’s schemes kept the Saints in the playoff race, even as Taysom Hill left in the second quarter with a foot injury. Alvin Kamara’s 146 rushing yards powered the win and now New Orleans enters the offseason, once again, with little cap room and lots of personnel decisions to make.
Seahawks 38, Cardinals 30: Arizona stumbles into the postseason on four defeats in five games to end the regular season. Kyler Murray was sacked five times but should get DeAndre Hopkins back for the playoffs. Arizona’s main problems are on defense, where a unit that just stymied Dak Prescott and the pyrotechnic Cowboys in Week 17 had zero answer for Seattle running back Rashaad Penny, who polished off this game with a 62-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run and finished with 190 yards on 23 carries.
Steelers 16, Ravens 13: Immediate beneficiaries of the Colts’ loss, Pittsburgh earned the wild-card berth after the Chargers and Raiders didn’t play to a draw Sunday night. Mike Tomlin has gone 15 seasons without a losing record and the shell of Ben Roethlisberger was good enough to eke out nine wins. T.J. Watt tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record (22.5) and had three quarterback hits.
Browns 21, Bengals 16: With the AFC North locked up, Cincinnati (10-7) wisely sat its battered quarterback, Joe Burrow, and Cleveland was without Baker Mayfield. With little to play for, the Browns had 306 yards of offense mostly earned on the ground by D’Ernest Johnson, who had 123 rushing yards.
Lions 37, Packers 30: In one half, Aaron Rodgers was sharp with 138 yards and two touchdowns on 14 of 18 passing, a rhythm start that gave the offense a handful of reps before its first-round bye. After so many crushing losses, the Lions got a sweet win and unleashed a handful of trick plays. Detroit will probably continue to gut its roster in the offseason, but the team seems to have a budding star in receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who caught eight passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Titans 28, Texans 25: Despite Texans receiver Danny Amendola’s two late touchdown receptions, Tennessee clung to the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill threw four touchdowns, with no picks, in a reversal of his four-pick effort in a November loss to the Texans. With a first-round bye and Derrick Henry expected to return for the playoffs, the Titans have a phenomenal shot at reaching their first Super Bowl since the 1999 season.
Vikings 31, Bears 17: It’s abundantly clear at this point that Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins will take this Minnesota team only so far. A win over a rebuilding Bears team won’t mean much as the Vikings reassess their standing.
Football Team 22, Giants 7: On third-and-9, coach Joe Judge’s team decided to run a quarterback sneak with Jake Fromm that summed up the Giants’ season beautifully. Judge is now 10-23 in two seasons as a head coach. Historically, New York Giants co-owner John Mara prefers to simply reshuffle the front-office deck and hire familiar faces. Given how far the franchise has fallen, a complete fumigation might be in order.