What we learned from Week 18 in the NFL
Buffalo Bills fans with signs emblazoned with hearts and the No. 3 to honor Damar Hamlin, the Bills safety who suffered a cardiac arrest in a game on Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, at the game on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, against the New England Patriots in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Brendan Bannon/The New York Times)
By DERRIK KLASSEN
This year’s Week 18 was bigger than last-second playoff berths. It was a rally for Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest on the field Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals. Teams across the NFL gave Hamlin their support throughout the week, from little gestures on social media to heartfelt messages from coaches and players.
Last week, with the regular season coming to a close, was a reminder that it’s the people who make the games worth it.
The Dolphins and Jaguars stepped up in the AFC.
It took until the final day of the regular season, but the dust finally settled on a wild AFC playoff race. Heading into the weekend, two spots were left: the AFC South division title and the third wild-card slot. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers all had chances under the right conditions.
In the wild-card race among Miami, New England and Pittsburgh, the Dolphins got some help to take the final spot. They beat the New York Jets, 11-6, and they needed the Patriots to lose to the Bills, who won, 35-23.
The Patriots have been steady in their struggle for offense and the Steelers ramped up at season’s end. The Dolphins’ record was marked by streaks caused by injuries to both quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa and backup Teddy Bridgewater, leading to the rookie seventh-round pick Skylar Thompson seeing far more playing time than anyone envisioned. Still, Miami’s peak was higher than the also-rans and, as the No. 7 seed, the Dolphins could be a scary opponent for the division-rival Bills in the first round.
In the AFC South battle, Jacksonville beat Tennessee, 20-16, on Saturday to join the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo and Cincinnati as division winners and hosts of at least one playoff game. With the No. 4 seed, the Jaguars will face the Los Angeles Chargers in the playoffs’ opening weekend.
For the Jaguars to get there in Year 1 of the Doug Pederson era, after the chaos wrought by former coach Urban Meyer, is a miracle. Pederson turned second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence into a legitimate star, and the defense, though inconsistent, has the talent upfront to be a nuisance from time to time. They’re not a Super Bowl-caliber team just yet, but to be in the dance at all has to feel like vindication.
For the wild-card round, the best part may be not who got in, but who they each have to face. All three AFC games are rematches: The games between the second and seventh seeds (Bills-Dolphins) and the third and sixth seeds (Bengals-Baltimore Ravens) are both divisional matchups, and both series are split 1-1 this year. The fifth-seed Chargers also get a chance at revenge against the fourth-seed Jaguars, who pulled off a Week 3 upset of Los Angeles. Those kinds of rematches in a playoff environment are ripe for some funky one-off game plans that tilt the result one way or the other.
Around the NFL
Lions 20, Packers 16: The Packers fell apart in the fourth quarter after linebacker Quay Walker got himself ejected for shoving a Lions trainer. The mistake gave Detroit a first-and-goal and was the start of an ugly snowball. Not only did the Lions score after Walker left, but Rodgers threw away the team’s playoff chances on the ensuing drive. On yet another target for rookie receiver Christian Watson deep down the sideline, Rodgers gave the ball too much hang time and Lions safety Kerby Joseph made him pay. The Lions called a screen-and-lateral play on their next and final possession. The trick play sent Detroit from second-and-17 to third-and-3, allowing the Lions to set up an easy fourth-down conversion and run out the clock.
Seahawks 19, Rams 16 (OT): True to form, the Seahawks brought it down to the wire in a game with their playoff hopes on the line. Seattle quarterback Geno Smith had a roller-coaster evening, pinging between ill-timed interceptions and beautiful downfield throws to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. In the end, it was enough. Rams quarterback Baker Mayfield threw an arm punt of an interception early in overtime, setting up the Seahawks to cruise into field-goal range and take home the win.
Broncos 31, Chargers 28: Although Chargers coach Brandon Staley played all his starters in a meaningless game, they still couldn’t beat a putrid Broncos roster. The Chargers even let Russell Wilson throw three touchdown passes for only the second time all season.
Commanders 26, Cowboys 6: The Cowboys started and ended the regular season with their two worst performances. Against the Commanders, quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense shrank. Prescott was uncharacteristically inaccurate and, at a certain point, started jamming in throws he normally wouldn’t try. That gave the Washington offense plenty of chances. Commanders rookie quarterback Sam Howell played admirably, showing great success on downfield throws, a specialty of his at the University of North Carolina.
Eagles 22, Giants 16: The first-seeded Eagles allowed a Giants team quarterbacked by Davis Webb to stay around a bit too close for comfort. Webb was terrible, but he did avoid throwing any interceptions, which allowed the Giants’ rushing attack to slow the game down and put some points up. The real issue for the Eagles came on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Jalen Hurts returned to action, but it wasn’t triumphant; he showed less comfort outside the pocket than usual.
49ers 38, Cardinals 13: The 49ers’ offense ran every which way on the Cardinals’ undisciplined front. Four players earned at least five carries, and three of them had at least one run break for more than 10 yards. The David Blough-led Arizona offense stood no shot of matching the 49ers’ firepower, especially not against San Francisco’s fierce front seven. Blough and backup quarterback Trace McSorley combined for three picks.
Bengals 27, Ravens 16: The Ravens sacrificed a chance at better playoff seeding to rest their key players for the wild-card round. Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley both stayed on the sideline, giving way to the undrafted rookie Anthony Brown. The Bengals terrorized him for most of the affair, resulting in Brown completing less than half his passes and tossing two interceptions. It didn’t take much from the Bengals’ offense to outscore the Ravens under those conditions, but Joe Burrow went above and beyond to make difficult throws under pressure and leave no doubt.
Bills 35, Patriots 23: There aren’t many times two kick-return touchdowns are the difference in a game, but that was the case here. Bills running back Nyheim Hines took back the opening kickoff for a score, giving the team a jolt after a long and difficult week. Hines didn’t stop there, eventually returning another kickoff for 6 points in the middle of the third quarter. His second return and the extra point put the Bills up by 21-17 and were the final lead change of the game, handing the Patriots a loss that dropped them out of the playoffs.
Dolphins 11, Jets 6: A Week 18 game with Skylar Thompson and Joe Flacco playing quarterback, in which one of the teams has no chance to make the playoffs, went exactly like you would expect. Both offenses struggled to move the ball save for a handful of special plays here and there, including Jets receiver Garrett Wilson’s 36-yard tackle-breaking extravaganza late in the second quarter. The Dolphins squeaked by in the end, though, and snagged the AFC’s final wild-card berth.
Falcons 30, Buccaneers 17: In terms of playoff implications, this game meant nothing. Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady started the game, but he eventually stepped aside and took a seat on the bench — but not until after he broke the NFL’s single-season completion record. The Atlanta Falcons had nothing to play for either, but they at least saw some flashes from their young players on offense. Running back Tyler Allgeier ran hard, quarterback Desmond Ridder once again improved on his previous performance and receiver Drake London snagged a tough 50-50 ball down the field in the second half.
Panthers 10, Saints 7: Neither team could make the playoffs, and it showed. Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold struggled mightily, ending the game 5 of 15 for 43 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns. Darnold was lucky to have the run game supporting him, as well as a defense that remained stout. The New Orleans Saints’ offense moved the ball efficiently until third downs, when they converted on just 4 of 13 opportunities.
Steelers 28, Browns 14: There’s no constant in the NFL like Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin finishing a season at or above .500. Sadly for the Steelers, a 9-8 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs this year, although Tomlin’s crew still fought valiantly on Sunday. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett made a few inspired plays outside the pocket, although he was inconsistent overall. The Pittsburgh pass-rushing unit stepped up, sacking Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson seven times and completely derailing any chance he had at getting into a rhythm.
Texans 32, Colts 31: The Texans enthusiastically threw away the first overall pick in the 2023 draft with this win. A fumble-filled brawl between two bottom-feeders, the game was decided by two miraculous Davis Mills throws and a gutsy 2-point conversion. Mills converted on a late fourth-and-18 and launched a ball on a fourth-and-20 into the end zone for what could have been the game-tying score. The Texans didn’t want overtime, though, forgoing the extra point and going for 2 — and they took the lead right then and there with 50 seconds to go.
Vikings 29, Bears 13: The Bears started Nathan Peterman at quarterback, briefly gave the keys over to backup Tim Boyle, then let Peterman play again. That’s about all there is to know about how lifeless and sloppy this game was. The Vikings also played only one half of real football, resting their starters after easing their way into a 16-6 lead, thanks largely to quarterback Kirk Cousins and the passing game. Most important, the Bears’ loss secured them the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft.