What We Learned From Week 18 in the N.F.L. – The New York Times
The Dolphins grabbed the last playoff spot in the A.F.C., the Cowboys stumbled on their way into the postseason, and Tom Brady broke his own record for pass completions.
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By Derrik Klassen
This year’s Week 18 was bigger than last-second playoff berths. It was a rally for Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest on the field Monday night against the Bengals. Teams across the N.F.L. gave Hamlin their support throughout the week, from little gestures on social media to heartfelt messages from coaches and players.
This week, with the regular season coming to a close, was a reminder that it’s the people who make the games worth it.
It took until the final day of the regular season, but the dust finally settled on a wild A.F.C. playoff race. Heading into the weekend, two spots were left: the A.F.C. South division title and the third wild-card slot. The Jaguars, Titans, Dolphins, Patriots and 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 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 the 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 A.F.C. South battle, Jacksonville beat Tennessee, 20-16, on Saturday to join Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati as division winners and hosts of at least one playoff game. With the No. 4 seed, the Jaguars will face the 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 the former Coach Urban Meyer, is a miracle. Pederson turned the second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence into a legitimate star, and the defense, though inconsistent, has the talent up front 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 A.F.C. games are rematches: The games between the second and seventh seeds (Bills-Dolphins) and the third and sixth seeds (Bengals-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.
Week 18 in the N.F.C. had a little of everything. There was a conference favorite crushing a division rival, another going down to the wire to hold onto the top seed, and another completely melting down and playing its worst game of the season.
Both N.F.C. East powerhouses faltered, one much more comically than the other. The Eagles held onto their top seed, but only by a smidgen, in a 22-16 win over the Giants. Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts returned to the lineup from injury only to be blitzed nonstop. Without right tackle Lane Johnson to help protect Hurts, the Eagles saw the Giants’ blitzes regularly get home and throw a wrench in a number of Philly’s drives.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, imploded. They had a slight chance to win the N.F.C. East, needing to beat the Commanders and the Eagles to lose to the Giants. But the Cowboys couldn’t even hold up their end of the bargain, losing 26-6 and settling for the fifth seed. Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense never got off the ground, and Prescott produced his worst game of the season at the worst time. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ defense let a Sam Howell-led Commanders’ offense hit a number of chunk plays and move the ball consistently.
The 49ers were the division-rival crushers, easily handling a zoned-out Cardinals team, 38-13. A heavy dose of San Francisco’s run game opened up throws for the rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, presenting him with plenty of favorable down-and-distance situations and a few well-designed shot plays. Getting another clean game from him has to feel good for the second-seeded 49ers, especially given how the rest of the N.F.C. contenders played.
As for the three-team race for the final wild-card spot, the Seahawks did their part toward getting into the playoffs. Heading into the night game between the Lions and Packers, the Seahawks held the seventh seed after squeezing past the Rams, 19-16, in overtime.
With nothing to play for themselves, the Lions mustered up the motivation to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field and keep them out of the playoffs. The Packers collapsed in the final quarter, seeing the rookie linebacker Quay Walker get ejected for pushing a member of the Lions’ medical staff and quarterback Aaron Rodgers throw an interception.
The Seahawks get to hold onto the seventh seed in the N.F.C. after the Packers’ loss, earning them a playoff bid nobody would have seen coming after the Russell Wilson trade.
The Seahawks aren’t as scary a team as they were, say, six weeks ago, but there’s still the possibility of quarterback Geno Smith heating up for stretches and making some division winner play in a shootout. The Seahawks will face the division-rival 49ers in the wild-card round on Saturday.
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady made N.F.L. history on Sunday for the nth time in his career. After completing 13 passes against the Falcons (before being pulled in a meaningless game), Brady now holds the record for most completions in a single season, with 490. That’s five more than the previous record held, of course, by Brady, who set it in the 2021 season, in the newly added 17th game. Drew Brees seasons make up the next three spots on the list.
Brady’s latest record was a product of necessity. The Buccaneers’ offense was not as stable in certain areas as it was last season.
The Bucs replaced both offensive guards in the off-season, slightly downgrading the talent level as well as stripping away any chemistry that part of the unit had. Worse than that, the All-Pro center Ryan Jensen has missed the entire year with a knee injury. Jensen was an exceptional blocker in both rushing and pass protection and helped Brady with pre-snap scanning. That doesn’t even begin to hit on the other injuries Tampa Bay has faced on the offensive line, including to tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs.
The run game was also worse this season. After averaging 4.3 yards per carry last season, the Bucs earned just 3.4 yards per carry this season. The offensive line struggled to move people the way it did a year ago, and running back Leonard Fournette looked sapped of some of his juice.
Both of those factors forced the Bucs to employ a pass-heavy offense, but one that was usually well behind the sticks and couldn’t protect Brady long enough for deep shots. Brady had to fully take over as a surgeon in the short-to-intermediate area, getting down the field little by little just to stay in games. It’s not the place any offense wants to be, but when led by Brady, 45, it’s a formula that can be enough. And it was, at least as far as winning the N.F.C. South goes.
Once the Ravens fell to the Bengals in the afternoon, the Chargers were locked into the fifth seed in the A.F.C. and no longer had any seeding considerations in their game against the Broncos. This should have been more or less a glorified scrimmage, an opportunity for Los Angeles to rest its starters and get a good look at some role players.
But Chargers Coach Brandon Staley — who regularly holds starters out of preseason games — decided to treat this unserious affair with the importance of a playoff game. Everyone in the typical starting lineup played just about the entire game, or as much of it as they could. That included quarterback Justin Herbert, linebacker Joey Bosa and receiver Mike Williams, star players who have dealt with injuries at some point this season. Despite the starters’ presence, the Chargers lost, 31-28.
Herbert took a number of shots from a fierce Broncos front four. He was unscathed, but there was no reason to let him take those hits in a meaningless game. And though Herbert was able to finish the game fairly comfortably, Staley paid the price for playing Williams and Bosa.
Williams injured his back late in the second quarter; he was able to walk to the sideline before being carted to the locker room. The injury seemed minor, but there’s no telling just yet how it might affect next week’s road playoff game against the Jaguars. The Chargers’ offense desperately needs Williams’s jump-ball ability to stay on schedule.
The most egregious inclusion in the starting lineup was Bosa. A star pass rusher, Bosa was activated only last week after missing most of the season with a groin injury. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that Bosa could have used a few reps to get back to game speed, but that acclimation isn’t worth the injury risk. Like Williams, Bosa limped off the field during this game and never came back. It’s not clear yet what Bosa aggravated or how much it will hurt him next week, but again, it was a risk not at all worth taking.
The Houston Texans walked into Week 18 with the worst record in the league at 2-13-1, setting them up to claim the first overall pick in the 2023 draft. Coach Lovie Smith, promoted from defensive coordinator last off-season under unusual circumstances, turned out to have been coaching his last game with the organization. The franchise could have secured the No. 1 pick, taken a quarterback and set sail into a new era of Texans football, largely with new personnel. But Smith and his players had a different plan in mind.
The Texans battled all game long against the Colts on Sunday. They held a lead for most of the game but lost the thread at the end, falling behind by 31-24 in the fourth quarter. The “right” thing to do, from the front office’s perspective, would be to let the game stay out of reach, but clearly none of the players felt that way.
Quarterback Davis Mills strung together a couple of miracle throws during a drive over 2 minutes 43 seconds, lobbing a prayer on fourth-and-20 to score a touchdown with 50 seconds left. The Texans successfully went straight for the finish with a 2-point conversion that gave them the 32-31 win — and the second overall pick, behind the Chicago Bears, who lost to the Vikings on Sunday.
With the first pick, the Texans could have grabbed the quarterback of their choice from a group that includes Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud unimpeded. Now, the Bears have that choice.
On the one hand, the Bears don’t necessarily need a quarterback. They can stick it out with the uber-talented Justin Fields for another year. But plenty of other teams would surely like to take a swing on a quarterback, and the Bears could hold the first pick for a king’s ransom and put the Texans in danger of losing out on who they want.
Nobody wants to settle for their second choice when it comes to drafting quarterbacks, but that’s where the Texans might be. It’s the same place the Jets were two years ago when they won meaningless Week 15 and Week 16 games to lose the right to draft Trevor Lawrence. There’s no clear star like Lawrence in this class, and the Texans may end up with their guy anyway, but now the off-season comes with all sorts of headaches.
Lions 20, Packers 16: The Packers fell apart in the fourth quarter after linebacker Quay Walker got himself ejected in the fourth quarter 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 the 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 wind out the clock.
Seahawks 19, Rams 16 (Overtime): 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: Though 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. The 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 the 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, like 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 A.F.C.’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 — though not until after he broke the N.F.L.’s single-season completion record. The 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. 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 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 N.F.L. 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, though Tomlin’s crew still fought valiantly on Sunday. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett made a few inspired plays outside the pocket, though he was inconsistent overall. The Pittsburgh pass-rushing unit stepped up, sacking 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 for the 2-point attempt, 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.
Kansas City 31, Raiders 13: Kansas City cruised right through Las Vegas to finish the regular season. Its front seven, led by the star defensive tackle Chris Jones, had an uncharacteristically great day against the run. To slow down Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, Kansas City loaded the box, a strategy that resulted in a lot of long down-and-distance plays for Las Vegas quarterback Jarrett Stidham. That defensive performance paired with quarterback Patrick Mahomes’s usual offensive greatness made for a straightforward affair.
Jaguars 20, Titans 16: After quarterback Trevor Lawrence carried Jacksonville over the back half of the season, its defense paid its debt to him in this game. Lawrence had an up-and-down night — natural for a young player in his first professional playoff-ish game. But after the Jaguars’ defense allowed a field goal to open the second half, it held the Titans to a punt, a turnover or a turnover on downs on five straight possessions. That stingy run included a strip sack that defensive end Josh Allen scooped up and returned for a touchdown with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter. That score made the difference between the Jagua.