During the final week of the regular season, some teams are playing for playoff spots or division titles. Some are playing for seeding. Others are playing for draft positioning. And some are simply waiting for their seasons to mercifully end (sorry Colts fans). A few teams don’t even seem to care what happens, as evidenced by Tampa Bay sitting Tom Brady after less than a half and saddling him with the first losing season of his career. Don’t talk about not caring with Marcus Davenport and D’Onta Foreman though. For the last full slate of games this season, here are my week 18 takeaways. Don’t worry; we’ll be back for the playoffs!
Saturday: Chiefs Clinch 1st-Round Bye; Jaguars Complete AFC South Comeback
Kansas City’s 31-13 drubbing of the Raiders was completely expected, so I won’t go into detail about that other than the fact that the NFL’s resolution regarding the Buffalo-Cincinnati game deprived the Bills of any opportunity to claim the #1 seed. The Chiefs really got the best end of that deal, Buffalo got somewhat screwed over, and the Bengals were given the worst of it. The other game of the Saturday double-header was the more interesting contest. Jacksonville and Tennessee both had win-and-in scenarios, with the victor earning the AFC South title and the 4 seed. There was one scenario in which the Jags could’ve squeaked in as a wild card with a loss, but it was a remote possibility and their true playoff opportunity was this game. In theory, the Jaguars’ win was axiomatic, as there’s almost always a team that goes from worst to first in their division.
Through 10 games, the Titans were 7-3 with a 3.5-game divisional lead, and Jacksonville was 3-7 and struggling. How things change! The Titans lost every remaining game, while the Jags dropped just 1. Divisional games are always tough though, and this one was hard-fought. Behind RB Derrick Henry (30/109) and a stout defense, Tennessee struck first with an FG and took a 13-7 lead to halftime. Jacksonville moved the ball well, but a fumble on a trick pitch play kept points off the board. Going up against the #2 rushing defense didn’t help either, with the Jags earning just 19 rushing yards on 14 carries. Trevor Lawrence (20/32, 212 yards, TD) was efficient if not perfect. The Titans need edge rushers badly, but the interior of the line led by Jeffery Simmons put pressure on Lawrence all night and forced him to miss some easy throws. The worst was a TD attempt to a wide open Zay Jones. As a result, despite not earning a sack until the 4th quarter, Tennessee led the whole game.
Up 16-13, the Titans were successfully running out the clock. However, with 3 minutes left, Rayshawn Jenkins stripped QB Joshua Dobbs of the ball, and Josh Allen returned it for a TD. That was the first lead of the night and the only one that mattered. Dobbs was unable to bring Tennessee back, and his team was eliminated. Credit coach Mike Vrabel for a great game plan and effort. He has extracted the most out of an injured team, but he didn’t have the firepower to win. Dobbs (20/29, 179 yards, TD, INT) played as well as one could expect for a QB on his 6th team that had been with the organization for 17 days. However, he isn’t a savior, and his mistakes really hurt the team (especially the fumble). I imagine that this game ends differently with Ryan Tannehill. Tennessee now enters the offseason with a GM vacancy and question marks under center and on the edge. The Jaguars have earned a home playoff game against the Chargers. After their meeting in week 3, this is a highly intriguing matchup.
Dolphins Salvage Season With 7 Seed; NE/PIT Come Up Short
Without both Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater, Dolphins’ HC Mike McDaniel was forced to rely on 7th-round rookie Skylar Thompson at QB. Let’s just say that he wasn’t Brock Purdy. Luckily for the Fins, the Jets’ offense fared no better. The two teams played a slog of a game, and neither team ever reached the end zone. Untimely penalties combined with strong defensive play on both sides to make this a slugfest. In the 4th quarter, the game was still tied 6-6, but one mistake gave Miami an opportunity. The Jets committed a horse collar tackle against Jaylen Waddle, putting Miami in FG range. K Jason Sanders exorcised many of his season’s demons by converting on the 50-yard kick. At that point, all they needed was for Buffalo to finish off New England.
The Bills did just that. Bill Belichick’s normally stout special teams allowed KR Nyheim Hines to return two kicks for TDs, including 1 on the first play of the game. QB Mac Jones threw 3 TDs, but he also threw 3 INTs. Buffalo also committed 3 turnovers, but they also made more big plays. The Patriots were very competitive in a 14-14 first half, but the Bills ran away in the second half and sent New England home. The defense gave them a chance all year long, but the offense continuously came up short. Belichick giving the reins of the offense to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge looks foolish in hindsight (and at the time for that matter). Jones regressed in his 2nd year, and the team kept making uncharacteristic mistakes. This never really looked like a playoff outfit, and they fittingly will not be one.
A similar situation occurred in Pittsburgh, where a championship-caliber defense did its best to carry a lackluster offense. Coach Mike Tomlin somehow still has not registered a losing season, with this year being perhaps his most impressive. The team went 7-2 once OLB TJ Watt returned from IR, and rookie QB Kenny Pickett steadily improved as the season went on. He never put up gaudy numbers in a game, but he came up clutch often late in games. I’m not sure that he has an extremely high ceiling, but his high floor has been proven true. That might be enough to take this team to the postseason in future seasons. However, the Steelers weren’t able to overcome their awful start in 2022. Next year will be key in telling us how bright this team’s prospects are.
Eagles Finally Clinch #1 Seed in NFC as Giants Don’t Play Anyone
I wondered coming into the week who the New York Giants wanted to hurt more: the Eagles or the Cowboys? With an assist from their own self-interests, the Giants chose Dallas. Locked into the 6 seed no matter what, NYG had nothing to gain or lose from their game against the Eagles. Thus, coach Brian Daboll understandably decided to sit QB Daniel Jones, RB Saquon Barkley, and anyone else notable. What might not sit so well with the Cowboys and Niners is that Daboll also sat most of his second-stringers. He trotted out Davis Webb, a practice squad call-up, at QB over backup Tyrod Taylor. Gary Brightwell was the starting RB. It had to be deflating for those two other teams to see the Eagles pitching a 16-0 shutout at halftime against a team that wasn’t trying.
While the decision makers seemed to be indifferent to the outcome, the players tried their hardest. Webb led a couple of nice drives and scored two TDs (1 passing and 1 rushing) without any turnovers. They just dug themselves too large a hole, and Philly hung on 22-16. That win gives the Eagles the division title that’s been in front of them for weeks. As an added bonus, they also earn the #1 seed and the home-field advantage and bye week that come with it. Dallas didn’t deserve the NFC East crown regardless based on their performance against Washington. I knew QB Sam Howell would look better than either Carson Wentz or Taylor Heinicke, but the Cowboys offense was unacceptable. Dak Prescott threw another pick 6 and only put up 6 points before giving way to Cooper Rush late in the 4th. Even if the Giants did them a favor, they’d be stuck in the 5 seed due to that loss.
San Francisco has a more legitimate gripe. They won yet again, and Brock Purdy threw 3 TDs. That’s SF’s 10th straight win, and they were actually first in line for the bye if the Eagles faltered. Perhaps they took their aggression against NYG out on the poor Cardinals, obliterating them with ease. If it’s any consolation, their Wild Card opponent is the Seahawks, who they’ve dominated recently. I fully expect the Niners to make it to the divisional round and possibly go further. Dallas is not inspiring confidence right now, but they’re talented and can play with anyone if they’re motivated. Philadelphia was smart to get Jalen Hurts some practice in his return from injury and keep him from getting rusty before the bye. We’ll see if they have what it takes in the playoffs, as they haven’t produced their best tape in the past several weeks. SF is certainly entering the tournament playing better football.
Seahawks Squeak Into NFC Playoffs With Help From Lions
Seattle wasn’t particularly happy that their game wasn’t scheduled at the same time as Detroit’s. Their reasoning was that a Seattle win would eliminate Detroit and possibly reduce their effort against Green Bay, who the Seahawks needed them to beat. Before any of that could matter though, the Seahawks had to take care of their own business against the Rams. It was not a pretty game. Geno Smith threw 2 pretty bad INTs, the running game was lackluster, and they allowed Cam Akers (21/104) to have his best rushing day of the season. Somehow, they found themselves down just 16-13 in the 4th while having 1st and goal at the 2. They couldn’t get in and had to kick a tying FG. On their final drive, Jason Myers missed a 46-yard game winning FG, sending the game to OT. Rams QB Baker Mayfield threw an INT during the extra period, and Myers redeemed himself with a 32-yard walk-off kick. Seattle then switched to scoreboard watching.
Green Bay had themselves in a great position: win against an eliminated Lions team and move on. Detroit coach Dan Campbell wasn’t lying down though, saying that he told his team “either we’re getting in or they aren’t”, with “they” referring to the Packers. This game wasn’t super exciting either, with the teams trading field goals and field goal misses. However, the Packers led just 9-6 at the half despite the Lions’ mistakes, allowing Detroit to hang around. RB Jamaal Williams scored twice for Detroit in the second half, with his second score breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing TD record (it was #17 for Williams). With a 20-16 lead, DC Aaron Glenn sent an all-out blitz, pressuring Aaron Rodgers into a terribly underthrown INT to S Kerby Joseph. The rookie out of Illinois has now picked Rodgers off 3 times this year, with another taken off the board due to a penalty.
Needing to run out the clock, Detroit ran creative plays (including a lateral!) and demonstrated excellent clock management, turning down an offside penalty to keep the clock moving. A gusty 4th and 1 pass from Jared Goff to DJ Chark moved the chains and iced the game, eliminating their hated rivals. I don’t think any of these 3 contenders for the 7 seed would do well against SF, but Detroit probably had the best chance (particularly out of the cold weather). The Packers reverted to the underachieving team from the first half of the season, with the offense looking labored and the defense making awful choices. The best example was LB Quay Walker shoving a Lions athletic trainer, earning a flag and an ejection. I think they’d still be playing though if Davante Adams were there. Seattle is the one who gets the chance to beat the 49ers, and they can take solace in the fact that it’s hard to beat a team 3x in one season. They’ll need to play much better than they did in their first two matchups though.
Bears Snag #1 Overall Pick Because Texas Tried Too Hard to Win
One of the questions that comes up each and every year is the following: do teams tank for draft picks? Let the 2022 Texans be your proof that coaches and players do not. GMs might secretly wish for better picks, but the people on the field play to win. Houston came dangerously close to beating both Dallas and Kansas City, and they did beat Tennessee. That has allowed the Bears to hang around in the #1 pick race as they have kept losing. In week 18, Chicago really committed to improving their pick. They kept QB Justin Fields out with a hip injury and went with a rotation of Nathan Peterman and Tim Boyle. Peterman is best known for his 5-INT meltdown in a single half for Buffalo. Boyle has proven that he is not an NFL QB for GB and Detroit.
With that in mind, nobody should be surprised that the Bears weren’t competitive against Minnesota. Thus, the #1 pick was theirs if the Texans could just find a way to beat the Colts. Indianapolis has been playing horribly and went back to Sam Ehlinger at QB. Fans probably knew how this was going to end. Houston jumped out to a 17-7 lead in the first half behind QB Davis Mills’ best half of football this season and a strong defensive effort. In the second half, it felt like someone told Lovie Smith’s team to quit trying. Mills threw an ugly pick six and then another INT. The defense looked tired and let the Colts storm back to take a late 31-24 lead. The Texans refused to yield. WR Brandin Cooks made a spectacular catch to convert a 4th and 12 with 1:19 to go. Later, on 4th and 20, Mills heaved a 28-yard prayer that TE Jordan Akins caught for a TD. Overtime was on its way!
Or not. Lovie Smith called a 2-point play, and Mills hit Akins again for a 32-31 lead. The defense held off Indianapolis for the final 50 seconds, and just like that, Houston fell to #2 in the draft. I respect what they did. It’s hard to tell professionals to lose on purpose. From their perspective, why would they? Take Mills for example. Why should he help the organization earn a #1 pick that would undoubtedly be used on his replacement? If you’re Smith, and people are talking about you being fired after one season, why would you help the next regime instead of putting the best product possible on the field? The answer to both questions is: you don’t. It’s a conflict of interest, but it’s one that isn’t really a conflict for those who decide the outcome. The integrity of the game is rarely in question for this very reason, and I salute Houston for keeping it that way.