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. Finally, teams like the Rams, Ravens, Niners, Chiefs, and Browns, whose seeds are already secure, played almost no starters for their protection. Individual players, even those on eliminated teams, worked to secure valuable contract incentives or team/league records. For the last full slate of games this season, here are my (overstuffed) week 18 takeaways. Don’t worry; we’ll be back for the playoffs!
Saturday: PIT Reaches 10 Wins, Texans Beat Colts in Playoff-Like Game
Pittsburgh knew their task: win and have Buffalo or Jacksonville lose. A loss wouldn’t have immediately eliminated the Steelers, but their chances would’ve been very poor. Luckily for them, Baltimore decided to rest almost every one of its key players (except DE Jadeveon Clowney, who very much wanted his sack incentive). That doesn’t mean the game was easy. The Ravens had Pro Bowl QB Tyler Huntley starting for them (seriously…how was this guy in the Pro Bowl no matter how many injuries the AFC had last year?), and Pittsburgh can still be offensively challenged. The weather (cold, windy, and rainy) was also a major issue.
Due to the conditions (I assume), the teams combined for 8 fumbles (4 lost), with the Steelers responsible for 6 of them (2 lost). QB Mason Rudolph (18/20, 152 yards, TD), who has provided a spark the last 2 weeks, was accurate but did next to nothing. Half of his production came on one nice 71-yard TD to WR Diontae Johnson that gave the Steelers the lead early in the 4th quarter. The run game was excellent, with Najee Harris (26/112/1) leading the way and refusing to go down on first contact. Oddly, WR George Pickens had 0 targets and just 1 touch (a 3-yard end around).
Baltimore cut the lead to 17-10, but with the we field, an onside kick was never realistic. The only truly bad news to come out of the game for the Steelers was an MCL sprain suffered by elite OLB TJ Watt. He had 2 sacks prior to his departure, reaching 19 on the season. That league-leading total gave him his 2nd season with 19+ sacks. Only one another player can say the same: his brother JJ. The sprain likely keeps Watt out next week at Buffalo, which is huge. On a general note, with Cincinnati’s win, the entire AFC North finished above .500. That hasn’t been done by a division since the 1935 NFL West. Best division ever?
With Pittsburgh’s win earlier in the day, the stakes were very clear for the second game of Saturday’s double-header: win and get in, lose and go home. The Colts started things off with a good opening drive, but it stalled and ended with a field goal. Houston got its turn, and they didn’t waste a second. On their first play, QB CJ Stroud used play action and hit WR Nico Collins for a 75-yard TD bomb. Collins (9/195/1) has had a great year, and he has been especially good since Tank Dell broke his leg. Contrary to the early fireworks, the scoring greatly slowed, as the teams followed the two scores with 7 consecutive punts.
The Texans took control following Stroud’s second TD pass. In the 3rd quarter, the Colts decided to ride RB Jonathan Taylor, and it worked. Taylor wanted a big contract, and he got one for games like this. His 49-yard TD blast tied the game, and he took 30 carries for 188 yards. He was easily the best player on the field. Which is why it was so surprising that with a 23-17 deficit with 1:06 left and the Colts facing a 4th and 1, they took Taylor off the field. Instead, Indy called timeout (ensuring they couldn’t get the ball back again) and schemed a throw to RB3 Tyler Goodson. He dropped, the ball, and the Colts went home.
Why wouldn’t you use Taylor or even quality RB2 Zack Moss there? HC Shane Steichen did great in his first year, but that call may haunt him for a while. Especially since a win would’ve clinched the division given what happened with Jacksonville (see below). QB Gardner Minshew (13/24, 141 yards) wasn’t at his best, but Stroud (20/26, 264 yards, 2 TDs). He and rookie HC DeMeco Ryans have changed this entire franchise, continuing the streak of seasons with at least 1 team going worst-to-first in their division. Stroud is a shoo-in for OROY in spite of Rams WR Puka Nacua‘s record-breaking season. Ryans may win coach of the year too.
Jags’ Collapse Puts PIT, BUF in Playoffs; Bills Didn’t Need the Help
Following an 8-3 start, Jacksonville looked to be in firm control of the AFC South. A shoulder injury to QB Trevor Lawrence and some bad football later, the Jaguars found themselves in a win or go home situation due to Houston’s victory the prior evening. Fortunately for them, all they had to do was beat a banged-up and struggling Titans team. Even that task proved too arduous. In fact, they only led for a few minutes in the second quarter. Lawrence (29/43, 280 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) seems to drop his level more than anyone else when injured. The gap between his best and his injured self is alarming.
In his defense, one of his INTs was a pure drop by TE Evan Engram. Defensively, the Jaguars could not stop Titans RB Derrick Henry (19/153/1). In what may have been his final game in Tennessee, Henry moved the offense and churned the clock, limiting Jacksonville possessions. This is really the end of an area for the Titans, as QB Ryan Tannehill (17/26, 168, 2 TDs, INT) almost certainly played his last snap for the franchise. Will HC Mike Vrabel return? He’s an excellent coach, and on one play, WR Kyle Philips was pushed in a pile for 4 extra yards and a first down. That told me how this team fights for him. I say he should stay.
The goal-line failure that cost Jacksonville the game was a disaster. Down 28-20, the Jaguars had 3rd and goal at the 1. Lawrence threw the ball away on a poor play call. Then, on 4th down, he tried to jump over the top but came up short. Lawrence missed Engram on the following (and final) possession, kicking his team out of the playoffs. That gave Houston the division crown while also clinching playoff spots for Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The Steelers needed the Jaguars to lose to make the postseason. However, Buffalo ended up requiring nothing at all from Jacksonville because…
Bills Swipe AFC East from Decimated Dolphins
I’m a bit conflicted about this Sunday Night Football finale. On the one hand, it was pretty entertaining. On the other hand, it was a pretty poorly-played contest. Buffalo was rather terrible in the first half. QB Josh Allen threw 2 INTs under pressure; both passes were thrown up for grabs. Their only offensive TD in the first 2 quarters was pure luck, with a pass bouncing off of a lineman’s helmet and into the arms of WR Trent Sherfield. Buffalo’s final drive before the half looked promising, but Allen threw a ball to RB Ty Johnson short of the goal line, and he was tackled at the 1. The half ended without Buffalo scoring on the possession.
The only reason this was even a contest was because Miami had so many injuries. CB Xavien Howard, RB Raheem Mostert, and WR Jaylen Waddle were ruled out before the game. DEs Bradley Chubb and Jaelen Phillips went on IR in the past few weeks. S Jevon Holland and LB Jerome Baker played hurt, while S DeShon Elliott injured his calf during warm-ups. That list doesn’t even include the players who got hurt during the game. For some reason, Buffalo always injures Dolphin players. OLB Andrew Van Ginkel left with a foot injury, and his replacement Cameron Goode was carted off with a cast on his leg.
It felt impossible for Miami to win with half of their team out, but they still led into the 4th quarter. Bills RB James Cook dropped a TD, and Allen was strip sacked by DT Christian Wilkins dropped TD by Cook. The Dolphin offense stalled though, and they only led 14-7. The game changed on Goode’s injury. It came during punt coverage; Goode went down and took out FB Alec Ingold in the process. That left a gaping hole, which Deonte Harty exploited for a 96-yard punt return TD that tied the game. With momentum on their side, the Bills scored once again and won 21-14 as their defense stiffened.
Aside from the injuries, mistakes also affected Miami. For all his great play, WR Tyreek Hill dropped at least 3 passes that would’ve extended drives. Instead, the ball went back quickly to Buffalo. CBs Eli Apple and Kader Kohou were burned in coverage, letting Allen complete 30/38 passes for 358 yards and 2 TDs to compensate for his turnovers. Allen also led the Bills in rushing with 67 yards due to Miami’s worst offense: missed tackles. The collapse against Tennessee really came back to bite Miami; without it, this game wouldn’t have mattered. Instead, they lose the AFC East and have to go on the road to Arrowhead. Given the damaged roster, good luck.
Bucs Meekly Clinch NFC South, Cowboys Dominate for NFC East Crown
Tampa Bay received a mulligan after their no-show against New Orleans last week. Still facing a win-and-in proposition for their 3rd straight NFC South title, the assignment this time was much easier: just beat the league-worst Carolina Panthers. That’s hard to do when you score 0 TDs. QB Baker Mayfield, clearly still injured, threw for just 137 yards. RB Rachaad White (19/75) put up a respectable effort, but this was anything but a high-powered offense. The defense had to pick up the slack, and that’s the part where playing against Carolina was so fortuitous. Shut out last week, Carolina had a low bar to clear to be better this time. And they still stumbled!
QB Bryce Young, who I remind you once again was the #1 pick in 2023 and cost Carolina the #1 pick in 2024, hasn’t looked much worse. The rest of the season has been trying, but he threw for only 94 yards and couldn’t score a single point AGAIN. This is the second team ever to be shut out twice in a row (the 2008 Browns were the first). He didn’t get help when WR DJ Chark fumbled a sure TD into the end zone for a touchback, but he lost a fumble himself and looked completely lost. Tampa’s 3 measly field goals were enough to beat Carolina, but their playoffs will be short if they can’t muster anything better.
Over in the NFC East, Dallas needed a win over lowly Washington or an Eagles loss against the similarly weak Giants. Surprisingly, both of those things happened. After a shaky start in which K Brandon Aubrey missed his first career FG (a block by a free rusher) and QB Dak Prescott threw an INT, Dallas trailed 10-7. It got me wondering if the Cowboys could really blow a game against a 4-11 team, even on the road where they’re notably worse. Those thoughts were buried almost immediately. Dallas rattled off the final 31 points of the game, Prescott threw 4 TDs, and the only thing that went wrong was another Aubrey FG miss.
Meanwhile, the Eagles were busy laying a massive egg. Perhaps foreshadowed by a tighter-than-expected contest against the Giants 2 weeks ago, Philadelphia continued to look poor. They were 1-4 in their prior 5 games, and they somehow looked worse in this one. QB Jalen Hurts had an injury scare but returned; however, he threw an INT and scored no points before giving way to backup Marcus Mariota once it was clear that Dallas would win. WR AJ Brown DID leave injured, but it may not be serious. I hope that’s the case. By the time Hurts exited, the Giants were up 24-0.
The Eagles defense is still concerning, though they might not have too much to fear against Tampa. However, I’ve never seen this team look so vulnerable under coach Nick Sirianni. These results extended the streak of not having repeat winners in the NFC East, and Philly must now go on the road for the playoffs. That might be irrelevant if the Eagles play this poorly. The bigger deal is that Dallas nabbed the 2 seed. We know that they play much better in Jerry World than at other stadiums, so their playoff run could continue until they play a road game. That would be either against the Niners or in the Super Bowl.
Packers Seize NFC’s Last Wild Card Despite Wins by NO and SEA
The order of priority in the NFC (due to tiebreakers) went Green Bay, then Seattle, and finally New Orleans. Playing in the 1:00 window, the Saints had to win regardless of their long odds because they didn’t know what the other two teams would do. Reaching halftime tied 17-17 against Atlanta, New Orleans exploded in the second half. They added 31 unanswered points (including 7 that weren’t exactly wanted by anyone not on the field), and Derek Carr threw 4 TDs in his best performance as a Saint. It was such domination that the Falcons fired their coach tonight! I’ll grade that move tomorrow.
In the clubhouse at 9-8, the Saints then had to watch the Seahawks and Packers play the Cardinals and Bears, respectively. Those two games were concurrent. Arizona upset Dallas and Philly this year, so that could’ve been a trap game for Seattle. It nearly was! The two teams were tight for most of the contest until the Cardinals took their first lead in the 4th quarter. Up 20-13, K Matt Prater missed a 43-yard FG, and Seattle subsequently scored. They went for 2 because they knew they were already eliminated at that point and got it. Prater missed again from 51 yards, handing Seattle the feel-good but inconsequential win.
These two games ended up not mattering for anything other than draft positioning. That’s because the Packers were the one team in control of their own destiny. All that stood between them and the 7 seed (the 6 seed was available until the Rams won) was a Bears team that Green Bay owns. Still, this game wasn’t a projected cakewalk given that Chicago has looked much better of late. Well, some things don’t change. The Bears couldn’t score a TD, managing to earn just 3 field goals. Green Bay’s infamous run defense held Chicago to 3 yards per carry, while the offense did just enough.
QB Jordan Love has had an excellent second half, and his best game was this one. He went 27/32 for 316 yards and 2 TDs, hitting up-and-coming star WR Jayden Reed 4 times for 112 of those yards. Having RB Aaron Jones (22/111, 30 receiving yards) back has made a massive difference, but the Packers have their work cut out for them in Dallas. Today’s outcomes have given us 6 new playoff teams (PIT/GB/LAR/DET/HOU/CLE) who didn’t make the dance last year. We normally have at least 5, so that’s another trend continued. It’s another demonstration of parity in the NFL, and I know the league wouldn’t have it any other way.
To Rest or Not to Rest? Should Starters Play in “Meaningless” Games?
I put the word “meaningless” in quotes because it’s very rare for a game to actually mean nothing at all to a team or its players. These guys are competitors, they have pride, and they might have personal goals to achieve. The situation I’m talking about here is the one in which a team cannot change their playoff fate and can only shift by a single seed or less. Different coaches handle these scenarios VERY differently. For example, Rams HC Sean McVay always rests his starters in week 18 if a playoff spot or division title is not in doubt. This year, LA could’ve fallen to the 7 seed, but their backups beat SF’s backups to keep them at #6.
The opposite situation was demonstrated by the Detroit Lions, where coach Dan Campbell played all of his starters for the entire game. Detroit could not have fallen below the 3 seed, and their only chance at the 2 seed came with unlikely losses by Dallas and Philadelphia. As you saw above, the Cowboys took the 2 seed for themselves, so the Lions risked their starters for basically nothing. And I really mean “risked” here, since two players left the game injured and are in jeopardy of missing Wild Card Weekend. Star rookie TE Sam LaPorta hyperextended his knee, while WR/returner Kalif Raymond injured his knee as well.
The argument against resting players usually has to do with rust. A couple of years ago, Baltimore had the #1 seed just like they do now. They rested their starters, but the team came off its bye week completely flat and lost. HC John Harbaugh did the same thing again this year but believes his team has learned from that letdown. His reason for doing it makes sense: a player that isn’t in the game can’t get hurt. In next week’s game against the Rams, Detroit might really miss LaPorta. Conversely, maybe the Chiefs feel great about keeping QB Patrick Mahomes safe. There’s no wrong answer…unless the team in question loses the next game.