One week to go in the NFL season, and still so much to sort out. The 49ers and Ravens claimed the top seeds in both conferences, four divisions have been clinched, and nine playoff spots have been secured. That leaves four division titles and five playoff spots unsettled heading into Week 18. Eight games next weekend will have a bearing on either who makes the playoffs or who wins a division. Here is what to know.
It’s win and in for the Packers — again. Everything has changed in Green Bay over the past year, and yet the Packers’ first regular season with Jordan Love will end in eerily identical fashion to their final regular season with Aaron Rodgers. They only need to win in Week 18 to make the playoffs, and their opponent is a divisional rival eliminated from playoff contention but entering as one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
The Packers put themselves in position to make the playoffs with a 33-10 victory Sunday night over the Vikings, built on the ineptitude of Vikings rookie quarterback Jaren Hall and an out-of-nowhere, 105-receiving yard game from Bo Melton, a 2022 seventh-round pick of the Seahawks who had spent most of the season on Green Bay’s practice squad. The win nudged the Packers to 8-8 and ahead of the Seahawks and Saints on tiebreakers.
Last year, the Lions knocked the Packers out of the playoffs and ended Rodgers’s Green Bay tenure with an upset victory they used as a launchpad for their division title run this year. Next week, the Packers will have to go through another smoking-hot team with nothing to lose.
The Bears may be 7-9, but they have won five of seven with Justin Fields playing the best of his career and an aggressive defense that has become dominant since the midseason acquisition of Montez Sweat. Chicago destroyed Atlanta, 37-17, in the snow at Soldier Field on Sunday in a game the Falcons needed to stay alive in the NFC playoff race. The Packers beat the Bears, 38-20, in Week 1 and will be favored, but it will not be an easy game.
The Packers moved into their strong position after the Seahawks’ costly, 27-20 home loss to the Steelers, who have been revived behind veteran backup Mason Rudolph. If the Packers stumble against the Bears, the Seahawks can earn the final NFC wild card if they beat the Cardinals on the road.
The Saints stayed alive in both the NFC South title race and the wild card hunt by beating the Buccaneers in Tampa. But the Bucs can still clinch the South with a victory over the 2-15 Panthers. Assuming the Bucs win, the Saints would need a win over the Falcons and losses by the Packers and Seahawks to steal the last wild card.
The AFC East is on the line next week. One month ago, the Bills were 6-6 after an overtime loss in Philadelphia and buried under a heap of AFC wild card contenders. They have won four straight to surge to 10 victories and afford themselves clarity: If they beat the Dolphins on Sunday in Miami, they will steal the AFC East.
The two teams will meet in the marquee Sunday night slot coming from different directions. The Dolphins were humiliated in Baltimore, 56-19, and suffered a loss even worse than the score late in the game: Pass rusher Bradley Chubb collapsed without contact and exited the field on a cart, and the Dolphins reportedly fear he tore his ACL. Miami already lost Jaelan Phillips to an Achilles’ tendon tear, making Chubb’s injury a potentially fatal blow to their pass rush and Super Bowl aspirations.
The Bills crushed the Dolphins, 48-20, in Week 4 and enter on a four-game winning streak, even if the past two came in uneven fashion against the Chargers and Patriots. The Dolphins are 7-1 at home this year and have controlled the division all season long.
Bow down to Joe Flacco. In a year shaped, if not defined, by quarterback injuries, Flacco has been the story of the season. He spent much of the fall tossing passes to his five kids at home, hoping a needy team would summon him. As the season winds down, it would not be a surprise if he were to land at the bottom of a few MVP ballots.
Flacco, the Browns’ fourth quarterback of the season, has been the king of the backups. He played breathtaking football against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL on Thursday night, leading the Browns to a 34-point first half as they clobbered the Jets, 37-20, improved to 11-5 and clinched a playoff spot. Flacco threw for 309 yards even as top wideout Amari Cooper sat with an injury.
The Browns are 4-1 since Flacco fell out of the sky, started slinging missiles and saved their season. He has passed for at least 300 yards in four consecutive games, an outrageous accomplishment for a 38-year-old quarterback whose last full season as a starter came in 2017. But Flacco’s unmatched arm strength and fearlessness throwing downfield has been an ideal fit in Coach Kevin Stefanski’s play-action heavy system.
At 11-5, the Browns are locked into the 5 seed, which means they can use Week 18 as a bye week if they want. They are playing like the AFC’s second-best team, which puts them on a potential course to meet the Ravens — the franchise Flacco led for more than a decade and quarterbacked to a Super Bowl in 2013.
It’s time to panic in Philadelphia. For the Eagles to repeat as NFC champions and return to the Super Bowl, it would take a sudden and unforeseen turnaround. They have lost four of their past five games, with a shocking nadir arriving Sunday in the form of a 35-31 loss at home to the 4-12 Cardinals and Coach Jonathan Gannon, who last season served as their defensive coordinator.
The Eagles’ 1-4 stretch only begins to describe the dismal state of their operation. Their last seven games have included borderline miraculous victories over the Chiefs and Bills, blowout losses to NFC contenders Dallas and San Francisco, a last-second loss to the 8-8 Seahawks, an eight-point win over the 5-11 Giants in which they were outscored in the second half and Sunday’s embarrassment against the Cardinals, when they blew a 21-6 halftime lead and yielded a 70-yard, game-winning touchdown after Arizona took over with 2:28 remaining.
The Eagles yielded the NFC East lead to the Cowboys and allowed the 49ers to secure the NFC’s top seed and a first-round bye. They have not won by more than one score since beating the Dolphins, 31-17, the week before Halloween. Their plus-22 point differential is the mark of an also-ran, not a Super Bowl contender.
At one point this season, Coach Nick Sirianni owned a 28-3 record over his prior 31 games. And yet questions about his performance are mounting. He’s an offensive coach, and his offense has regressed after Shane Steichen, his coordinator and play-caller last year, left to coach the Colts. His defense is a mess and hasn’t been helped by a clumsy, midseason coordinator shift from Sean Desai to Matt Patricia.
The season has been full of puzzling choices like the one that led the Eagles kicking a field goal on the drive before Arizona’s game-winning touchdown. On third and 19 from the Cardinals’ 29-yard line, the Eagles ran a screen to backup running back Kenneth Gainwell with slight wideout DeVonta Smith as the lead blocker. Gainwell gained four yards and Smith suffered an injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game and led to him leaving the stadium in a walking boot. It is decidedly not sunny in Philadelphia.
The final AFC wild card will be decided Saturday — partially. You’ll never believe this, but Mike Tomlin has overcome unsightly offensive performance and rallied the Steelers to 9-7 and an outside shot at the playoffs. The Steelers’ 27-20 victory in Seattle kept them alive in the AFC wild card race, and they need to beat a Baltimore team with no playoff implications at stake Saturday afternoon to keep them alive.
The Steelers have a big problem, though. The Colts and Texans both won to keep pace and reach 9-7, too. Both of those teams beat the Steelers this season, and they play Saturday night, which assures one of them, barring a tie, will finish ahead of them in the race for the last wild card spot.
How are the Steelers still alive, then? The winner of Colts-Texans could still win the AFC South if the Jaguars stumble Sunday in Tennessee. In that case, the Steelers’ record alone would give them the seventh seed.
The Steelers could also still knock the Bills out of the playoffs. If they win and the Jaguars both win and the Bills lose Sunday night in Miami, the Steelers, Bills and the winner of Colts-Texans would end up in a three-way tie at 10-7 for two spots. If it unfolds that way, the Steelers would have a better conference record than Buffalo.
Lamar Jackson locked up the MVP. In the second half of the season, MVP front-runners have emerged on a near-weekly basis, only to stumble just as frequently. Jackson only validated his stature Sunday as the Ravens destroyed the Dolphins, 56-19, in Baltimore and clinched the AFC’s top seed. Jackson’s MVP case has rested more on the way he controls games and consistently produces spectacular plays than on gaudy statistics, but Sunday he delivered eye-popping numbers, too: 321 passing yards on 18-of-21 passing with five touchdown passes and another 35 rushing yards.
The Ravens continued to peak late in the year, proving themselves to be a juggernaut whose stumbles in close games concealed their dominance earlier in the season. They gained 24 first downs on 55 plays and racked up 491 total yards.
In the past two weeks, the Ravens faced two Super Bowl contenders who presented different styles and strengths, one on the road and one at home. They annihilated both, beating the 49ers and Dolphins by a combined 51 points.
They are a complete team, loaded on both sides of the ball, but it all revolves around Jackson, who is an overwhelming favorite to win his second MVP in the first season after he signed a $260 million contract extension. He’d become the 11th player to multiple MVPs, joining Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner, Steve Young, Joe Montana and Patrick Mahomes. Decent company for a quarterback who turns 27 this week.
Sometimes the traditional coaching choice is the smart choice. Just because analytical insight has led to greater aggression in game management doesn’t mean aggression is always an appropriate guiding principle. Both coaches proved as much during the harebrained conclusion of the Cowboys’ 20-19 victory over the Lions on Saturday night.
Mike McCarthy went first. After the two-minute warning, with the Lions holding no timeouts, the Cowboys passed three times, one of them falling incomplete, rather than draining the clock with runs. McCarthy wanted to end the game with a first down, an understandable impulse, and a penalty made that infeasible through run plays. But the game dictated a conservative approach. Draining an extra 40 seconds would not only have limited the Lions’ time with the ball, but it would have dramatically altered the offensive plays at the Lions’ disposal. The Lions were able to work with the middle of the field as they carved through the Cowboys’ defense because they had enough time; those plays would’ve been impossible if the Cowboys had run three times. The presence of kicker Brandon Aubrey made McCarthy’s call even more confounding. He’s made every field goal he’s attempted this season and has been automatic even from beyond 50 yards, so extra yards were a luxury but not a necessity.
When the Lions raced down the field, Dan Campbell took his turn. His first two-point call was savvy. Avoiding overtime and the whim of a coin flip, particularly on the road, is a worthy aim. Campbell would have been justified in thinking the Lions had outplayed Dallas for most of the night and would have held an edge in overtime, but he also had the Cowboys’ defense on its heel and a play call he liked.
A controversial penalty negated the play, though. Once the penalty backed up the Lions to the 7, regardless of whether the flag had been justified, a two-point conversion became reckless. The Lions received a break when Micah Parsons jumped offside, but that shouldn’t let Campbell off the hook for making a suboptimal decision probably influenced by emotion. Like McCarthy, he had been aggressive for aggression’s sake rather than considering factors unique to the situation. It’s a lesson all coaches should take into the playoffs.
The Bears are picking first. Pretty good Sunday in Chicago. Along with a dominant win in the snow, they secured the No. 1 pick for the second straight year. They own Carolina’s first-rounder from dealing last year’s first pick, which the Panthers used to take Bryce Young. When the Panthers lost, 26-0, to Jacksonville and the Cardinals upset the Eagles, the Panthers clinched the worst record in the NFL, a remarkable bonus for Chicago and a complete debacle for them.
The Bears face a dilemma in whether to continue with Fields, who has been excellent down the stretch, and trade the first pick for another massive haul or use the first pick on a ballyhooed quarterback prospect — Caleb Williams or Drake Maye — and move on from Fields and what will quickly become a huge salary. But that is far more welcome than the questions Carolina faces, which include: Will Young overcome his lack or size to become even a serviceable quarterback after his dismal rookie season? And why, exactly, did the Panthers just toss the phenomenal DJ Moore into that trade?