February 23, 2024

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What we learned in NFL Week 18: A complete turnaround for the Bills, and a complete collapse for the Jaguars

What we learned in NFL Week 18: A complete turnaround for the Bills, and a complete collapse for the Jaguars

The playoff field is set, and the action-packed weekend is full of stories.

Matthew Stafford returns to Detroit for the Lions' first home playoff game since 1993, while Jared Goff will face the Rams, the team he traded to three years ago. Two iconic NFL franchises will meet in Dallas. And Tyreek Hill returns to Kansas City.

NFL Wild Card Weekend

Game time television

Saturday

Browns in Texas

4:30 pm

nbc

Dolphins in Chiefs

8 pm

peacock

Sunday

Steelers on the Bills

1 pm

CBS

Packers at Cowboys

4:30 pm

fox

Rams in lions

8 pm

nbc

Monday

Eagles at Bucs

8 pm

espn

In Miami, the Bills won their fifth straight game to close out the regular season and secure their fourth straight title.

In New England, perhaps one of the most iconic courses in any sport has seen its final act. But in true Bill Belichick fashion, there was no added emotion, no wave goodbye to fans at Gillette Stadium. His uncertain future after 24 seasons leading the Patriots remains one of the biggest questions around the league heading into Black Monday.

At Tennessee, Derrick Henry may have played his final game for the Titans.

In Green Bay, Matt LeFleur improved to 10-0 against the Bears, helping the Packers clinch a playoff spot in their first year after Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, Chicago enters the offseason with the No. 1 pick and a big question to answer in Justin Fields.

In New Orleans, Saints coach Dennis Allen knew that if points piled up late in a big win over Arthur Smith and the Falcons, Smith would tell you how he felt about it. Right before he was fired.

For the Rams, Puka Nacua capped off a stellar first season with two NFL records: most receptions (105) and yards (1,486) by a rookie receiver in NFL history.

It's also worth noting that all four AFC North teams (Ravens, Browns, Steelers, and Bengals) finished above .500 this season, the first time a division has done so since 1935; And for the 19th straight year, the NFC East has not had a repeat champion.

So far, there are four head coaching jobs open: the Panthers, Raiders and Chargers via midseason firing and Falcons following Smith's firing. More will become available starting Monday.

Here's what we learned from the final week of the NFL regular season:

1. High billing for AFC East title. The Dolphins are headed to Kansas City

East Asia still passes through Buffalo. Eight weeks ago, not many Bills teams made the playoffs.

Buffalo capped an impressive late-season turnaround Sunday night in Miami, beating the Dolphins 21-14 to clinch their fourth straight division title. The Bills were 6-6 and mired in midseason controversy after falling in overtime in Philadelphia in late November but responded with five straight wins to close out the regular season, including victories over the Chiefs, Cowboys and Dolphins.

The win clinches the No. 2 seed in the AFC for the Bills, who host the Steelers next weekend.

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Sunday night's win was the full Josh Allen experience — he was at his worst at times in the first half, throwing two interceptions, and then at his best at times in the second half, making plays with his arms and legs and dragging the Bills to goal. Massive victory.

For Miami, that means 15 straight seasons without a division title. With the loss, the Dolphins – who were in contention for the No. 1 seed a few weeks ago – fall to the No. 6 seed and will travel to Kansas City for their home opener on Saturday night. This will be Tyreek Hill's first time playing at GEHA Stadium at Arrowhead Stadium since he transferred from the Chiefs after the 2021 season.

The Chiefs beat the Dolphins 21-14 earlier this season in Germany.

2. The Cowboys secure the No. 2 seed, and the Eagles' free fall continues

For the second time in three years under coach Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys are NFC East champions. Dallas' 38-10 win over Washington on Sunday secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the Cowboys, setting up an exciting wild-card matchup next weekend with McCarthy's old team, the Packers.

But let's be real: The Eagles' late-season collapse — Philly stumbled from 10-1 in early December to 11-6 by season's end — paved the way for Dallas' division crown.

Now the Eagles have some injury concerns that could impact their game next week in Tampa Bay. Both quarterback Jalen Hurts (finger) and wide receiver AJ Brown (knee) were banged up in Philadelphia's loss to the Giants on Sunday, a game in which coach Nick Sirianni pulled his players midway through anyway. Hurts said the middle finger on his hand “popped out” and he plans to take it day by day this week. Brown was seen standing and greeting his teammates as they entered the locker room after the game.

“I hope he's okay, but we'll see as the week goes on,” Sirianni said of Brown.

But even with Hurts and Brown healthy, the Eagles have lost five of their last six after owning the top seed in the NFC as recently as late November. Philly looks like a completely different team right now. And not in a good way.

“I think that's something we looked into,” Hurts said when asked about the Eagles' identity. “We didn't have the consistency we wanted as a team, and that's something we were kind of looking for.”

This was perhaps more telling.

“We spent the whole season trying to figure out exactly who our team was,” linebacker Zach Cunningham said. The athleteBrooks Cobina. “So, I don't know exactly what to say about that.”

They had a week left to find him.

Elsewhere in the NFC, Jordan Love finished his first regular season as Green Bay's starting quarterback in style, throwing two touchdowns in a 17-9 win over the Bears that punched the Packers' playoff ticket.

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And in Carolina, the Bucs clinched their third straight NFC South title. And this time they did it without Tom Brady.

The season in Tampa Bay started with questions, starting with who will replace Brady at quarterback. Baker Mayfield? Kyle Trask? It took almost all of training camp before Mayfield finally got the nod. An unlikely redemption story followed: Mayfield, on his fourth team in three years, lifted the Bucs from a 4-7 start and sent them back to the playoffs.

A 9-0 win over the Panthers on Sunday — the Bucs' fifth in their last six games — sealed it. With both the Bucs and Saints finishing 9-8, Tampa Bay won the tiebreaker thanks to a better record against common opponents (the two teams shared head-to-head matches this year and had identical 4-2 division records).

3. Jaguars' collapse paves the way for Texans' surprise division title win

When the calendar flipped from November to December, the Jaguars were 8-3, just a half-game behind the Ravens and Dolphins in the race for the top seed in the AFC. They have a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs. A little more than a month later, they were out.

Amazing, really.

“I think today's game is our season in a nutshell,” coach Doug Pederson said after Sunday's 28-20 loss at Tennessee.

After winning five straight games to close out the regular season last year, then making a run to the playoff round, Jacksonville entered the season as a team on the rise, considered by some to be a dark horse Super Bowl contender. Nothing during the first three months of the regular season suggested otherwise.

What followed was the league's most baffling collapse of 2023: The Jaguars lost five of their last six to miss the postseason altogether. All the Jags had to do was beat the six-win Titans on Sunday and they could have repeated as AFC South champions. It didn't happen.

Down 8 with 7:14 remaining, Trevor Lawrence was heard at the line of scrimmage on the deciding fourth-and-goal from the Titans' 2-yard line. He extended his arm, hoping the ball would reach the goal line, but it missed.

Lawrence later said: “If you do it, you better score, and I didn't do it.” “So it's unfortunate.”

Then, on Jacksonville's final drive, after taking down Calvin Ridley, Lawrence badly fouled Evan Engram on fourth-and-2.

This is his seal. The Jaguars finished 9-8 and will watch the playoffs from home. Lawrence's injuries over the past month certainly haven't helped him — first his ankle, then his shoulder, which he tore during Sunday — but the problems extend far beyond that. Jacksonville's only win dating back to November came against the Panthers, easily the worst team in the league.

Take nothing away from the Texans, who outscored the Colts 23-19 on Saturday night in a win-win scenario. Thanks to the Jags' loss the next day, they clinched their first division title since 2019. The franchise that has won all 11 games over the past three seasons won 10 in DeMeco Ryans' first year.

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In doing so, the Texans became the first NFL team since the 2012 Colts to advance to the postseason with a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback. Despite missing two games, CJ Stroud finished with 4,108 yards, third-most by a rookie quarterback in league history.

4. Set NFL Draft orders

Entering Week 18, the Bears already owned the top pick in this spring's draft through their trade with the Panthers last year. But the rest of the top 10 has yet to be determined. Now it is.

On the strength of a tiebreaker of the schedule, the Leaders edged out the Patriots and Cardinals — who all finished 4-13 — for the No. 2 pick. New England will pick third, its highest pick since 1994, and Arizona fourth.

Here are the rest of the top ten:

5. Bill Belichick: “I still enjoy coaching.”

If this was indeed Bill Belichick's last game with the Patriots, his legendary 24-year career ended with an ugly loss to a team he hates — the Jets — and more offensive ineptitude. Under a steady blanket of snow, New England managed just 119 yards of total offense, the fewest in the Belichick era. The previous decline dates back to October 2001, three games into the Tom Brady era.

The Patriots' 4-13 record is the worst of Belichick's career, including his five seasons in Cleveland. It's also New England's worst finish since 1992.

Now the decision comes from owner Robert Kraft — or perhaps Belichick himself — on what happens next. The athleteChad Graf recently reported that the two are expected to meet on Monday to discuss the way forward, “but at this point, a mutual parting of the ways has become very much possible — if not likely.”

Belichick was tight-lipped on the subject after Sunday's loss, only allowing that he planned to meet with Kraft now that the season is over, which he always does. However, the 71-year-old allowed: “I still enjoy coaching.”

It would put an end to one of the NFL's championships, a six-year, two-decade dynasty that slowly withered after Brady left after the 2019 season. The decline has been stark this year. The Patriots have scored fewer points than any team in football, and the need to address this offseason — quarterback, receiver and offensive tackle, for starters — is plentiful no matter who coaches them in 2024.

Go deeper

The Krafts, using a classic Bill Belichick gambit, must do what's best for the Patriots

(Trevor Lawrence Image: Todd Justin Ford/Getty Images)


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