The NFL heads into Week 18 with great news: Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s breathing tube was removed Friday and he spoke to his team on FaceTime, just four days after he went into cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field during Buffalo’s game versus Cincinnati.
The league’s decision to proceed with the final games of the regular season is not without controversy, but players for the Bengals and the Bills were buoyed by Hamlin’s remarkable progress late in the week. Cincinnati hosts Baltimore and New England travels to Buffalo on Sunday, with both games at 1 p.m. ET.
The Week 17 Bills-Bengals game won’t be rescheduled, which required the NFL to come up with a new plan for AFC seeding and the location of the conference championship game.
Otherwise, though, the last week of the regular season proceeds as planned. We asked The Athletic’s Mike Jones, Mike Sando and Colton Pouncy to weigh in on some of the top storylines for Saturday’s and Sunday’s games, as well as who might finish with the No. 1 draft pick and head coaches on the hot seat.
Tennessee and Jacksonville will square off Saturday night for the AFC South title. How do you see this one going? Will it be the banged-up Titans, losers of six straight, or the Jaguars, winners of four in a row?
Sando: Jaguars all the way. They are emerging as a team that could win in the playoffs, while the Titans are reeling for good reason. Tennessee entered this season depleted on offense, putting additional pressure on the defense. Now, quarterback Ryan Tannehill is injured, and most of the defensive starters are injured as well. This is a formula for disaster in the absence of a viable replacement for Tannehill.
Jones: Totally agree with Sando. Jaguars. After starting the season 2-6, the Jaguars have won six of their last eight games and four in a row. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the 2021 No. 1 pick, has finally turned the corner. Meanwhile, the second half of the season has gone the exact opposite direction for the Titans, who have lost six in a row. They just don’t have the horses to keep up with this surging Jaguars squad.
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Pouncy: It’s just so hard to trust the Titans right now. With all due respect to Josh Dobbs, a player I briefly covered in Detroit before the Titans signed him off the Lions’ practice squad to start, the Jaguars are playing better football of late. They’re a young, talented team that’s ahead of schedule. That’s a dangerous thing this time of the year. Of course, the fact that we all picked the Jags probably means the Titans come out on top.
The Eagles, losers of two straight without Jalen Hurts at QB, need to beat the Giants to win the NFC East and the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Do they get the job done, or will the Cowboys or 49ers leapfrog them to the top on Sunday?
Sando: The Eagles are favored by two touchdowns against the Giants, which is a pretty good indication how that game is likely to go, with or without Jalen Hurts. The Giants simply do not have incentive to win this game. The Eagles have incentive not only to win, but to play well heading into the postseason after a couple bumps in the road.
Jones: The Eagles definitely have missed Hurts, but they should still be equipped to beat the Giants even if they don’t get him back. It’s a big game for the Eagles, who know they have very little margin for error. The Cowboys shouldn’t have too challenging a draw against Washington, which is starting rookie Sam Howell at quarterback for the first time. So, Philadelphia must take care of business.
Pouncy: Eagles coach Nick Sirianni on Friday said Hurts is “trending in the right direction.” The Giants don’t have much to play for in Week 18 — they already clinched the No. 6 seed — so they could look to heal up before the playoffs. Those two factors make an Eagles victory likely, securing home-field advantage, the NFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round bye.
Who do you see earning the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC: the Seahawks (at home versus the Rams), Lions or Packers (Detroit plays at Green Bay on Sunday night)? And why?
Sando: My fear from a Packers standpoint is that they’ve been winning in less-sustainable ways (two return touchdowns against Minnesota, three fourth-quarter interceptions off a concussed Tua Tagovailoa) … and that those sorts of plays might not materialize against Detroit. The Packers are still the safest bet playing at home against a Lions team that could be eliminated from playoff contention before kickoff, should Seattle beat the Rams. I’m guessing the Packers will share results from the Seattle game with the fans at Lambeau Field — and with Lions players, by extension — if the Seahawks win.
Jones: The Packers are on a mission. Aaron Rodgers looks like a different guy than what we saw at the midpoint of the season. The defense is playing its best ball of the season, and Lambeau Field this time of year is a very tough place to play. Look for the Packers to complete this improbable quest and punch their playoff ticket for a fourth straight season under Matt LaFleur.
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Pouncy: You could sense the stars aligning for the Packers when the Commanders, Seahawks and Lions all lost on Christmas Eve, and Green Bay took down the Dolphins the next day. The Packers now control their own fate. They’re in with a win over the Lions. That said, I still expect a competitive game from a Detroit team hoping to show a national audience its progress. The Lions have won seven of nine. Dan Campbell’s crew is motivated. I think they knock off the Packers. I also think the Seahawks take down the Rams, clinching a playoff berth for Seattle.
The No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft will also be decided this weekend. Will it be the Texans (2-13-1), who would clinch the top spot with either a loss to the Colts or a Chicago win over Minnesota, or the Bears (3-13), who have lost nine straight and will start Nathan Peterman at QB?
Sando: I lean toward Houston beating Indy while the Bears lose to the Vikings, in which case Chicago emerges with the top pick. But we shall see how the Texans approach their game.
Jones: Texans. This entire season has been about positioning themselves for this pick. From the promotion of Lovie Smith to head coach rather than going with an outside hire, to the decision not to pursue a better starting quarterback than Davis Mills, to the roster construction at other positions, this was a year devoted to lining themselves up for the top pick and new face of the franchise. They won’t botch this by winning on Sunday.
Pouncy: I see the Bears winding up with the No. 1 pick. I said it before the season, so why not double down? Second-year quarterback Justin Fields is essentially Chicago’s entire offense and they just shut him down for the year — a smart move considering the beatings he’s taken this year. They’re now turning to Peterman to seal the deal. I expect him to do his part. As for the other side, the Colts are a disaster right now and probably just want this season to be over. I happen to like the Texans here, which would knock them to the No. 2 spot. With the Bears likely to go defense or possibly trade down to acquire more assets, the Texans are still in a great spot to land a quarterback or one of the impact defensive players in this class.
Thirteen teams will enter Week 18 having already been eliminated from the playoffs. Pick one that will be in the postseason in 2023 and tell us why.
Sando: The Browns and Raiders are two teams that might be able to get there. Cleveland will have an offseason to figure out its offense with Deshaun Watson while addressing the defense. I thought the Raiders might get to the playoffs this season. We need to see what they do at quarterback, but moving on from Derek Carr could be addition by subtraction, as it might have been time to turn the page there.
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Jones: I’ll go with the Bears and the Jets. Chicago will devote a lot of resources to upgrading Fields’ supporting cast and position itself for a playoff run. The Jets were close this year, but don’t have the quarterback to see this quest through. So, next year, they’ll address that glaring weakness and put themselves in the playoff race.
Pouncy: The Jets aren’t far away. I really like what they’re building. Their defense is excellent. They’ll be getting Breece Hall back, and he looked like a dynamic talent before tearing his ACL. The obvious question is what happens at quarterback. Zach Wilson just doesn’t look the part of a quarterback who will get this team where it wants to go. If New York adds a serviceable veteran — and it should have options — the Jets can compete in 2023. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Rams, a team that was ravaged by injuries and faces a ton of long-term questions but still has its Super Bowl core in place.
The permanent Broncos, Panthers and Colts head coaching jobs will all be open by Monday. Which other teams might be considering a change at head coach? And does interim Panthers coach Steve Wilks deserve to keep the job on a full-time basis?
Sando: The Panthers need to hire Wilks if they determine he is the best candidate for this team in the future. How Carolina performed down the stretch this season when there were zero expectations can help inform that decision, but I don’t think in terms of coaches “deserving” jobs. Wilks has simply done everything he could do. As far as other places that could be looking for head coaches, Arizona needs to be on that list. Houston probably will be on that list, whether or not that is fair to Lovie Smith. And then I wonder what is going on in Tennessee. Mike Vrabel has done an excellent job there overall, but I’m not sure what the owner is thinking. She already fired the general manager. The Jets could be an interesting team to watch. Again, what was the owner expecting? We haven’t heard much lately about Sean McVay possibly leaving the Rams for television. Washington probably stays the course during the ownership uncertainty.
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Jones: The Cardinals and Commanders SHOULD make changes, but I’m not so sure they will do the right thing, because Arizona foolishly gave Kliff Kingsbury an extension this past offseason, and Washington is about to have an ownership change (we think). That won’t be completed until after the hiring cycle ends, so Ron Rivera might be safe. There’s always one surprise firing. Houston firing Smith wouldn’t be surprising, even though he had the Texans playing hard despite a lack of resources. Could the surprise be Vrabel?
As for the Panthers: Yes. Absolutely, Steve Wilks deserves to be promoted to full-time head coach.
Pouncy: Probably the Cardinals. The Kingsbury era should not have lasted this long. If this is it for him in Arizona, my lasting memory will be a clip of him sitting in his office staring into the abyss during a teaser for the in-season “Hard Knocks.” As for Wilks, I think he’s a good coach who got a bad team up off the mat to compete for a playoff spot in the final two weeks. The Panthers looked destined for the No. 1 pick around midseason, only to find themselves playing meaningful football games in late December. That said, the Panthers must do their due diligence and determine what’s best for the franchise.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Getty Images)