NFL Week 18 Hot Topics
The final game week in the regular season is nearly upon us and the NFL playoff picture is close to being finalized.
No. 1 Seeding
The Green Bay Packers have clinched the NFC’s top seed for the second consecutive season, as such they will have a bye for the first round of the playoffs. In the past five seasons, nine of the 10 teams that have appeared in the Super Bowl had a first round bye and the Packers are 24-3 at Lambeau Field with probable MVP Aaron Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur. They may be the favourites to win it all, however only last year we saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stun Green Bay at Lambeau. The Packers haven’t been so dominant that a repeat couldn’t happen again.
The Tennessee Titans clinched a playoff berth and the AFC South with a victory over the Miami Dolphins this season, eliminating the Colts’ chance to win the division. Indianapolis could have clinched a playoff spot with a victory over the Las Vegas Raiders but they lost 32-20. Under coach Mike Vrabel the Titans have had four consecutive winning seasons, three playoff appearances and two division titles.
They can clinch top seed in the AFC with a win at Houston. A bye in the first round for the Titans would allow all-pro running back Derrick Henry more time to recover for the Titans postseason run. Henry was doing individual work on Monday and head coach Mike Vrabel said the team will likely make a decision on opening the 21-day window for returning to the field midweek for the league’s 2020 Offensive Player of the Year.
Winner Takes It All
The AFC West will be home to one of the key remaining regular season matchups, the LA Chargers at the Las Vegas Raiders. The winner makes it into the playoffs, the loser gets to watch the playoffs at home.
The last few game weeks have been rough for the Chargers, after coming so close to taking down the Chiefs with a 34-28 overtime loss they followed that with a stinker against the Texans down in Houston. The Chargers however are getting healthy at just the right time, they had their first full team secondary on the field last week against the Broncos for just the third time this season. There is also Justin Herbert, who has been pretty remarkable this season ranking in the top five in EPA per pass play with the kind of offensive efficiency that makes the Chargers dangerous against anyone. This team has been built for bigger and better things, they just have to go out and prove it.
Considering all the drama off the pitch for the Raiders this season, it's quite something to see them with the chance to make some noise on the pitch this weekend. Having won three games on the bounce Las Vegas are somehow one win away from going to the playoffs for just the second time since 2002. An improbable finish after an unlikely rise. After the drubbing handed to them in week 14 by the Chiefs the Raiders have reeled off tough victories against the Browns, Broncos and notably the Colts. They’re playing hard for interim coach Rich Bisaccia and they're at home, can they make this moment theirs? The Chargers @ Raiders matchup will be one not to miss.
Overcoming Injuries, Adversity & Inconsistency
It has been a challenging year for the reigning champion Bucs, especially in recent weeks with the loss of wide receiver Chris Godwin to a season ending ACL injury and running back Leonard Fournette to a hamstring injury. So when Antonio Brown blew up on Saturday mid-game after refusing to take the field, the Bucs had no choice but to dump him, adding more pressure onto an offensive unit already hurting. Their willingness to give up on the troubled receiver tells you all you need to know about Brown’s current headspace and what it will take for Tampa Bay to repeat as Super Bowl champions for the first time since Tom Brady did it with the Patriots in 2003 & 2004.
The Bucs will turn to Mike Evans and an assortment of young wide receivers to fill the void, Brady has won with unheralded receivers before but this will be a significant challenge considering the strength of the NFC going into the playoffs. The devastating Gronkowski & Brady partnership will have to be resurrected as a featured piece of this offense come playoff time if they are to be one of the last teams standing.
The Buffalo Bills are on their way to the playoffs after reeling off three victories including a critical AFC divisional matchup against the Patriots a couple of weeks ago. In order to clinch their division for the second straight year the Bills need a win over the Jets or a Patriots loss to the Dolphins. It's been a strange year for the Bills, their 10 wins have all been by 10 points or more and they currently own the best point differential in the NFL at +177. They are certainly capable of beating any team in the NFL, but they are also capable of beating themselves.
Of their six losses, five have been one possession games; they’ve struggled for consistency with their offensive line and have under-used the running game all season. Which makes last weekend’s 29-15 victory over the Falcons intriguing, as the Bills ran for a season-high 233 yards on 44 carries. Which makes Devin Singletary putting together the day that he did important for what's to come, the running back ran for a season high 110 yards, with two rush touchdowns and seven rushing first downs.
Over the past two weeks, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow has 971 passing yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Bengals are one of the NFL’s more explosive offenses, indeed Burrow has 12 completions of 50-plus yards which is more than Mahomes, Brady and Allen this season combined and the most by a quarterback in a single season since 2000. This is a team rounding into form with talented receivers Ja’Marr Chase - who scorched the Chiefs over the weekend to help clinch the AFC North - Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and an underrated tight end in C.J Uzomah. The Bengals have timed their form to perfection and with Joe Burrow in this kind of mood, the Bengals are real Super Bowl contenders in a wide open AFC.