This year’s Week 18 was bigger than last-second playoff berths. It was a rally for Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest on the field Monday night against the Bengals. Teams across the N.F.L. gave Hamlin their support throughout the week, from little gestures on social media to heartfelt messages from coaches and players.
This week, with the regular season coming to a close, was a reminder that it’s the people who make the games worth it.
The Dolphins and Jaguars stepped up in the A.F.C.
It took until the final day of the regular season, but the dust finally settled on a wild A.F.C. playoff race. Heading into the weekend, two spots were left: the A.F.C. South division title and the third wild-card slot. The Jaguars, Titans, Dolphins, Patriots and Steelers all had chances under the right conditions.
In the wild-card race among Miami, New England and Pittsburgh, the Dolphins got some help to take the final spot. They beat the Jets, 11-6, and they needed the Patriots to lose to the Bills, who won, 35-23.
The Patriots have been steady in their struggle for offense and the Steelers ramped up at season’s end. The Dolphins’ record was marked by streaks caused by injuries to both quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa and the backup Teddy Bridgewater, leading to the rookie seventh-round pick Skylar Thompson seeing far more playing time than anyone envisioned. Still, Miami’s peak was higher than the also-rans and, as the No. 7 seed, the Dolphins could be a scary opponent for the division-rival Bills in the first round.
In the A.F.C. South battle, Jacksonville beat Tennessee, 20-16, on Saturday to join Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati as division winners and hosts of at least one playoff game. With the No. 4 seed, the Jaguars will face the Chargersin the playoffs’ opening weekend.
For the Jaguars to get there in Year 1 of the Doug Pederson era, after the chaos wrought by the former Coach Urban Meyer, is a miracle. Pederson turned the second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence into a legitimate star, and the defense, though inconsistent, has the talent up front to be a nuisance from time to time. They’re not a Super Bowl-caliber team just yet, but to be in the dance at all has to feel like vindication.
For the wild-card round, the best part may be not who got in, but who they each have to face. All three A.F.C. games are rematches: The games between the second and seventh seeds (Bills-Dolphins) and the third and sixth seeds (Bengals-Ravens) are both divisional matchups, and both series are split 1-1 this year. The fifth-seed Chargers also get a chance at revenge against the fourth-seed Jaguars, who pulled off a Week 3 upset of Los Angeles. Those kinds of rematches in a playoff environment are ripe for some funky one-off game plans that tilt the result one way or the other.
Tom Brady broke a record held by Tom Brady.
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady made N.F.L. history on Sunday for the nth time in his career. After completing 13 passes against the Falcons (before being pulled in a meaningless game), Brady now holds the record for most completions in a single season, with 490. That’s five more than the previous record held, of course, by Brady, who set it in the 2021 season, in the newly added 17th game. Drew Brees seasons make up the next three spots on the list.
Brady’s latest record was a product of necessity. The Buccaneers’ offense was not as stable in certain areas as it was last season.
The Bucs replaced both offensive guards in the off-season, slightly downgrading the talent level as well as stripping away any chemistry that part of the unit had. Worse than that, the All-Pro center Ryan Jensen has missed the entire year with a knee injury. Jensen was an exceptional blocker in both rushing and pass protection and helped Brady with pre-snap scanning. That doesn’t even begin to hit on the other injuries Tampa Bay has faced on the offensive line, including to tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs.
The run game was also worse this season. After averaging 4.3 yards per carry last season, the Bucs earned just 3.4 yards per carry this season. The offensive line struggled to move people the way it did a year ago, and running back Leonard Fournette looked sapped of some of his juice.
Both of those factors forced the Bucs to employ a pass-heavy offense, but one that was usually well behind the sticks and couldn’t protect Brady long enough for deep shots. Brady had to fully take over as a surgeon in the short-to-intermediate area, getting down the field little by little just to stay in games. It’s not the place any offense wants to be, but when led by Brady, 45, it’s a formula that can be enough. And it was, at least as far as winning the N.F.C. South goes.
The Texans cared more about winning than the draft. Why?
The Houston Texans walked into Week 18 with the worst record in the league at 2-13-1, setting them up to claim the first overall pick in the 2023 draft. Coach Lovie Smith, promoted from defensive coordinator last off-season under unusual circumstances, may have been coaching his last game with the organization. The franchise would secure the No. 1 pick, take a quarterback and set sail into a new era of Texans football, largely with new personnel. But Smith and his players had a different plan in mind.
The Texans battled all game long against the Colts on Sunday. They held a lead for most of the game but lost the thread at the end, falling behind by 31-24 in the fourth quarter. The “right” thing to do, from the front office’s perspective, would be to let the game stay out of reach, but clearly none of the players felt that way.
Quarterback Davis Mills strung together a couple of miracle throws during a drive over 2 minutes 43 seconds, lobbing a prayer on fourth-and-20 to score a touchdown with 50 seconds left. The Texans successfully went straight for the finish with a 2-point conversion that gave them the 32-31 win — and the second overall pick, behind the Chicago Bears, who lost to the Vikings on Sunday.
With the first pick, the Texans could have grabbed the quarterback of their choice from a group that includes Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud unimpeded. Now, the Bears have that choice.
On the one hand, the Bears don’t necessarily need a quarterback. They can stick it out with the uber-talented Justin Fields for another year. But plenty of other teams would surely like to take a swing on a quarterback, and the Bears could hold the first pick for a king’s ransom and put the Texans in danger of losing out on who they want.
Nobody wants to settle for their second choice when it comes to drafting quarterbacks, but that’s where the Texans might be. It’s the same place the Jets were two years ago when they won meaningless Week 15 and Week 16 games to lose the right to draft Trevor Lawrence. There’s no clear star like Lawrence in this class, and the Texans may end up with their guy anyway, but now the off-season comes with all sorts of headaches.
Around the N.F.L.
Kansas City 31, Raiders 13: Kansas City cruised right through Las Vegas to finish the regular season. Its front seven, led by the star defensive tackle Chris Jones, had an uncharacteristically great day against the run. To slow down Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, Kansas City loaded the box, a strategy that resulted in a lot of long down-and-distance plays for Las Vegas quarterback Jarrett Stidham. That defensive performance paired with quarterback Patrick Mahomes’s usual offensive greatness made for a straightforward affair.
Jaguars 20, Titans 16: After quarterback Trevor Lawrence carried Jacksonville over the back half of the season, its defense paid its debt to him in this game. Lawrence had an up-and-down night — natural for a young player in his first professional playoff-ish game. But after the Jaguars’ defense allowed a field goal to open the second half, it held the Titans to a punt, a turnover or a turnover on downs on five straight possessions. That stingy run included a strip sack that defensive end Josh Allen scooped up and returned for a touchdown with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter. That score made the difference between the Jaguars hosting a playoff game or going on an early vacation.
Bengals 27, Ravens 16
Bills 35, Patriots 23
Dolphins 11, Jets 6
Falcons 30, Buccaneers 17
Panthers 10, Saints 7
Steelers 28, Browns 14
Texans 32, Colts 31
Vikings 29, Bears 13