NFL Week 18: Jacksonville collapses, more injuries cloud playoff outlook

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) throws against the Tennessee Titans during their game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) throws against the Tennessee Titans during their game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

As was promised, Week 18 delivered euphoria to certain lucky fanbases. As was unavoidable, Week 18 left some fanbases forlorn and not wanting to hear any “wait ’til next year" nonsense.


Sunday saw more of the key injuries that marked Saturday's doubleheader, and which could very well hamper teams in the first round of the playoffs — the kind of misfortune that, in a couple of instances, supported the chillin' side of the rest-versus-rust debate. 


There were a handful of games Sunday in which the outcomes had no bearing on the playoff picture. Those games will not be covered here, though their impact on Black Monday — the day when the big axe and the pink slip ally themselves — is undeniable. The Commanders fired Ron Rivera after four mostly unsuccessful seasons in Washington. Atlanta’s head coach Arthur Smith joins him on the unemployment line. The Raiders are keen on the idea of bringing back Antonio Pierce — well at least Vegas fans are, as they chanted Pierce’s name at the end of their season-ending win 27-14 over Denver. Mark Davis and the Raiders' front office is not making anything official yet — at least not while Jim Harbaugh is preparing for the CFB title game. 


And, of course, Bill Belichick’s future with New England is currently very much in doubt. Even with the Jets ending their 15-game losing streak to New England Sunday with a 17-3 win, it is hard to visualize the Patriots sideline next season without the hoodie patrolling it.


With 2023 in the books, let’s take a deeper look at the final games of the regular season that shaped the composition and seeding of this year's NFL playoffs. 



Tennessee 28, Jacksonville 20


The early game that had more impact on the AFC playoff picture than any other saw the completion of the Jaguars’ stunning season-ending collapse, and the handing over of the AFC South title to Demeco Ryans, C.J. Stroud and the upstart Houston Texans. 


In so doing, they secured the affection of fans of NFL teams in the far north of this great land to its southern-most, oil-nourished reaches.


Building a 28-13 lead in the second half, the Titans came within a matter of inches of seeing that lead evaporate entirely. After Jaguars’ quarterback Trevor Lawerence hit Evan Engram on a 14-yard TD pass to cut the Titans’ lead to 28-20, Jacksonville safety Andre Cisco picked off Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill, returning the theft deep into Tennessee territory. The Jaguars then moved the ball to inside the Tennessee 5-yard line. On 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Lawrence called his own number. His launch towards the goal line came up just short. 


Jacksonville, however, would get one more drive to equalize things. Lawrence and Co. had a 2nd-and-10 from its own 33-yard line, when receiver Calvin Ridley broke wide open behind the Titans’ defense. But the quarterback missed him, in what would have been a walk-in touchdown. On 4th-and-the-season, Lawrence overthrew Engram, the final nail in a collapsing coffin that saw the Jaguars finish the season 1-5 over their last six games.


For Jacksonville and its fans the darkness of a season-ending loss seemed to hover from the second quarter on. A glorious Lawrence TD bomb of 59 yards to Ridley early in the second quarter, which gave the Jags the lead, was immediately answered by a weaving 18-yard TD run by Tennessee’s Derrick Henry. On its following Jaguars’ posssion, Engram mishandled a Lawrence pass, resulting in a Tennessee interception. Tannehill and the Titans’ offense converted the short field into Tyjae Spears’ second TD of the day. The Titans’ led, 21-10.


(Lawrence later threw a second interception in the first half. Tennessee’s defense entered the tilt having snagged just four interceptions on the season — the fewest in the NFL.)


On the Titans’ opening drive of the second half, Henry tore off one of his patented half-sprinter, half-lumberjack-looking bursts for 69 yards, which put the ball inside the Jags’ 5-yard-line. Tannehill stuck a throw into D’Andre Hopkins chest in the back of the the end zone to put the Titans in control. 28-13.


The Jags collapse is one of the most absolute in recent NFL memory — this year’s Eagles don’t count; at least they made the playoffs. To get a sense of the depths of Jacksonville’s fall, recall that after Week 12, the team was rolling at 8-3 and seemingly in total command of the AFC South. In fact they were, at that time, just a game out of the top seed in the AFC.


Jacksonville is out. The Texans are in. What a difference a few weeks makes. 



Tampa Bay 9, Carolina 0


Three Chase McGlaughlin field goals provided all the scoring the Bucs needed as Tampa Bay blanked the Panthers and clinched the NFC South.


The Bucs defense did what every other defense did against the Carolina offense: pressured QB Bryce Young relentlessly and limited the No. 1 overall pick to 94 yards passing. Though the zero points and 68 total yards passing suggest complete domination by Tampa, luck played a nifty role in the Bucs’ win. 


In the first quarter, Young hit DJ Chark on a 3rd-and-4 and the receiver streaked down the sideline heading for a touchdown. As Chark tried to lunge in for the score, Tampa’s Antoine Winfield knocked the ball free, and it was recovered in the end zone by a Bucs teammate. Ruled a touchdown on the field, the call was overturned when replays showed Winfield dislodging the ball before Moore reached it across the goal line. 


(It should be noted that Winfield’s one-man goal-line stand was his second such play of the season. He stripped Atlanta’s Desmond Ridder in similar fashion in Week 7. It was Winfield’s sixth forced fumble of the season.)


A second big break came midway through the fourth when an illegal formation penalty on Carolina wiped out a 27-yard TD run by Raheem Blackshear. On the very next play, Bucs linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka strip-sacked Young. Tampa recovered the fumble and Carolina’s offense never again touched the ball. 


New Orleans 48, Atlanta 17


Derek Carr threw four touchdowns, and the Saints dominated their division rival in the second half for the win. 


Entering the matchup, both teams held out hope for a division title, but Tampa Bay’s victory over Carolina squashed that option. The hopes the triumphant Saints held out for a wild card were snuffed when, in the late window of games, Green Bay earned the final postseason spot by beating Chicago. 


A terrific game in the first half saw the Falcons twice take touchdown leads. Two Desmond Ridder touchdown passes — one a 71-yarder to rookie Bijan Robinson — put Atlanta 14-7 in the first quarter. The Saints drove 75 yards on a hefty 16 plays, tying the game at 14 on a short Kendre Miller TD run. The two teams traded field goals making the halftime score 17-17.


Then things went NFC South for the Falcons after intermission. The host Saints reeled off 31 unanswered, with the defense generating three turnovers and converting them all into points. After a productive and error-free first half, Ridder cozied up to the idea of sharing the ball with the opponent. With the score still tied, Ridder threw an awful interception on just the third play of the second half. The Saints took immediate advantage of the short field, with Carr hitting Chris Olave, who made a terrific juggling catch, taking the ball off a defender’s helmet. 


After his defense forced a three-and-out, Carr found Rashid Shaheed on a 39-yard bomb for the receiver’s fourth TD of the season. 


Down 31-17, the Falcons threatened to get back to within one possession, but a 4th-and-goal play from the Saints’ 1-yard line fizzled when Ridder threw behind Robinson in the end zone. 


Carr, who finished 22-of-28, threw his fourth TD pass of the day, his second to receiver A.T. Perry to put the game of reach. The splendid performance is in keeping with Carr’s recent play, as the veteran quarterback enjoyed a sneakily good final five weeks of the season, throwing for 14 TDs and just two interceptions during that stretch. 


Safety Tyrann Mathieu intercepted a Taylor Heinicke pass and returned it to the Atlanta 1-yard line to set up New Orleans’ final score. 



Detroit 30, Minnesota 20 


The Lions locked up the No. 3 by keeping a stubborn Vikings offense at arm’s length throughout the second half.


Detroit looked intent on making quick work of Minnesota, jumping out to a 13-0 first quarter lead at home. Jared Goff found rookie sensation Sam LaPorta for the game’s score, then Jahmyr Gibbs padded the lead with a short TD run. Minnesota answered with two field goals to cut the lead to 13-6 at the half.


LaPorta was the focal point of both celebratory and awful developments. The first-year tight end set the NFL record for catches (86) by a rookie tight end. Unfortunately, with two minutes left in the first half, LaPorta injured his knee on a tackle and was forced to leave the game. His availability for Detroit’s opening round playoff tilt against the Rams is very much in doubt. 


In a stretch spanning the middle of the third quarter and early in the fourth, the two offenses traded touchdowns on four consecutive possessions. A Nick Mullens-to-Justin Jefferson TD pass cut a 20-6 Minnesota deficit to a single possession. But Goff threw a deep out to Amon-Ra St. Brown and the wide receiver wove his way to a 70-yard score. Rookie wideout Jordan Addison capped off his strong rookie campaign by hauling in his 10th TD of the season, a 42-yard strike from Mullen, to once again bring Minnesota to within seven points. 


But the Vikings would get no closer. Detroit added a Michael Badgley 39-yard field goal for the 10-point margin of victory. 


Goff finished with 320 yards passing on the day. St. Brown paced the receiving corps with 144 yards. His counterpart for Minnesota, Jefferson, was again brilliant, posting 12 catches for 192 yards and the one scoring reception. Mullens just missed having a 400-yard passing day (396). His two touchdown throws were offset, however, by a pair of interceptions. 


Based on the way things shook out later on Sunday, the Lions host the Rams in the opening round in a game just oozing with storylines — the most prominent of which is, of course, the two quarterbacks playing were once traded for each other. Matthew Stafford returns to Detroit to play his old team in a high-stakes playoff game, something he managed to experience just three times in silver and blue, all ending in defeats. Jared Goff led Los Angeles to the Super Bowl after the 2018 season but was run out of town a couple of years later.  


That tasty matchup takes place next Sunday.



Green Bay 17, Chicago 9


The other NFC North matchup also played a huge role in how the NFC playoff ultimately took shape. 


In a battle of two young promising quarterbacks, Green Bay’s Jordan Love outdueled Chicago’s Justin Fields in a game that should not have been as close as it ultimately was. The Pack more than doubled up Chicago in yardage and averaged a full three yards more per play than did the Bears. Other stats indicate how well Green Bay played on the offensive side of the ball: The Pack committed one penalty, allowed one sack of Love and finished 7-of-10 on third down. They did have one turnover — a Love fumble — but they did not punt once. 


Things were a little uncomfortable for cheeseheads early in the game. The Bears went up 3-0 when a Cairo Santos field goal rang off the left upright but went through. The Packers tried to answer but an Anders Carlson field goal try went wide. 


The Packers finally got on the board midway through the second, driving 92 yards and taking a 7-3 lead, when Love, while backpedaling with pressure in his face, floated a 10-yard pass to WR Dontayvion Wicks. The Wicks-Love connection sparked again in the second half, putting Green Bay up 14-6, on a 12-yard slant pass. 


Santos kicked his second field goal to bring Chicago within five points and stoking the hopes of fans in New Orleans and Seattle. But Green Bay responded with a Carlson field goal make after rookie wideout Jayden Reed went 59 yards on a catch and run to the Bears’ 13. 


Green Bay’s win eliminated the Saints and the Seahawks, who would beat Arizona in the late window. The Packers travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys on Sunday, rekindling one of the game’s more historic and entertaining playoff rivalries.  



Dallas 37, Washington 10


Dak Prescott threw four touchdowns and CeeDee Lamb caught 13 passes as the Cowboys whipped the Commanders to clinch the NFC East and land the No. 2 seed for the playoffs. 


It took a while for the Cowboys to assert themselves. They opened the scoring in the first quarter on a Prescott pass to Jalen Tolbert, but Washington ran off the next 10 points, tying the game on a 4th-and-goal catch by Brian Robinson. That score was set up by the Commanders special teams — Joshua Pryor blocked a field goal attempt by Brandon Aubrey, which was returned 51 yards to the Dallas 20. 


For Aubrey, the blocked kick meant the end of his remarkable streak of perfection to start his career, which stopped at 35 straight field goals. 


A Prescott interception set up a Joey Slye field goal for Washington. Dallas grabbed the game by the throat midway through the second quarter, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions to finish off the first half. The second score came with just 23 seconds left, a four-yard TD catch by Lamb who extended the ball over the goal line as he was being tackled. 


Up 21-10, Dallas dominated the second half, sending a message that reached as far away as the Meadowlands. Another Prescott-to-Lamb connection followed by a Prescott scoring pass to Brandin Cooks put the game away in the third quarter. Aubrey finished off the scoring, starting a new streak with a 50-yard field goal in the fourth.


Despite the far-from-clean start, Dallas doubled the Commanders in yardage gained. The Cowboys racked up four sacks against Sam Howell, who threw two interceptions to secure his league lead (21) in that dubious category. In Howell's defense, playing behind a line that allowed 65 sacks makes it much harder to play error-free football. 


The Cowboys were able to win while resting starting offensive linemen Tyler Smith and Zack Martin. Starting corner Stephon Gilmore did suffer an arm injury and left the game. His status for Sunday’s playoff game is uncertain. As the second seed behind the 49ers, the Cowboys host the Packers this Sunday.



New York Giants 27, Philadelphia 10



Once word filtered up from the nation’s capital that Dallas was handling its business, the Eagles pretty much shut things down. But even before the Cowboys win became far from certain, the damage was done to Philadelphia — both physical and on the scoreboard. 


Late in the first quarter, with the Eagles trailing 3-0, star wideout A.J. Brown fumbled deep in New York territory after catching a slant pass from Jalen Hurts. Worse than the turnover was the knee injury suffered by Brown. He departed and headed to the locker room, not to return. And just before halftime, Hurts injured the middle finger on his throwing hand — either that or he took offense to something said by someone in the viewing audience — after his follow-through smacked the hand of a rushing Giants defender. He also left the game, replaced by Marcus Mariota. By the time of Hurts’ injury, though, the outcomes of this game and the NFC East race were decided.


In the second quarter, the Giants scored TDs on three straight possessions. Two Saquon Barkley scoring runs and a 19-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor to Darius Slayton opened up a 24-0 halftime lead. 


With the Cowboys winning big, the Eagles responded by pulling starters, and the second half was as anticlimactic as could be. Mariota did engineer an Eagles TD drive, but that was little solace given the health status of Brown and Hurts. 


The playing of the two games simultaneously did Philadelphia a disservice — had the Cowboys played Washington in the early window, then the Eagles likely would have rested Brown and Hurts and not exposed them to injury. Now, Philadelphia’s two greatest offensive players are “day to day” heading into a road playoff game. 


Adding insults to injuries, the Eagles stink right now, whether or not they enter the postseason with a fully healthy Brown and Hurts. Philadelphia lost five of their last six games — the same as Jacksonville — and the gritty late-game execution and aura of invincibility the Eagles exhibited through the first 11 games of the season is but a speck in the rear-view. 


The consolation for the Eagles is that, unlike the Jags, they did manage to back their way into more January football. The other salve is that they take on a Tampa team in the first round on Monday that, while conceivably dangerous, is the epitome of NFL mediocrity.  

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