The top seeds have been decided.
So has the team picking first in next spring’s draft.
But the complete playoff picture? Plenty is still up for grabs, with a chaotic Week 18 coming.
Through 17 weeks of football, the AFC has just four teams locked into the playoffs, with three spots still to be decided. The Ravens have clinched the top seed. The Chiefs, who wrapped up their eighth straight AFC West title Sunday, are in. So are the Dolphins and Browns.
But there is still no winner yet in the AFC East, with the Bills (10-6) and Dolphins (11-5) set to square off this week in Miami with the division title on the line.
Same goes for the AFC South, where the Jaguars, Colts and Texans all still have a shot.
And the Steelers, after a had-to-have-it win over the Seahawks on Sunday, still have a chance at a wild card berth. The Broncos and Bengals, still holding out hope heading into Sunday, were eliminated from playoff contention.
In the NFC, five spots are locked up, with two still to be decided. The Packers, 8-8 after a big win over the Vikings Sunday night, can clinch one of those with a Week 18 win against the Bears.
And thanks to a stunning loss Sunday, the Eagles have opened the door for the Cowboys in the NFC East.
One spot that has been decided belongs to the Los Angeles Rams, who are now 9-7 after Sunday’s 26-25 win over the Giants. Sean McVay has done some of his best work in 2023, returning a rebuilding team to the postseason when, back in August, many had them pegged for four or five wins. L.A. has won six of its last seven.
Here’s what we learned from Week 17 across the NFL:
1. Ravens, 49ers clinch the top seeds
The top two teams in each conference have locked up the No. 1 seed and the playoff bye that comes with it.
Start with the Ravens, unquestionably the league’s best team across the last month: Baltimore dismantled Miami 56-19 in a game that was all but over after halftime. Six days after routing the 49ers on the road, Lamar Jackson and Co. backed up that performance with a second straight pummeling of a supposed Super Bowl contender.
To summarize, the Ravens have outscored the 49ers and Dolphins — two teams that are a combined 23-9 this year — by 51 points over the last two weeks. Impressive stuff.
And with a sterling, five-touchdown day against Miami, Jackson has firmly established himself as the MVP front-runner with a game to go. Statistics are never going to tell the full story with Jackson, but this one might come closest: since he became the Ravens’ starter in 2019, Jackson is 59-22, including the playoffs. The guy just wins.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Ravens wideout Odell Beckham, Jr. “Look at this team and look at how he leads it, his impact day to day, just small little plays. The play breaks down, all of a sudden he extends the play. There’s just nobody like him.”
The next step for Jackson, then, is to perform in the postseason (so far, Jackson is 1-3 in the playoffs in his career). This year, for the second time, he’ll do so as the starting quarterback for the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
The last time Baltimore had a playoff bye was Jackson’s first full season as the starter, 2019, also the last time he won the league’s MVP award. The Ravens went one-and-done, losing in the divisional round to the Titans.
“We remember ’19,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s not something we’re going to forget.”
The 49ers, meanwhile, shook off last week’s drubbing against the Ravens to bounce back for a 27-10 win over the Commanders, their seventh win in their last eight games. Philadelphia’s surprise loss to Arizona and Detroit’s controversial loss to Dallas Saturday night clinched the NFC’s top seed for the 49ers (12-4).
San Francisco also made a little bit of history Sunday: with running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle, it’s the first time in NFL history a team has had a running back, two wideouts and a tight end each finish with more than 1,000 scrimmage yards.
2. Eagles open the door for Cowboys to win NFC East
The playoffs are inching closer, and the defending NFC champs aren’t right.
In fact, they’re falling apart.
The concerns were evident, even as far back as a month ago, despite Philly ripping off 10 wins in 11 games to start the season. The Eagles were having to rally from half-time deficits seemingly every week. And while they were still good enough to scrape out a bevy of hard-fought wins, they weren’t nearly as buttoned-up as a year ago, weren’t as complete or as daunting, when they steamrolled the NFC on their way to the conference’s top seed and a spot in the Super Bowl.
It left everyone wondering: when was this all going to catch up to them?
We’ve got our answer: it has.
The offense isn’t nearly as potent as a year ago, and the defense is starting to get exposed.
With each passing week, the pressure building on coach Nick Sirianni and his staff to find a solution, it’s only gotten worse.
And still, Sunday’s 35-31 loss to Arizona was stunning for a number of reasons. The Cardinals, coached by former Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, entered the game with just three wins on the year and were in line for the No. 2 pick in the draft.
Philly was up 21-6 at halftime.
But a disastrous collapse — Arizona scored four touchdowns after halftime — clinched the Eagles’ fourth loss in five games. The shift in defensive play-callers, from Sean Desai to Matt Patricia, hasn’t paid off like Sirianni hoped. Across their last six, the Eagles’ defense is giving up more than 31 points a game. Start the blame with the run defense, which was gashed for 221 yards Sunday, including 128 from James Connor.
Losses to the 49ers and Cowboys could be understood, even rationalized. But the Cardinals? With so much on the line?
“We have to go back to the drawing board, think of what we’re doing, ‘How do we get things fixed?’” Sirianni said after the loss. “That’s what’s going to be in our minds. Being concerned doesn’t fix anything.”
At this point, it’s hard to know when — and if — the Eagles coaches are ever going to find the answer.
Because Dallas (also 11-5) owns the tiebreaker over Philadelphia (better conference record), the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East crown with a win over the Commanders next Sunday. That would mean the struggling Eagles, a month ago in the running for the NFC’s top seed, would begin the playoffs on the road. Both the Cowboys and Eagles have clinched postseason berths.
3. Thank you, Panthers: Bears clinch No. 1 pick
For the second straight year, the Chicago Bears will enter the offseason with the top pick in the NFL Draft.
Don’t bet on them trading it this time. Though in this league, it’s probably smart not to rule anything out.
The trade Ryan Poles pulled off last winter has paid off handsomely for Chicago; with the Panthers’ 26-0 loss in Jacksonville on Sunday, Carolina (2-14) has clinched the league’s worst record. And since that pick belongs to the Bears, via last spring’s trade that led to the Panthers selecting Bryce Young first, Chicago will have its choice at the top of the draft this spring between two tantalizing quarterback prospects in USC’s Caleb Williams and UNC’s Drake Maye.
That is, if Chicago indeed decides to move on from Justin Fields, who’s played better of late and even earned some “We want Justin!” chants from the fans at Soldier Field in Sunday’s 37-17 win over the Falcons.
“Of course I heard (the chants),” Bears safety Jaquan Brisker said. “I want Justin. We wall want Justin.”
The Bears, meanwhile, have won three of four after starting 3-8, potentially helping the case for coach Matt Eberflus, who hopes to return for a third season in 2024. Chicago’s currently 7-9 and was eliminated from the playoffs with Green Bay’s win over Minnesota Sunday night.
The Commanders, Patriots and Cardinals (all 4-12) are all in the running for the second pick in April’s draft.
4. AFC East Championship Game coming in Miami
It was an awful afternoon for the Dolphins, not simply because their 56-19 loss in Baltimore killed their shot at the AFC’s top seed. The injuries are piling up, and they’re coming at the worst possible time.
The Dolphins’ loss, coupled with the Bills’ 27-21 victory over New England, sets up a winner-take-all Week 18 clash for the AFC East title next Sunday in Miami. While the Dolphins are 11-5 and the Bills 10-6, Buffalo owns the tiebreaker because of a 48-20 win in Week 4. A Bills’ victory this week would mean a season sweep, giving them the decisive edge in the tiebreaker.
At this point, these are two teams surging in different directions. The Bills, left for dead by most pundits in mid-November, are 5-1 since firing offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, the only loss coming in overtime to the Eagles.
The Dolphins, once 9-3, have lost two of their last four, opening the door for the Bills in a division race that’s been theirs to lose since the midway point in the season. And they’re hurting. Jaylen Waddle has been battling a high ankle sprain and might not be able to play next week. Tyreek Hill’s fought through an ankle injury of his own. And now, the Dolphins fear they’ve lost pass rusher Bradley Chubb for the season.
While the Dolphins have clinched a playoff spot, the Bills have not. They could finish as high as No. 2 in the AFC or miss the playoffs altogether.
Still, they own a 91 percent shot of advancing to the postseason, per The New York Times playoff simulator. More than anything, if the Bills lose to the Dolphins, they’ll be rooting very hard for a Steelers loss in Baltimore.
5. Colts and Texans face a winner-is-in Week 18.
A year ago, the Colts and Texans met in Week 18 in Indianapolis, two struggling, lost franchises putting the bow on what had been disastrously disappointing seasons.
On Saturday, they’ll meet with a playoff spot on the line.
And with a little help from their friends in Tennessee, both teams still have a chance at a division title.
Two of the NFL’s more remarkable turnaround seasons have occurred in the AFC South, and both coaches deserve a spot in the Coach of the Year conversation (where Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski is a deserved front-runner). In Houston, DeMeco Ryans has completely revitalized a downtrodden franchise that was going nowhere before he got there; in Indianapolis, Shane Steichen cleaned up the mess that was the Colts last year, and did so mostly without his top pick, quarterback Anthony Richardson.
Thanks to wins by the Jaguars, Colts and Texans on Sunday, all three are 9-7 and still alive in the division race. But since Jacksonville owns both tiebreakers, it remains the Jags’ division to lose. If they beat the Titans on Sunday, they claim their second straight AFC South title. The Colts-Texans winner on Saturday night would earn a wild card berth.
But if the Jags lose, the Colts-Texans winner would clinch the division title at 10-7.
Beyond the AFC East, AFC South and NFC East, the only other division winner not yet determined is the NFC South. Both the Bucs and Saints are 8-8, and the Bucs currently own the tiebreaker thanks to a slight edge in conference record. Tampa has the better matchup in Week 18, a game against lowly Carolina (2-14). The Saints will face the Falcons, who’ve lost three of their last four and are 7-9.
(Photo of Isaiah Likely: Todd Olszewski / Getty Images)
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