NFL

The First Read, Week 18: Examining playoff picture on final weekend of the 2022 NFL regular season

In this week’s special edition of The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha breaks down the playoff picture ahead of Week 18 of the 2022 NFL season.

It’s been quite the week. The good news is that Bills safety Damar Hamlin has shown significant signs of improvement after suffering a cardiac arrest in Monday night’s game between Buffalo and Cincinnati. The entire league has been watching and praying for any positive updates about Hamlin, who remains hospitalized at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Friday’s news — doctors removed Hamlin’s breathing tube, and he communicated with his teammates and coaches through FaceTime — provided more hope that this story is moving in a better direction.

The other major question that existed since Monday night is how the league would proceed in the wake of that painful event. We now know that Bills-Bengals game will not be resumed. That means the process of deciding postseason spots just became substantially more complicated. Buffalo and Cincinnati — both of whom entered Week 17 vying for the top seed in the AFC — will finish the season with one less game played, and that will impact nearly every other team in contention in that conference.

Week 18 in the NFL already was shaping up to be intriguing theater. It’s even more compelling when you look at how the playoff picture breaks down now. That’s why this week’s First Read column will focus solely on making sense of what lies ahead …

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WHO’S IN?

Before we get into the seeding weeds, let’s take a quick look at who’s already qualified for the postseason. There’s not much room left. The NFC has six spots filled: the Philadelphia Eagles (13-3, currently the No. 1 seed in the conference), San Francisco 49ers (12-4, No. 2), Minnesota Vikings (12-4, No. 3), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8, No. 4), Dallas Cowboys (12-4, No. 5) and New York Giants (9-6-1. No. 6). The AFC has five teams locked in: the Kansas City Chiefs (13-3, currently the No. 1 seed in their conference), Buffalo Bills (12-3, No. 2), Cincinnati Bengals (11-4, No. 3), Los Angeles Chargers (10-6, No. 5) and Baltimore Ravens (10-6, No. 6). The Buccaneers and the Giants clinched in Week 17 after Tampa Bay won the NFC South (with a victory over Carolina) and the Giants snagged the sixth seed. All the AFC teams that have qualified entered Week 17 with playoff berths already in hand.

WHAT’S AT STAKE IN WEEK 18?

The road to the Super Bowl has become a lot more complicated. A league vote created a provision addressing the possibility that the two participants in the AFC Championship Game will have played an unequal number of regular-season games. The simplest explanation is that two things must happen for the AFC Championship Game to be played at a neutral site:

Any other matchup for that contest will end up being played at the home stadium of the team with the highest seed.

There’s also the possibility that the host of a prospective wild-card game between the Bengals and Ravens would be determined by a coin flip. But for that contingency to be implemented, Cincinnati would have to lose its regular-season finale to a Baltimore team operating once again without star quarterback Lamar Jackson.

All that said, the first-round byes remain in play in both conferences. The Chiefs are the front-runner in the AFC after the cancellation of the Bills-Bengals game. If Kansas City beats Las Vegas on Saturday, the Chiefs will have more wins than any other AFC team can muster (14) and the best overall winning percentage. The only way Buffalo can snag the top seed is with a win over New England and a Chiefs loss. The Bengals have clinched the AFC North title, but they cannot advance to the top of the conference — though they do still have a route to a higher seed. If Buffalo loses to the Patriots and Cincinnati beats Baltimore, the Bengals move to the second spot, with Buffalo falling to three.

As for the rest of the AFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8, No. 4 in the AFC) are poised to take the AFC South on Saturday night from a Tennessee Titans team (7-9, No. 11 in the AFC) that has won that division crown the last two seasons. It’s just difficult to see the Titans overcoming all their problems — from multiple injuries to a weak passing attack — and taking down Jacksonville at this stage. The Titans are so desperate at quarterback that they’re starting Josh Dobbs for a second straight game, and he didn’t even join the team until Dec. 21. Jacksonville is younger, healthier and more capable of inflicting damage with an offense led by burgeoning star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

That leaves the last AFC wild-card spot up for grabs between three teams: the New England Patriots (8-8, No. 7 in the AFC), Miami Dolphins (8-8, No. 8 in the AFC) and Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8, No. 9 in the AFC). Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said Friday that Skylar Thompson will start in place of Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) against the Jets — and even with Joe Flacco suiting up for New York, having the rookie under center means this is far from a gimme for Miami. The Patriots could really use a Dolphins defeat, because they’ve got a tough task awaiting them in their second meeting with Buffalo. Buffalo dominated New England earlier this season. Even with everything they’ve endured this week, the Bills are still the better team.

One wrinkle to consider: If Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Miami and New England all fall, all four teams would be 8-9, and the Jaguars would have the tiebreaker, giving them the No. 7 seed.

Finally, respect to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. A few weeks back, it seemed a certainty that he’d be on his way to his first losing season with that franchise. However, the Steelers are 8-8 with a winnable game against Cleveland coming this weekend. Pittsburgh has one of the toughest paths toward grabbing that AFC playoff spot — the Steelers need a win and losses by New England and Miami — but Tomlin deserves credit once again for mining the most out of a young team with obvious limitations.

In the NFC, the Eagles had a stranglehold on the top seed a couple weeks ago, right before they fell to Dallas and New Orleans in consecutive weeks with quarterback Jalen Hurts sidelined with a shoulder sprain. It would be surprising if Hurts, who is “trending in the right direction,” per coach Nick Sirianni, did not find his way onto the field. Even if he’s not 100 percent — and the Eagles’ Sunday opponent, the Giants, have nothing to gain in the finale — Philadelphia can’t risk losing out on that advantage. They have too many injured players who could use a week off, including their quarterback. With the 49ers and Cowboys still in pursuit of that top seed (and Dallas still able to take the NFC East from Philly), there’s even more incentive for the Eagles to handle their business.

The Vikings have a chance at the No. 2 seed, but they can’t fall further than No. 3. Thus, the remaining drama in the conference concerns the No. 7 spot.

Aaron Rodgers is going to have more to say about “the power of manifestation” if his team beats the Lions on Sunday night and qualifies for the playoffs. The Green Bay Packers (8-8, No. 9 in the NFC) were sitting at 4-8 after 12 games. They haven’t lost since that point, and their last two victories have been impressive on both sides of the football. The offense has found a distinctive rhythm in the run game, while Rodgers has apparently developed more trust in his young receivers. The defense has been even more of a revelation. After being inconsistent most of the season, the Packers forced four turnovers in a 26-20 win over Miami and then dominated Minnesota in a 41-17 romp on Sunday.

You want to know how confident the Packers are on defense these days? Cornerback Jaire Alexander told the whole world that Vikings stud receiver Justin Jefferson — who logged an average of 159.7 receiving yards over his three previous games — was going to be contained in Week 17, and Jefferson wound up with one reception for 15 yards. The Packers will need all that energy when they face Detroit.

The Lions (8-8, No. 8 in the NFC) won the first meeting between the two teams, and they’ve been playing great offensively for most of this season. In fact, quarterback Jared Goff hasn’t turned the ball over in his last eight games. Lions head coach Dan Campbell has been preaching toughness to his team for the last two years, so this is the moment when the Lions need to be ready to display that. They don’t control their destiny to the degree that Green Bay does — Detroit only gets in with a win and a loss by Seattle — but this is the biggest game the Lions have played in six years.

As for the final team seeking that seventh seed in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks (8-8, No. 7 in the NFC) finally showed some life in that Jets win after dropping five of six games prior to that. They throttled the Jets on Sunday with the same formula that got them off to such a hot start earlier this season: efficient offense and opportunistic defense. That combination should be good enough to get them past the Rams in the finale, but they still need to root for the Lions in prime time.

SAYING GOODBYE

Let’s take a moment to bid adieu to teams that were eliminated from the playoffs in Week 17. The Carolina Panthers (6-10) gave the Buccaneers a good fight, but their secondary was too beat up to deal with Tom Brady in a division-clinching situation. In retrospect, you had to sense Carolina was in trouble when it convinced Josh Norman to leave his coffee shop in Atlanta to play meaningful snaps at cornerback last week. The bigger question surrounding the Panthers moving forward is what happens with interim head coach Steve Wilks. He displayed an impressive ability to make a listless team believe it could achieve something after Matt Rhule was fired, the best offensive player (running back Christian McCaffrey) was traded away and every veteran quarterback on the roster was tried out under center. You don’t do that unless your players really believe in you.

The Washington Commanders (7-8-1) and New York Jets (7-9) bowed out because they simply couldn’t generate enough offense to compete. Washington — which hasn’t won a game in the last four weeks — only produced 10 points in a loss to a Cleveland Browns team that already had been bounced from contention. Once again, the Commanders have to go into an offseason contemplating how they can find some stability at quarterback.

The Jets ultimately learned that benched quarterback Zach Wilson isn’t the only problem for them on offense, as they suffered through three turnovers in a 23-6 loss to Seattle with Mike White at the reins. The Jets now have gone two straight games without scoring a touchdown. They also extended their league-high postseason drought to 12 seasons. As head coach Robert Saleh told local reporters after that Seattle defeat, there’s a lot that the Jets need to look at this offseason to improve upon a campaign that started with a ton of excitement.

The other teams eliminated on Sunday were the Las Vegas Raiders (6-10) and New Orleans Saints (7-9), which shouldn’t be surprising to anybody. Las Vegas benched quarterback Derek Carr last week, while New Orleans had to win the NFC South to reach the postseason. At least the Saints can say they went out with a nice road win over the Eagles, a victory that was one of their best efforts of the season.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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