The Bills-Bengals cancelation led to a historic NFL compromise, but the Chiefs still snared the AFC's top seed as a result. Races for the two No. 7 seeds required game-winning field goals, while Lovie Smith ended up helping his former team land the No. 1 overall pick. Here are the Week 18 grades from around the league.
Mac Jones took a significant step back in his second season, to the point the Patriots' QB outlook again appears foggy. The team's two kick-return touchdowns allowed -- against a far more talented opponent -- gave Jones little margin for error, and his two red zone INTs provided Josh Allen more than enough runway to make the Pats pay. Jones' 14 TD passes in 14 games came as New England (8-9) dropped from sixth to 17th in scoring offense and 15th to 26th in points. Belichick's Matt Patricia play-caller gamble proved an extraordinarily bad decision at a crucial point in his QB's career. The Pats' defensive safety net should exist as long as Belichick is there, but his managerial error cost the team a playoff berth. Will he hire an actual offensive coordinator?
PATRIOTS GRADE: C-minus
The NFL moving the kickoff line back to the 35 in 2011 minimized the kick-return game; no one had taken back two kickoffs in the same game since the change. Hines, acquired at the trade deadline, became the first to do so since the Seahawks' Leon Washington in 2010. It galvanized a Bills team dealing with a range of emotions. Allen responded from his 14th INT with two marvelous deep strikes, leading Buffalo (13-3) to the AFC's No. 2 seed. It does not feel right the Bills, after beating the Chiefs in Missouri, lost the No. 1 seed because of Hamlin's cardiac arrest. The Bills' ceiling remains higher than anyone's, and the neutral-site compromise helps. But losing the bye week could prove critical with another Bengals tilt on the horizon.
BILLS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: vs. Dolphins (Sun.)
Jamaal Williams' latest visit to his original NFL stomping grounds became the backdrop to the ex-Aaron Jones sidekick finishing an unfathomable season. Williams' two rushing TDs gave him 17, breaking Barry Sanders' 31-year-old Lions record. Jared Goff, not exactly known for his cold-weather chops, drove the Lions (9-8) past the Packers with two fourth-down conversions and is now the seventh QB to throw 300 consecutive passes without a pick. Detroit's O-line won against a Green Bay front (zero sacks, three QB hits) that dominated Minnesota. The Frank Ragnow- and Penei Sewell-powered line unleashed Williams, finishing that season-long effort by creating a wide lane for a game-winning TD, and helped Goff back on track.
LIONS GRADE: A-minus
The Lions' win prevents a 10th Packers-49ers playoff clash and ensures all six wild-card games are rematches. It also ushers in a familiar routine for the Packers, whose annual Aaron Rodgers uncertainty is moving toward the Brett Favre zone. Green Bay erred by not doing enough to give Rodgers a veteran receiving presence; the Packers (8-9) would be a playoff team with a better effort there. But they have a decision to make re: Rodgers, who is flirting with retirement. The Packers must pay Rodgers a $58.3 million roster bonus at any point in 2023, putting a trade into play for a third straight offseason. Failing to vanquish the Lions -- and seeing Quay Walker commit a ridiculous penalty that aided their go-ahead drive -- with a playoff spot on the line is inexcusable.
PACKERS GRADE: D
Reports point to McVay waffling on returning for a seventh Rams season. The team extended the Super Bowl-winning head coach last year amid previous McVay exit rumors, but nothing went to plan this year. The Rams do not have much for young cornerstones; their stars are moving toward the "aging" label. But McVay certainly played a lead role in the Rams (5-12) reaching this point -- perpetually chasing stars and sacrificing valuable draft capital. McVay, 36, leaving now would be a historically early sabbatical, and bolting after one bad season -- and ahead of what could be a cliff due to the team's moves -- would present iffy optics. More than anything, the franchise-changing HC leaving would crush the Rams and deal a surprise blow to the NFL's Los Angeles market.
RAMS GRADE: B-minus
The Seahawks entered Sunday 0-13 over the past two years when behind after three quarters, and more Geno Smith rockiness put them on the ropes. Smith threw two INTs and saw the Rams bungle a potential third. But the Seahawks persevered, thanks largely to Ken Walker's 114-yard rushing day. Back in the form that launched an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, Walker delivered change-of-direction scampers to keep the Seahawks afloat and eventually set up Jason Myers' game-winning field goal. Walker dropped his third straight 100-yard game and fifth this season, becoming the first Seattle rookie to rush for 1,000 yards since Curt Warner (1983). The Hawks (9-8) may be a sitting duck for the 49ers, but their season was not exactly expected to extend this far.
SEAHAWKS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: at 49ers (Sat.)
Robert Saleh oversaw the Jets' improvement from being the NFL's worst defense in 2021 to fielding a top-10 unit this season. But the team closed the season with seven straight losses. An offense held down by what looks like a mega-bust at QB (Zach Wilson) and injuries pushed the Jets (7-10) to this place. The team closed the season with 31 consecutive touchdown-less drives. It is hard to make a case this issue would not be mitigated with even average quarterback play, so firing OC Mike LaFleur -- a Kyle Shanahan protégé dealt a bad hand in Wilson -- seems premature. But it does seem like someone will pay for this collapse. With a new starting QB almost certainly coming, the Jets' young wideouts may well need to learn a new system as well.
JETS GRADE: C
The solid day from Miami's backfield (143 combined yards from Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert) aside, the Dolphins (9-8) join the Ravens as playoff nonfactors in their current form. QB3 Skylar Thompson averaged 4.9 yards per attempt in an ugly triumph over the depleted Jets. The Bills will mow down this Dolphins version, and they probably will not have much trouble with a Teddy Bridgewater-led outfit. Tua Tagovailoa remains in concussion protocol two weeks after suffering either his second or third head injury this season. Mike McDaniel will face a dilemma, should Tua receive clearance. Can Miami play him? The Dolphins started then-backup Matt Moore in their most recent playoff game; it appears more likely than not they will roll with a similar setup six years later.
DOLPHINS GRADE: C-plus | NEXT: at Bills (Sun.)
Watt's performance this season -- his best in four years -- made a case for a 13th year, while his renewed health presented one for leaving at the right time. Watt's two sacks Sunday gave him 12.5 in his finale, and 49ers fans gave the all-time great a standing ovation. The Cardinals (4-13) now must face an ugly reality. They committed to the wrong GM-HC combo. Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury are about to go from signing through-2027 deals to being canned. Aging starters headline Arizona's O-line, pass-catching corps, and backfield (Year 7 is aging for a running back, in James Conner's case). It is odd to suggest blowing up a team that just authorized a franchise-QB deal, but the Cards need a reset.
CARDINALS GRADE: D
A starter-for-hire for many years, Gipson bounced from Cleveland to Jacksonville to Houston to Chicago from 2012-21. He was a stopgap for three playoff teams in that span. At 32, Gipson is still going in that role for the highest-ceiling team of his career. The 49ers (13-4) have used Gipson at safety in all 17 games; his presence has allowed the league's No. 1 defense to keep its best five DBs on the field, with the versatile Jimmie Ward seeing increased slot duty. Gipson picked up his fourth and fifth INTs this season Sunday. The picks led to 10 49ers points. This game also involved Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell retuning for the 49ers, who zoomed past the Cardinals and present the NFC's most formidable operation entering the playoffs.
49ERS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Seahawks (Sat.)
The Giants forced the Eagles to kick five field goals; their backups oddly fared far better against Philly than their starters did last month. While the Giants (9-7-1) did not show interest in winning, they hung around to the point a third Eagles matchup might not present clear blowout prospects for the NFC's No. 1 seed. Showcasing their new staff's coaching chops, the Giants displayed growth in each of their rematches this season. They now draw maybe the most vulnerable 13-win team in modern NFL history. After smartly resting its key principals, New York will be a live underdog in Minnesota. Had this unlikely window opened in 2021, the Giants would have faced the Rams. Fortunately, Big Blue's timetable pits them against a 31st-ranked defense.
GIANTS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: at Vikings (Sun.)
The Eagles finished the regular season with 70 sacks -- tied for the third-most in the sack era (1982-present) -- and A.J. Brown broke Mike Quick's 39-year-old single-season receiving yardage record on Philly's first drive. The Eagles have a No. 1 seed for the second time in six seasons, but the well-rounded version that destroyed teams before Jalen Hurts' injury could not bury the Giants' second-stringers. An MVP candidate before his shoulder injury, Hurts finished with a 24.9 QBR and, per Next Gen Stats, went 0-for-9 on plays with at least 2.5 seconds to throw. There will be considerable pressure on the 14-3 team coming out of the bye; dominance has proven elusive since its Meadowlands trip a month ago.
EAGLES GRADE: C-plus | NEXT: bye
Ravens-Bengals looks to be the first of NBC's two playoff selections; the AFC North rubber match's Sunday-night placement proves mildly surprising. Baltimore (10-7) poses little threat to a superior Cincinnati squad with either Tyler Huntley or Anthony Brown. Either playing presents a reality in which the Lamar Jackson contract impasse may become second-half conversation fodder for the Mike Tirico-Cris Collinsworth duo. The Ravens have not scored more than one touchdown in a game since Jackson's Week 13 PCL injury, though they rested key starters Sunday and gave Brown little chance at triggering the coin-toss scenario. This is verging on a lost season for the Ravens, who may need to compete with a Jackson franchise-tag salary on the books come September.
RAVENS GRADE: C | NEXT: at Bengals (Sun.)
Bengals fury over potentially losing out on a home playoff game commandeered multiple news cycles in the wake of the NFL's compromise plan. Fortunately, that part of the equation is over. The Bengals' defense teed off on Brown. Bates forced two turnovers, intercepting a pass and later stripping the ball from Sammy Watkins. The franchise-tagged safety has a career-high four INTs. With the Bills submitting a mistake-prone second half and the Chiefs gifted an unimposing docket since their Bengals loss, Cincinnati (12-4) may present the AFC's highest floor. Deprived of the chance to upend the Bills for the No. 2 seed, the Bengals will likely need to display it in Buffalo and Kansas City. There have been 17 instances of teams booking back-to-back Super Bowl berths. None have done so on the road both times.
BENGALS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: vs. Ravens (Sun.)
Locked into the NFC's No. 6 seed, the Giants managed to rest the bulk of their top talent and will head to Minnesota unscathed. The Chargers guaranteed the AFC's No. 5 slot, inexplicably used their starters well into the fourth quarter. Keenan Allen, who missed nearly half the season with a hamstring injury, played throughout. Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, and Derwin James were on the field until the final stanza. The Chargers (10-7) would seemingly have followed suit with Joey Bosa (12 missed games this season) and Mike Williams (four), except each suffered injuries. While Williams' back X-rays were negative, despite being carted to the locker room, Brandon Staley -- in charge of a notoriously injury-prone team -- bungled a free bye and did not even pick up a win to show for it.
CHARGERS GRADE: D-plus | NEXT: at Jaguars (Sat.)
In what would be one of the prime Rooney Rule mockeries, the Broncos are believed to have agreed on trade compensation with the Saints for Sean Payton. While an interview and a hire have not happened, Payton would be the highest-profile Broncos HC since Mike Shanahan. His interest in Denver and Russell Wilson is not fully known, but if the process has progressed this far, the 16-year Saints leader likely views this as an acceptable spot. Wilson finished off a miserable season well, averaging 11.8 yards per attempt (his fourth-best career mark) and delivering two of his best throws all season -- both to Jerry Jeudy, who totaled a career-high 154 yards. Denver's Wilson trade leaves limited draft assets to give New Orleans, but salvaging Wilson, Jeudy, and Co. may make the high cost worth it.
BRONCOS GRADE: A
Calling the Cowboys the NFC's Chargers may be harsh; the former offers greater playoff frequency. But the Cowboys match the Chargers' unreliability; their streak of seasons without a conference championship game cameo far outpaces the Bolts'. Dallas (12-5) delivered its worst game all season, losing by three scores against a Washington team playing a third-string quarterback. Dak Prescott played 3 1/2 quarters, throwing a pick-six and completing 14 of 37 passes. Special teams mistakes raised Dak's degree of difficulty, but this was a shocking loss. The Buccaneers beat the Cowboys 19-3 in Week 1. Just as it looked like the Cowboys had moved well ahead of the underwhelming Bucs, suddenly, the upcoming trip to Florida looks dicey.
COWBOYS GRADE: F | NEXT: at Buccaneers (Mon.)
Sam Howell outplaying Prescott, offering intrigue as a passer and a runner, gave the Commanders a .500 season (8-8-1) and supplies promise heading into what looked like another sobering offseason. The fifth-round rookie's cutback touchdown run preceded a Commander mob in the end zone, and his 52-yard dime to Terry McLaurin marked one of the team's season highlights. Sunday should not be enough for the Commanders, who are all but certain to cut Carson Wentz and save $26.2M, to avoid diving back into the QB pool. But after Wentz's dud against the Browns, this should save Ron Rivera's job. Because what better option would want to take over with Dan Snyder still running the show?
COMMANDERS GRADE: A-plus
The Eagles and Cowboys are limping into the playoffs; the Vikings boast by far the worst defense left; the 49ers ransacked the Buccaneers last month but still use a third-string QB. The best version of the Bucs (8-9), shamefully, has a sneaky chance to make noise in the NFC. But Tampa Bay has confoundingly looked little like its past two versions, despite similar personnel. Still, Tom Brady showed in Week 17 he remains capable of high-end play. Brady broke his own single-season completion mark in Atlanta before leaving the game, adding 13 to his ledger (for a season-closing 490). With the NFC lacking a superpower, the door is slightly ajar for the Bucs. Though, they have far less margin for error compared to their 2020 and '21 iterations.
BUCCANEERS GRADE: D | NEXT: vs. Cowboys (Mon.)
Although he has received a fraction of the attention Ken Walker and even Breece Hall have, Tyler Allgeier crossed the 1,000-yard barrier in the Falcons' finale. His 4.9-yard average surpasses Walker. Allgeier slithered past the Bucs' front seven -- albeit partially against backups -- often Sunday, totaling 135 yards. This was only Allgeier's second 100-yard game, making Offensive Rookie of the Year acclaim unlikely. Allgeier broke the Falcons' record for most rookie-year rushing yards, topping the underrated William Andrews' mark from 1979. The Falcons (7-10) end their season with questions at many positions, including quarterback, but they found their backfield answer in Round 5.
FALCONS GRADE: A-minus
Against a Bears team rolling out the red carpet -- as the No. 1 pick being in the balance -- the Vikings intercepted two passes and allowed their fewest points (13) since Week 1. Nathan Peterman and Tim Boyle were factored in prominently here, and the Vikings (13-4) entered this throwaway game 31st in total defense and in scoring. Only one 13-win team has ever lost in the wild-card round -- the 2019 Saints, who fell to the Vikings -- but Ed Donatell's defense puts Minnesota in danger of doubling that list. Daniel Jones' 30 completions in Minnesota marked a career-high. While the Vikes were not expected to come near 13 wins this season, it still looks strange to see a defense of this caliber attached to that win total.
VIKINGS GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Giants (Sun.)
Although the Bears-Texans competition brought drama, the NFL needs to consider a lottery. Absent one, the Bears' 10-game losing streak ended with the franchise having the chance to make a No. 1 overall pick for the first time in 76 years (trivia). The Bears (3-14) sitting Justin Fields, and the team receiving an improbable gift from former HC Lovie Smith, sets them up for April. After not having a first-round pick in three of the past five years, the Bears can take one of the impact SEC D-linemen (Georgia's Jalen Carter, Alabama's Will Anderson) or try for a Jared Goff- or Carson Wentz-type bounty from a QB-seeking team. With the top pick and an early gargantuan cap-space lead, GM Ryan Poles' rebuild resides in an ideal place entering Year 2.
BEARS GRADE: C-minus
It took two fourth-and-long conversions -- the second of which was a short-range Hail Mary that landed in Jordan Akins' arms without much Colts resistance -- and a do-or-die two-pointer, but the Texans won their season series against the Colts. This did not save Smith's job, but the three-time head coach delivered a parting gift to a team needing to find a fourth coach in four years. The Texans (3-13-1) have made two of the oddest coaching hires in recent memory, adding 60-somethings (Smith, David Culley) when no one else had either on their radar. GM Nick Caserio played the Deshaun Watson trade brilliantly, but the ex-Patriots exec's coaching searches have been so baffling it seems like his job is unsafe. Now without the No. 1 pick, Houston remains on an old-school rebuild track.
TEXANS GRADE: B-plus
The Colts have replaced the Jaguars as an AFC bottom-feeder, turning in one of the worst second halves to a season in years. The Gus Bradley-led defense, which deteriorated considerably, offering a horrendous Hail Mary deterrence effort, does give the Colts (4-12-1) their highest draft choice (No. 4) since Andrew Luck 11 years ago. The draft is GM Chris Ballard's strength, and the Colts are in prime quarterback territory at 4. But the team has slipped into chaos. Jim Irsay's meddling has changed the franchise's path, and although the erratic owner insists Ballard is staying, the events of the past year have made this an undesirable situation. The Colts will have a tough time attracting good coaching or GM candidates (in the event Ballard is out).
COLTS GRADE: D
The Browns saw another player (Jadeveon Clowney) go rogue, following Odell Beckham Jr.'s example, and wrapped up yet another disappointing season. Clowney's explosive comments only ding the team's reputation, as he is on the way out. But the Browns (7-10) are tethered to Watson for a while. The only cheap cap number on Watson's record-smashing contract ended with the embattled passer finally throwing his first TD passes as a Brown on Sunday. He finishes with two in six games. Watson showed more flashes of his Houston version but also threw two ugly INTs. Nick Chubb also was less effective with Watson compared to Jacoby Brissett. This will be a crucial offseason for the Browns, who will see Watson's cap figure rise from $9 million to a record $54.9M.
BROWNS GRADE: D-plus
Alex Highsmith's extension price keeps climbing. The former third-round pick totaled two more sacks in Week 18 and finishes the season with 14. Highsmith not only more than doubled his previous career sack high, but his five forced fumbles lead the league. The Steelers are believed to be eyeing a Highsmith extension. Still, with T.J. Watt the NFL's highest-paid edge defender, that plan -- with Minkah Fitzpatrick also the league's second-highest-paid safety -- looks more difficult after this breakthrough season. Although the Steelers lost their five-year sack title to the Eagles and did not see dominoes fall their way for a playoff berth, Highsmith, Watt, and Cam Heyward did plenty to help Mike Tomlin take this team from 2-6 to 9-8.
STEELERS GRADE: A-minus
Last March, the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons were Watson finalists. After the Browns' shocking extension offer, Watson's plans of playing in the NFC South changed. The Panthers (7-10) went with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. The latter offered more hope but closed his contract year with one of the worst QB performances anyone posted all season. Darnold went 5-for-15 for 43 yards and two INTs. Somehow, Carolina prevailed. Darnold, following a 341-yard effort with this, could cause trouble for his free agency. Seeking a QB upgrade for a fourth straight offseason, the Panthers cannot make Darnold more than a contingency plan.
PANTHERS GRADE: C
Holding Darnold to that stat line and losing ends a forgettable Saints season. New Orleans rostered veterans across its defense and along its O-line but gave Andy Dalton 14 starts. With Jameis Winston buried and the Saints (7-10) having dealt their 2023 first-round pick for a 2022 asset (Chris Olave), this almost has to be a Derek Carr pursuer. No GM outflanks Mickey Loomis when it comes to cap maneuvering, though adding a $40.4 million bonus would be new territory for a GM that had Drew Brees on $25M-per-year contracts for years. The Saints, per usual, are dead last in cap space. Unless they believe Jimmy Garoppolo will begin a run of good health as he heads toward his mid-30s, this is a prime team for the 31-year-old Carr.
SAINTS GRADE: C-minus
Dobbs putting the Jaguars on the ropes (and surely frightening TV execs concerned of this Titans edition's ratings impact) reflects well on the journeyman backup's ability and persistence. The 17th-day Titan played much better than Malik Willis, whose aerial nothingness did little to indicate he is Ryan Tannehill's heir apparent, and nearly made Tennessee's injury-wrecked lineup a playoff squad. Dobbs, who entered December with 17 pass attempts in six seasons, made a decent case for a backup job somewhere. The Titans (7-10) can rely on Mike Vrabel, but they took on too much water this season. Their formula of the past few years crumbling points to Jon Robinson's GM replacement facing big decisions.
TITANS GRADE: B
Rarely does an injured reserve disparity reach the level Saturday night's game brought. The Jaguars have five players on IR; the Titans entered the game with 23. Yet Jacksonville's run game did next to nothing, and its defense repeatedly struggled to halt Dobbs-to-tight end connections. Fortunately for the uneven but intriguing Jags (9-8), Rayshawn Jenkins and Josh Allen's forced fumbles prevented what would have been an agonizing loss. Allen and defensive end Arden Key combined for 13 pressures. The Jags, who evaded the Saturday afternoon wild-card timeslot usually reserved for the AFC South, are the division's only team on an upward trajectory.
JAGUARS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. Chargers (Sat.)
The Chiefs finally smashed the gas pedal, pummeling the Raiders. Continuing a push to overtake Aaron Donald as the league's premier D-tackle, Chris Jones upped his sack total to 15.5. The Chiefs (14-3) also bring more run-game punch into these playoffs, via the Isiah Pacheco-Jerick McKinnon minimum-salary tandem. The Bills losing their path to the No. 1 seed because of a horrifying injury overshadows the AFC playoffs, especially with the Chiefs losing to Buffalo and Cincinnati. This is not the best Patrick Mahomes-era Chiefs team, but the likely MVP is 4-for-4 in the divisional round. And the unprecedented cancelation allows Kansas City to avoid Cincinnati in Round 2. Coasting along for a stretch, the Chiefs have a clear path -- the neutral-site wrinkle notwithstanding -- to Super Bowl LVII.
CHIEFS GRADE: A | NEXT: bye
The Raiders (6-11) are set to unload Derek Carr at the same time Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo will be free agents points to Josh McDaniels attempting to secure a reunion. McDaniels viewing Brady, who will be 46 by Week 1 of the 2023 season, as a clear Carr upgrade would be quite bold. Jon Gruden considered Brady too old at 43. But the players with the firmest grasps of McDaniels' offense are each free agents-to-be. McDaniels attempted to trade for one of his Patriots pupils during his first head coaching go-round, a Matt Cassel pursuit that alienated Jay Cutler in 2009, and with perhaps one more season to show Mark Davis he can be the rare ex-Pats coach to succeed on his own, entrusting the gig to perhaps the draft's third or fourth QB prospect is dicey.
RAIDERS GRADE: F
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.
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