NFL Week 18: Win or go home for some teams

Dec 31, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA;  Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws during the first half against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws during the first half against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For some playoffs-hungry teams and their fans, it all comes down to this weekend, as a handful of win-or-go-home games promise to inject Week 18 with the drama found throughout a scintillating 2023 season.


There are two games on Saturday, both ripe with playoff meaning. In some of Sunday's games, players will be watching the scoreboard as much as the guys lining up across from them. 


And the weekend — the 2023 regular season, in fact — culminates with an AFC East showdown: Miami hosting the visiting Bills for the division title.


Of course, a number of teams locked into playoff spots will rest their top players. With all the starters for both teams who could sit this one out, you’d think teams were preparing for an important bowl game. But other squads, the handful with a playoff appearance on the line, will play with a postseason focus and intensity, whether squaring off against starters or substitutes.


Let us take a look at this weekend's slate of games, starting with Saturday's doubleheader. 





Pittsburgh (9-7) at Baltimore (13-3), 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN


The resumption of one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries closes out the season for both teams. The Steelers, who seemed dead in the water before back-to-back wins, need a victory and help to make it to the playoffs: The most direct path is a Steelers win coupled with either a Buffalo or Jacksonville loss. 


QB Mason Rudolph starts his third straight game for Pittsburgh, and he was solid to terrific in wins over Cincinnati and Seattle. It will be interesting to whether star wideout George Pickens will work himself free from Ravens DBs and whether the Pittsburgh OL can give Rudolph time to find him.


If Baltimore opts to rest starters on defense, then Rudolph and Pickens might be set up for big afternoons. 


Baltimore is simply the best team in the conference, probably all of football, as demonstrated by their last two thrashing wins, both over quality teams. But the No. 1-seeded Ravens have nothing to play for so MVP-in-waiting Lamar Jackson will sit. Backup Tyler Huntley replaces him, a move that tilts the scales to Pittsburgh. And the Steelers will not be looking this gift horse in the mouth — the chance to lock down a playoff spot while being spared from chasing Jackson is a win-win.


But Pittsburgh and Baltimore being the rivals they are, we sense the Ravens, even the second-stringers, will play inspired football, and their running game will still dominate a mediocre Steelers defense. Baltimore 22, Pittsburgh 14.



Houston (9-7) at Indianapolis (9-7), 8:15 ET, ESPN


The stakes are high. At the very least, a wild card spot goes to the winner of this game. A loss for either ends their seasons. The Texans will take the AFC South title if they win and the Jaguars lose Sunday.


Betting in August that the Texans would be in a win-or-go-home position in Week 18 would’ve won you a lot of money. A Texans win and they become the first team with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback to make the playoffs since the Colts in 2012 (Chuck Pagano, Andrew Luck).


That rookie quarterback, C.J. Stroud, is set finish off one of the most impressive seasons ever by a first-year signal-caller, especially if he leads his team into the postseason. For that to happen on the road, Houston needs to protect Stroud better than it did In the teams’ first matchup in Week 2, when the Colts pressured Stroud a ridiculous 25 times. 


One way to offset that pressure is to feature RB Devin Singletary and the ground game. His production is often hit or miss, but when Singletary runs effectively, the Texans’ offense is very tough to stop.


Expect the underdog Colts to turn again to running back Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 96 yards in the win over Vegas last week. Gardiner Minshew and Michael Pittman Jr. are developing into a potent QB-WR combination, but it is critical that Minshew continues to play error-free football.


Stroud, with one game under his belt since his return, will be sharper and Nico Collins, who posted 146 yards receiving in the Week 2 game, will enjoy another consequential evening. Houston 27, Indianapolis 23.





Tampa Bay (8-8) at Carolina (3-13), 1 p.m. ET


Pretty simple formula for the Bucs. Win and they claim the NFC South. They could also clinch if with a tie if New Orleans ties or falls to Atlanta.


Baker Mayfield looks to post his fifth straight game with two or more touchdown passes, and WR Mike Evans torched the Carolina secondary for seven catches and 162 yards in the Week 13 matchup between these two teams. Still, Carolina’s pass defense is one of the league’s best, and the Bucs likely need more from RB Rachaad White on the ground this week than what he’s given them the last two games (81 rushing yards combined). He ran for 80 yards rushing against Carolina in Week 13.


After his first ever 300-yard passing day, Bryce Young came back to earth in the blowout loss to Jacksonville. He will need to play better for Carolina to move the ball and push for an upset. With 127 yards passing against Tampa, Young will join Cam Newton as the only Carolina rookie quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards.


Young will reach that milestone, but we see Mayfield returning to form and the Tampa defense clamping down on Chuba Hubbard and the Panthers running game. Tampa 23, Carolina 10.



Cincinnati (8-8) at Cleveland (11-5), 1 p.m. ET


Cincinnati’s playoff hopes were officially doomed when they lost in Kansas City and Pittsburgh toppled Seattle. Some of the bloom found on Jake Browning’s exceptional play a few weeks ago fell away as the Bengals dropped their last two games, both on the road. To beat the Browns, Browning will need to perform something along the lines of when he dazzled a Monday night national audience against Jacksonville. 


And that could happen since the Browns have nothing to play for either. Joe Flacco, he of 13 touchdown passes and a 4-1 mark since taking the helm at quarterback, will not play. Seems silly to risk star defensive end Myles Garrett. But Cleveland is now used to playing without key pieces on both sides of the ball, and that experience will payoff against the Bengals. Cleveland 16, Cincinnati 14.



Atlanta (7-9) at New Orleans (8-8), 1 p.m. ET


Two teams who will be looking at the scoreboard Sunday as often as they look at each other. Coupled with a Tampa Bay loss to Carolina, the winner of this long-time rivalry game takes the NFC South. If the Falcons win (and the Bucs lose), the three teams finished tied for first at 8-9, but the Falcons win the title based on tiebreakers. 


The Falcons’ last two games crystallized their up-and-down 2023 season — a decisive win over visiting Indianapolis followed by a dreadful road loss in Chicago. And the team’s quarterback play both reflects and fuels that inconsistency. Taylor Heinicke was solid versus the Colts but threw three INTs against Chicago. An ankle injury makes Heinicke’s status for Sunday uncertain, which means the team will likely go back to Mr. Nice Guy Desmond Ridder, who has been benched in favor of Heinicke multiple times this season. Whoever lines up behind center needs to put the ball in the hands of Drake London and Kyle Pitts — not an easy thing against the physical and fast Saints defense.


That defense was terrific in New Orleans’ crucial win over Tampa Bay. Whether they see Heinicke or Ridder, the Saints’ D should see opportunities for game-changing turnovers, and this will offset another bland but possibly efficient day from quarterback Derek Carr. The Saints still have not figured out their red-zone issues, which gives Atlanta a key edge. The Falcons’ defense is top 10 in keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone. We are banking on Carr finding star wideout Chris Olave for a couple of red-zone TDs. New Orleans 27, Atlanta 13.



Jacksonville (9-7) at Tennessee (5-11), 1 p.m. ET


Jacksonville wins the AFC South title by beating Tennessee. If the Jaguars lose, then things may become a bit screwy: they can lose but still win the South if the Texans lose to or tie Indy. They could lose and still land a wild card spot if the Steelers fall to Baltimore — but a loss to Tennessee and wins by Houston and Pittsburgh knocks the Jags completely out of the postseason.


Jacksonville’s 2023 is a reverse image of last year, when they made a late-season charge to reach the postseason. Presently, they are limping to the finish lines, losers of four of their last five games. The injuries to Christian Kirk and Trevor Lawrence has knocked the offense off course. Either an injured Lawrence — still questionable with an AC joint sprain on his throwing shoulder — or C.J. Beathard, who played OK in the jags blowout win Sunday, could surely use a repeat performance from Travis Etienne Jr. (102 yards against Carolina) against the Titans.


The Jags must hope that Tennessee’s rookie quarterback Will Levis does not play on Sunday. Levis, practicing this week through an ankle injury, has the gunslinger mentality that could rise to the moment in the role of spoiler. 


Is this Mike Vrabel’s final game? Rumors of his seat warming circled for weeks. Will knocking a division rival out of the playoffs save his job? Probably not, but we’re going with the “upset” all the same. Tennessee 17, Jacksonville 13.



Minnesota (9-7) at Detroit (5-11), 1 p.m. ET


Detroit's objective Sunday is pretty straightforward. Beat the Vikings and hope both the Eagles and Dallas lose, which will move the Lions into the No. 2 seed. 


Because both Dallas and Philadelphia play later, there will be no scoreboard watching at Ford Field. There is an argument to be made for Detroit accepting the No. 3 seed and resting its starters. However, Lions head coach Dan Campbell said he intends to play his starters, to "...use our full arsenal and go win this game," moments before revealing that he and OC Ben Johnson spent the week designing two-point conversion plays from the 35-yard line.


The Lions come off an enormously dispiriting and controversial loss to Dallas, which cost them a legit shot at the No. 2 seed. They catch a Vikings team with a huge hole at quarterback and reeling from a terrible effort in losing at home to Green Bay. Expect the physical Lions to run the ball successfully against a blitzing Minnesota defense, and for Jared Goff to help Sam LaPorta set an NFL record for most catches by rookie tight end. LaPorta needs just one catch to break a tie with former Eagles' TE Keith Jackson. (He's three TD receptions away from tying Mike Ditka's mark of 12 scoring catches by a first-year tight end.)


Hard not to feel bad for Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and the rest of the talented Vikings offense. Though Josh Dobbs came through with a couple of memorable performances in midseason, the loss of QB Kirk Cousins gutted this team and ultimately doomed their postseason chances. Nick Mullens will start once again in Week 18, but the Lions defense will overwhelm him. Detroit 34, Minnesota 9.



Seattle at Arizona, 4:25 p.m. ET


The Seahawks do not control their destiny, but whatever their chances are of making the postseason depends first on beating Arizona. 


If that happens, and Green Bay falls to Chicago, the ‘Hawks are in the playoffs. Interestingly, the Pack-Bears game is a late game, coinciding with Seattle-Arizona. So if Seattle jumps out to a commanding lead, you can bet Seattle coaches and players on the sideline will be watching the scoreboard as much as what’s happening on the field.


QB Geno Smith played a solid game in the disappointing loss to Pittsburgh. Though he did not throw a pick his fumble in the fourth quarter was a killer — his turnovers always seem to be — and any gifts Smith serves up on Sunday is one step closer to an Arizona upset. Smith and D.K. Metcalf (106 yards receiving) reestablished their chemistry against Pittsburgh and look to wreak havoc against a decent Arizona pass defense.


The Cardinals come off easily their most impressive win of the season over Philadelphia. Kyler Murray threw three TDs, but running back James Conner was a force with 26 carries and 126 yards on the ground. Seattle’s run defense is as leaky as wind-blown balloons on a cactus farm. But even worse is Arizona’s — dead last in the league. But can the two-headed running attack of Kenneth Walker III and Zach Charbonnet take advantage? 


We say they do. Seattle runs for 150+ yards and controls the clock, limiting the number of possession Murray has to work his magic. Metcalf nabs two scoring throws and tops 100 yards in receiving. Seattle 30, Arizona 24



Chicago (7-9) at Green Bay (8-8), 4:25 p.m. ET


The Packers are in with a win. Knocking their chief football rival out of the playoffs will make Chicago’s season. Things are set up for a spicy one at Lambeau.


Green Bay, scuffling on defense for weeks, pulled off a huge win on the road at Minnesota, holding the Vikings to 10 points. QB Jordan Love has been very good the second half of the season and seems to rejuvenated Green Bay’s faith in him as their QB of the future. A postseason appearance will cinch that mindset. 


Love’s performance in the win over the Vikings was especially impressive given how depleted his receiving corps was because of injury. This week he welcomes back receiver Christian Watson, an emerging star out since his seven-catch, two-TD performance against the Chiefs in early December. 


He faces a Bears defense that improved since trading for Montez Sweat. The defensive end, acquired from Washington in November, is on the precipice of establishing one of the oddest records in NFL history: No defensive player has led two teams in sacks in the same season. Sweat leads with Bears with six and still tops on the Commanders in that stat with 6.5. (Here's hoping that no Commander or Bear, other than Sweat, racks up a lot of sacks in Week 18.)


Another focal point in this game will be Love’s counterpart, Bears signal-caller Justin Fields. The third-year Bears quarterback has played well at times in recent weeks, but rumors are flying that this will be his last game. Chicago has the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 Draft, USC’s Caleb Williams has star written all over him (as does North Carolina’s Drake Maye), trading Fields could return a nice batch of draft picks and resetting the financials at QB by bringing in a rook argues for Chicago making such a move.


Will this situation motivate Fields to showcase his talents in a high-stakes game? Will a big game from Fields complicate the Bears decision to potentially move on from him. Not necessarily. An impressive performance against a suddenly porous Green Bay pass defense could elevate his trade value. So…maybe the Bears’ front office — if intent on trading Fields — are hoping for a eye-popping performance from him no matter what.


Remember, Green Bay lost at home in Week 18 last year — Aaron Rodgers’ final game — to a division foe (Lions), which knocked the Pack out of the postseason. Will it happen this year? ….Nahhhhhh. Green Bay 23, Chicago 20.



Los Angeles (11-5) at San Francisco (12-4), 4:25 p.m. ET


If the Rams win (or tie), they clinch the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs. They fall to the seventh seed by losing to San Francisco and Green Bay beating Chicago. The 49ers are on a nine-game winning streak (regular season) over the Rams. 


Both teams will rest a number of key starters. The 49ers will sit Purdy, RB Christian McCaffrey and DT Arik Armstead. The Rams will sit QB Matthew Stafford, RB Kyren Williams, receiver Cooper Kupp, and defensive standouts Aaron Donald and LB Ernest Jones.


Los Angeles’ passing game rolled in the second half of the season, and head coach Sean McVay hopes that Stafford's replacement, Carson Wentz, can keep that momentum going. McVay intends to play sensational first-year WR Puka Nacoa, who with four catches and 29 yards will claim NFL rookie records for catches and receiving yards. So, it remains to be seen whether McVay pulls Nacoa when he breaks both records.


Meanwhile, the 49ers will start backup Sam Darnold in place of Purdy. (Speaking of NFL records, by not playing, Purdy sets the NFL mark for yards per attempt at 9.6. Matt Ryan holds the mark for a single season, at 9.3, which he set as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 — when his offensive coordinator was Kyle Shanahan.) There was talk during the summer that Darnold might challenge for the starting role, especially with Purdy recovering from offseason elbow surgery. Darnold’s arm talent is elite but his lack of game experience might show on Sunday. But a depleted 49ers squad is superior to a depleted Rams team. San Francisco 26, Los Angeles 19.



Dallas (11-5) at Washington (4-12), 4:25 ET


The Cowboys win the NFC East and settle in as the conference’s No. 2 seed with a victory over host Washington. A loss to the lowly Commanders, opens the door for the Eagles to reclaim the division title.


Dallas came out on the plus side of the most controversial ending of the season in beating the Lions. Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb (13 catches, 228 yards) were at their big-play best in Week 17. Against a weak Washington pass defense, in an important game, expect them to stuff the stat sheet. Dallas’ offensive line holds a big edge over Washington’s front seven, so RB Tony Pollard will run for the 65 yards he needs for 1,000 on the season. 


Talented Washington receiver Terry McLaurin deserves better. The Commanders offense moved the ball at times against San Francisco but Sam Howell’s penchant for turning the ball over hurt them in the second half. Howell gets the nod to start this week over Jacoby Brissett. Micah Parsons and Dallas’ defensive front probably couldn’t care less who lines up at QB as long as they line up behind the Commanders’ awful offensive line. 


With a loss, the Commanders are in line for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Quarterback is clearly a need. But would the front office really consider drafting Caleb Williams or Drake Maye and sticking either behind this OL — especially after the punishment Bryce Young winter through this year in Carolina?


Dallas’ defense will overwhelm the Commanders’ offensive line. Dak and Lamb will again flourish. Cowboys reign supreme in the East.  Dallas 41, Washington 10.



New York Giants (5-11) at Philadelphia (11-5), 4:25 ET


This game takes place in conjunction with the Dallas-Washington game, in which the Eagles have an obvious rooting interest. A Philly win coupled with a Dallas loss means the Eagles are again NFC champions and will host a playoff game as the No. 2 seed. A Dallas win means the Eagles fall to the No. 5 seed, no matter what happens in their matchup against the Giants.


This as the scoreboard-watching backdrop means that, should Dallas dominate early, Philadelphia head coach Nick Sirianni will likely pull many of his starters to rest up for their first playoff game, on the road, against the winner of the NFC South. 


Which begs the question: Would you rather host a playoff game against a hot team such as the Rams (a very possible scenario) or travel to play one of the weakest division winners in recent NFL history? In other words, we do not think Siranni and his staff to be too broken up at falling to No. 5.


For the Giants, the end to a disappointing season is nigh. They must answer questions about Daniel Jones and the QB position. The offensive line was a mess all season. A reasonably strong finish probably keeps head coach Brian Daboll in place for another year, but deficiences at key positions need to be addressed in free agency and the draft. 


As for the outcome of this game. Dallas will crush Washington, and the Giants will take out a measure of their frustration on the second-stringers for the Eagles. New York Giants 24, Philadelphia 13.





Buffalo (10-6) at Miami (11-5), Sunday Night Football, 8:20 p.m. ET


The game is being promoted as for the all the marbles in the AFC East. But the conference's postseason picture is so congested right now that Buffalo could either claim the No. 2 seed — or be knocked out of the playoffs.


These two teams met in Buffalo in Week 4, and the Bills thrashed the then-unbeaten Dolphins, who put 70 points the week before against Denver. The Bills went through a rough spell midseason, which saw them fall to 6-6. But, winners of four straight, head coach Sean McDermott's squad is right now the hottest AFC team this side of Baltimore.


The Buffalo running game has picked up in recent weeks, and RB James Cook will be key in balancing the Bills' offense. Second in the NFL with 16 interceptions, Josh Allen needs to limit the turnovers. Giving the explosive Miami offense short fields is not a recipe for a road win.


The Dolphins' 2023 season is following the same trajectory as 2022: a fast start out of the gate but laboring over the final furlong. Miami looks to rebound from its 56-19 drubbing at the hands of Baltimore in Week 17. The offense has scored just 30 points once in the last four games, after averaging nearly 40 during the first five games of the season.


A key reason for the slight tailspin has been the health of wide receiver Tyreek Hill, still working his way back from a knee injury incurred in Week 14. Hill maintains his NFL lead with 1,717 receiving yards, and with 248 yards will break Calvin Johnson's record for most receiving yards (1,964) in a season. But the Cheetah has not topped 100 yards in a game since the injury. This week, a fire at his Florida home upended Hill's personal life, at least for the time being.


Pro Bowl quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Mike McDaniel's offense need Hill to be mentally engaged and at his physical best to counteract a tough Buffalo defense. That unit throttled Miami in Week 4 and boasts one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. 


We think Hill is almost all the way back, at least physically. Allen is too unreliable, despite his background of playing well in crucial games. We say Miami defensive coordinagtor Vic Fangio has a special game plan for Allen and the big QB throws three picks. Miami 30, Buffalo 21.

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