Sometimes, it’s just out of your hands. On Sunday, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles needed help to make the NFL playoffs. The Eagles found themselves with at least a chance to repeat last season’s Super Bowl success while the Steelers saw their playoff chances vanish in a single throw.
The Eagles did their part in saving themselves from a potentially brutal Super Bowl hangover season by defeating Washington 24-0, but they still needed the Chicago Bears to beat the Minnesota Vikings to secure the fourth seed in the NFC. Luckily for them, the Bears ended up stifling Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense, outscoring them 24-10 in a game that felt like a much bigger beatdown. With the win, the No 5 Bears both eliminated the Vikings and kept Philadelphia alive for at least one more game. The two teams will face each other in Chicago on Sunday.
The Eagles didn’t exactly have an easy time returning to the playoffs. First, they suffered the worst single-game loss ever by a defending Super Bowl champion. Then they lost starting quarterback Carson Wentz to a back injury. Luckily, they had Super Bowl MVP and Human Good Luck Charm Nick Foles to step in for Wentz, and he helped lead Philadelphia to three straight wins.
All great, right? Well, not so much. Foles left Sunday’s game with a chest injury. Third-string QB Nate Sudfeld finished the game for Philadelphia and even threw a touchdown in the contest. Now, the question is whether Foles will be healthy enough to start next week.
The Steelers aren’t feeling sorry for the Eagles, that’s for sure. They were left watching the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns after doing their part to extend their season by beating the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13. The Steelers were in the playoffs if the Ravens managed to fall to the not-so-lowly Browns who were experiencing something of a rebirth thanks to QB Baker Mayfield, who ended up setting the rookie passing touchdown record during the game with his 27th.
It had to be a nail-biting experience, but the Steelers had reason to hope late in the game. The Browns cut the Ravens lead down to 26-24 and were marching towards field goal range with less than a minute left in the game when Mayfield threw an interception to CJ Mosley that sealed the AFC North for Baltimore. In that one moment, the Steelers season was over and there was nothing they could do but watch. (OK, it wasn’t completely over, the Steelers could have still snuck in if the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans had ended their game in a tie but that was not an entirely realistic proposition.)
Truth is, they had nobody to blame but themselves. The Steelers entered the season listed as a potential Super Bowl team (well, at least by some) but they ended up losing four out of their six last games. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw 16 interceptions on the year, the most in the NFL, and there’s a growing sense that the team’s style of play might not work anymore.
Roethlisberger, at least, believes in his team. After the loss, he announced that he was returning for the 2019 season. He also claimed that this wasn’t the beginning of the end: “We’ve got young guys that just keep getting better. Guys like JuJu (Smith-Schuster), James Conner. Guys are just gonna keep getting better. I don’t think our window’s closed.”
The Ravens’ window, meanwhile, looks wide open. Their playoff berth completes a turnaround that started when they replaced quarterback Joe Flacco with rookie Lamar Jackson. Jackson’s unique ability to make plays with his legs helped spark Baltimore’s offense just enough while their defense, which fittingly made the postseason-clinching play, did the rest. Now the 10-6 Ravens will actually end up hosting the 12-4 Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. That’s the benefit of winning the division, even if you do it on very nearly the last play of the season.
MVP of the week
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots. OK, maybe he’s not completely done. Tom Brady threw for 250 yards and four touchdowns as the Patriots annihilated a thoroughly disinterested New York Jets team 38-3 to earn a first-round bye for the playoffs. This would be their ninth first-round bye in a row, which certainly works to Brady’s benefit. The old guy needs his rest, after all.
Stat of the week
Three years. That’s how long it’s been since Teddy Bridgewater has thrown a touchdown pass. Bridgewater started for the New Orleans Saints, who had already clinched the NFC’s No 1 seed, in lieu of regular QB Drew Brees. Bridgewater has been coming back from the major knee injury he suffered during practice back in 2016. Bridgewater threw the nine-yard pass to Tre’Quan Smith in what ended up being a 33-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers. It was a positive development for Bridgewater who showed signs that he was finally recovered from his torn ACL. He could find himself an in-demand free agent this summer.
Quote of the week
“I am disappointed in the behavior today from TJ Yeldon and Leonard Fournette. They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.” – Jacksonville Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin on the apparent off-field sulking of two of his team’s running backs.
Yeldon and Fournette literally sat out the Jaguars 20-3 loss to the Houston Texans. Fournette, to be fair, was out with injury but Yeldon was theoretically on the active roster. The two decided to distance themselves from their teammates on the bench, an episode that enraged Coughlin. It was a fitting final image for the dysfunctional Jaguars, who went from worst-to-first last season only to revert back into the worst team in the AFC South this season. (The Jaguars might also take this opportunity to hit Fournette in the wallet.)
The Texans, in contrast, clinched the division and the No 3 seed without much drama. Last season they happened to have had the worst record in the division, meaning that over the last two years the Jaguars went from “worst-to-first” to “first-to-worst” while Houston went to “worst-to-first.” Got it? The No 3 Texans will host the No 6 Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.
Video of the week
For many teams, the final game of the year is a chance to unleash the trick plays they have lying about. So, with the Detroit Lions playing the Green Bay Packers, in a game between two teams that weren’t heading to the playoffs, the Lions had kicker Matt Prater throw a touchdown pass on a fake field goal. It was just one part of a Detroit scoring onslaught that had them trouncing the Packers in a 31-0, which would have been a tad more meaningful if it did anything other than hurt their draft position.
Elsewhere around the league
• The NFL regular season ended with a prime-time play-in game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans. Now, that should have been exciting in theory, but what we ended up with was a sloppy, turnover-filled game between two not entirely marquee teams. Perhaps it would have been more of a thriller had Marcus Mariota been healthy. Instead the Titans went with Blaine Gabbert as a starter and that may have been the difference. Instead, a revitalized Andrew Luck led the Colts to a 33-17 victory and captured the sixth seed in the AFC.
• Quarterback Eli Manning may have just played his last game for the New York Giants. Manning has already earned his place in Giants lore with his two Super Bowl wins over the New England Patriots but has had a relatively miserable season this time around. If this was it, it wasn’t a totally terrible send-off. Manning threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns after getting the inevitable interception out of the way early. In a sign that the Giants’ future might be brighter, Saquon Barkley set a rookie running back record with his 89th reception. Of course, the Giants still lost 36-35 to the NFC East winning Dallas Cowboys who will, unlike them, be heading to the playoffs. The No 4 Cowboys will be hosting the No 5 Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.
• The Kansas City Chiefs cruised to the first seed in the AFC with their 35-3 defeat of the Oakland Raiders. In the victory, quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw his 50th touchdown of the regular season and hit the 5,000 passing yards mark, putting him in the company of Peyton Manning and nobody else. Those numbers probably mark him as the frontrunner for the NFL MVP award. They will get to rest on their first week, alongside the No 2 Patriots in the AFC and the No 1 New Orleans Saints and the No 2 Los Angeles Rams in the NFC.
• Black Monday begins earlier every year, it seems. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired head coach Dirk Koetter early on the afternoon after a 34-32 loss to the Atlanta Falcons ended their season at 5-11. Meanwhile, the Jets, as nearly everyone in the known universe assumed heading into Sunday’s game against the Patriots, let head coach Todd Bowles go later that day.
• Congratulations (sort of?) to the Arizona Cardinals. With their 27-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, their final record ended up being 3-13, thus wrapping up the race to the bottom for the top pick in the NFL Draft. The 4-12 San Francisco 49ers, who were crushed by the Los Angeles Rams 48-32 and ended up with the second pick, meaning they couldn’t even fail properly this season.