Sunday’s Week 18 NFL slate was one of the more emotional scenes you’ll see in sports.
As the NFL returned to action for the first time since Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field and suffered a cardiac arrest on January 2, teams and players across the league paid tribute to the Buffalo Bills‘ second-year safety.
Nothing, though, compared to the scene in Buffalo where the Bills stamped their playoff passport as the No. 2 seed by topping the New England Patriots, 35-23.
“The Bills coming up with a big win after such a difficult week with the emotional roller coaster of Damar Hamlin’s situation was the most impressive performance of the week,” former NFL Executive of The Year Jeff Diamond told Heavy on Sunday night.
Following one of the most emotionally difficult weeks imaginable, the Bills authored one of the most cathartic moments you’ll see, in the team’s return to the gridiron in Week 18.
With Hamlin, surrounded by family, and watching from 428 miles away, Nyheim Hines took the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, Buffalo’s first since 2018, as Bills Mafia erupted in joy.
Hines’ touchdown was a reminder of the communal healing power of sports. Just as the outpouring of support for Hamlin from all walks of life, and all across the NFL last week, showed that even a divided society could rally together in a moment of need.
Sunday, right when it seemed the Patriots had survived the tidal wave of emotion in Orchard Park, with New England leading 17-14 with 7:00 remaining in the 3rd quarter, Hines struck again.
This time, Hines returned a Nick Folk kickoff 101 yards for his second return touchdown of the game.
On an afternoon that began with Josh Allen running onto the field carrying a Damar Hamlin flag, the Bills’ star quarterback put an exclamation point on a trying week — and a needed victory by the Bills — by making arguably the most impressive throw of the season.
With 8:59 remaining, Allen shrugged off a hit in the pocket before hurling the ball deep downfield to hit Stefon Diggs for a 49-yard touchdown.
Diggs, who took an Uber to visit Hamlin in the hospital hours after he collapsed on the field Monday night, delivered Buffalo the win and the Bills to the No. 2 seed in the AFC, where they’ll host the division rival Miami Dolphins.
If the Bills can match Sunday’s emotion, not to mention the prolific output of the offense, they will be a tough out for anyone.
“Buffalo had two kickoff return touchdowns, that Allen touchdown pass to Diggs, and the defense pulled down three interceptions,” Diamond explained. “That they found a way to win in every phase against a Patriots team that needed a win to make the playoffs was so impressive.”
Here’s a look at key takeaways from the biggest games across an impactful NFL in Week 18.
NFL Playoff Brackets Are Set
With the 2022 regular season officially over, what matters most are the playoff brackets setting the road to Glendale, Arizona and the 2023 Super Bowl. Here’s how Super Wild Card Weekend will look next week:
- No. 1: Kansas City Chiefs (BYE Week)
- No. 2 Buffalo Bills vs. No. 7 Miami Dolphins
- No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals vs. No. 6 Baltimore Ravens
- No. 4 Jacksonville Jaguars vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers
- No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles (BYE Week)
- No. 2 San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks
- No. 3 Minnesota Vikings vs. No. 6 New York Giants
- No. 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. No. 5 Dallas Cowboys
Annual Dallas Cowboys Swoon in Full Effect?
The Dallas Cowboys certainly didn’t play like a team with a chance to win the NFC East division crown and home field advantage throughout the playoffs on Sunday in Washington.
One year removed from falling in inexplicable fashion to the San Francisco 49ers, as the No. 3 seed, Dallas was flatly embarrassed by the Commanders 26-6 in Week 18.
The outcome wound up not mattering, by virtue of the Eagles surviving 22-16 against the New York Giants’ backups to secure the NFC’s No. 1 seed. But, there would have been little way for the Cowboys to know that going into a game that kicked simultaneously to Philadelphia’s.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott tossed an interception for the seventh consecutive week, as the offense seemed stuck in neutral all afternoon.
“Dak has been very erratic,” an NFC offensive coordinator told Heavy. “That’s very scary at this point in the season.”
Sure, Dallas might have been scoreboard-watching or gotten word that Brian Daboll and the Giants had rested virtually all of the starters and played Davis Webb at quarterback against the division-leading Eagles. But, if that’s the case, why play Prescott and the starters at all? Why take your foot off the gas, after a disappointing early postseason exit last January?
“They’re in big trouble,” an AFC South scout told Heavy of the Cowboys. “That offensive line was super duper shaky against the Commanders. Plus, Dak has thrown a pick-six twice in the last seven games. That’s not what you want.”
The Cowboys have a defense capable of leading a deep postseason run, and have dangerous playmakers on offense around Prescott.
However, what this team still seemingly lacks is a killer instinct in games that matter most.
Remember, this is a team that stumbled in Jacksonville, losing control of its own No. 1 seed destiny, off a Prescott game-ending interception.
Might another early playoff loss be coming?
Bengals Take Out Frustrations With NFL on Ravens
The Cincinnati Bengals made no secret, of their displeasure with the NFL’s postseason contingencies this week. Those contingencies included a coin toss to determine home field in the Wild Card round against the Ravens if Baltimore would have beaten Cincy Sunday, even if Joe Burrow and company won the AFC North.
It didn’t take long for running back Joe Mixon to show the NFL what the Bengals think the league can do with those contingencies.
Mixon, after plunging into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown to lift Cincinnati to a 10-0 lead, pulled a coin from his pocket and flipped it before miming kicking the coin into the seats. Message sent.
The Bengals jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and never looked back, as the Ravens looked overmatched behind third-string quarterback Anthony Brown.
Joe Burrow completed 25-of-42 passes for 215 yards with a touchdown, Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson scored a defensive touchdown by sacking Brown and recovering a fumble in the end zone, as Cincinnati played its dominant version of complementary football that has become its hallmark over the season’s second half.
Cincinnati’s defense forced 4 turnovers, and as a result, Burrow and the Bengals’ offense bludgeoned Baltimore, making the Ravens pay for mistakes by scoring 21 points off turnovers.
“They are one of the most dangerous teams in the league,” an AFC scouting director told Heavy.
Beyond cashing in on the Ravens’ mistakes, beyond Ja’Marr chase pulling down an absolutely perfectly placed deep ball for a 26-yard touchdown from Burrow, the Bengals are dangerous because the offensive line is playing some of its most consistently dominant football of the season.
Burrow has only been sacked 10 times since Week 10, and the Bengals boast the NFL’s No. 2 rated rushing offense. If teams can’t generate pressure on Burrow without blitzing or stopping the backfield duo of Mixon and Samaje Perine, this is going to be one of the more difficult teams to knock from the postseason.
Cincinnati’s road back to the Super Bowl begins with a redo of Sunday’s game against Baltimore — in Cincinnati.
Time will tell if the Bengals can muster the anger they displayed Sunday afternoon to repeat Week 18’s results.
Everything Keeps Coming Up Brian Daboll
Entering Sunday’s regular season finale in Philadelphia, New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll made the smart decision, the only decision really, to sit his starters and play Davis Webb at quarterback.
With the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2016 secured, there was nothing to gain by playing the likes of Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, or any of the Giants’ key contributors.
However, Daboll and the Giants really forced a division rival’s hand by really keeping the game close into the 4th quarter.
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni was unable to get his stars; quarterback Jalen Hurts, receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, or Philadelphia’s key players on defense off the field, because Webb rushed for a 14-yard touchdown with 10:10 remaining in regulation, to pull New York to within 19-9.
Eventually, Webb hit Kenny Golladay (remember him?) in the end zone to pull the game to within one score with 1:43 remaining.
Not the restful walk in the park the Eagles hoped for or expected. Sunday, even the Giants’ backups showed the kind of fight, and relentlessness that Daboll has been instilling as his team’s culture since his arrival in East Rutherford.
As a result, the Eagles needed to keep their stars in the game, taking on added injury risk, in a game that Philadelphia absolutely had to win to secure the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home field throughout the playoffs.
Daboll has one of the strongest NFL Coach of the Year candidacies in the league, and it was bolstered by his team’s performance in Philadelphia to close out the regular season.
Chicago Bears Are Among NFL’s Biggest Winners Despite Loss
Most eyes, understandably, were on the NFL playoff race in Week 18, but the Chicago Bears might wind up being the weekend’s biggest winners despite falling to the Minnesota Vikings 29-13.
After the Houston Texans, almost inexplicably, played to win the game, and beat the Indianapolis Colts 32-31 on a Davis Mills 28-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Akins, the Bears secured the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft.
While there is always the possibility that Chicago will choose one of the top quarterbacks available; be it Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, it is far more likely that with two years remaining on Justin Fields’ rookie contract that the Bears will command a king’s ransom to jumpstart the rebuild.
The last time a team traded up to No. 1 overall, the Los Angeles Rams moved up from No. 15 by sending two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and two third-round picks. That kind of draft capital, in 2023, has the potential to be franchise-altering for an organization such as the Bears who already have a quarterback.
As the offseason begins, general manager Ryan Poles and the Bears boast a league-high $119 million in cap space to build around Fields, if they so choose. After Sunday, Chicago also owns a war chest of draft picks that is about to become even more bountiful.
Week 18 MVP: Jaguars EDGE Josh Allen
The party is only just beginning in Duuuval for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Certainly, Trevor Lawrence’s marked improvement this season has been instrumental to the Jaguars’ worst-to-first 2022 campaign. But, Saturday night as the offense went through periods of peak dysfunction, it was the Jaguars’ defense that carried Jacksonville past Tennessee to the franchise’s fourth AFC South crown and a playoff berth.
Allen, along with No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker, harassed Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs all night long, producing 6 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.
Jacksonville enters the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of five straight games. Over that span, the Jaguars have held opponents to just 15.6 points per game, and sealed a victory against the Cowboys with a pick-six in overtime.
This is not a team anyone in the AFC is excited to be staring across the sideline at, and Allen continues to be a key reason why.