Analysis | What to know from NFL Week 18: The Eagles are limping into the playoffs

Week 18 finalized the playoff bracket, and it accurately represents the oddity of the season. Joe Flacco is in, but Trevor Lawrence is nowhere to be found. The teams that lost Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers made it. Three teams from the AFC North are there — just not the one that won the division the past two years. Detroit is hosting a playoff game, which last happened 30 years ago. Here is what to know.

The Eagles are unrecognizable. The operative question in Philadelphia the past month has been, “What happened to the Eagles, anyway?” On Sunday afternoon, with the playoffs looming, the question became, “Holy mother of God, what is going on, and where do we riot?”

Coming off a game in which the Cardinals bullied them for their fourth loss in five weeks, things got so much worse for the Eagles. The New York Giants destroyed them so thoroughly that Coach Nick Sirianni conceded the NFC East shortly before halftime, wide receiver A.J. Brown limped off the field after he grabbed his right knee while writhing on the ground, and quarterback Jalen Hurts completed 7 of 16 passes before leaving with a disfigured middle finger on his throwing hand.

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The Cowboys dispatched the Commanders, so the result did not affect the Eagles’ playoff seeding. But the way Philadelphia played when it could still win the NFC East was startling. Before Marcus Mariota replaced Hurts at the end of the first half, the Eagles had gained 93 yards and trailed 24-0. The defense Sirianni tabbed Matt Patricia to fix midseason yielded huge chunks of yardage to a 5-11 Giants team playing for nothing. The Eagles eventually lost, 27-10.

The reigning NFC champions have mostly the same personnel that nearly won last year’s Super Bowl and started this season 10-1. But their secondary has aged, their young defensive tackles faded late in the year, and their pass rush has been merely good rather than taking over games. Hurts regressed over the second half of the season, showing newfound indecisiveness. Now the Eagles might have to face the fourth-seeded Buccaneers in Tampa without Brown, who did not return after his right leg folded at an awkward angle following a catch in the first quarter.

If the Eagles cannot regroup and end up bowing out in the first round, it may not be a guarantee that Sirianni’s job is safe. It would be a stunning fate for a coach that compiled a 28-3 stretch that ended late this season. But the thoroughness of the Eagles’ collapse raises extreme questions.

In the same spot Aaron Rodgers failed last year, Jordan Love succeeded. For the second straight season, the Packers faced a streaking division rival at home in Week 18 with a playoff spot on the line. Rodgers’s Green Bay tenure ended when he faltered against the Detroit Lions. On Sunday at Lambeau Field, Love carried the Packers into the playoffs with a 17-9 victory over the Chicago Bears.

Coordinator Joe Barry’s maligned defense held Justin Fields and the Bears’ surging offense without a touchdown, but Love was the star. He completed 27 of 32 passes for 316 yards — 112 to ascending rookie Jayden Reed — and two touchdowns with no interceptions.

This offseason, the Packers decided against adding veteran wideouts and felt confident enough in Love to hand him a wide receiving corps composed entirely of rookies and second-year players. General Manager Brian Gutekunst envisioned Love and the receivers growing together over the course of the season, and that’s what happened. The Packers won seven of their last 10 games, and they’ll head to second-seeded Dallas playing their best of the season.

The Bills earned the AFC East the hard way. The Bills’ division-clinching, 21-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday night mirrored the arc of their season. They spent the first half lighting points on fire. Josh Allen did things no other quarterback can do and things no other quarterback should do. Sean McDermott’s defense played well, and his team’s execution in the clutch was questionable. The Bills never quite played their best. And yet they won.

The Bills committed three turnovers and came away without points five times after driving inside the Miami 40. They also held the Dolphins’ pyrotechnic offense scoreless in the second half, got a massive punt return touchdown from Deonte Harty and used Allen as a battering ram to control the clock in the fourth quarter. The Bills were 6-6 and seeded 11th five weeks ago. Now, they’re the No. 2 seed and will play at home to open the playoffs. Up first is the Steelers, probably without T.J. Watt.

The Dolphins will have to regroup. They have to play Patrick Mahomes on the road to start the playoffs. They had already lost their two best rushers for the season, and Sunday night Andrew Van Ginkel, their best remaining outside rusher, left with a foot injury and did not return. Tyreek Hill limped off the field the play before Tua Tagovailoa’s clinching interception. Miami went 4-4 away from Miami, including a loss in Germany to the Chiefs in Week 9. The Dolphins will look at the division title banner hanging in Buffalo for years to come and rue their Week 14 loss to the Titans, when they unfathomably blew a 14-point lead in the final three minutes.

Lions-Rams will be a quarterback reunion. When the Lions shipped Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff and a haul of draft picks three years ago, it jump-started Detroit’s rebuild and led to the Rams’ Super Bowl title. Both teams won the trade, but only one can win next week. Stafford will play in a stadium where he set most every franchise record. Goff will face Sean McVay, the coach who decided he wasn’t good enough and benched him for a playoff game before he traded him.

Goff may be without one of his best weapons. By playing their starters and dominating the Minnesota Vikings in a 30-20 victory, the Lions gathered momentum and temporarily gave themselves a remote shot at the NFC’s second seed. It also may have cost them tight end Sam LaPorta. As he caught a slant late in the first half, LaPorta’s left knee bent backward, and he rode on a cart into the locker room. LaPorta had one of the best rookie tight end seasons ever, emerging as the Lions’ secondary receiving threat behind star wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown.

The Lions also provided the cheekiest moment of Week 18. One week after the controversial officiating mix-up over which Lions offensive lineman had reported as an eligible receiver, Dan Skipper reported as an eligible receiver — and caught a pass.

The Jaguars are going home, somehow. The offseason grew murky in Jacksonville after the Jaguars completed a shocking collapse with a 28-20 loss to the Titans, who manhandled them behind Derrick Henry’s 153 rushing yards. The Jaguars were 8-3 six weeks ago and, according to odds determined by Pro Football Focus, had a 96 percent chance to make the playoffs. They won one of their final six games and fell out of the postseason with a franchise-destabilizing loss.

The Jaguars entered this season as a team on the rise. They were coming off a playoff victory. They had Lawrence on an inexpensive rookie contract. They had a coach, Doug Pederson, who had transformed them in one season. Now, they have questions.

Is Lawrence worth an extension at the top of the quarterback market? He played through injuries and missed top wide receiver Christian Kirk down the stretch, but he did not look like an elite quarterback. One of the lasting images of the season will be Lawrence sailing a pass over the fingers of wide-open Calvin Ridley with two minutes left Sunday, missing what could have been a game-tying touchdown.

Is Pederson a coach who can build a sustained winner? The Jaguars’ blocking and tackling utterly broke down, as one crucial sequence Sunday typified. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Jaguars trailed 28-20 and faced third and goal from the Titans’ 1-yard line. Pederson called a too-cute rollout from a funky formation that never had a chance. On fourth down, the Titans overwhelmed Jacksonville’s offensive line and stuffed Lawrence as he attempted to leap over the goal line.

The result provided Henry, who is expected to part with the Titans, a happy send-off. Afterward, he found a microphone and thanked Titans fans for “the greatest eight years of my life.”

If this was the end, Bill Belichick exited New England with a whimper. Years from now, the way it ended for Belichick and the Patriots will hardly be a footnote, blotted out by Lombardi Trophies and duck boat parades. In the moment, it provided a reminder that in the NFL callousness so often trumps ceremony.

In a driving snowstorm, the Patriots managed six first downs and 119 yards in a 17-3 loss to the New York Jets, the divisional rival Belichick for years savored thumping, that finalized their record at 4-13. Afterward, Belichick shuffled to midfield to shake hands with Coach Robert Saleh and hug Rodgers. He ignored photographers as he trod down steps to the Patriots’ locker room, shrouded in a parka and ski mask that covered all but his eyes. “Disappointing year for all of us,” Belichick said afterward, his voice hoarse and soft.

Nothing has been formalized about Belichick’s future, but it certainly felt like his last game. Former Patriots offensive coordinator (and fired Raiders coach) Josh McDaniels, who worked for Belichick for nearly two decades and won six Super Bowls with him, attended the game.

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Allowing that the game was played in a blizzard, the loss showed why owner Robert Kraft may be ready to move on. Since Brady’s departure, which Belichick enabled, Belichick could not find any answers on offense. He hired the wrong play-callers, signed the wrong free agents, drafted the wrong players and ruined a quarterback he picked 15th. The Patriots own the third pick, and Belichick’s recent track record does not recommend letting him make it.

The Texans had a regular season beyond their dreams. At this time last year, few franchises had a bleaker outlook than Houston. The Texans had won 11 games over three seasons under three different coaches. A miraculous Week 18 victory dropped their 2023 draft position from first to second. They would start over with a new coach, DeMeco Ryans, and the quarterback who fell to them, C.J. Stroud. Any success appeared to be a speck on the horizon.

But there was Stroud on Saturday night, skipping down a hallway outside the Texans’ locker room and hopping into Ryans’s arms, celebrating a nail-biting, 23-19 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. When the Jaguars lost Sunday, it meant the 10-7 Texans would host a playoff game as the AFC South champions. Together, along with standout rookies Will Anderson Jr. and Tank Dell, Stroud and Ryans changed Houston in one season.

Nico Collins, in just his third season, capped a breakout year by catching nine passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. Stroud completed 20 of 26 attempts for 264 yards and two touchdowns, but his stats didn’t illustrate the combination of poise and wizardry he played with in the biggest game of his life. Stroud will be giving 16 years to Cleveland’s Joe Flacco in the Texans’ first-round matchup, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody if the Texans win. Few teams have a brighter future than Houston, and the present isn’t bad, either.

The Buccaneers lost Tom Brady and kept the division title. One play Sunday demonstrated the tiny margin on which seasons can swing. In a scoreless game early in the second quarter, Panthers quarterback Bryce Young swung a pass to DJ Chark in the flat. Chark raced down the sideline, reached the end zone and dived over the pylon. As replay showed, Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. poked the ball out of Chark’s grasp inches from the goal line.

Rather than taking a 7-0 lead and placing immense pressure on a struggling offense, the Panthers handed the ball back to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers did not score a touchdown, but their 9-0 victory still clinched their third consecutive NFC South title.

Baker Mayfield will lead the Bucs into the playoffs with a better record, by one game, than Brady managed in his final season. Oddly, the ageless Mike Evans gained more yards catching passes from Mayfield (1,255) than he did in any of his three seasons with Brady.

The Panthers were shut out in the final two games of Young’s rookie season, during which they finished with the worst record in the league and promptly shipped the No. 1 pick to the Bears. There are probably worse positions to be in, but it’s hard to think of what they are.

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The Shanahan coaching tree runs the league. Former assistants of either Mike or Kyle Shanahan coach five of the 14 playoff teams: the Packers (Matt LaFleur), Rams (McVay), Dolphins (Mike McDaniel), Texans (Ryans) and, of course, the 49ers (Kyle Shanahan). For several recent seasons, Andy Reid’s coaching tree dominated. It’s now Kyle and Mike. That’s something to keep in mind during the hiring cycle.

It (almost) all came up Pittsburgh. In the big picture, no team got luckier in the final week than the Steelers, whose three-game winning streak salvaged a messy season and vaulted them into a first-round trip to Buffalo as the AFC’s No. 7 seed.

Pittsburgh received two major breaks in the final weekend. On Saturday, it outlasted the Ravens, 17-10, in the driving rain as Baltimore sat many key players, including presumptive MVP Lamar Jackson. Avoiding Jackson has been a theme for the Steelers: He was injured for both meetings last season and sat once against the Steelers in 2021 and 2020.

Even with their 10th victory, the Steelers still needed the 5-11 Titans to upset the Jaguars. The Titans dominated, and Mike Tomlin made the playoffs for the first time post-Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers are trying for their first postseason victory since the 2016 season.

One significant break went against them: T.J. Watt probably won’t play in the first round after he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee against the Ravens.

Arthur Smith didn’t need to do that. Smith coached his last game with the Falcons and completed his Atlanta tenure with a 21-30 record and no playoff appearances — and he went out with one final piece of loser behavior.

In the final 90 seconds of the Saints’ 48-17 victory over the Falcons, Tyrann Mathieu returned an interception to the 1-yard line. Rather than kneeling to end the game, the Saints handed off to running back Jamaal Williams for a touchdown. At the final whistle, Smith marched to midfield and cursed at Saints Coach Dennis Allen, asking why he had piled on.

Three things are true: Sportsmanship matters. Smith’s anger was perfectly understandable. Allen began his postgame news conference by apologizing to Smith, explaining that he had called for the Saints to take a knee, but Saints players wanted to get Williams, a beloved teammate, a touchdown.

None of that validates Smith’s actions. The NFL is a cutthroat business, and the only way to make sure another team doesn’t do something you don’t want it to do is to stop it. By screaming at Allen as the clock ran out on his season, his team soundly embarrassed, Smith came off as whiny and small. He was out of a job just hours later.

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Incentive celebrations are undefeated. Whether it was Jadeveon Clowney dancing for the duration of the play clock, Joe Mixon counting imaginary dollars or Chris Jones rolling around on the sideline, NFL players losing their minds because a statistical achievement added cash to their bank account is a Week 18 feature to be cherished.

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