The final week of the NFL regular season is notoriously difficult to forecast.
Teams that have locked up their divisions and playoff seedings will often rest valuable starters to avoid catastrophic injuries that could cost them in the postseason.
Others still in divisional and seeding races might pull their starters during the game if they hear results elsewhere going that way. Heading into last week, things all looked fairly set in both the NFC and AFC races but then Pittsburgh fumbled away the chance to ice New Orleans and Baltimore upset the LA Chargers. That dropped the Steelers from AFC’s fourth seed to out of the playoff spots looking in, while the Ravens now have control of their destiny atop the AFC North.
Their fate rests in a home game against the arch-rival Browns, who have won five of their last six matches since Gregg Williams replaced the fired Hue Jackson. Baltimore have been on form themselves, having made a change at quarterback.
Rookie Lamar Jackson took up the starting role in Week 11 after Joe Flacco was injured and the Ravens are 5-1 since. Jackson still needs polish as a passer but has been getting things done on the ground with 605 yards and three scores on 127 carries.
That said, last weekend saw his most accomplished performance through the air against the Chargers. With the league’s leading defense, that has scored a TD in three of the last five games, the Ravens don’t need Jackson to win games, they just need him to take care of the ball and let them go to work.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, he of the staredown of his former coach last week, and Lamar Jackson were two of college football’s best quarterbacks in recent years and were head to head in the 2016 and 2017 Heisman Trophy races for the best player. Jackson won in 2016, while at Louisville, and Oklahoma’s Mayfield took the award last year. This meeting of the first and last draft picks of this year’s first round will be settled on the pitch, however, and Eric Weddle, CJ Mosley and the Ravens D won’t miss out like they did this time last year.
Pittsburgh’s loss also opened up the No6 seed, which Indianapolis took full advantage of, fighting and clawing their way back from 14-0, 17-7 and 24-14 down against the Giants to prevail 28-27 on Andrew Luck’s one-yard pass to Chester Rogers with 55 seconds to play. Their game on Sunday is against divisional rival Tennessee Titans, who have an identical record but sit behind the Colts due to Indy’s 38-10 win over them in Week 11.
With a victory and a Texans loss, either of these teams will be the AFC South champion while the other will stay home. The Titans go into the game, however, likely missing their starting quarterback Marcus Mariota and mammoth defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and they are 0-10 facing Andrew Luck. Count on rookie head coach Frank Reich to take the Colts to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
In the NFC, Philadelphia kept the cat amongst the pigeons, winning their fourth game in five, with Nick Foles leading them back late. If that sounds familiar, that’s because Foles stepped in for injured Carson Wentz last year with four games remaining and took the Eagles all the way to a world championship.
With the 29-year-old at the helm the last two games, Philly have taken down the high-flying Rams and the AFC South-leading Houston Texans. A win over Washington and a loss by Minnesota puts them back in the postseason defending their Super Bowl title. They’ll do their part against the Redskins, who are starting career back-up Josh Johnson, who has bounced in and out of the league since 2009 and won his first ever game just two weeks ago.
Minnesota meanwhile, face the ferocious Bears to clinging on to their sixth seed. NFC North champs Chicago hold the third seed but could move up to the second seed and get a first-round bye with a win and a Rams loss. The ‘want it’ factor has to give the Vikings the edge in this game – pricey free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins was signed to push them over the top of last year’s NFC Championship loss and it’s hard to do that from your sofa.
With home-field advantage clinched throughout the playoffs, the Saints are sitting pretty in the No1 NFC seed so it’s possible that Drew Brees will be rested for their clash with Carolina.
That would mean a start for Teddy Bridgewater, who is likely to be the hot quarterback in the offseason because the college draft pool offers very few. The former Vikings first-round pick suffered a horrific knee injury in training in 2016 and didn’t set foot on the field until late 2017. He’ll get a rousing reception if he does start and will look to make the most of his time in the shop window. By contrast, Carolina lost their back-up passer Taylor Heinicke to injured reserve this week and with Cam Newton still battling soreness in his right shoulder, rookie Kyle Allen will struggle under the weight of the formidable Saints defense.
This week's picks
Ravens over Browns
Colts over Titans
Vikings over Bears
Eagles over Redskins
Saints over Panthers