Let’s begin with the obvious: Picking NFL games this week feels especially silly. Like everyone else in the football world, my mind has been on Damar Hamlin and what we all witnessed Monday night. Earlier this week, Katherine Fitzgerald of The Buffalo News joined me and Nora Princiotti on The Ringer NFL Show to talk about who Hamlin is. Fitzgerald, who covers the Bills, did a wonderful job filling us in on Hamlin’s journey and backstory (listen below).
All week, I’ve been refreshing my feeds and checking my texts hoping for just some morsel of good news. We got some on Thursday afternoon, when doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said that Hamlin has shown “substantial improvement” and that his neurological condition appears to be intact. That doesn’t mean everything will definitely be OK, but it’s something—a step in a positive direction.
And that good news was heard loud and clear back in Buffalo as the Bills began preparing for their Week 18 game against New England. Hamlin’s father, Mario, spoke with the Bills this week and delivered a message that Damar wanted his teammates to play—and win. “His message was, the team needs to get back to focusing on the goals they had set for themselves. Damar would have wanted it that way, and I’m paraphrasing,” Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott said. “That includes our game against New England this week. That has helped, and today, the news was a huge help to getting us back focused on the game this weekend.”
There is no easy way to transition from what Hamlin is going through to playoff scenarios and Xs-and-Os analysis and game picks. Those things should feel trivial, because they are, and it’s OK to acknowledge as much.
The NFL is moving forward with its Week 18 slate, and so I’ll take a look at the games just as I have every week this season. The NFL announced Thursday that Bengals-Bills will not resume and is being ruled a no-contest. Owners will vote Friday on a resolution that could potentially affect the Bills, Chiefs, Bengals, and Ravens.
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday night. Stats are from TruMedia/Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Meanwhile, here’s to hoping for more positive updates on Hamlin in the days and weeks ahead.
Week 17 record: 6-9
Season record: 129-119-7
Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders (+9.5)
The Chiefs can earn the AFC’s no. 1 seed with a win here. That would mean a bye in the first round, but if the NFL’s proposed resolution passes, the Chiefs could play the AFC championship game at a neutral site should they win in the divisional round.
The NFL's competition committee approved an idea that would have the AFC Championship game played at a neutral site if it's between teams who would've had a chance at the No. 1 seed if not for the canceled Bills-Bengals game. pic.twitter.com/SgjxBNILLv— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) January 6, 2023
The Chiefs didn’t look great last week against the Broncos, but they still won the game and are obviously on the short list of realistic Super Bowl contenders.
The Raiders got an incredible performance from Jarrett Stidham in an overtime loss to the 49ers. Soon after this week’s game, they’ll turn their full attention to a quarterback plan for 2023. Will they be able to trade Derek Carr, or will they end up releasing him? Will they make a big play for Tom Brady? Something tells me that the Raiders will be a significant player in the NFL offseason.
As for this game, I think they’ll be able to make enough plays offensively to keep it relatively competitive.
The pick: Raiders (+9.5)
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars (-6.5)
Doug Pederson played his starters in a blowout win over the Texans last week. Mike Vrabel, meanwhile, took it easy against the Cowboys last Thursday night, given that the game had no impact on Tennessee’s playoff chances.
Trevor Lawrence lit up the Titans for 368 yards when the Jaguars beat Tennessee in Week 14. Joshua Dobbs will get his second career start here for Tennessee, instead of rookie Malik Willis.
It wouldn’t shock me to see the Jaguars roll. The Titans are banged up, and their quarterback situation is a huge question mark. But I trust both these coaches in a big spot. Vrabel has a history of keeping the Titans competitive even when it looks like they should get blown out.
The winner gets to host a playoff game. I like the Jaguars to keep their season going, but the Titans keep it close.
The pick: Titans (+6.5)
New York Jets at Miami Dolphins (-2)
The Jets are another team that will likely figure prominently in the offseason quarterback carousel. The supporting cast is solid and could be great if it gets better injury luck and makes some offseason upgrades. As for this game, it’s unclear who will start (Joe Flacco? Zach Wilson?) after Mike White was downgraded to being a limited participant in Thursday’s injury report.
For the Dolphins, it’s simple: A win here and a Patriots loss to the Bills will put them in the playoffs. But Miami’s postseason hopes might rest on Skylar Thompson after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a finger injury last week.
These two teams have lost a combined 10 games in a row. I don’t trust either of them and will take the points.
The pick: Jets (+2)
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (-2.5)
What a terrific game-winning drive by Kenny Pickett last Sunday night. On the road against the division rival Ravens, with playoff hopes on the line, he took the Steelers 80 yards in 11 plays. That’s something to get legitimately excited about if you’re a Steelers fan. Mike Tomlin is close to doing it again. The Steelers need a win here, combined with a Patriots loss and a Dolphins loss, to make the playoffs.
The Browns, meanwhile, beat the Commanders last week. Deshaun Watson is completing 56.7 percent of his passes and averaging 6.2 yards per attempt in five starts.
If you notice a theme here, it’s that I like to avoid getting suckered by the “one team has something to play for” arguments. In fact, I usually like to take the other side in those games. So I guess that means I’m taking Cleveland here.
The pick: Browns (+2.5)
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts (-2.5)
I don’t have the energy to give you actual analysis here. And I don’t think you really want actual analysis here.
With a win and a Bears loss, the Texans would give up the no. 1 pick. I don’t think that’s happening.
The pick: Colts (-2.5)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons (-4.5)
The Bucs are locked into the NFC’s no. 4 seed after last week’s win over Carolina. I don’t care that they have Tom Brady. I don’t care that their offensive line is healthier than it’s been in a while. And I don’t care that they won the division. I’m not buying this team at all. They last won a game by more than six points in Week 2.
As things stand, the Falcons have the no. 7 draft pick. This roster needs a lot of work in the offseason, but I think they’ll finish the season with a meaningless win.
The pick: Falcons (-4.5)
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints (-3.5)
These are two teams that are out of the playoff hunt and need to figure out what they’re doing at coach and quarterback this offseason. The good news for the Panthers: They have the no. 9 pick. The Saints aren’t so fortunate, having already traded their first-round pick to the Eagles.
Will Carolina owner David Tepper swing big for someone like Jim Harbaugh? Will he give interim coach Steve Wilks a real shot? Is there smoke to the rumors that the Saints could bring back Sean Payton and pair him with Tom Brady?
These are two more teams that will be in the offseason spotlight. As for this game? C’mon. I’m just guessing here.
The pick: Saints (-3.5)
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (-7)
I can’t imagine what it will be like for Bills players, coaches, and staffers to take the field for this game. But some of the photos from their practice on Thursday were genuinely heartwarming.
The Patriots are in the playoffs with a win. They can also back in with losses by the Titans, Dolphins, and Steelers.
I see the appeal of taking Bill Belichick as an underdog, and again, I have no idea what this game will be like for the Bills. But the last three times these two teams have faced off, the Bills have won by 14, 30, and 12 points.
The pick: Bills (-7)
Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears (+7.5)
Since 2000, a total of 108 teams have produced at least 12 wins through Week 17. Among those 108, this season’s Vikings are the only one with a negative point differential (-19). They have truly had a one-of-a-kind season. They need a win and a 49ers loss to move back up to the NFC’s no. 2 seed. With a loss here, Minnesota will be the no. 3 seed and will likely host the Giants in the wild-card round.
The Bears will finish out the season with Nathan Peterman at quarterback. A loss here will ensure that Chicago gets one of the top two picks in the 2023 draft.
I could be wrong, but this feels like the “something really weird is going to happen” game of Week 18.
The pick: Bears (+7.5)
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (-7.5)
If the NFL’s resolution passes, the Ravens win this game, and these two teams are scheduled to face off again in the wild-card round, then the site for that game would be determined by a coin toss. If the Bengals win, they’ll be AFC North champs and will host a playoff game next weekend. Cincinnati would be the no. 3 seed unless the Bills lose. If that happens, a Bengals win here would bump them up to the no. 2 seed.
If the Bengals win and the Bills and Chiefs both lose this weekend, and the Bengals face either the Chiefs or Bills in the AFC championship game, that game would be played at a neutral site. (Again, that’s if the NFL’s resolution passes.)
The Ravens need a Chargers loss and a win here to get the no. 5 seed. Otherwise, they’ll be the no. 6 seed and will play either the Bengals or Bills. Lamar Jackson has not practiced this week, so the Ravens will likely be leaning on Tyler Huntley here in a big spot.
The pick: Bengals (-7.5)
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (-14)
Jalen Hurts was a limited practice participant Thursday, and it sounds like there’s a good chance the Eagles will get him back for this game, although nothing is certain. The Eagles need a win or losses by the Cowboys and 49ers to lock up the no. 1 seed in the NFC. If they lose here and the Cowboys win, the Eagles would fall all the way down to no. 5 and would have to travel to Tampa in the wild-card round.
The Giants have nothing to play for here. They’re locked into the no. 6 seed, and even though Brian Daboll won’t come out and say it, it’d be a stunner if they played their starters.
The best-case scenario for the Eagles:
- Hurts returns and looks good.
- They get the bye and the no. 1 seed.
- They go into the divisional round with all 11 regular starters on offense healthy and ready to go (this would require right tackle Lane Johnson to come back, in addition to Hurts).
I think the Eagles win comfortably, but this is a big number.
The pick: Giants (+14)
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks (-6)
Again, this is trivial, but I’m not a fan of how the NFL handled the Week 18 schedule. The Seahawks need a win and a Packers loss to get in. The Lions need a win and a Seahawks loss to get in. But the Seahawks play in the late-afternoon window, while the Lions play at night. In other words, Detroit could know before it kicks off against Green Bay whether it has a chance at the postseason. Professional athletes are prideful people, but there’s a difference between playing for a playoff berth and playing for pride.
The Seahawks have been an overachieving team. They’ve been well coached and competitive. But they lost their leading tackler, linebacker Jordyn Brooks, to an ACL injury last week. I’m not comfortable predicting a blowout here.
The pick: Rams (+6)
Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos (-2.5)
The Chargers need a win or a Ravens loss to lock up the no. 5 seed. That would mean a trip to Jacksonville or Tennessee in the wild-card round. Baltimore plays in the early window, so the Chargers will know by kickoff whether they need this game or not.
The Broncos were mostly competitive against the Chiefs last week, and there’s a chance they’ll face backups here. I think they’ll win one for [checks interim coach’s name] Jerry Rosburg before turning their full attention to their head-coaching search.
The pick: Broncos (-2.5)
Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers (-14)
I am willing to chalk up the 49ers’ defensive performance against the Raiders last week as an aberration. This is still the only defense in the NFL that I actually trust. The 49ers need a win or a Vikings loss to lock up the no. 2 seed. That could be a big deal, as it would theoretically mean home field in the divisional round of the playoffs.
I’ll be honest: I stopped paying attention to the Cardinals weeks ago. But how about this scenario? Cardinals down by 20 in garbage time. J.J. Watt intercepts a Brock Purdy pass and takes it to the house. The Cardinals cover! What a way to end an all-time career. Who’s with me here? Anyone? Hello?
The pick: Cardinals (+14)
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Commanders (+7)
The Cowboys need a win and losses by both the Eagles and 49ers to get the NFC’s no. 1 seed. They need a win and just an Eagles loss to get the no. 2 seed. In every other scenario, Dallas will be the no. 5 seed and travel to Tampa in the wild-card round. The Eagles, 49ers, and Cowboys all play in the late-afternoon window Sunday.
The Commanders have nothing to play for. They will start Sam Howell at quarterback, and I’ve long said you don’t bet against Sam Howell as a home underdog.
The pick: Commanders (+7)
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers (-4.5)
Shout-out to Matt LaFleur. I think we’ve learned in recent years that there are probably easier players to coach than Aaron Rodgers. This team looked cooked a month ago, and now the Packers control their own destiny. A win here, and they’ll be in the playoffs. That’s a nice under-the-radar coaching job by LaFleur.
As mentioned above, the Lions will know the result of the Seahawks game when they take the field here. If the Seahawks lose, this will essentially be a playoff game, with the winner getting in. If the Seahawks win, the Lions will just be playing to knock the Packers out.
I’ve been impressed with this Lions offense all season long. The Packers defense had a nice showing against Minnesota last week, but I still think that’s a mediocre unit. Give me the points.
The pick: Lions (+4.5)
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly listed Green Bay as the pick in the Lions-Packers game; the Lions are the pick.