We’re almost there. Two hundred and fifty-six games have been played, and there are only 16 left before the NFL playoffs begin. Almost every question we had about the 2023 season has been asked and answered by this point, but we’ll need this week to answer just a few more, including which teams will win a few divisional races, who’ll take home awards (outside of the big one, which was settled on Sunday), and which team will be employing Drake Maye (or possibly Caleb Williams) next season. We could always wait until next weekend to answer those questions, but that’s no fun. So let’s do our best to tie up the remaining loose ends of the NFL season.
Who will win the AFC East?
Next weekend’s de facto AFC East title game will double as The Bad Vibes Bowl, seeing as the Bills are only in this position because the Dolphins got outclassed by a title contender to set up the Week 18 decider. Buffalo comes into the game as the hotter team, having won four in a row. But the fourth win was a disjointed performance against a flawed Patriots team that saw Josh Allen complete 50 percent of his passes and lead just one scoring drive, which started on Buffalo’s side of the field. Meanwhile, Miami’s league-leading offense couldn’t get much of anything going after its opening script in Baltimore and ended up losing 56-19. Based on recent results, the Bills are one of the hottest teams in the league, but neither of these squads should feel good about their chances of challenging for a title after this weekend’s setbacks.
For both teams, it feels like we’re back at square one. The Bills have an offense with enough talent to win a few games in January, but they’re still trying to find the right run-pass balance after Joe Brady took over as offensive coordinator for the fired Ken Dorsey. Sunday’s game against New England was the first major red flag of the Brady era. Buffalo did well on the ground with a 55 percent success rate, but it couldn’t create any explosive plays there. That led to some impatience from Brady, who ended up falling into the same trap his predecessor did too often—defaulting to “bail us out, Josh” mode. The Bills QB ended the game with an average depth of target of over 11 yards; he missed a handful of throws; and his streak of 23 straight games with a TD pass ended. There were no layups for Allen in the game plan. Every throw required every bit of his arm talent, and, on this day, that wasn’t enough.
As ugly as things looked for Buffalo’s offense, though, Miami is the team that should be most concerned heading into the last week of the regular season. The Dolphins looked unstoppable after their first two drives on Sunday. Mike McDaniel’s opening script was a good one. But once Baltimore acclimated itself to Tua Tagovailoa’s quick release, the Dolphins couldn’t find a Plan B. The team’s first obvious passing situation was a preview of what was to come later on. The Dolphins got a first down, but Roquan Smith wasn’t far from making a play on the ball.
The second time Miami dialed up that concept, Smith wasn’t late, and this happened:
That, essentially, ended the game. Baltimore pushed its lead to double figures after that turnover and forced Miami into a must-pass game script. We’ve seen how that movie ends for the Dolphins offense over the past two seasons, and this was more of the same. Tagovailoa looked skittish and incapable of making a play on his own. McDaniel couldn’t find solutions, and the Ravens strolled to an easy victory that clinched the top seed in the AFC and established them as clear favorites to make the Super Bowl.
Some of the Dolphins’ struggles are certainly due to injury. Bradley Chubb potentially tore his ACL on Sunday, meaning the two best Dolphins pass rushers could be on IR for the remainder of the season after Jaelan Phillips tore his Achilles last month. Cornerback Xavien Howard also left Sunday’s game on a cart after injuring his foot. The offense is also banged up: Jaylen Waddle didn’t play Sunday and Tyreek Hill briefly left the game after taking a knock but eventually returned. They’ve also lost several starting offensive linemen throughout the season.
But they’ll get no sympathy from the Bills, who have had to survive key injuries of their own. Matt Milano and Tre White went down in early October after playing significant roles in the team’s first matchup against the Dolphins—a 48-20 Buffalo win. And then there’s Von Miller, who was a healthy scratch against the Pats on Sunday and who’s been largely ineffective for much of the season.
All of those factors make next week’s game a tough one to predict! The two teams we saw play in October do not resemble the teams we’ll see play Sunday night. The Dolphins have evolved on the defensive side since that game, but have taken a few too many injuries in the meantime. The Bills are largely the same team they were on offense, which isn’t necessarily a good thing considering they made a change at offensive coordinator, and the defense has been reshuffled after several important players went down. I have no idea who will win, but you can cross out the loser on your list of possible Super Bowl champs. Either Buffalo will be exposed as the same flawed team we saw before this four-game winning streak, or Miami will lay another egg on another big stage.
And what about the NFC East?
If the Cowboys beat the Commanders next week, the division is theirs. And it probably should be. Dallas has looked like the class of the division for about three months now, and Philly has looked like a fraud since the start of the season. The Eagles offense flat-out stinks, and their $255 million quarterback isn’t helping. The defense was already a mess before head coach Nick Sirianni decided to replace Sean Desai with Matt Patricia as defensive coordinator two weeks ago in a desperate midseason move, and, shockingly, that hasn’t worked out. If you’re looking for silver linings here, the kicker is pretty good, and the tush push is still unstoppable. That’s all I got for you.
Any optimism about this Eagles team is based solely on what they did last season, but at this point no one has earned the benefit of the doubt. Sirianni remains a largely unproven head coach. Hurts is the highest-paid QB in the league, but his team still doesn’t trust him to run a comprehensive dropback passing game in Year 4. The offensive line is getting older and worse in pass protection by the week. The pass rush has regressed after last year’s historic results. The corners are old, and the rest of the team is mediocre. The Saints have a better point differential. And Philly has been outplayed in nearly all of its big wins. Why are we taking the Eagles seriously, again? Because they beat Daniel Jones and a 49ers team with no quarterback 11 months ago? This team does not deserve a division title. It deserves a disheartening loss to Baker Mayfield on wild-card weekend, and that, in all likelihood, is the fate it’s headed for after getting outplayed in a 35-31 loss to Arizona on Sunday.
Dallas has its own problems, though. Its offensive line isn’t nearly as good as its reputation suggests. The defense is highly exploitable thanks to Dan Quinn’s straightforward approach. And Mike McCarthy has a disconcerting influence over the fate of this team. Those flaws may cost Dallas later in January, but the Commanders shouldn’t be able to exploit them. That’ll be the 49ers whenever Dallas sees them in the playoffs.
The Jaguars are (probably) going to win the AFC South, but what about the Texans and Colts?
Pop quiz: If the NFL season ended right now, which division would have the best chance at sending three teams to the postseason?
If you didn’t guess the AFC South, then you probably didn’t read the header for this section—but I won’t blame you. This certainly doesn’t feel like the NFL’s most competitive division. We’ve seen all three of these teams take embarrassing losses this season—the Jags were blown out by the Bucs, the Texans lost to the Panthers, and the Colts had no answers for Jake Browning’s Bengals. But while I don’t think any of these teams are very good, I do believe they could pull off an upset in an underwhelming AFC playoff field.
Let’s assume the Jags take care of business next week against a Titans team that should have no interest in winning. If that happens, the Texans and Colts will play for the final spot in the AFC postseason. The Steelers, and any other team clinging to playoff hopes, would be done. That feels like a proper ending to this season. Houston pairs a promising quarterback (and offensive play caller) with an energetic defense. The Colts are well-coached and have been competitive in every game. Either squad would give us an entertaining watch on wild-card weekend. I’ll give a slight edge to Indy, which has already beaten Houston this year and has a run game capable of exploiting its biggest weakness. Though as a neutral observer, I’d rather see C.J. Stroud in the playoffs—even if the Texans supporting cast doesn’t look nearly as good as it did a few weeks ago.
Sure, whichever team nabs the last wild-card spot is probably headed for a one-and-done trip to the postseason. But don’t expect to be able to overlook this division for long. The Jaguars have Trevor Lawrence, the Texans have Stroud, and the Colts will get Anthony Richardson back next season. If Will Levis, who has flashed some talent in his time as Tennessee’s starter, has any game, this should soon be one of the top divisions in the sport, and we’ll have to get used to these teams playing meaningful football late into the season.
Lamar Jackson has wrapped up MVP, but what about the other awards?
Congratulations to all of you who were smart enough to bet on Jackson winning MVP this season. That race is all but over after the Ravens superstar outclassed his closest competitor, Tagovailoa, in a 56-19 win that clinched the top seed in the AFC. Jackson was nearly perfect on the day, completing 18 of 21 passes for 321 yards and FIVE touchdowns. He had already been the favorite going into the week, and with a meaningless game against Pittsburgh left on the schedule, we probably won’t see Jackson in uniform again until the postseason. He has rested his case for the award, and it’s a damn good one.
But while MVP seems all but solidified, the other awards are still very much up for grabs. Here’s a quick rundown of where those races stand and what the candidates will need to do in Week 18 to close them out.
Offensive Player of the Year: I still don’t understand how this award typically goes to someone other than the MVP, but if we’re to assume that Jackson has no shot at taking it, this feels like an easy win for Christian McCaffrey, who has to get some reward for fueling San Francisco’s historic season. Sunday’s 27-10 win over Washington, which wasn’t nearly as competitive as the score implies, was a convincing example of McCaffrey’s value. Washington sold out to stop the Niners back, committing eight and nine defenders to the run box and leaving the deeper parts of the field undermanned.
Another insane state: the 49ers have been at a blocking advantage (more blockers than defenders in the box) only only 27% of their snaps. The Titans are second lowest at 52%.— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) December 12, 2023
The 15-point gap is as wide as the gap between the team in first (CIN) and the team in 25th (IND)
San Francisco’s passing game has enjoyed that setup all season, and it’s all thanks to its star back, who can turn any run into a long touchdown play.
Hill is the other candidate here, but his performance the past few weeks has given McCaffrey the edge. First, the Dolphins thrived without him in a 30-point win against the Jets. Then he burned the Cowboys for 99 yards on nine catches (meh) before dropping a key third-down pass that changed the game against Baltimore. The margin for error was always going to be thin for Hill in this chase, and his recent “stumbles” will be hard to overcome with only one week left before votes are due. A monster game against Buffalo could swing things, though.
Defensive Player of the Year: Despite a late-but-valiant effort from T.J. Watt, this is a two-man race between Myles Garrett and Micah Parsons. I lean toward the former, who is easily the best player on his team with Nick Chubb out and has led a pass rush that has kept Cleveland competitive all season. Cleveland’s fairly boring approach to defense doesn’t work without Garrett. Dallas employs a similar approach on defense, but Parsons has more supporting talent, which makes his job a bit easier.
Coach of the Year: This might be the most competitive race of them all. Kevin Stefanski feels like a favorite, but Sean McVay has led a Rams team that we all left for dead this offseason to the playoffs. DeMeco Ryans has turned around the Texans in exactly one year. Dan Campbell led the Lions to their first NFC North title ever. Shane Steichen has been so good we might have to watch Gardner Minshew start a playoff game. Kyle Shanahan nearly turned Mr. Irrelevant into an MVP winner. And John Harbaugh has Baltimore at the top of the league standings despite a number of injuries to key players.
I don’t even have a take on this one: Give it to all of them.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Unless you want to be a football hipster and give it to one of the many rookies contributing to the Rams defense, this one feels like a no-brainer. Jalen Carter has been the best rookie since he stepped onto the field.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: In any other year, Puka Nacua runs away with this award after he sets the rookie record for receiving yards next week. But this isn’t any other year, and Stroud has looked like a top-10 QB at times. Hopefully, McVay will let Nacua hold his COTY trophy as a consolation for a great season.
Will any more coaches get fired?
After three head coaches—Josh McDaniels, Brandon Staley, and Frank Reich—were already let go during the season, we could be headed for a relatively tame Black Monday. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that nearly a third of the league hired new coaches last offseason and many of the worst teams in the league have fired their coaches already. But some are still on the hot seat.
Bill Belichick’s time in New England seems to be up, though the Pats will likely give him a proper send-off rather than a cold dismissal on the first day of their offseason. Still, that feels inevitable at some point. Ron Rivera’s firing in Washington also feels inevitable after Sam Howell flamed out late in the season, culminating in Sunday’s ugly loss to the 49ers. That should open up two more jobs, in addition to the ones in Vegas, L.A., and Carolina. But will there be more? Matt Eberflus has made a compelling case for the Bears to keep him after the former defensive coordinator turned the defense around in the second half of the season. The team the Bears beat on Sunday, Atlanta, should consider its options. Arthur Smith is a sharp offensive mind—his peculiar usage of his highly drafted skill players notwithstanding. But there’s a certain style of offense that wins in today’s NFL—one founded on the passing game—and Smith has never seemed overly interested in installing one of those. If the Bears do decide to let Eberflus go, the Falcons should consider scooping him up, along with the quarterback who will likely be tossed aside with him.
Who’s getting Drake Maye—or possibly Caleb Williams—with the second pick in the draft?
Congratulations to the Carolina Panthers for clinching the worst record in the NFL. Ordinarily, that would mean Carolina would pick first in the draft, where it’d have a choice between two legit blue-chip QB prospects in Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. But before the 2023 draft the Panthers decided to trade that pick, along with others and star wideout D.J. Moore, to Chicago for the right to draft a 5-foot-10 passer who barely cracked 200 pounds at the combine. As a lifelong Panthers fan, I’m not bitter about it in the slightest. Neither is team owner David Tepper. Can’t you tell?
And so the Bears, who have a decent quarterback already, will get the top pick in the draft, which they’ll likely use on Williams, which will leave an awfully nice consolation prize for the team drafting second. After Sunday’s results, it’s looking like Washington, which has presumably given up on the Howell dream, will be that lucky team. If the Commanders lose to Dallas, Maye should be theirs. If Washington “stumbles,” then New England is next in line for the pick if it loses to the Jets. The Cardinals, having lost to the Commanders back in Week 1, would jump up to the second pick with a loss combined with wins by Washington and New England, but it’s unlikely that Arizona would draft a QB even if it were to land one of the top two spots.