With one week left, we’ve got 11 teams vying for five open postseason spots—three in the AFC and two in the NFC. Playoff seeding, draft positioning, job security for head coaches—it’s all on the line! What story lines will emerge from Week 18? On to the picks!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday morning. Stats are from TruMedia and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Week 17 record: 10-6
Season record: 125-123-8
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (+4)
I have an announcement to make. I have changed my pick for Coach of the Year one final time and am going with John Harbaugh. What’s the case? For one, the Ravens not only have the best team in the NFL this year, but statistically, they’ve performed like one of the best teams of the past 40 years. Check out this nugget from Aaron Schatz:
Happy New Year! The Baltimore #RavensFlock are now the No. 3 DVOA team since 1981. Obviously, most seasons pre-2021 had 16 games, so we're now comparing Ravens and #49ers to full seasons.— Aaron Schatz (@ASchatzNFL) January 1, 2024
Looking for more SB winners? 2004 NE, 2013 SEA, and 1998 DEN are just below this. #FTTB pic.twitter.com/JikxAKdxIw
Based on DVOA, the Ravens have performed like the third-best team since 1981! They’ve passed every test this season, including blowout wins over the 49ers, Dolphins, and Lions. And it’s not like things have aligned perfectly for the Ravens. They’ve dealt with a bunch of injuries. This isn’t the most talented roster in the NFL. They’ve faced the fifth-hardest schedule and still lead the league with a plus-210 point differential. Harbaugh made coordinator changes on both sides of the ball in the past two years, and each move has paid off in a big way. Harbaugh has worked to stay ahead of the curve schematically. He’s gotten impressive performances from players on the back end of the roster. And he’s proved he can win any type of game. There are a lot of great candidates for the award this year, but if I had a vote, I’d give it to Harbaugh.
As for this game, the Ravens already have the top seed locked up and will rest quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have three ways to get into the playoffs:
- Win and a Jaguars loss
- Win and a Bills loss
- Jaguars lose, Raiders lose, and Texans-Colts does not end in a tie
Things are getting spicy in Pittsburgh. This week, Kenny Pickett denied reports that he refused to dress as Mason Rudolph’s backup in Week 17. Rudolph will start against Baltimore, but Pittsburgh looks like a team that should be in the market for a new quarterback this offseason.
My rule for Week 18: Don’t get duped into taking the teams with more to play for. Weird stuff happens in these spots. Give me the Baltimore backups.
The pick: Ravens (+4)
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts (+1.5)
This game features the most simple playoff scenario of Week 18: Winner gets in. Loser goes home. The winner of this Saturday game will earn a wild-card spot if the Jaguars beat the Titans on Sunday. If the Jaguars lose, the winner of this one takes the AFC South and hosts a playoff game.
C.J. Stroud returned last week and looked good in Houston’s win over Tennessee. When these two teams met in Week 2, the Colts won 31-20, but Stroud threw for 384 yards.
The Colts didn’t look great last week but escaped with a win against the Raiders, thanks to a couple of explosive plays in the passing game. These teams are pretty evenly matched, but Stroud has been so impressive all season long. I need to see him in a playoff game.
The pick: Texans (-1.5)
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (-3)
Perhaps the funniest outcome of Week 18 would be for the Falcons, a team that so clearly stinks, to win the NFC South. It really wouldn’t take much. All they need is a win here and a Bucs loss to the Panthers, and a team that currently ranks 28th in DVOA would host a playoff game.
The Saints have two ways to get in:
- A win and a Bucs loss give New Orleans the NFC South
- A win, a Packers loss, and a Seahawks loss give New Orleans a wild-card spot
Playoff scenarios aside, there is another question coming from this game: Does the losing coach get canned? For Arthur Smith, a loss would mean the third consecutive 7-10 season. For Dennis Allen, it would mean a career head-coaching record of 23-47! If available, both guys would be among the most sought-after coordinators in the NFL. But as head coaches, it just hasn’t happened for them.
I’ll go ahead and root for some comedy here. Give me Atlanta.
The pick: Falcons (+3)
Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals (-7)
Imagine if you’d seen this sentence before the season: With the 5-seed locked up, the Browns will rest Joe Flacco and start Jeff Driskel in Week 18. Completely absurd!
I am buying the Browns as a potential playoff sleeper in the AFC. They’ve lost only three games by more than four points this season, and two of those were with Dorian Thompson-Robinson as the starting quarterback. The defense will keep them in pretty much every game, and the offense has been explosive with Flacco. I think they really have a chance to make some noise.
As for the Bengals, this season has been a bummer, but I’d be encouraged if I was a Cincinnati fan. They face a big roster and contract decisions this offseason, but they know they have a good backup quarterback in Jake Browning, and the coaching staff has kept the Bengals competitive without Joe Burrow. They’ll finish 8-9 or 9-8 despite facing one of the hardest schedules leaguewide in the past 40 years. I expect this team to be back in the Super Bowl mix next season.
The pick: Bengals (-7)
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans (+3.5)
The Jaguars have two paths to a playoff spot:
- A win gives them the AFC South
- Steelers lose, Broncos lose, and Texans-Colts does not end in a tie
This sets up a potentially fun scenario. If the Steelers lose Saturday and the Jaguars lose in the early window Sunday, the Broncos-Raiders game in the late window Sunday would determine which team gets a wild-card spot because of tiebreakers.
Most fun AFC scenario: Pittsburgh loses Saturday & Jacksonville loses early Sunday. Because then it all comes down to #DENvsLV at 4:25pm.— Deniz Selman (@denizselman33) January 3, 2024
DEN win -> Pittsburgh in, Jacksonville out.
LV win -> Jacksonville in, Pittsburgh out.
(Teams actually playing will not care one bit!) pic.twitter.com/p8n9XrN1gM
I can’t figure this Jaguars team out. I know I don’t trust them, but their numbers and résumé suggest that Jacksonville is better than I give it credit for. As of this writing, it’s unclear whether they’ll get Trevor Lawrence back or once again roll with C.J. Beathard at quarterback.
A thing I did not realize until this week: The Titans are 5-18 in their past 23 games going back to last season! It’s unclear whether they’ll have Will Levis or Ryan Tannehill starting at quarterback for this game. I’ve been wrong about both of these teams a lot this season, but this just doesn’t feel like it’ll be an easy game for Jacksonville.
The pick: Titans (+3.5)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers (+4.5)
It’s straightforward for the Bucs. Win, and they’re NFC South champs. Lose, and they’re out of the playoffs. Baker Mayfield is dealing with a rib injury and did not practice Wednesday and was limited on Thursday. If he can’t go, Kyle Trask, who has attempted 10 passes in his career, will get the start.
As I mentioned on this week’s Extra Point Taken, Panthers owner David Tepper continues to find new ways to embarrass himself. Last week, a video showed him throwing a drink at a fan in Jacksonville as the Panthers got shut out. Dude, you’re worth over $20 billion. Control yourself. It comes off as just so, so soft. There are only 32 head-coaching jobs, and money obviously matters, but if you’re a candidate with options, why would you want to work for that guy?
These two teams played in Week 13, and the Panthers hung in there, losing 21-18. Again, I’m rooting for chaos in the NFC South. Give me Carolina.
The pick: Panthers (+4.5)
New York Jets at New England Patriots (-1.5)
This is one of the few games with no playoff implications. The Jets, who are expected to start Trevor Siemian at quarterback, are currently slated to pick eighth in the draft, which should position them to add some much-needed offensive line help.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are currently slated to pick third, but that could change. Right now, they have the same record as the Commanders (4-12), who own the no. 2 pick. The tiebreaker is strength of schedule. The team that faced the easier schedule gets the higher pick. Right now, that’s Washington, but it’s really close—the difference between an opponent’s winning percentage of .515 and .518. That means if both the Commanders and Patriots lose, the draft order for the second and third picks could be determined by other games in Week 18. What a fun subplot!
As pointed out by @ShortcutButtonz, the coin toss won't come into play because New England lost to Washington. Out of 32 scenarios if both teams lose, the correct split is:#Commanders win 20#Patriots win 12 pic.twitter.com/QEFmg5MJgw— Shawn Spencer (@Spencer_NFL) January 3, 2024
But you know what? I don’t think it’ll come down to that. Bill Belichick is not losing to the Jets in what could be his final game as the Patriots head coach.
The pick: Patriots (-1.5)
Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions (-3.5)
The Vikings have two paths to a playoff spot:
- A win, a Packers loss, a Seahawks loss, and a Saints loss
- A win, a Packers loss, a Seahawks loss, and a Bucs loss
Minnesota is going back to Nick Mullens at quarterback. The two teams just played in Week 16, and while the Lions escaped with a 30-24 victory, Mullens threw for 411 yards in that game.
The Lions are coming off of a heartbreaking loss to the Cowboys. The dumbest argument I’ve heard in the past week about how the refs screwed up the eligibility call on the two-point conversion: The Lions shouldn’t have tried to be so deceptive sending three offensive linemen over to the official when they were declaring who was eligible. THE ENTIRE SPORT OF FOOTBALL IS BASED ON BEING DECEPTIVE AND CONFUSING THE OPPONENT! Give me a break with that nonsense, especially since Dan Campbell was proactive in trying to avoid the confusion by alerting the refs of the play design before the game.
Detroit will most likely be the 3-seed, but if the Cowboys and Eagles lose and the Lions win, they’ll get the 2-seed.
NFC & AFC Week 18 #NFLPlayoffs scenario charts!— Deniz Selman (@denizselman33) January 1, 2024
All 8 NFC games have implications so to make the chart readable I separated it into two tables: one for seeds 1/2/3/5, one for seeds 4/6/7. I aligned seeds to be in the same column as their Wild Card matchups from the other table. pic.twitter.com/x7vdQz0x1b
This game is in the early window, while Dallas and Philadelphia play in the late window, so the Lions have to try to win here. The 2-seed would mean hosting a playoff game in the divisional round. That’s a big deal.
The pick: Lions (-3.5)
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers (-3)
This might be my favorite game on the Week 18 schedule. The Packers have three paths to a playoff spot:
- Win this game
- Saints, Seahawks, and Vikings all lose
- Bucs, Seahawks, and Vikings all lose
I’m all in on Jordan Love and this Packers offense. I love how they played last week against the Vikings and how they’ve played in the second half of the season.
But this is not an easy game! The Bears are 5-2 in their past seven games, and their two losses in that span came by a total of eight points (to the Lions and the Browns). It’s not a fluke. Weighted DVOA puts less emphasis on how a team played earlier in the season and more value on how a team has been playing recently. The Bears are all the way up to seventh in weighted DVOA.
I don’t know whether Chicago will pull off the upset here, but I do not trust that Packers defense. This feels like a coin-flip game. I’m taking the points.
The pick: Bears (+3)
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Commanders (+13.5)
If the Cowboys win here, they’re the 2-seed in the NFC, which means that they’ll potentially need to go on the road only once to get to the Super Bowl. If they lose and the Eagles win, the Cowboys get bumped down to the 5-seed and have to go on the road in the wild-card round. If the Cowboys lose, the Eagles lose, and the Lions win, Dallas wins the NFC East but is the 3-seed.
As mentioned above in the Patriots blurb, the Commanders have the no. 2 pick right now, but they could get bumped down to no. 3 if the strength of schedule tiebreaks don’t go their way. Regardless, this franchise is in a good spot to start over. It’s got a new owner. It’ll most likely have a new coach and a new GM soon. And it’ll have a high pick, which could lead to an attractive quarterback option. For a team that’s rebuilding, what else can you ask for?
A Cowboys blowout here would not surprise me, but this is where I remind myself that Ron Rivera doesn’t care where the Commanders pick because he’ll be gone, and weird things happen in Week 18.
The pick: Commanders (+13.5)
Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals (+3)
The Seahawks need a win and a Packers loss to get into the playoffs. Unfortunately for Seattle, the defense is playing its worst football of the season. Seattle is currently 24th in defensive DVOA and 27th in weighted defensive DVOA. Pete Carroll has tried over and over to fix that side of the ball, but the Seahawks defense has consistently been mediocre or below average the past five or six seasons.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, went up and down the field last week against the Eagles. They drove inside the Philadelphia 25-yard line on all seven of their true possessions (not counting the two-play sequence before halftime). Arizona didn’t punt in the game. It had four touchdowns, two field goals, and one interception that was the result of a quarterback and wide receiver miscommunication. It was just a really impressive offensive performance by the Cardinals.
I’m torn here but trying to avoid recency bias. The Cardinals lost four of five before last week and have the NFL’s worst defense. I think it gets messy, but the Seahawks get it done.
The pick: Seahawks (-3)
Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers (-4)
Guilty pleasure game of the week! The 49ers have the top seed locked up. The Rams have a wild-card spot locked up. That means we get Sam Darnold against Carson Wentz. Admit it—you’re a sicko! You’re excited for this! OK, fine, I am too.
The funniest outcome here is that one of these quarterbacks lights it up, and some dumb team puts way too much stock in a one-game sample and gives Darnold or Wentz a legit contract in the offseason. All right, Darnold truthers, this one’s for you!
The pick: 49ers (-4)
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants (+5.5)
Can I interest you in an Eagles hate-watch or hate-listen? First, here’s guest Shawn Syed and me breaking down the film of the approximately 400 different things that are wrong with the Eagles defense:
And here’s The Ringer’s Ben Solak with video of the 400 or so things that are wrong with the Eagles defense:
PLAY SHEET: EAGLES DEFENSE— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 3, 2024
The Eagles had the third-worst defensive performance of ANY TEAM in ANY GAME this season.
They were playing the Cardinals.
I dove into the film to figure out what happened and why, and I managed not to lose my mind!https://t.co/UDDQ5Skl1R pic.twitter.com/Bb58nXCwuE
That should have you covered! If the Cowboys win or the Eagles lose here, Philly will be on the road as the 5-seed in the wild-card round, taking on the winner of the NFC South. If the Cowboys lose and the Eagles win, the Eagles regain the 2-seed as NFC East champs and host a wild-card team next weekend. In other words, I’d expect the Eagles to play their starters but to keep their eyes on the Cowboys game and pull guys if Dallas has a big lead.
The Giants, meanwhile, currently own the no. 5 pick in the draft. I simply cannot take the Eagles to cover anything over three, given what I’ve seen from their defense.
The pick: Giants (+5.5)
Denver Broncos at Las Vegas Raiders (-2.5)
Both teams are out of playoff contention, but as mentioned earlier, the outcome of this game could have real meaning for other teams. If the Steelers and Jaguars both lose, the outcome of this game, based on tiebreakers, will determine which of those teams gets into the playoffs. The Steelers would get in with a Broncos win, and the Jaguars would get in with a Raiders win. I really, really hope it comes down to that.
Raiders players really seem to be enjoying their experience with interim head coach Antonio Pierce. Give me Vegas.
The pick: Raiders (-2.5)
Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers (-3.5)
The Chiefs are locked into the 3-seed, so they’ll sit Patrick Mahomes and go with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. The Chargers could break out the “1-2-3, Cancun!” chant before this one. It’s been a long season for that organization, and massive change is coming in the offseason. Those players—the veterans, specifically—have to be looking forward to a break.
Andy Reid generally has his backups prepared. Give me KC.
The pick: Chiefs (+3.5)
Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins (+2.5)
The winner of this one takes the AFC East. If the Bills lose, they can still get in as a wild-card team with a Steelers loss or a Jaguars loss. But if both those teams win, the Bills are out of the playoffs entirely. They could be a 2-seed, or they could be on vacation next week.
The Dolphins have already clinched a playoff spot, but a win here means the 2-seed and potentially just one road playoff game en route to the Super Bowl. A loss means the 6-seed and a trip to Kansas City in the first round. I like this Miami team, but it’s hard to ignore how much it’s struggled against good teams. The Dolphins have played five games against teams that are currently projected to make the playoffs: the Bills, Eagles, Chiefs, Cowboys, and Ravens. They are 1-4 in those games, including a loss to Buffalo in Week 4, and three of the losses have been by double digits. They’re banged up on defense and could be without wide receiver Jaylen Waddle once again.
I don’t trust the Bills, but I’m reluctantly rolling with them here.
The pick: Bills (-2.5)