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The Hot Read, Week 18: The Josh Allen Roller Coaster Heads to the Postseason

Despite an up-and-down game from their quarterback, the Bills gritted out another AFC East title and earned the conference’s no. 2 seed. Plus: Derrick Henry’s goodbye, Jamaal Williams’s surprise touchdown, award picks, an All-Pro ballot, and more.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL Week 18 Sunday action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.

The Big Thing: The Downs and Ups of Josh Allen

A lot happened this past NFL Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.

On Sunday night against the Miami Dolphins, with the AFC East title on the line, it sure felt like Allen had decided to lose the game.

Allen, like most quarterbacks, makes a ton of decisions during a game. Unlike most quarterbacks, Allen almost invariably decides to try the most bananas thing you’ve ever seen. Take this prayer he heaved on fourth-and-2, which became his second end zone interception of the first half.

In the second half, still down seven, it seemed like a third Allen turnover would lose the Bills the game—watch Allen try to head-fake Christian Wilkins in space but end up running right into his mitt for a critical fumble in scoring range.

This is the risk-prone Allen, the Allen so enamored of his superhero cape and superhero strength and superhero speed that he creates collateral damage with every supersonic punch he throws. When the Bills were 6-6, Allen had the second-most turnovers in the league (16), but also the most touchdowns (33). Welcome to the roller coaster. Please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times.

Remember back in November, when the Bills fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey? It was to try to find a solution to this problem. Yet since they replaced him with quarterbacks coach Joe Brady, the offense got worse.

No, really. It got worse. Every meaningful metric of offensive production for the Bills offense is worse in the seven games with Brady than the 10 games under Dorsey.

Ken Dorsey Vs. Joe Brady Stats

Offensive Coordinator Games Points/Drive Yards/Play Success Rate Pass Success Rate Rush Success Rate EPA/Drive EPA/Dropback Turnover Rate
Offensive Coordinator Games Points/Drive Yards/Play Success Rate Pass Success Rate Rush Success Rate EPA/Drive EPA/Dropback Turnover Rate
Ken Dorsey 10 2.45 6 48.10% 52.30% 46.10% 0.52 0.14 17.30%
Joe Brady 7 2.27 5.4 43.70% 45.60% 44.50% 0.29 0.11 11.70%

That is, every metric save for one: turnover rate. Under Dorsey, 17.3 percent of the Bills’ drives ended in a turnover; that’s one out of every six. Under Brady, even including Allen’s three-turnover performance against the Dolphins, that number has dropped to 11.7 percent.

It is hard to attribute much credit to Brady for the drop in turnovers, especially given what we just saw—Allen looks as turnover-happy as ever. You can’t really scheme aggression out of a guy, and the Bills certainly haven’t done that with Allen, who is attempting passes farther downfield under Brady than he did under Dorsey.

That’s the thing about the quarterback: He decides. Once that play call is in and the headset shuts down, all design and coaching and scheming go out the window. There’s just a player on the field entrusted with the football, entrusted with the decision. Ask Allen all you like to be more careful with the football, and he may last for a drive, a quarter, a half, a game, but he can’t change his DNA. And Allen, more than any other quarterback, chooses fearlessness over temperance: great risk and great reward over safe play. With the division on the line in Miami, Allen will play his game, whether you want him to or not.

So the first pick was terrible, and the second was about as bad, and then the fumble was a total gutshot. When Allen’s at his worst, he can dig you into a deep hole. But because he has such license to act, to create, to dominate the other guys with the sort of athleticism and fearlessness that few quarterbacks possess … he can decide to win. Just like that.

Even if you expect it, the whiplash can be painful to endure. You know that over 60 minutes, Allen will make enough plays that no defense could stop and no other quarterback could imitate—you just have to hope the knuckleheaded stuff doesn’t kill you before you get there. The roller coaster will get back to the station if you don’t fall off first.

That’s where complementary football comes in. The change at offensive coordinator has absorbed much of the credit for the Bills’ late-season surge to the crest of the AFC playoff race, but that big headline has hidden the real story. Since Week 10, the Bills defense has battened down the hatches. They’re 13th in success rate and fourth in expected points added per drive; no other team is allowing fewer explosive passes. The running game has kept the offense on track; they’re second only to the 49ers in success rate on handoffs and designed quarterback runs.

And what about special teams? With the division on the line, the clutchest play of the game wasn’t made by Allen or Stefon Diggs or any star of the offense. It was made by Deonte Harty.

So Allen decides—he makes the backbreaking mistakes and the supernatural miracles that leave the Bills hanging in the balance. But that’s been true for a while; that’s been true for years. It got dicey for a bit this year, but there’s no quarterback better for a foxhole than Allen. He goes Super Saiyan, and the bullets seem to bounce right off him. He did it late against the Dolphins, and it was enough, but only because the team had kept him there. The defense stymied the Dolphins for the entire second half. The return unit evened the scoreboard. Allen is the superhero, but there’s a sidekick and a guy in the chair and some other heroes who can rise up when their numbers are called. The Bills didn’t fix Allen; the Bills are just playing complete football again.

Complete football allows you to survive a game riddled with Allen turnovers in the red zone. It allows you to win a variety of games, as the Bills have over the past few weeks—low-scoring, high-scoring, from behind, with the running game. It makes you a legitimate AFC threat, especially if the next time you unleash Allen, you don’t get the turnover Allen. You get the flamethrower Allen. You get the superhero.

The Little Things

It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.

1. DERRICK HENRY’S GOODBYE

Whenever a major free agent signs with a new team, or a key player is traded, my mom and dad lament the days when great players just stayed with their teams. (They’re just getting old and can’t keep track of players anymore, but still.) Player mobility is objectively a great thing, but there’s a romantic nostalgia for a league with less of it—for the connection a player forms with their team and their city.

So I appreciate what Henry did for Tennessee and the Titans in what is likely his final game with the team. Not just the go-ahead touchdown and the vintage 69-yard run to knock a division rival out of the postseason—but what he said afterward.

Shout-out to Bob with the avocados, man.

2. A TEAM DECISION

We love some coach-handshake drama, don’t we?

Well, we got some in Week 18, when Falcons head coach Arthur Smith barked at Saints head coach Dennis Allen, whose team had just scored a touchdown while up 41-17 with only 1:13 remaining. Not only was the touchdown meaningless and a little excessive—the Saints were in victory formation when they scored.

This is already funny. It is made doubly funny by the fact that Allen clarified how it happened after the game. The backups asked if they could steal a quick touchdown for Williams, who had yet to score on the season, and Allen had said no. So the Saints backups went rogue, and ran it in with Williams anyway.

Here’s backup quarterback Jameis Winston’s explanation for why the offense decided to score anyway.

I have watched: “But I explained to DA … that it was a team decision” no less than 100 times, and I still laugh every time. If my editor makes any changes to this piece, I’ll just revert them back, and then explain to him that it was a team decision.

3. THE INTERIM

As a rule, I am against promoting the interim head coach to the permanent role. It rarely works. As I wrote in Week 16, when the Raiders were fresh off an emotional divisional win over the Chiefs, the biggest interim-to-permanent success story of the past 20 years is Jason Garrett. That’s nothing to aspire to.

With that said, rules have exceptions, and Antonio Pierce’s Raiders sure feel exceptional. Both after another divisional win against the Broncos, and after Davante Adams’s comments earlier this week.

I still think you can go through a coaching search—there’s nothing wrong with bringing in new candidates and new ideas. Cast a wide net. Remember: This is Antonio Pierce’s second season as an NFL coach; he only started coaching in college in 2018. If you give him the keys to the kingdom, you’re taking quite the risk.

But he has earned those keys—especially on what appears to be a long rebuild. If Pierce gets the interim wiped off his title, I won’t mind at all.

4. THE 2021 QUARTERBACK CASTOFF BOWL

March 17, 2021: The Philadelphia Eagles send quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-round pick and a conditional second-round pick.

April 5, 2021: The New York Jets send quarterback Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers for a sixth-round pick, as well as a future second-round pick and a future fourth-round pick.

January 7, 2024: Rams quarterback Carson Wentz (who started the 2023 season as a street free agent posting hodgepodge wardrobe hype) faces 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold in Week 18 of the NFL season.

Funny how the NFL wheel spins, isn’t it?

(Neither one of these quarterbacks looked good, and if at any point you find yourself saying, “Wow, Darnold looked kinda good considering he was mostly playing with second-stringers,” or, “Hey, I really think now that Wentz is healthy he can actually be a good backup,” I would encourage you to reacquaint yourself with the definition and intent of the word good.)

The Zag: The Detroit Lions Were Right to Play Their Starters

I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.

Entering Week 18, the Lions were almost certainly going to be the no. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs. There was only one way to end up a different seed: If the Lions beat the Vikings (they were 4-point favorites) and the Eagles lost to the Giants (as 5-point favorites) and the Cowboys lost to the Commanders (as 14-point favorites!), then the Lions would become the no. 2 seed. It had about a 5 percent chance of happening.

This long shot created a tricky decision for head coach Dan Campbell. The no. 2 seed is pretty valuable—it guarantees a home playoff game in the divisional round; the no. 3 seed likely delivers a road playoff game. That’s valuable for any team, but especially for Detroit, as quarterback Jared Goff has a pretty significant split in passing efficiency at home and on the road. An even greater home/road split belongs to the Cowboys, who would likely get the home game as the presumed no. 2 seed. Stealing home-field advantage from Dallas in a potential divisional round rematch would legitimately present a 5- or 6-point swing.

So Campbell went for it (as Campbell typically does). He could have passed at the 5 percent gamble and benched all of his starters, suffering through an afternoon of backups and mistakes while his key players remained safe on the sideline—but the no. 2 seed was too valuable. In Campbell’s postgame words: “You’re either all in or you’re all out.”

Unfortunately for Detroit, things didn’t work out. The Cowboys won, securing Dallas the no. 2 seed and the Lions the no. 3 seed. Worse still, star tight end Sam LaPorta, an integral player to the Lions offense, left during the second quarter with a knee injury. The exact severity is still unknown, but it will almost certainly spell LaPorta’s absence for this upcoming playoff game—which the Lions will play against the Rams at Ford Field.

In hindsight, Campbell should have benched everyone—but that’s useless analysis. It’s similarly useless to point out that, after the Lions won their game, there was a moment in which the Eagles and Cowboys were both losing—that, at one moment, Campbell looked like he may have been vindicated.


The Lions took a stab at a high-risk, high-reward decision, the same way they have all season. They got unlucky, and LaPorta suffered an injury, as did wide receiver and return man Kalif Raymond. But the risk wasn’t needless. There was legitimate reward on the table, and Campbell followed the same guiding light that’s gotten him and the Lions here, to their first division title in 30 years: He swung big. Pulling all the starters would have been defensible, but playing them was defensible, too.

Maybe the Lions can’t beat the Rams without LaPorta—I think they absolutely can. And if the absence of LaPorta proves so great, maybe Campbell behaves differently in a similar spot in the future. But that doesn’t really seem his way.

Actually Real Awards

I’ll hand out some awards. They’re 100 percent real this time.

Most Valuable Player (of the Year): Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson

Regular readers of the column will know that Lamar has been high on my MVP ballot all season. Nothing has changed as the regular season has ended. He is a field-tilting, scheme-defining, defense-breaking talent. No single player in the league right now is harder to defend.

Offensive Player (of the Year): Miami Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill

This is a very challenging award. Both Hill and 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey are integral players to their offenses. Even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking about changing it. Co-award it. I dunno.

Hill didn’t end the season with 2,000 receiving yards, as it once seemed he might—that would have locked the award up. But Hill remains the straw that stirs the drink of the Dolphins offense. Safeties are forced to play deeper, corners are forced to guess. He has more gravity than any skill-position player in the league, including McCaffrey. I think I’d give him the nod, but I also think McCaffrey should get the award. Nobody is allowed to be mad at me.

Defensive Player (of the Year): Cleveland Browns DE Myles Garrett

Garrett, Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt, and Cowboys pass rusher Micah Parsons are all deserving of the award—and every year that one of that trio is healthy, he’ll likely be deserving of the award. These are the three best pass rushers in football, and they are clearly a cut above the rest.

I’ll give the award to Garrett, for the star role he played on the Browns’ historically terrifying defense. In a world in which holding penalties are fairly called, Parsons probably gets this award. In a world in which the offense playing the Steelers has to drop back more often, Watt probably gets this award. But that’s how fine the hairs split at the top.

Offensive Rookie (of the Year): Houston Texans QB C.J. Stroud

Puka Nacua is a deserving record-holder, an excellent player, and on my All-Pro list. Stroud is one of the best rookie quarterbacks I’ve ever seen—and the importance of QBs puts Stroud above Puka.

Defensive Rookie (of the Year): Pittsburgh Steelers CB Joey Porter Jr.

This award was Jalen Carter’s to lose for the longest time, and he lost it, as he (and the rest of the Eagles defense) has totally vanished down the stretch. Meanwhile, Porter has become a linchpin of the 10-7 Steelers, everyone’s favorite perennial postseason surprise. Porter has been used as a shadow corner more than almost anyone else in the league and really shone in those opportunities. It’s harder for cornerbacks to accumulate stats like defensive linemen, so they often struggle to generate momentum for these awards. But the best defensive rookie of the season has been Porter.

Coach (of the Year): Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski

So many excellent coaching jobs across the league this season. Matt LaFleur took the league’s youngest team to the playoffs. Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay stayed laps ahead of the rest of the league’s offensive minds. DeMeco Ryans got all the juice out of that Texans roster.

But the way the Browns have navigated quarterback injuries, offensive line injuries, the loss of star RB Nick Chubb, and flipped over the defensive system in just one season … it’s just so impressive. The Browns are 11-6, set to create legit noise in the playoffs with Joe Flacco. Kudos to Stefanski, who was the subject of hot-seat rumormongering this offseason, on a job well done.

Most Disappointing Team (of the Year): Jacksonville Jaguars

The leap from 2021 to 2022 was so nice for Jacksonville. The Jaguars had oodles of money, a great young quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, and all the coaching staff needed to do to be successful was not be Urban Meyer.

The leap from 2022 to 2023? Not as easy. The money was spent, the roster was built, and expectations were high. Jacksonville was, at one point, 8-3. Their defense was disruptive and found the football. Their offense wasn’t perfect, but Lawrence was unstoppable through the air, and the receivers were getting healthier.

But everything has fallen apart. There are too many liabilities in coverage on defense, and offensively, their system and philosophy are both stuck in the early 2000s. You can see Lawrence’s trust in his play caller and offensive line deteriorating over the film. Change is needed in Jacksonville.

Most Impressive Team (of the Year): Green Bay Packers

I don’t think this stat can go overshared or over-appreciated.

Do you know how many mistakes young players make? The Packers do. All they did was make mistakes on offense—I wrote about it earlier in the season. Procedural issues, drops, route adjustments, coverage reads, play calls, alignment. It doesn’t matter how well you coach ’em up: young players are always sloppy.

Matt LaFleur dragged these Packers through a thicket of early-season disappointment and infuriating mistakes. And the product? Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks are one of the most exciting WR duos, and they’re both rookies. Carrington Valentine and Tucker Kraft have grown into legit headaches at their respective positions.

And Jordan Love? Oooh, baby. Jordan Love. That young man is playing quarterback at a very high level right now. The Packers are not an easy out on the road in Dallas—not by a long shot.

All-Pro. The Most Pro. As Professional as It Gets.

These are the best players, in my eyes.

I want to make something very clear: I do not have an All-Pro ballot. It is wise for them not to give me one—I’ve stressed about my choices for the past two weeks, and they don’t even count.

But here’s my All-Pro ballot for the end of the season. This is largely based on watching film and ripping through data. If you’re furious about a particular exclusion, there’s a great chance that player was the first one off the list, and I may have mentioned him below.

Ben Solak’s All-Pro Ballot

Position 1st 2nd
Position 1st 2nd
QB Lamar Jackson Josh Allen
RB Christian McCaffrey Kyren Williams
FB Alec Ingold Patrick Ricard
WR Tyreek Hill Puka Nacua
WR A.J. Brown Mike Evans
WR CeeDee Lamb Amari Cooper
TE George Kittle Sam LaPorta
LT Trent Williams Dion Dawkins
LG Joe Thuney Tyler Smith
C Jason Kelce Creed Humphrey
RG Zack Martin Wyatt Teller
RT Lane Johnson Penei Sewell
DT Chris Jones Quinnen Williams
DT Dexter Lawrence Jonathan Allen
EDGE Myles Garrett T.J. Watt
EDGE Micah Parsons Josh Allen
LB Roquan Smith Demario Davis
LB Fred Warner Lavonte David
LB Quincy Williams Bobby Okereke
CB Jaylon Johnson DaRon Bland
CB Patrick Surtain II Charvarius Ward
SLOT Taron Johnson Brian Branch
S Jessie Bates III Antoine Winfield Jr.
S Kyle Hamilton Justin Simmons

Some notable rankings:

Rams RB Kyren Williams: The last switch I made before sending this over to the copy desk was replacing Miami RB Raheem Mostert (who scored 21 touchdowns and was amazing!) with Rams RB Kyren Williams. There was a remarkable difference in the Rams’ running game with vs. without Williams, while the Dolphins running game survived without Mostert far more successfully. Kyren also has more value as a pass catcher and pass protector. That Mostert had this season at his age makes him all the more impressive, but in a vacuum, I think Kyren just had a better year, flat out.

Best of the rest at wide receiver: There are nine receivers this year who should have made the All-Pro list: the six listed here and then 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk (one of the league’s most efficient receivers on a per-route and per-target basis), Texans WR Nico Collins (also up there), and whatever wide receiver you’re thinking of.

Tyler Smith and Dion Dawkins: Offensive linemen always go underappreciated (save for those with a brother dating Taylor Swift). As such, it can be hard for younger/newer players to break into the All-Pro list and receive national recognition—doubly so when guys like Zack Martin and Lane Johnson and the aforementioned Jason Kelce never miss a snap or suffer a drop-off in play.

But two guys deserve their shine: second-year guard Smith, who has kicked in from his collegiate position at left tackle and settled into dominant guard play, and Bills left tackle Dawkins, who was long a second-tier tackle before experiencing a big jump in play this season. Elite performances from him across the board.

Ed Oliver and Justin Madubuike and Aaron Donald and Jeffery Simmons and Zach Sieler and Jadeveon Clowney and Montez Sweat and Maxx Crosby and Aidan Hutchinson: There are far too many good defensive linemen to fit on the All-Pro team. I have no further comment besides: All of these players are very good, and I don’t have a real vote anyway, so please don’t get mad.

Second-team linebacker: I needed to fill six linebacker spots, and, folks, I couldn’t list six linebackers that I think are truly elite talents, snap in and snap out. The overall quality of linebacker play hasn’t been this low in quite some time, I think. Demario Davis and Lavonte David and Bobby Okereke (what a signing for New York!) are great players, don’t get me wrong—but at some positions, I had twice as many candidates as spots. Not so at linebacker.

Evaluating cornerback play: I don’t think we have a single good metric for cornerback play. Yards per target, completion percentage over expectation, PFF grade, interceptions, passes defensed—even if you combine them all, they provide an incomplete picture. Cornerback is the spot at which you just have to trust the tape, and the best cornerback play this year came from Pat Surtain in Denver and Jaylon Johnson in Chicago. Many players could have slipped into that second team—L’Jarius Sneed, Denzel Ward, Sauce Gardner—but DaRon Bland’s playmaking influence cannot be ignored, and Charvarius Ward was uniquely suffocating in an island role.

Kyle Hamilton: Is the biggest and bestest guy.