The NFL playoff field is set and the regular season is officially over.
It wasn’t the most aesthetic Sunday of football, but the first full slate of games in the wake of the near-tragedy involving Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin last Monday contained a sense of normalcy.
Hamlin’s no. 3 was everywhere across the league, a sign of solidarity that has not only harmonized the league, but the entire country.
The Bills locked up the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a 35-23 victory over the New England Patriots. The Bills and Hamlin kick off the last set of winners and losers from the 2022-23 regular season:
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Nyheim Hines returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown on the very first play of the game Sunday.
It was a poetic start for Hines and a Bills club that had an emotional week with everything surrounding Damar Hamlin’s injury and recovery. Hines wasn’t done, though. In the third quarter he returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown to give the Bills a 21-17 lead. Buffalo went on to win 35-23 to secure the AFC’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Hines is the 11th player in NFL history with two kick return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 2010.
Although Hamlin did not play, the role he played in helping lift his team’s spirits after the trauma they endured on the field Monday was undeniable.
As he continues his recovery, Hamlin was once again able to address his teammates over FaceTime. He broke the team down in the locker room and was awarded the game ball.
Philadelphia could have wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the NFC East crown weeks ago. But Jalen Hurts’ injured right shoulder presented a late-season hurdle.
Hurts returned for Week 18 against the New York Giants, which had already been locked into the No. 6 seed in the NFC and opted to rest starters on both sides of the ball. The Eagles took care of business with a 22-16 victory and will have the reward of a bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Another week for Hurts to rest his shoulder is an added bonus.
Smith won’t be the head coach of the Houston Texans next year. His decision to go for a two-point conversion at the end of the game against the Indianapolis Colts may have been the nail in the coffin. (The 3-13-1 record didn’t help.)
Because of their 32-31 victory and the Chicago Bears’ loss, the Texans will now pick second in the 2023 NFL draft. It’s not the end of the world, with multiple quarterbacks slated to go at the top of the first round, but still not ideal.
Give Smith a lot of credit for ignoring all of that and playing to win. At least he doesn’t have to coach the Texans anymore.
Speaking of, the Bears ended up a “winner” this week despite losing their 10th game in a row. The Bears already have a potential franchise quarterback in Justin Fields, and the “which team will trade for the No. 1 pick?” discourse is music to general manager Ryan Poles’ ears.
The Bengals held off Baltimore 26-16 and avoided a coin flip to determine the site of next week’s playoff matchup against the Ravens. The back-to-back AFC North champs will host the division-rival Ravens in successive weeks.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals celebrated another division title with cigars after the Week 18 win.
“That’s our standard now,” Burrow said postgame. “We’re going to celebrate it every single time we do it. We’re going to smoke our cigars and wear our T-shirts and hats, but we expect that every year.”
What an emotional rollercoaster for the “12s” on Sunday. The downtrodden Rams took the Seahawks to overtime, with Seattle needing a win to keep its playoff hopes alive. The Seahawks escaped with a 19-16 victory, as rookie running back Kenneth Walker rushed for more than 100 yards for the fourth time this season.
Seattle held its breath for the Sunday night contest, needing the Detroit Lions to take out the Green Bay Packers for the Seahawks to slip into the No. 7 seeds. Detroit won, 20-16, setting up a Seahawks trip to San Francisco for a wild-card matchup against the Niners. The No. 5 pick they will have in the 2023 draft, courtesy of the Denver Broncos and Russell Wilson, is the cherry on top.
Eliminated by the kickoff of their matchup against the Packers, the Lions had nothing to play for at Lambeau Field. That didn’t matter. Head coach Dan Campbell’s club was aggressive as ever in the come-from-behind victory to knock Green Bay out of the playoffs. The Lions finished the regular season 9-8 in Year 2 for Campbell.
They make the list almost by default. First-year coach Mike McDaniel is in the playoffs, and the team needed a win against the New York Jets with Skylar Thompson at quarterback to punch its ticket. Prior to that, they had lost five in a row. They’ll need either starter Tua Tagovailoa or backup Teddy Bridgewater to have any chance in a wild card matchup against No. 2 Buffalo seeds.
New England Patriots special teams
The Patriots will miss the postseason because of an ill-fated lateral and a disastrous special teams performance. Those two reasons would have been unfathomable at any other point of Bill Belichick’s tenure.
Hines’ runbacks were the difference in a New England loss that sank the playoff chances of a club that faced a win-and-in scenario. The second touchdown was a clear lack of effort from the unit, a part of the game Belichick is especially passionate about.
The offense and special teams were a disaster, and the defense played only marginally better. Dak Prescott threw a pick-six and was 14-for-37, while the Cowboys averaged 2.4 yards per carry on 27 total attempts. The performance was uninspiring, considering the NFC East was not out of reach entering the day. Now Dallas will have to travel to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team they have struggled with recently, in the wild-card round. Tom Brady’s 7-0 record against the Cowboys isn’t reassuring either.
Baltimore’s loss to Cincinnati locked the Chargers into the fifth seed prior to Los Angeles’ game against Denver. Despite the game having zero playoff impact, Staley wanted to “slowly phase” out his starters in Sunday’s meaningless game against the Broncos. However, the Chargers coach strangely kept quarterback Justin Herbert and the starters in for most of the contest. Staley’s decision backfired. Wide receiver Mike Williams suffered a back injury during the game and did not return. Pass rusher Joey Bosa and inside linebacker Kenneth Murray were also banged up in the 31-28 loss.
The profession did not need validation, but trainers have been universally praised all week in wake of the response that saved Hamlin’s life. In the fourth quarter, the Packers linebacker shoved a member of the Lions training staff who was attending running back D’Andre Swift.
Walker was justifiably ejected. It was his second ejection of the season. Both times have been for shoving a member of the opposing team who wasn’t even playing.
Back-to-back one-and-dones at head coach. Their win Sunday – one of seven in the past two seasons – cost them the No. 1 pick. And the hiring of Josh McCown feels imminent.
Green Bay Packers
Like the Patriots, they failed to execute in a win-and-in situation. The defense could not get off the field in the fourth quarter and a late interception from Aaron Rodgers – perhaps his final throw of his Packers career? – prevented a comeback attempt.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.