After four months of game action and avid media speculation, we now know the top two seeds for the 2023 NFL Playoffs: the San Francisco 49ers (12-4) and the Baltimore Ravens (13-3). As for the #2 through #7 slots in each conference, uncertainty still prevails.
The Dallas Cowboys need a win in Washington Sunday to clinch the NFC East and secure the conference’s #2 seed. They’re damn lucky to be in this position.
Last Saturday night, the Detroit Lions scored what appeared to be a game-winning two-point conversion against the Cowboys in Dallas. But the officials nullified the score. Turns out that Taylor Decker, the offensive tackle who caught the apparent clincher, allegedly failed to report properly as an eligible receiver. That’s a penalty. The Lions’ second 2-point attempt failed, but Dallas’s Micah Parsons was offside. On Detroit’s third and final attempt, Jared Goff’s pass fell incomplete. Game over.
Why did the Lions not kick the extra point and take their chances in overtime? Because head coach Dan Campbell was determined to win the game then and there—that’s why! So instead of a possible #2 seed and a home game against the eventual #7 seed, the Lions will likely finish as the #3 seed then take on the #6 seed Los Angeles Rams in the first round of the playoffs—an intriguing matchup of QB’s (Goff and Matt Stafford) who swapped teams in 2021 and who both have ample incentive to ruin the other’s postseason. The fact that Stafford was voted into the Pro Bowl Games and Goff wasn't makes this sting ever more for Detroit's QB. Kinda hope this matchup happens.
The Philadelphia Eagles remain tied with the Cowboys at 11-5 but no longer own the tiebreaker—with good reason. After a 10-1 start, Philly has lost four of its last five games and looked putrid doing it. Last week, the 3-12 Arizona Cardinals rolled into Philadelphia and proceeded to score on 6 of their 8 total offensive possessions, including 4 consecutive TD’s in the second half. They controlled the football for nearly 40 minutes and nearly doubled the Eagles in total yards. Putting it simply, that's an old-fashioned ass kicking!
At this juncture, Philly’s only path back to the #2 seed requires both the Cowboys and Lions to lose their final games and the Eagles to beat the Giants in New Jersey. Fact is, the Eagles are likelier to lose in MetLife Stadium than either Dallas (in Washington) or Detroit (at home against Minnesota). Which makes Philadelphia, last year’s NFC Super Bowl representative, the lowly #5 seed in this year’s competition. They'll play a road game against the eventual NFC South champion and #4 seed (Tampa Bay or New Orleans)—all of which will be finalized this weekend. Tampa plays Carolina, so....probably the Bucs?
Green Bay needs a home win in Lambeau this weekend against the surging Chicago Bears to clinch the seventh and final NFC slot. Seattle and New Orleans both remain alive if the Packers fail. BTW, the Bears have won 5 of their last 7 games, and their 2 losses were to Detroit and Cleveland by a combined 8 points! This won't be an easy win for the Packers.
Like the Eagles, last year’s AFC Super Bowl participant (Kansas Chief) has been losing more than winning lately. After a 6-1 start, Andy Reid’s team dropped 5 of their next 8 games. Last Sunday—in a contest that looked like must-watch TV back in September—the Chiefs rallied from a 10-point deficit to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals and their backup QB Jake Browning 25-to-17. Patrick Mahomes played just well enough to give placekicker Harrison Butker a half dozen field goal attempts- all of which he made. Bottom line: Kansas City still sucks in the red zone! The Chiefs finally clinched the AFC West and the AFC’s #3 seed, but they exposed their numerous vulnerabilities in the process.
The rest of the AFC playoff picture remains a muddle. Baltimore earned the first- round bye and home field advantage throughout. But the #2 seed has yet to be determined. Joe Flacco and the Cinderella Cleveland Browns have locked up the #5 seed, and the peaking Buffalo Bills currently occupy the #6 spot.
But going into Week 18, four AFC teams stand at 9-7, three of them in the AFC South: Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Houston. The Jaguars hold the tiebreakers and can secure the title with a victory this Sunday in Tennessee over the struggling Titans. But Jags QB Trevor Lawrence is fresh out of concussion protocol and still nursing a nasty toe injury on a team that’s lost 4 of its last 5 games. What seemed certain in November fell apart during Desperation December!
If Jacksonville loses to Tennessee and Pittsburgh beats the Baltimore Ravens this Saturday, Mason Rudolph and the Steelers will qualify for the postseason, and the Jags will return to Florida to empty their lockers. Yes, Baltimore has won six straight games since losing to Cleveland (Nov. 12th). But Tyler Huntley will start at QB his weekend instead of MVP favorite Lamar Jackson--and over the last two years, we've all seen how the Ravens play when Jackson isn't in the offensive huddle. Rudolph to the rescue for Pittsburgh? Could be.
The other two AFC South teams play each other. The Indianapolis Colts beat the Houston Texans 31-to-20 back on September 19th. But Texans quarterback C. J. Stroud is back, he's healthy, and he's still a legit Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Not to be taken lightly, Colts backup QB Gardner Minshew has led his team to wins in 6 of its last 8 games. Something's got to give in Texas!
If Houston wins Saturday, the Texans make the playoffs--plain and simple. If Houston wins and the Jaguars lose in Tennessee on Sunday, Houston wins the AFC South and will host a first round playoff game. If the Texans lose, their season is over. If Indianapolis loses, the Colts are out—plain and simple, right?
Turns out only none of the AFC South teams might be completely eliminated with a loss--and the present #6 AFC seed is the kicker. This is where Steve Kornacki comes in and walks you through the possible scenarios on the big board. Suffice it to say that wins will serve their playoff chances better than losses.
Finally, there’s the most intriguing and meaningful final-weekend matchup of all, a must-see showdown on national TV as well as NFL 2023's last regular season game of the year: Buffalo @ Miami on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
If Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills beat Miami, they win the AFC East championship AND earn the AFC’s #2 seed as well as a first-round home playoff game. If either the Steelers or Jaguars lose prior to Sunday Night Football, the Bills automatically clinch the AFC’s #6 or #7 seed. But if Buffalo loses in Miami and a bunch of other things occur in other AFC games, the Bills could be eliminated from the postseason entirely. That's right--GONE!
As I mentioned, I’ll leave this unprecedented and potentially-catastrophic (for Buffalo) Tie-Breaker Tangle to Steve Kornacki. For what they're worth, here are my predictions:
The banged-up Jaguars will struggle in Tennessee. And despite Mason Rudolph's suddenly firm hand and guiding presence, the Steelers offense will have their collective hands full against the Baltimore Ravens' defense. Stroud and Minshew's combined efforts will ensure that Indianapolis vs Houston will NOT end in a tie. And Josh Allen versus Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa will be memorable regardless of whatever else transpires in the AFC
“Those aren’t predictions!!!” you say. You’re right. I’ll start giving you real ones complete with winners and losers next week. As for now, enjoy the final weekend (even though we’ve entered a new calendar year) of NFL 2023. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!