NFL

Who Makes the NFL Playoffs in Week 18?

By Scott Kacsmar

Nothing shows the passage of time can be both fast and slow quite like an NFL regular season. Many teams are on the precipice of the NFL playoffs or elimination with Week 18 this weekend.

But it was merely four months ago when we wondered if the Detroit Lions could live up to expectations in the NFC North, if Brock Purdy was a fluke in San Francisco if Aaron Rodgers could get the Jets out of their playoff drought, and if the Eagles or Chiefs (or both) could return to the Super Bowl.

Some of those questions were answered quickly, but there are still 11 teams fighting for five remaining playoff spots as we head into Week 18. We make our final playoff picks for the 2023 NFL season below.

Current NFL Playoff Standings

Nine teams have already clinched a playoff berth this season. Here are the current standings for each conference going into Week 18.

AFC

  • 1. Baltimore Ravens (13-3): Clinched AFC North and home-field advantage
  • 2. Winner of AFC East (Buffalo/Miami winner)
  • 3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): Clinched AFC West
  • 4. Winner of AFC South (Jacksonville/Indianapolis/Houston)
  • 5. Cleveland Browns (11-5): Clinched top wild-card position
  • 6. To be determined (can be a handful of teams)
  • 7. To be determined (can be several teams)

Teams still alive without playoff spot clinched: Buffalo (10-6), Jacksonville (9-7), Indianapolis (9-7), Houston (9-7), and Pittsburgh (9-7).

NFC

  • 1. San Francisco 49ers (12-4): Clinched NFC West and home-field advantage
  • 2. To be determined (NFC East winner or Detroit)
  • 3. To be determined (NFC East winner or Detroit)
  • 4. Winner of NFC South (Tampa Bay/New Orleans/Atlanta)
  • 5. NFC East runner-up (Philadelphia or Dallas)
  • 6. To be determined (Rams or field)
  • 7. To be determined (Rams or field)

The Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, and Rams have already clinched playoff berths, but we are still waiting to see which seed they end up with.

Teams still alive without playoff spot clinched: Tampa Bay (8-8), Green Bay (8-8), Seattle (8-8), New Orleans (8-8), Minnesota (7-9), and Atlanta (7-9).

The Vikings still being alive was the most surprising result. To make the playoffs, Minnesota needs four outcomes in Week 18:

  • Vikings beat Lions in Detroit
  • Cardinals beat Seahawks in Arizona
  • Bears beat Packers in Green Bay
  • Falcons beat Saints OR Panthers beat Buccaneers

There is a far better chance that none of those things happen than all of them happening for Minnesota. You might as well cancel your playoff plans for the Vikings.

So, with so many playoff scenarios out there, we are going to focus on the most likely outcomes and pick the games we think will ultimately decide these final spots.

Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore: The Rivalry Continues

The first game this Saturday is a tricky one as it is unclear if the Ravens will rest starters with the No. 1 seed locked up, or if we will see Lamar Jackson at all. Pittsburgh is a 3.5-point road favorite, which is already down from 4 points on Monday, and this is a clear sign of the unexpected plan from the Ravens.

Pittsburgh badly needs a win here. There is a scenario where they can lose and still make the playoffs if the Jaguars lose, the Broncos win, and there isn’t a tie in Texans-Colts, but let’s not even entertain that nonsense. Pittsburgh needs a win to get to 10-7 and give itself a chance in case Buffalo slips up Sunday night.

Playoff rest games are tricky because teams still have to play a fair number of good players because of roster limitations. You can’t just bench every starter. While we may not see Jackson or injured safety Kyle Hamilton, it could be Justice Hill and Melvin Gordon in the backfield, Nelson Agholor and Rashod Bateman at wide receiver, and the team is still well coached, has a great defensive scheme that knows Pittsburgh well, and Justin Tucker will still kick field goals. The Ravens have led every game at the 2-minute warning this year.

Pittsburgh is making the right decision to stick with quarterback Mason Rudolph after he led them to back-to-back games with 30 points for the first time since 2020. Kenny Pickett has led Pittsburgh to 30 points just once in his career. Rudolph is playing well, and he’s playing aggressively in a way Pickett does not, which helps make George Pickens more valuable as he can show off his elite ball skills.

But the Ravens have that top-ranked defense that allows the fewest points, forces the most takeaways, and ranks No. 1 against the pass. They won’t get pushed over on the ground the way Seattle did last week.

Playing a team resting starters isn’t a guaranteed victory. In 2019, the Steelers were a 2-point road favorite in Baltimore in a Week 17 game where the top-seeded Ravens rested Lamar and key starters, and the Ravens still won 28-10.

Being a team in desperate need of a win for the playoffs also isn’t a guaranteed win against backups. In 2004, the Buffalo Bills were a 9.5-point home favorite against the 14-1 Steelers, who rested Ben Roethlisberger and key starters, and the Steelers found a way (hint: defense) to still win the game and keep Buffalo out of the postseason.

Plus, this is still Ravens-Steelers, so it is bound to be physical and close. If Tyler Huntley starts for Jackson, this would be his fourth start against the Steelers since January 2022. Not a bad experience for a backup.

Pittsburgh is the only team to beat Baltimore by more than 3 points this year, doing so in a 17-10 upset in Week 5. That was a game where the Ravens kept dropping the ball early, then kept turning it over late with T.J. Watt having another huge game. The special teams also blocked a punt for a key turning point after Pittsburgh trailed 10-3 in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers may very well find a way to get it done here as they have had recent success against Baltimore, and the Ravens do not need to win this game. But a win does not guarantee the Steelers the playoffs as they lost too many key games to the Texans and Colts, who play later that night.

Playoff Verdict: The Steelers are +122 to make the playoffs at FanDuel. For now, we’ll begrudgingly pencil the Steelers in for a win to get to 10-7, but it won’t be known until Sunday if that’s enough to get in. You’ll have to keep reading the other games to see what we decide.

Sorting Out the AFC South

The Jaguars, Texans, and Colts are all tied at 9-7 with the AFC South up for grabs. We’re going to end the suspense early and give it to Jacksonville. While the Jaguars do not play until Sunday, they should be able to handle the Titans (+5.5) in Tennessee. They already beat the Titans 34-14 in Week 11, it was one of the few games this year where they didn’t have a turnover, and the Titans are averaging 12 points per game since Week 15.

It sounds like Trevor Lawrence has a chance to return for this game, but the Jaguars were able to beat Carolina 26-0 with C.J. Beathard on Sunday. Division rematches can always be tricky, but we are going to trust the Jaguars to get it done with defense in this one.

That means Saturday night’s showdown in Indy between Houston and the Colts is essentially a playoff game, a win-or-go-home situation for those teams as they look to finish 10-7 despite drafting rookie quarterbacks and hiring rookie head coaches. They are well ahead of schedule in Year 1, and this is even with a slew of injuries for Shane Steichen’s offense, including Anthony Richardson early in the season. He still has Indy ranked 10th in scoring.

But this is a big game for both teams and in fact, it is the first nationally televised NFL game for Houston rookie C.J. Stroud. Every Houston game has been on a Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET this year, so this will be a change in routine for the team.

The Texans are a 1.5-point road favorite. With a spread that small, it is not hard to find reasons to like both teams in this game. But notice how some of these points can easily be counterpointed depending on which team’s perspective you choose to back:

Reasons to like the Texans to win:

  • You instinctively trust C.J. Stroud more than Gardner Minshew at quarterback.
  • Houston’s defense ranks statistically better in most categories.
  • Stroud has grown as a quarterback since Week 2 when the Colts won 31-20 in Houston, and he did not throw a pick in that game despite significant pressure with multiple backup linemen starting.
  • Left tackle Laremy Tunsil was out in Week 2’s meeting, and despite suffering a groin injury last week, he is expected to play Saturday night.
  • Houston is tied for a league-low 14 giveaways on offense and the Colts have not forced a takeaway in the last 2 games.
  • Houston’s running game has been better when utilizing Devin Singletary instead of Dameon Pierce.
  • Houston’s run defense is No. 3 in yards allowed and No. 2 in yards per carry (3.3), so it may not be a big game for Jonathan Taylor and the Colts on the ground.

Reasons to like the Colts to win:

  • Minshew came off the bench in Week 2 for an injured Anthony Richardson and completed 19-of-23 passes for 171 yards against this Houston defense.
  • The Colts have scored at least 21 points in all 8 home games this year.
  • Houston is 2-6 when allowing more than 17 points this season.
  • While the Colts had some defensive stinkers at home earlier this year, they have held their last 3 opponents since the bye week to 20 points or fewer at home.
  • The Texans have been held under 20 points in 5-of-7 road games this year.
  • Stroud took a season-high 6 sacks and had his highest pressure rate (35.2%) against the Colts in Week 2, and while Tunsil is expected to play, he may not be 100% after leaving Sunday’s game with a groin injury.
  • According to Pro Football Reference, the Colts rank No. 5 in sacks (49) despite having the lowest blitz rate (14.1%) in the league.
  • The Texans had a season-low 52 rushing yards against the Colts in Week 2, and their running game has rarely been a strength this year.
  • Houston’s top receiver, Nico Collins, has been held under 40 receiving yards in 4-of-5 road games this season.
  • Houston lost rookie receiver Tank Dell to a season-ending injury, and he had 72 yards and a touchdown against them in Week 2 as one of Stroud’s best weapons.
  • The Colts have had injuries too, but leading receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and leading rusher Jonathan Taylor (who did not play in Week 2) are ready for this game.
  • Stroud has really not had a stellar game since November and has been out of the lineup recently with a concussion.
  • Houston’s pass defense allows a lot of big completions and has been very erratic the last 6 weeks, shutting down the Titans twice but also allowing Zach Wilson (Jets) to throw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns.
  • Houston’s defense is tied for a league-high 112 missed tackles.
  • While the Colts have not forced a takeaway in the last 2 games, they had a 19-game streak of forcing one before that, and they have not gone 3 games in a row without a takeaway since 2012.

It is a tough call, but one of these teams is going to come up short unless they tie like they did to start the 2022 season. But there are reasons to still think playing at home, winning the previous matchup, and not having a rookie quarterback are inherent advantages in a playoff-type game like this one.

Playoff Verdict: Jaguars win the AFC South (-225 at FanDuel) and the Colts take a wild card spot (-102 at FanDuel).

The NFC South Winner

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had their shot to win the division last week but laid an egg at home against the Saints. The good news is they get another shot as they just have to beat the Panthers as a 5.5-point road favorite. Carolina is 2-14 and is the only team in the Super Bowl era to not run a single snap with a lead in the fourth quarter. Both of their wins this year were on walk-off field goals on the final snap.

The Panthers just lost 26-0 to C.J. Beathard and the Jaguars. They have failed to score 10 points in 3-of-4 games going into Sunday, and they have a league-worst 11 takeaways on defense this season.

Baker Mayfield had a rib injury late in Sunday’s game but he is expected to play Sunday. He has actually done better on the road this year, throwing multiple touchdowns in all but one road game for the Bucs. He spreads the ball around better on the road and doesn’t just rely on the long Mike Evans catches that always seem to come at home. Evans also has been dominating Carolina for years and should have another big game in him.

But the key to the game is Todd Bowles’ defense against Bryce Young, the struggling rookie. The Panthers would have likely scored just 10 points in last month’s meeting had the Bucs been able to stop a 4th-and-6 play late in the game. The Panthers made that one a little too close for comfort at 21-18, but the Buccaneers will take any win they can get this week.

Should the Buccaneers falter in Carolina, and crazier things happen, the Falcons and Saints will play for the division title in New Orleans. The Falcons can make it back-to-back years where the NFC South is won by a team with an 8-9 record, but the Saints have been playing better on offense with Derek Carr having his best stretch of the season, and the Falcons are clueless at that quarterback position after getting a bad start from Taylor Heinicke in Chicago. Do they go back to Desmond Ridder for the finale? Does it matter for coach Arthur Smith at this point?

No, we don’t think it matters as the Saints should win this game, but it won’t be enough as the Buccaneers simultaneously take the division in Carolina.

Playoff Verdict: Buccaneers win the NFC South (-245 at FanDuel) for the third season in a row.

Green Bay’s Shot at Redemption

The 2022 NFL regular season ended with the Green Bay Packers just needing to beat the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field on Sunday Night Football to finish 9-8 and earn the No. 7 seed. Here we are a year later with Jordan Love replacing Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers are in a very similar situation at 8-8, needing a win at home against the Bears to make the playoffs and hold off a Seattle team that is 8-8.

These games will be played simultaneously, but frankly, the Seahawks may not even win in Arizona to get to 9-8 this time. Not if the run defense bombs like it did against Pittsburgh last week, and if the Cardinals run it so well as they did with James Conner in Philadelphia. The Cardinals scored four straight touchdowns to end that wild comeback win, and Kyler Murray has his last shot this year to prove that he should still be the franchise quarterback in 2024. The Cardinals could be ripe for an upset there, which would make this final NFC spot come down to the Saints (9-8) after we just gave them the win over Atlanta, and the Packers (8-8) hosting Chicago.

It’s a shot at redemption for Matt LaFleur, who didn’t come through in this spot against a better Detroit team last year at home. But LaFleur has never lost to the Bears since he took the job in Green Bay in 2019 and Love already beat Justin Fields and the Bears in his first attempt in Week 1 in a 38-20 win.

But the Bears have been playing better in recent weeks with a 4-1 record over the last five games. The defense has largely been at the forefront of that, though Fields has played better than he did in September. But the Bears are 1-9 this season when allowing more than 17 points.

Love has been hot and is up to 30 touchdown passes on the season, his first as a starter. Over the last 7 games, Love has thrown 16 touchdowns to 1 interception and has a 109.9 passer rating. It is a streak that would probably get a little more attention if the Packers didn’t play such atrocious defense against the Giants and Buccaneers in losses. Joe Barry’s defense has been so rough that the Packers allowed the Panthers to score 30 points in Week 16, the same Carolina team with 16 points in its other three games this last month.

But to Barry’s credit (maybe), the Packers held the Vikings to 10 points last week and looked as good as they have all season on both sides of the ball. Maybe this young team is peaking at the right time, but it should be an interesting battle with their old rival from Chicago.

Playoff Verdict: The irony is we usually groan at seeing Bears and Packers in prime time, but this is the first season since 2004 where we aren’t getting a national game between them, and this happens to be one that might actually have been good. It is certainly important, but at the end of the day, it is a tale as old as time. We are going to trust Love and Green Bay to finish the job and push the Packers into the playoffs (-210 at FanDuel) with a big home win over Chicago.

Sunday Night Finale: Bills at Dolphins for the AFC East

Our first real taste of a “Game of the Year” this season was in Week 4 when the Bills hosted Miami a week after the Dolphins dropped 70 points on Denver in one of the greatest offensive performances in NFL history.

The game lived up to the hype early with the offenses exchanging touchdowns for a 21-14 lead for Buffalo, but that’s when things took a turn. Miami was held without a first down on four straight possessions, and the Bills never looked back on their way to a 48-20 win.

The Bills seemed to peak with that game, hitting a slump and falling multiple games behind the Dolphins in the AFC East. But here we are with one game to decide the division title, and the Bills are a 3-point road favorite.

Buffalo coach Sean McDermott is 0-4 in road playoff games, and this could be another one of those if the Steelers win Saturday and make this a true elimination game for the Bills. But we know Miami has struggled with the good teams under Mike McDaniel. The Dolphins managed to beat Dallas in Week 16 by a 22-20 final, but we’ve already seen the Bills demolish Dallas (31-10) in the last month. Miami was just destroyed 56-19 in Baltimore, becoming the first defense in NFL history to allow two quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards with a perfect passer rating in the same season. Josh Allen did it to them in Week 4.

That’s not to say Allen and the Bills are coming in clicking on all cylinders. Since Week 9, Allen has only completed 58.8% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions for an 80.2 passer rating. He does have 10 of his 15 rushing touchdowns in that time, but Allen was completing 71.7% of his passes with a 101.5 passer rating in the first eight weeks this season.

Allen is 10-2 against Miami, throwing multiple touchdowns in all 12 meetings, which is the longest streak in NFL history against one opponent. You can say he owns Miami but the stakes are high here, and the Dolphins are not starting Skylar Thompson at quarterback like they were last postseason when the Bills nearly blew a home wild-card game as a huge favorite because of turnovers.

Turnovers are usually this offense’s bugaboo. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey fell on the sword for them when he was fired following the Denver loss. Since then, the Bills are 5-1 with only one game with multiple turnovers when they lost the ball 3 times against the Chargers, another game they had to sweat out in the end. They even had to sweat Sunday’s 27-21 win over New England despite being plus-3 in the turnover battle. That’s because Allen only completed 50% of his passes and struggled to move the ball.

We’ve seen Gabe Davis have games with no catches. We’ve seen rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid struggle with drops in the last month. But the lack of production from Stefon Diggs in the second half of the year has been shocking. Through Week 9, Diggs was on pace for 132 catches, 1,575 yards, and 13 touchdowns. But in the games since then, Diggs’ full-season pace is 73 catches for 636 yards and 2 touchdowns. He is only averaging 37.4 yards per game since Week 10, an incredibly low number for one of the best No. 1 wide receivers in the NFL.

You can blame the Bills running the ball at will against Dallas, a game where Allen did not break 100 passing yards on just 15 attempts. But that was only one game. The Bills have not looked their sharpest in the passing game against the Chiefs, Chargers, and Patriots too. Oddly enough, Allen played his best recently in the overtime loss to Philadelphia, which was more about the special teams and defense than the offense.

Allen is also getting a Miami defense that has suffered some key injuries like Xavien Howard, Jaelan Phillips, and Bradley Chubb (who tore his ACL in Baltimore). They do have Jalen Ramsey at corner, who was not available in Week 4, and he can expect to cover Diggs, but it’s not like the Bills have been looking his way much anyway. This could be more about how well James Cook and the running game fare, and if the Bills under new coordinator Joe Brady show the commitment to running in a big game, something they usually get away from in these moments. Cook only had 12 carries for 29 yards against the Dolphins in Week 4.

How Miami’s defense handles Allen is probably the story of the game, but it would be good for Miami to show up on offense in this one. We have seen the Dolphins get pushed around in these matchups, and they have only scored 14, 17, 19, 20, and 22 points against contenders like Kansas City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Dallas.

Tyreek Hill’s pursuit of 2,000 yards is essentially over, but he still can have a huge game and finish with the third-most receiving yards in NFL history. He might need to as No. 2 receiver Jaylen Waddle is not expected to play again this week. Raheem Mostert may be back at running back, but the Bills held him to 9 yards on 7 carries in Week 4. It was De’Von Achane who hit the big play with a 55-yard run that day.

But the Bills were all over Tua Tagovailoa, who was sacked 4 times. Buffalo’s defense has also had some big losses to injury since Week 4, including Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano. Von Miller was a healthy scratch last week and has been virtually invisible this year. But the Buffalo defense has been fairly strong this year despite the injuries.

Since 2017, McDermott is 19-4 SU with Buffalo in games where the Bills are favored by up to 3.5 points. That includes a 4-0 ATS record against Miami, including Week 4’s blowout win.

Playoff Verdict: This one is tough as we had the Bills winning the division before the season, and we stuck with them at the midpoint of the year when things looked bleak. They are hard to trust, but so is Miami against the top teams. Let’s just stick with the gut and take the Bills to win the AFC East (-164 at FanDuel) and Miami settles for the No. 6 seed.

Final Playoff Standings

Just to put together all the picks from above, this is how we see things shaping out this weekend:

AFC

  • 1. Baltimore Ravens
  • 2. Buffalo Bills
  • 3. Kansas City Chiefs
  • 4. Jacksonville Jaguars
  • 5. Cleveland Browns
  • 6. Miami Dolphins
  • 7. Indianapolis Colts

NFC

  • 1. San Francisco 49ers
  • 2. Dallas Cowboys
  • 3. Detroit Lions
  • 4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • 5. Philadelphia Eagles
  • 6. Green Bay Packers
  • 7. Los Angeles Rams

Note: If the Rams beat the 49ers in Week 18, then the Packers would be the No. 7 seed and the Rams would be No. 6. But we have the 49ers winning that game, and we also have the Cowboys beating Washington to win the NFC East, claiming the No. 2 seed and dropping Detroit to No. 3.

Those No. 1 seeds will be favored to go the distance and meet in the Super Bowl, but you never know what will happen in a one-and-done setting. There are people lurking who have pulled it off before like the Chiefs, the Rams with Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford, and Joe Flacco in Cleveland could be one of the wildest stories in NFL history.

If they finish things off this weekend to claim the No. 2 seeds, maybe this is the year Dallas and Buffalo put their disappointments behind them and get to the Super Bowl. They have statistically been the most dominant teams in the NFL since 2021 but have yet to put together a long run this time of year. Maybe this is the year things break their way.

Teams like the Saints and Steelers sneaking in as No. 7 seeds and leaving the Bills and Packers at home would be disappointing for the overall quality of the postseason. But that’s why they play the games, and we’ll just have to see who steps up on the final Sunday of the regular season.

Then the real fun begins next week.

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