Week 17 of the NFL season helped to clarify much of the playoff picture, though not all loose ends have been tied.
One such thread occurred in the NFC South, where the Carolina Panthers’ incredible run came to an end, in large part due to the way they defended Tom Brady’s favourite target, Mike Evans. Tampa Bay has now won the NFC South.
Elsewhere in the conference, the Green Bay Packers (thanks to a loss by the Washington Commanders) now control the final NFC playoff spot. This team, however, is much more than just quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Miami Dolphins continued their slide in the AFC, while the New England Patriots climbed into the last open wild card spot… for now.
The following are the winners and losers from the final week of the 2022 NFL season.
Kenny Pickett matures
With the Steelers (8-8) trailing by four points and needing a touchdown to win, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett made several huge throws against a defence that hadn’t allowed a touchdown at home in the previous 15 quarters.
Pickett (15-of-27 passing for 168 yards, one touchdown) didn’t put up big numbers, but he played well. However, it was in the game-winning series that he shone. Pickett completed five of his six throws for 62 yards in the series, including a 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Najee Harris in which Pickett escaped pressure and delivered an accurate pass on the move. He also converted two third-down rushing first-down conversions via quarterback sneaks. More importantly for the Steelers, the victory keeps their slim playoff hopes alive. Pittsburgh needs to beat the Browns next week while the Patriots and Dolphins both lose.
Even if they miss the playoffs, the Lions are on the rise.
The Lions have won seven of their last nine games and have a chance to make the playoffs. Detroit (8-8) must defeat the Packers (8-8) in Week 18, but the Seahawks (8-8) must also lose to the Rams (5-11). To be honest, all of that seems unlikely, but in any case, Dan Campbell and the Lions have had a fantastic season.
Though there are still some defensive issues to work out, Detroit has added speed to its roster, even with star rookie Jameson Williams still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the national championship game. Jared Goff is executing Detroit’s play-action passing game flawlessly. The offensive line has been consistent. And, with only 15 turnovers, Detroit is the best team in the NFL at ball protection. All of these are things that this young team can carry into next season and beyond.
Packers are dangerous for a variety of reasons.
While the Vikings have had an unsustainable amount of luck, and Green Bay received a huge break with the Browns defeating the Commanders, the Packers (8-8) will be in a win-and-in scenario against the Lions in next week’s finale (8-8). But it’s not just Aaron Rodgers who has made Green Bay a difficult out.
To be clear, Rodgers was effective, completing 15-of-24 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns. But the game’s first two touchdowns came from Green Bay’s defence and special teams: a 105-yard kickoff return by Keisean Nixon and a 75-yard pick-six by safety Darnell Savage. Green Bay has allowed only 17 points per game during its four-game winning streak. Granted, they haven’t faced the toughest opponents and have faced some teams dealing with injuries, but the Packers have limited opponents to 41.5% third-down conversions and 44.4% red-zone conversions. In that time, they’ve also forced 12 turnovers.
The Case Against Jarrett Stidham
Let’s start with the dreadful overtime interception: Stidham should not have lofted it in the face of pressure, and it’s the type of play he’ll need to learn from if he wants to be a viable NFL quarterback.
Still, in his first career start for the Raiders (6-10), Stidham demonstrated that he may be worth a flier next season, depending on the price, as Las Vegas decides what to do at quarterback. Stidham (23-of-34 for 365 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions) is 26 years old and has decimated the league’s best defence. Josh McDaniels was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator when Stidham was drafted in 2019. McDaniels makes sense as the coach who can get the most out of Stidham, and Stidham makes sense as a bridge player for a team that will almost certainly be looking for a new starting quarterback for the first time since the 2014 offseason.
Ron Rivera’s astounding ignorance
Otherwise, the Commanders’ coach had a solid season leading a depleted roster into playoff contention. Week 17, on the other hand, was a disaster. Rivera started Carson Wentz at quarterback because the previous week, after benching Taylor Heinicke in a blowout loss, Wentz had one good quarter.
While Washington’s offence had recently plateaued, Heinicke’s performance was not the sole cause. The Commanders (7-8-1) committed careless penalties, the rushing game disappeared at times, and a defence that had forced turnovers abruptly stopped putting the offence in advantageous positions. So, rather than riding Heinicke’s momentum in a must-win game, Rivera turned to Wentz, who has a history of imploding in crucial games late in the season. Rivera’s failure to keep Wentz on a short leash (16-of-28 for 143 yards, 0 touchdowns, three interceptions) is egregious. It’s inexcusable that he didn’t realise Washington was out of playoff contention.
Irsay’s fingerprints are all over the Colts’ demise.
After interim coach Jeff Saturday won his first game in Week 10, the Colts owner took a victory lap. Indianapolis has been in free fall since then. According to multiple reports, Irsay was the driving force behind the team’s first benching of quarterback Matt Ryan in October, when Frank Reich was still the head coach.
Irsay has now presided over a series of moves that have done nothing but create chaos. Irsay fired Reich in large part due to the ineffectiveness of the Indianapolis offence. In their last ten quarters, the Colts (4-11-1) have been outscored 97-16. The Giants hadn’t beaten anyone by more than eight points this season, but they crushed Indy by 28. The offensive line, which played Saturday and was expected to improve, has continued its slide as one of the NFL’s most disappointing units. The roster is flawed, the Colts lack a quarterback, and if anyone should be held accountable, it is the owner.
Carolina makes a terrible decision, not once, but twice…
Early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers led by 11 points. They would have entered the season finale with a chance to win and clinch an unlikely run to the NFC South championship. Instead, the Panthers (6-10) were eliminated after losing to the Buccaneers, largely because they (twice) repeated a mistake that had cost them earlier in the game.
Following Panthers receiver Shi Smith’s 19-yard touchdown catch in the fourth, Carolina put Bucs receiver Mike Evans in single-man coverage with no safety help, resulting in 57- and 30-yard touchdown grabs on consecutive Tampa possessions, giving the Bucs a lead they would never relinquish. It’s perplexing that it came after Evans caught a 63-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, when Carolina also used him in single-man coverage. As effective as interim coach Steve Wilks has been, this was not his finest hour.
Dolphins in the air
The Dolphins were 8-3 at the end of Week 12. Tua Tagovailoa, their quarterback, was making inroads into the MVP conversation. They were buyers at the trade deadline, and a playoff spot seemed assured. Miami (8-8) has now lost five straight games. They will require assistance to make the playoffs. Tagovailoa has struggled with concussions, and the team’s long-term quarterback questions remain unanswered.
The fact that all but one of Miami’s losses during the skid have been by a single point demonstrates both how close the Dolphins have been to a different reality and how costly their lapses have been. At critical junctures, Miami has abandoned the rush. It has frequently committed careless penalties in high-stakes situations. Jason Saunders, the team’s place kicker, has become completely unreliable beyond 40 yards. During their losing streak, the Dolphins have turned the ball over ten times. They are dealing with a slew of injuries. They only have themselves to blame.