As the NFL season draws to a close, here’s what happened on Week 18.
Seahawks saved by the Motor City
The Green Bay Packers have had a topsy-turvy season. With one game left last season’s NFC No 1 seed could have salvaged what once seemed impossible and made the playoffs. But the Detroit Lions had other ideas, leading to celebration in the North West.
The Detroit Lions - eliminated from playoff contention before the game when the Seattle Seahawks beat the LA Rams - pushed past their disappointment and played the role of a spoiler, rallying to beat Green Bay 20-16 in the year’s final Sunday night showpiece. The win denied quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers a spot in the postseason, and left the Lions sharing the prize for the best team to not make the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Steelers, both on 9-8 records.
Instead of Green Bay, it's the Seahawks who will be the No 7 seed in the NFC. They'll travel to face division rival San Francisco in next weekend's wild-card round.
Still, it is a good recovery for the Lions from a 1-6 start to the season. If there is any team ending their season this week but feeling positive, it’s Detroit.
Bills win for Hamlin
The echoes of “Let’s Go Buffalo!” pregame chants were still reverberating through an emotionally charged Bills stadium celebrating injured safety Damar Hamlin, when another roar suddenly erupted as Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
Maybe it was inspired. The NFL has seen all teams paint the number 3 - Hamlin’s number - with a blue border in solidarity with his family during his recovery, and the Bills’ kickoff return score was their first in three years and three days. Coincidence?
Three hours later, and after Hines returned another kickoff 101 yards for a go-ahead score in a 35-23 win over the New England Patriots, the fans were on their feet chanting “Hamlin! Hamlin! Hamlin!” and Bills players holding up three fingers in honor of the injured safety's No 3 jersey.
The result was probably made even sweeter from a Bills perspective that their rivals from Massachusetts were dumped out of the playoff spots by their loss. The Bills meanwhile are No 2 seeds in the AFC and could carry the emotion into the postseason long enough to win the Super Bowl next month.
Dolphins are in
After just one successful field goal of 50-plus yards all season, it was only fitting that the Miami Dolphins' playoff hopes came down to a 50-yard kick.
“I felt like I owed it to the guys,” said Jason Sanders, whose booming go-ahead kick with 18 seconds helped Miami squeak past the New York Jets 11-6 on Sunday to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2016.
Miami (9-8) snapped a five-game losing streak, and then had to wait a few minutes for Buffalo to defeat New England 35-23 to make the Dolphins' playoff appearance official. “We're In” was displayed on the videoboard at Hard Rock Stadium.
It was a case of ‘just in time’ for a Dolphins team that have either gone on long win runs or long lose runs, and have had the concussion status of star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa over their heads. Still, they won’t mind as they gear up to face the Bills next week.
Sign of what to come for Denver?
It has been a frustrating year for the Denver Broncos, with Super Bowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson leading an often confused offense throughout a 5-12 season. But it did end on a positive note.
Wilson threw three touchdown passes, Justin Simmons forced two fumbles and the Denver Broncos dodged a franchise-worst 13th loss with a 31-28 victory over the playoff-bound Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
The Chargers (10-7) knew before kickoff they were locked into the fifth AFC playoff seed with a first-round game looming at Jacksonville, but coach Brandon Staley played his starters anyway, a decision that could prove costly.
Joey Bosa had a sack in the first half, but appeared to be limping around the sideline afterward. The Chargers announced no injury to Bosa and declined to give a reason for his absence the rest of the game, and wide receiver Mike Williams left with a back injury in the first half.
If the Chargers don’t play their normal selves this weekend, the fingers will point squarely at their squad selections.
Cowboys slip as Eagles ride into the sunset
There was a chance that the in-form Dallas Cowboys would unseat the Philadelphia Eagles atop the NFC East standings yesterday, making them the top seed in the NFC and giving them a bye through the first round. All they had to do was defeat their old rivals in Washington - a side led by a rookie QB.
Dak Prescott completed just 14 of his 37 passes for 128 yards, threw another interception that was returned for a touchdown and the Dallas Cowboys laid an egg in their final regular-season game, losing 26-6 to the Washington Commanders on Sunday.
Despite playing their starters with coach Mike McCarthy pledging they were playing to win, the Cowboys limped into the playoffs.
On the other side, Sam Howell's first NFL pass became a touchdown, and Terry McLaurin promptly threw the ball into the stands in celebration. Howell was all smiles after beating the Dallas Cowboys - for whom he grew up rooting - in his pro debut. One to remember.
It didn’t really matter though as Jalen Hurts returned from injury to lead a 22-16 win over the New York Giants. But questions will still be asked about the Cowboys’ mettle in the postseason, especially with Tom Brady’s Buccaneers to come and the red-hot 49ers in their division to deal with.
San Francisco watch
There’s something about the San Francisco 49ers which gives me the feeling they will go far this playoffs, so my last pick of the regular season falls with Brick Purdy and Co.
Purdy was once again tidy, reliable and exciting - throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers are peaking at just the right time and now know they won't have to go on the road for at least a few more weeks after securing the No 2 seed in the NFC with their tenth straight win. The Red and Gold have overcome any sense of on-field chaos and are now putting the Super Bowl firmly in their sights. They will be hard to stop!
NFL Wild Card Week match-ups
NFC: Seahawks (No 7 seed) @ SF 49ers (2); NY Giants (6) @ Minnesota Vikings (3); Dallas Cowboys (5) @ TB Buccaneers (4).
AFC: Miami Dolphins (7) @ Buffalo Bills (2); Baltimore Ravens (6) @ Cincinnati Bengals (3); LA Chargers (5) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (4).