NFL Week 18: Biggest Takeaways, AFC Playoff Implications from Saturday Doubleheader

Brent SobleskiJanuary 8, 2023

NFL Week 18: Biggest Takeaways, AFC Playoff Implications from Saturday Doubleheader

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    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 07: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs throws a pass against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half of the game at Allegiant Stadium on January 07, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)
    Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

    Intrigue abounded Saturday as the initial portion of the NFL's Week 18 slate began, and the outcomes couldn't have been more different.

    On one side, the Kansas City Chiefs did what they do. Chaos didn't rule with a Chiefs loss. Instead, Patrick Mahomes and Co. took care of business and looked in control throughout Saturday's meeting with the rival Las Vegas Raiders.

    Conversely, the Jacksonville Jaguars continued their rise from the ashes as the NFL's version of a phoenix by capturing a division title after a 2-6 start to this season. Less than nine months ago, the Jaguars owned the draft's No. 1 overall pick as the league's worst team.

    While those broad strokes partially describe what happened during the first two games of the final weekend of regular-season football, a deeper dive into each competing team's situation can be found as the top takeaways from Saturday's Week 18 action.

Chiefs Clinch AFC's No. 1 Seed; Toney Makes Patrick Mahomes, Offense Even Scarier

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    Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney (19) scores as Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Luke Masterson and cornerback Sidney Jones IV (31) defend during the first half of an NFL football game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
    AP Photo/John Locher

    The Kansas City Chiefs' Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are the post-modern versions of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Doubt them at your peril.

    This was supposed to be the year when the Los Angeles Chargers finally challenged the Chiefs for AFC West supremacy, the Las Vegas Raiders made enough investments to be counted among the conference's best squads and the Denver Broncos finally found their franchise quarterback after seven listless years since Peyton Manning's retirement.

    Wrong. Wrong. And spectacularly wrong.

    Instead, the Chiefs continued their dominant ways by capturing their seventh straight division title, the conference's No. 1 overall playoff seed and a first-round bye with Saturday's dominant 31-13 victory over the Raiders. The results signified more than a continuation of the status quo.

    Kansas City doesn't quite feel like the same squad that represented the AFC in the Super Bowl during two of the previous three campaigns. Nonetheless, the Chiefs are getting better with each passing week.

    Mahomes is well on his way to winning another MVP after a record-setting performance. He did so despite three of his top four wide receivers leaving the organization after last season, including the game's premier deep threat in Tyreek Hill, who currently ranks second overall with 1,687 receiving yards.

    Hill's departure, in particular, forced Mahomes to expand his game and become a more complete quarterback than he already was. The 2018 NFL Offensive Player of the Year redefined how everyone views the quarterback position. His ability to create and work outside of structure is now a requirement for those entering the league. Granted, Mahomes is G.O.D. tier, yet the importance of a playmaker behind center is greater than ever.

    However, the efficiency with which the 27-year-old signal-caller now operates makes him better because he's distributing the ball to whoever is open instead of consistently looking for the big play.

    "I know when to turn it off," Mahomes told ESPN's Louis Riddick after the game when discussing the opportunity to take shots downfield or simply find the open receiver.

    Because of how the quarterback is currently playing, the amount of weapons on Kansas City's offense is staggering, and more are still appearing. Kadarius Toney is the latest example.

    A first-round disappointment with the New York Giants, Toney is now a chess piece for an offensive mastermind like Reid to utilize. The 2021 20th overall selection is best when asked to create in space and after the catch. He's not going to be a dazzling route-runner or a traditional wide receiver. He needs to have plays designed specifically for him so that he can make something happen. The Chiefs are doing just that.

    As an example, the wide receiver carried the ball as many times (three) as routes run during Saturday's first-half performance, per Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke. One of those resulted in an 11-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep.

    Toney scored on the previous play when Reid dug deep into his bag of tricks and called a play with a rotating huddle called "Reindeer personnel, artic circle, snow globe," rapid alignment, quick snap and throwback quarterback pass, though it was called back because of a holding penalty.

    These plays will drive whichever opposing defensive coordinators the Chiefs face absolutely mad, because they'll need to prepare for each and every instance.

    As such, the top-ranked Chiefs aren't just Mahomes and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. Now, opponents must account for guys like Toney, Isiah Pacheco, Jerick McKinnon, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. They're all capable of providing backbreaking plays for the game's best offense.

QB Search Reaches Full Throttle for Raiders, Though Jarrett Stidham Still Has Chance

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    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 07: Jarrett Stidham #3 of the Las Vegas Raiders throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half of the game at Allegiant Stadium on January 07, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
    Chris Unger/Getty Images

    The Las Vegas Raiders find themselves in the worst possible position for an NFL franchise: in search of a franchise quarterback.

    Some organizations scour the landscape for years without acquiring a quality signal-caller. The decision to bench Derek Carr and ultimately move away from the franchise's long-time starter actually limits the Raiders' options.

    Three viable avenues seem the most likely for the team to pursue, and they all involve Josh McDaniels' previous coaching history.

    Tom Brady's name will be at the forefront of the team's offseason, as he will be a free agent after three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Raiders have been linked to Brady since he originally entered the market. A reunion with McDaniels makes the potential marriage even more plausible, though no one knows how both parties actually feel about one another.

    McDaniels served as Brady's quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator for 14 seasons with the New England Patriots. The two know each other as well as a player and coach possibly can. The Raiders must decide whether they'll go all in with the seven-time Super Bowl champion for one year or be more prudent.

    Like Brady, McDaniels previously served as Jimmy Garoppolo's quarterbacks coach and coordinator during the latter's four seasons with the Patriots. The 31-year-old can be a quality option that knows the offense, works well within the scheme and helps set up the team straight for a few seasons until it's ready to transition to a younger option.

    At this juncture, Stidham can't be completely ruled out of the equation.

    Expectations for the former Patriot are now tempered after throwing for 365 yards and three touchdowns during his first start in an overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Against the Chiefs Saturday, Kansas City held the Raiders offense to 180 net passing yards, and Stidham's lone touchdown pass came in garbage time.

    However, he showed poise, athleticism and toughness during his short starting stretch. Furthermore, he's only 26 years old, and the Raiders may want to see more, depending on their options.

    Even with a 6-11 record, six teams will enter Sunday's slate with five or fewer losses.

    The Houston Texans, Denver Broncos—whose selection goes to the Geno Smith-led Seattle Seahawks—and Indianapolis Colts all sit ahead of Las Vegas in the draft order to select from Alabama's Bryce Young, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Kentucky's Will Levis. A big trade-up should be considered, but the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers are right there with the Raiders in the win column with the potential to do the same.

    Full speed ahead for the Raiders organization as it prepares to enter a black hole with some sort of plan to emerge from the other side.

Jaguars Announce Themselves as Ascending Presence After Clinching AFC South

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    Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen (41) returns a fumble for a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
    AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

    Competent coaching can go a long way.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are living proof of how a team with plenty of talent on the roster can go from being the league's worst to a division winner. With Saturday's 20-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, the Jags captured their fourth division crown in the franchise's history.

    The biggest difference? Head coach Doug Pederson.

    The drama from last season was gone. Instead, everyone saw actual growth, particularly with sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

    Granted, a strong defensive effort, a fortuitous bounce and an athletic play by an edge-defender were needed to knock off the reigning two-time AFC South winners. But those things occurred when Jacksonville desperately needed to make a play, which speaks volumes. Josh Allen provided everything the Jaguars needed with his 37-yard fumble recovery for the final score.

    How Pederson's squad won says plenty about the group and where it can go.

    Lawrence's performance over the second half of the season had been outstanding. In fact, he ranked among the top three quarterbacks in completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and quarterback rating during that stretch, according to NFL GameDay. As a former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl-winning coach at his previous stop with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pederson is the perfect person to help the 2021 No. 1 overall pick reach his full potential.

    Yet the Jaguars faltered in the second half against the Titans.

    Jacksonville punted on three of its final four drives (not including kneeling out the clock). The fourth resulted in a field goal. Lawrence and Co. didn't perform well down the stretch. The offensive line crumbled. The 23-year-old signal-caller appeared rattled by the pressure and missed throws.

    Jacksonville never did get much out of its running game, with only 19 yards on 14 carries. Tennessee's defense deserves credit for playing as well as it did.

    Jacksonville responded by playing just as well on that side of the ball. The Titans' final five offensive drives ended as followed: interception, punt, punt, fumble touchdown and turnover by downs.

    Lawrence will continue to get better. Tennessee's defensive front is one of the league's best, and it showed. The Jaguars defense, meanwhile, has significant investments to turn into a tough-as-nails unit.

    Allen and the 2022 No. 1 overall pick, Travon Walker, anchor the front by consistently setting the edges and getting after opposing quarterbacks. Foley Fatukasi and Roy Robertson-Harris are powerful along the interior. Foye Oluokun and Chad Muma are tackling machines. Tyson Campbell dropped into zone coverage and grabbed the interception. Safety Rayshawn Jenkins blitzed Josh Dobbs and forced the fumble that turned into a score.

    At 9-8, Jacksonville will assume the role of the team just happy to be in the playoffs after winning the AFC's weakest division. But the ability to pull out a victory when things aren't going right shows the amount of growth from the Jaguars this season.

    Pederson told reporters afterward that his team "overcame so much adversity" and "the defense and special teams won the game." In doing so, Jacksonville became the second team in NFL history to start the season with a 3-7 record and still earn a postseason berth, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Time to Rebuild for Tennessee Titans After Disappointing Loss to Jaguars

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    JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - JANUARY 07: Corey Peters #98 of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Travon Walker #44 of the Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans during the fourth quarter at TIAA Bank Field on January 07, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Mike Vrabel hadn't experienced a losing season as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans until this year. Despite the disappointing performance, the Titans still had a chance to escape with a division title and fell short.

    Surely, excuses will be made since injuries struck the team hard, including a season-ending ankle surgery for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But Vrabel isn't about to rationalize the team's loss.

    "I thought we started the game the way we wanted to, but we didn't finish," the coach told reporters after the game.

    He added, "None of us were good enough at the end of the day."

    Tennessee faltering down the stretch with seven straight losses should cause a stir within the organization to reassess where the Titans stand and what needs to be done in the offseason.

    A decision regarding Tannehill's status as the starting quarterback is the obvious starting point. Tannehill turns 35 before the start of next season, and his upcoming salary-cap charge currently sits at $36.6 million. By releasing Tannehill and designating him a June 1st roster move, Tennessee can save $27 million towards next year's cap figure.

    The Titans can enter the market for a Jimmy Garoppolo or Tom Brady. They might consider the possibility of a Geno Smith, Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield. After all, Tannehill was once considered a reclamation project.

    But organizational decisions run deeper than Tannehill's standing. All-world running back Derrick Henry is about to enter the final year of his current deal with a $16.4 million salary-cap charge. The Titans should rework his contract with a possible extension.

    The offensive line is in disarray and probably needs a new starter or two. Tennessee doesn't feature enough talent at wide receiver. Jeffery Simmons is due a mega-extension before he enters the final season of his rookie deal.

    Tennessee knows how to win football games. They've been very successful during the previous four seasons and nearly escaped with another division crown. However, the cracks are starting to show.

    Vrabel brings certain philosophies that allow Tennessee to be one of the league's toughest outs. No matter which players are on the field next year, everyone should expect the same approach and discipline from the Titans' brand of bully ball because accountability can be found within the organization.