After what’s been a long, tumultuous season, the 2021-22 NFL regular season is about to hit the final stretch. Many teams clinched playoff spots in Week 17 and other spots are still up for grabs, including the AFC East and NFC West division titles. In the AFC, the Bengals and Titans clinched their division titles while also staying in the race for the conference’s number one seed. Buffalo and New England, two rivals still competing for the AFC East, are also guaranteed playoff spots. In the NFC, the Packers took the number one seed in the conference while helping the Eagles clinch a playoff spot in the process. Also, six teams were officially eliminated from playoff contention in Week 17: the Dolphins, Browns, Broncos, Vikings, Falcons, and Washington. The stage is set for the first-ever Week 18 in NFL history and could be one of the wildest weekends ever.
Chiefs vs. Broncos, 4:30 PM on ESPN/ABC
KC: clinches AFC’s No. 1 seed with win + TEN loss
Kansas City lost a heartbreaker to a red-hot Bengals team after a wild sequence in the final minute led to a Bengals game-winning field goal at the buzzer. Not only did the loss snap the Chiefs’ eight-game win streak, but they also fell out of the top spot in the AFC, now held by the Tennessee Titans. Now Kansas City needs to win and hope that Tennessee loses to the Texans, which is a lot to ask from a team that desperately needs the first-round bye considering that RB Derrick Henry has a chance to return from IR for the postseason. The Chiefs’ defense is the key in this game. They played solid during their recent win streak before allowing Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase to go off for a career-high 11 receptions with 266 yards and 3 TDs. In their last meeting against Denver, they did limit the Broncos’ WRs to 101 total receiving yards. They also played Teddy Bridgewater the first time and will now face a less-talented QB in Drew Lock, who has 33 turnovers in 22 career games and was forced to start in place of a now-injured Bridgewater. Denver is already eliminated from playoff contention and the only thing they’re playing for is pride. Maybe the circumstances of this game being played against a division rival in primetime could serve as a little motivation for the Broncos to try and alter the difficulty of the Chiefs’ playoff ride.
Cowboys vs. Eagles, 8:15 PM on ESPN/ABC
DAL: clinches No. 2 seed with win + losses by LAR, TB, and ARI. Clinches No. 3 seed with win + losses by LAR and ARI.
PHI: clinches No. 6 seed with win + SF loss
If the NFL scheduled this game for the sole purpose of playoff implications on the line, this was probably not the right game for that. But from a competitive standpoint, this game is right up there. Dallas and Philly are already guaranteed to make the playoffs so the only real implication for this game is playoff seeding. For the Cowboys, their offense has been inconsistent since their Week 6 meeting against the Patriots. In games against the Falcons, Raiders, and Washington, their offense has averaged 44 PPG in those matchups. But in games against the Chiefs, Broncos, and Giants, they averaged a dismal 15.3 PPG against those three. If the Cowboys don’t want to be labeled as “pretenders” come playoff time, the offense has to show up and bring their ‘A’ game in a tough environment to prove to the rest of the NFC that they’re a dangerous playoff threat. There’s one major setback: they’re gonna have to do it without deep threat Michael Gallup, who tore his ACL last week and was a huge piece to this offense. Meanwhile, the Eagles, who lead the NFL in rushing YPG (160.4), have a COVID-19 list that is growing at an alarming rate and includes players such as DT Fletcher Cox, TE Dallas Goedert, CBs Avonte Maddox and Rodney Mcleod, LB Alex Singleton, and RBs Boston Scott and Jordan Howard. Also, Philly will likely be without top RB Miles Sanders, who is listed as doubtful with a broken hand. Facing a short-handed squad, Dallas has the clear advantage here and should be able to take care of their divisional foe.
Bengals vs. Browns, 1:00 PM on FOX
CIN: clinches No. 1 seed with win + losses by TEN and KC. Clinches No. 2 seed with win + loss by KC
Remember when New England was the hottest team in the NFL like a month ago? Me neither. The Bengals are the latest team to hop onto that trend. They’ve won three in a row and have clinched their first AFC North title since 2015. Now Cincinnati has put themselves in an unlikely position where they can chase the No. 1 seed, which is improbable but not impossible. They would obviously need to win and then have both Kansas City and Tennessee lose their games, which would put the Bengals at the top since they own the conference tie-breaker over both. The job will be tougher for the Bengals because they will be without QB Joe Burrow (knee and pinkie) and RB Joe Mixon (COVID-19) for this game. They’ll also be facing a young Browns secondary that’s limiting opposing QBs to 208.5 passing YPG (6th in NFL). After seeing WR Ja’Marr Chase cook up the Chiefs secondary with 266 receiving yards and 3 TDs, the Browns will tighten up their zone defense this time and take away the big play. With QB Baker Mayfield out planning for shoulder surgery, Cincinnati will look to avoid the season sweep and prove that they’re a playoff-ready team.
Packers vs. Lions, 1:00 PM on FOX
The only thing that truly matters in this game is Detroit’s draft position. The Lions are currently projected to draft at No. 2 overall but Football Power Index (FPI) is giving them a 16.9% chance to earn the No. 1 pick. They would need to lose to the Packers and have the Jaguars beat the Colts for that to happen. Green Bay is going to the playoffs for the third consecutive season after having clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed and this year, the road through the playoffs in the NFC runs through Lambeau Field once again, arguably the toughest stadium to play during the postseason. Even with the Lions playing for nothing, they can still come out with a competitive mindset and finish out the season on a high note. Here’s something to look out for: keep an eye on Lions rookie WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. In the first 12 weeks of the season, he totaled 352 receiving yards and zero TDs. Since Week 13, he’s racked up 451 yards and 4 TDs. He’s been Jared Goff’s favorite offensive weapon since TE T.J. Hockenson went down with a season-ending thumb injury a few weeks ago. Because of his recent breakout, he’s a wideout worth looking out for next season as Detroit re-enters the rebuilding process this offseason.
Bears vs. Vikings, 1:00 PM on FOX
When you play in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, you might find yourself in this position often and that’s not a good pattern. The Bears and Vikings both ended up on the outside of the playoff picture once again. Bears coach Matt Nagy was also informed that he won’t return as the coach next season, signaling a new coaching era for the franchise. Rookie QB Justin Fields had a year he would love to forget, but he would love to finish the year with a big game against the team he nearly beat on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago. On the other side, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer could be playing his last game with the team as questions swirl around his future. Minnesota’s offense is something to be excited about for years to come. The trio of Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Justin Jefferson is one of the best in football. The return of Adam Thielen and the emergence of K.J. Osborn will help complement this group. Although the Vikings have lost nine games this season, eight of them were one-score games and their offense was the reason they kept those contests close. Just because their playoff hopes are over doesn’t mean these two teams can’t have fun on the field one more time.
Washington vs. Giants, 1:00 PM on FOX
Like the previous matchup above, both of these teams had disappointing seasons as well. Washington, champions of the NFC East a year ago, had higher expectations entering this season but failed to meet them. Their defense, which ranked 4th in scoring defense last year, has been one of the most disappointing units of the season (currently ranked 28th in scoring defense). Upgrades should be made to the roster this offseason, specifically at QB and LB. QB Taylor Heinicke was a tremendous story, but this could be his last start for Washington because the team needs a franchise quarterback. And even though the Giants didn’t have the worst record, they looked like the worst team in the NFC. For the most part, the Lions were competitive throughout the season while nine of the Giants’ 12 losses have been by more than one score. Coach Joe Judge now owns a 10-22 record with the Giants since he took over the job last season. The NFC East is generally considered as one of the weakest divisions in the NFL. Both Washington and New York have played major roles in the downfall of the division.
Colts vs. Jaguars, 1:00 PM on CBS
IND: clinches playoff berth with win OR losses by NE, LAC, and PIT
You would’ve never thought this matchup would have a lot at stake here, but it kind of does. Indianapolis missed out on an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth last week against the Raiders and now they’re in a win-and-in scenario. Thankfully, they get to visit the 2-14 Jaguars, who have their eyes set on the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Although if you’re a Colts fan, there’s reason to worry just a little bit. The Colts haven’t won a game in Jacksonville since 2014, making it six straight games lost at TIAA Bank Field. They also beat the Jaguars at home earlier this season, but only by six points. Oh, and the Jaguars beat the Bills 9-6 two months ago, so anything can happen. Nonetheless, the Colts have RB Jonathan Taylor and a suffocating defense to carry them to their third playoff trip in four years. For the Jaguars, they just want to snap an eight-game losing streak and move forward to a busy offseason waiting for them in the coming months. They could also play the ‘spoiler’ role. If they beat the Colts, it opens up the door for one of the AFC North wild cards: Pittsburgh or Baltimore. One of those teams could sneak their way into the playoffs if Jacksonville were to pull off a monumental upset. This should be an easy W for the Colts, but don’t eliminate the possibility of a doomsday scenario looming for Indy.
Steelers vs. Ravens, 1:00 PM on CBS
PIT: clinches playoff berth with win + IND loss
BAL: clinches playoff berth with win + losses by IND, MIA, and LAC
Slim playoff hopes are on the line in this AFC North clash. As mentioned above, both teams need Jacksonville to pull off the improbable upset. The Steelers’ path is much easier since Baltimore also needs two other teams to lose their games. The importance of this matchup is not just for playoff lives, but for the magnitude of their ferocious rivalry. They hate each other and we all know it very well. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 31-24 and their rivalry with Baltimore is one of the most entertaining in all of football. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is playing what may be his final NFL game, marking the end of an era in the Steel City. He’ll be leaving the franchise in the hands of OLB T.J. Watt, the NFL leader in sacks, and RB Najee Harris, the Steelers’ first-round pick with a bright future. Meanwhile, no other team has dealt with more adversity this season than the Ravens, who have lost QB Lamar Jackson, their entire backfield, All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley, Pro Bowl CBs Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, and FS DeShon Elliott all to injuries. It’s astounding that this team is still in the playoff race at this point of the season. Baltimore wants to avoid the season sweep to their biggest rival and spoil Big Ben’s final game with a victory that will give them some momentum heading into next season (or if they somehow make it, the playoffs!).
Titans vs. Texans, 1:00 PM on CBS
TEN: clinches AFC’s No. 1 seed with win
Everything has been going right for the Titans in the last few weeks. They got a dominant win over Miami and then watched the No. 1 seed fall to them after Kansas City’s loss to Cincinnati. All Tennessee has to do is win and the AFC playoffs run through Nashville. They would also get the first-round bye, something they haven’t earned since the 2008-09 playoffs. Here is one thing no playoff team should be thrilled about right now: RB Derrick Henry is designated to return from IR after recovering from his foot injury. The NFL rushing king a year ago, Henry automatically makes the Titans a Super Bowl contender. Houston almost has no chance against this talented group. The Texans did beat the Titans in the first season meeting and pulled off a narrow upset. In reality, though, the Texans don’t have a lot of star power to match Tennessee’s talent. WR Brandin Cooks, who will finish the year with his 6th 1,000 receiving-yard season, could be on the trade block for Houston this offseason so Texans fans should root for Cooks to ball out in potentially his final game in a Texans uniform. Tennessee is one step closer to achieving the playoff path they hoped for, now let’s see if they can get the job done.
Saints vs. Falcons, 4:25 PM on FOX
NO: clinches playoff berth with win + SF loss
The Saints are one of only two teams left in the NFC wild-card race. Somehow, they’re still alive despite losing former HOF QB Drew Brees in the offseason to retirement, starting QB Jameis Winston to a torn ACL, and All-Pro WR Michael Thomas to an ankle injury he suffered last year. The production of Pro Bowl RB Alvin Kamara carrying the offense and the Saints’ hardcore defense has been the story for New Orleans all year. They’ll have to get past the Falcons first, who just got eliminated from the playoff picture last week. Atlanta has been quite a difficult team to figure out all year. Three of their seven wins have been decided on the final play of the game, but they haven’t been great at home (2-5 home record). Without Calvin Ridley, other players such as hybrid RB Cordarrelle Patterson, rookie TE Kyle Pitts, and No. 2 WR Russell Gage have stepped up to fill in his production. The key for the Saints defense is containing Patterson, who is second among all running backs with 1,612 all-purpose yards (Najee Harris is first). But the more Kyle Pitts gets involved in Atlanta’s offense, the more pressure the Falcons can put on New Orleans’ secondary. The Saints will be rooting for the Rams to beat San Francisco, but they’ll need to take care of their division rival first.
Jets vs. Bills, 4:25 PM on CBS
BUF: clinches AFC East with win. Clinches No. 3 seed with win + CIN loss
Jets QB Zach Wilson might have to get used to Buffalo weather because if he’s going to be the Jets’ franchise quarterback, he’ll be playing here more often. New York hasn’t won a divisional game since 2019, which was against a Bills team that was resting their starters for the playoffs that year. In the frigid weather, the Jets can’t be trusted to finish the regular season with a win. Buffalo is playoff-bound for the third consecutive season after getting off to a sluggish start to the season. QB Josh Allen’s stats are down just a tick from last season but he continues to produce at a high level. You could say the same for WR Stefon Diggs, who led the league in catches and receiving yards last season because he hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers as well. Buffalo might’ve found an identity in the run game with RB Devin Singletary, who has struggled to get going in his first few seasons with the Bills. Singletary has four rushing TDs in his last three games after having only two in the first 14 games. The defense is third in the NFL with 33 takeaways and they might get its fair share of turnover-prone Wilson. It could be a rough one, folks.
49ers vs. Rams, 4:25 PM on FOX
SF: clinches playoff berth with win
LAR: clinches NFC West with win
In terms of the NFC, this is the biggest game in the conference. San Francisco is in a win-or-go-home situation and Los Angeles playoff seeding is on the line. The Niners have a crucial decision to make at the quarterback position. Jimmy Garoppolo missed last week’s game vs. the Texans due to a thumb injury and Trey Lance played fairly well (249 passing yards, 2 TDs, INT). San Fran still has a variety of weapons all over the roster that matches LA’s depth. Rams WR Cooper Kupp is having a historic season (138 receptions, 1,829 yards, 15 TDs) and is looking to finish the campaign with the “Triple Crown”, the leader in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. The Niners will also have to neutralize DT Aaron Donald and prevent him from getting to the backfield since they rely heavily on the run game. Don’t forget about Rams CB Jalen Ramsey, who had kept WR Deebo Samuel mostly in check in the first meeting. 49ers star TE George Kittle will be another player to watch out for as the Niners will look to get off to a fast start. The star power is unlimited in Inglewood and America is about to be treated to a classic.
Patriots vs. Dolphins, 1:00 PM on CBS
NE: clinches AFC East with win + BUF loss. Clinches No. 1 seed with win + losses by BUF, KC, and TEN
How fitting is it for New England and Miami to play each other in the first and last week of the season? The Patriots had the AFC East ripped out of their hands a few weeks ago when the Bills beat them in Foxborough. But they can take it back with a win and a Bills loss to the Jets. Believe it or not, they’re also still in the race for the No. 1 seed, but they would need to win and hope the top three teams in the AFC all lose. New England is riding high off a strong run game and an incredible defense that gives up only 16.9 points per game (leads NFL). Rookie QB Mac Jones will also have a second shot at redemption against his former teammate, Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa, who beat him back in Week 1. Tua and WR Jaylen Waddle have been a sensational rookie duo that will have fans brewing about for many years. Waddle will get even more targets this time around with the confidence building in Tua’s passing ability. He’ll be matched up with CB J.C. Jackson, who leads the AFC with eight interceptions. Jackson has been a lockdown corner ever since Stephon Gilmore left the team for Carolina. The Patriots had the game won in the first meeting if not for a last-minute fumble by RB Damien Harris that proved costly and resulted in a loss. The Dolphins can’t make the playoffs, but they can sweep their bitter rival.
Seahawks vs. Cardinals, 4:25 PM on FOX
ARI: clinches NFC West with win + LAR loss
When the season first started, most people would’ve expected Seattle to be a playoff contender and not Arizona. Now it’s flipped-flopped. After a 7-0 start to the season, the Cardinals haven’t looked the same on offense, in large part because of DeAndre Hopkins’ limited route tree and Kyler Murray’s inconsistency. Arizona went from being one of the NFL’s hottest teams to the most overrated. They could get back Hopkins and DE J.J. Watt from IR, which would be huge for them when the playoffs arrive. In Seattle, the end of an era is near as this matchup is looking more like Russell Wilson’s final game as a Seahawk. Wilson hasn’t looked the same since his finger injury, but he balled out at Lumen Field with a four-TD performance in what’s looking like his final home game. If this is it, Russell Wilson had himself an incredible career with the Seahawks. He’ll duel out with Kyler Murray one more time with an NFC West title hanging in the balance for Arizona.
Panthers vs. Buccaneers, 4:25 PM on CBS
TB: clinches No. 2 seed with win + LAR loss
The key for the Buccaneers is getting healthy for the postseason, so load management may be a big factor in this game. Other than the No. 2 seed, Tampa doesn’t have a lot to play for. Brady and the Bucs will now have to deal with the loss of WR Antonio Brown after his antics last week against the Jets resulted in his departure from the team. The Bucs won’t have RB Leonard Fournette, and WRs Chris Godwin or Brown for the playoffs and that’s a big problem despite having a ton of depth at the WR position. Tampa finishes out the season against a disappointing Carolina squad that started 3-0 before losing 11 of their last 13 games. QB Sam Darnold will have a tough time figuring out this Bucs defense and without RB Christian McCaffrey, this offense won’t scare many teams.
Chargers vs. Raiders, 8:20 PM on NBC
LAC: clinches playoff berth with win OR tie
LV: clinches playoff berth with win OR tie + IND loss OR losses by IND and PIT
The final game of the 2021-22 regular season comes down to an AFC West showdown in Las Vegas. The Chargers and the Raiders, both tied at 9-7, are fighting for one coveted playoff spot. The one theory that everyone has been going crazy about all week was a potential tie that would get both teams into the playoffs if the Colts lose to the Jaguars. Chargers QB Justin Herbert has been playing lights out (4,631 passing yards, 35 TDs), and he’s been one of the most entertaining quarterbacks to watch all season. Combine it with the do-it-all production of RB Austin Ekeler and a superb receiving core and you’ve got yourself an offense that is out of this world. For the Raiders, they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016 and after all of the adversity and drama they faced all season, a trip to the playoffs would be glorious for this franchise. QB Derek Carr continues to shine under the radar as a gun-slinging quarterback and the pass-catching duo of TE Darren Waller and WR Hunter Renfrow has fueled the competitiveness of this offense. The one-two punch duo of Raiders edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue will try to disrupt Herbert’s flow while Chargers DE Joey Bosa will attempt to one-up them by going after Carr. There will certainly be fireworks high above Allegiant Stadium and NFL fans are ready to enjoy one last roller-coaster game.