Sunday NFL Preview, Week 18: Some games mean nothing, while others mean everything on the final full Sunday of football until September

Green Bay Packers cornerback Keisean Nixon (25) does a Lambeau Leap to celebrate his 105-yard kick return for a touchdown during the first quarter of their game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, January 1, 2023 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Mjs Packers01 5 Jpg Packers01

Sunday NFL Preview, Week 18: Some games mean nothing, while others mean everything on the final full Sunday of football until September

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) at Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

Time/TV: noon CT/FOX

After back-to-back wins over the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have clinched the NFC South and will definitely enter the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 4 seed. Tampa Bay will travel to Atlanta for a divisional matchup with the Falcons on Sunday that has no material effect on either team, but there is reason to believe both quarterbacks remain motivated. Bucs’ quarterback Tom Brady can avoid his first career losing season if the Buccaneers find a way to win, while Falcons’ quarterback Desmond Ridder looks to prove he is the right man for the job in Atlanta moving forward. It also stands to reason that the Falcons have had enough of Tom Brady’s dominance – Brady is 5-0 against Atlanta since becoming the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback and famously came back from a 28-3 deficit to defeat them in a Super Bowl. After an entertaining first matchup saw the Falcons almost erase a three-touchdown deficit before falling short in Tampa Bay, Atlanta would love nothing more than to finish its season on a high note at 7-10. 

New England Patriots (8-8) at Buffalo Bills (12-3)

Time/TV: noon CT/CBS

The first week of 2023 has been incredibly emotional across both the NFL and the world of sports at large, but nowhere has it been more difficult to focus on football than in Buffalo. As has been well documented, Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field Monday night in Cincinnati due to cardiac arrest and was administered potentially life-saving CPR on the field before being put in an ambulance. The game was suspended and eventually canceled by the NFL, and Hamlin’s condition has since improved remarkably thanks to incredible efforts by both Buffalo’s staff and doctors at UC Hospital in Cincinnati. Still, the Buffalo Bills will host the New England Patriots in their final game of the season Sunday afternoon. A win for the Bills, paired with a loss by Kansas City, would give the Bills the top seed in the AFC. If Buffalo wins but Kansas City wins as well, Kansas City would earn the AFC’s top seed, but a potential Bills-Chiefs AFC Championship Game would be played at a neutral site. For New England, the scenarios surrounding Sunday’s game are much more straightforward. The Patriots can clinch a playoff berth with a win – if they lose, they’d need Miami, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee to all lose as well. 

Minnesota Vikings (12-4) at Chicago Bears (3-13)

Time/TV: noon CT/FOX

Like most of the NFL, both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears have little to play for in Week 18 – at least in theory. Minnesota is locked into either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NFC, but most likely No. 3. San Francisco holds a tiebreaker over the Vikings, so the 49ers would have to lose at home to Arizona for Minnesota to move up. Chicago’s playoff hopes have long since disappeared, and it’s hard to argue that the organization is trying very hard to win Sunday’s game. Quarterback Justin Fields will not play, and the Bears’ front office knows that a loss combined with a Houston Texans win would give Chicago the No. 1 overall pick in April. If nothing else, Vikings’ wide receiver Justin Jefferson will be motivated to have a huge day. If Jefferson manages 194 receiving yards, he will break Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record of 1,964. The opportunity to take on Chicago’s defense is a golden opportunity for Jefferson – the Bears are allowing more points per game than any other team in the NFL. 

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-4)

Time/TV: noon CT/CBS

In the wake of Monday night’s cancellation of the Bills-Bengals game in Cincinnati, it has been an emotional week for the Cincinnati Bengals as well. Wide receiver Tee Higgins has received unfair criticism from certain media members after colliding with Damar Hamlin on the play before his collapse, and the rest of the team is still working through the trauma of having been present as Hamlin was issued CPR. Still, like Buffalo, Cincinnati must prepare for a Sunday afternoon divisional game at home to close out the regular season. The Bengals are still on a seven-game winning streak and can assure that their AFC North title results in a home game on wild card weekend with a win over the Baltimore Ravens. Sunday is also an opportunity for Cincinnati to exact revenge on the Ravens after its 19-17 loss in Baltimore on Oct. 9. For Baltimore, a win combined with a loss by the Los Angeles Chargers would result in the Ravens traveling to either Jacksonville or Tennessee instead of playing the Bengals in the wild card round. It appears that the Ravens will once again be without Lamar Jackson for Sunday’s game – as of Friday afternoon, Jackson had not taken the field either during practice or during a game for more than a month. 

New York Jets (7-9) at Miami Dolphins (8-8)

Time/TV: noon CT/FOX

After the New York Jets’ playoff hopes slipped away once and for all last weekend in Seattle, Sunday’s game in Miami became meaningless for New York. For the Miami Dolphins, Sunday’s tilt means everything – if Miami defeats the Jets, all it would need is a loss by New England to secure a playoff berth. Both teams will be without their starting quarterbacks Sunday afternoon. Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa remains unavailable after suffering multiple concussions this season, while New York is giving Joe Flacco the start over both Zach Wilson and Mike White. Miami will turn to Skylar Thompson under center, a rookie out of Kansas State who struggled when he was forced into action against the Jets earlier this year. For the Dolphins, a win Sunday is as much about stemming the tide on their season’s massive collapse as it is about making the playoffs. The Dolphins have lost five in a row, partly due to injuries at quarterback – but more than that, Miami has really struggled defensively. Miami’s 27th-ranked scoring defense will have to avoid disaster against Jets’ quarterback Joe Flacco if they want to give Skylar Thompson a chance at becoming a hero. 

Carolina Panthers (6-10) at New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Time/TV: noon CT/FOX

The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints will reignite their divisional rivalry Sunday afternoon at the Caesars Superdome with little else on the line. Carolina and New Orleans both saw their playoff hopes disintegrate with Tampa Bay’s win over the Panthers last Sunday. New Orleans has been playing better of late, winning three in a row. The Saints’ defense has stepped up in a major way, allowing no more than 20 points in any of its last seven games. The first meeting between these divisional rivals was won by Carolina, 22-14 in Charlotte. A lot has changed for the Panthers since then – head coach Matt Rhule and star running back Christian McCaffrey are both gone, but it’s hard to argue they haven’t improved as a team regardless. That Carolina felt the sting of losing its chance at the NFC South title as late as Week 17 says a lot for the job interim head coach Steve Wilks has done and is a compelling argument that perhaps Wilks deserves to maintain his role heading into next season. 

Cleveland Browns (7-9) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Time/TV: noon CT/CBS

The Pittsburgh Steelers, once 3-7 after a home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 20, are now 8-8 and vying for a potential playoff spot as the Cleveland Browns travel to Acrisure Stadium this Sunday. Pittsburgh has won five of six while allowing 17 or fewer points in each game, an abrupt and marked improvement for a defense that allowed 29 or more points in four of its first 10 games. The Cleveland Browns enter Week 18 with their playoff hopes dashed, instead hoping to build momentum heading into next season. Cleveland bludgeoned the Steelers for 171 rushing yards back on Sep. 22, including 113 yards and a touchdown for Nick Chubb. The Browns will have to contend with a different Steelers’ defense this time, largely due to the return of T.J. Watt from injury. Pittsburgh showcased its healthy and impressive run defense last weekend in Baltimore, holding the run-heavy Ravens to just 120 yards rushing in a 16-13 win. Deshaun Watson will make his first start in the Browns-Steelers divisional rivalry on Sunday and will be asked to carry the load if Cleveland’s run game struggles to produce. The Browns are 3-2 with Watson as their starting quarterback but have continued to produce pedestrian numbers on offense. 

Los Angeles Rams (5-11) at Seattle Seahawks (8-8)

Time/TV: 3:25 p.m. CT/FOX

When the 2022 NFL season began, nobody would have been surprised to hear that the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams’ end-of-season trip to Seattle would be meaningless for Sean McVay’s team. The Rams were favorites in the NFC West again, and Seattle was expected to struggle all season in its first campaign of the post-Russell Wilson era at quarterback. Instead, injuries and a brutally difficult schedule buried the Rams before they could ever get started, and Geno Smith has been a revelation at quarterback for the plucky 8-8 Seahawks. For Seattle, a win over Los Angeles paired with a Packers’ home loss to the Lions would mean a playoff berth in the NFC. The Seahawks lost five of six and three in a row before last Sunday’s win over the New York Jets, beating only the Rams during that stretch in a tightly contested battle at SoFi Stadium. Los Angeles has looked more competitive since, winning two of four, and would love nothing more than to ruin Seattle’s playoff hopes on the regular season’s final day. 

Los Angeles Chargers (10-6) at Denver Broncos (4-12)

Time/TV: 3:25 p.m. CT/CBS

If there is one team in the NFL that is beginning to peak at the right time, it is the Los Angeles Chargers. Los Angeles has won four in a row, clinching a playoff spot and possibly an opportunity to avoid the AFC’s big three (Kansas City, Buffalo, or Cincinnati) in the wild card round. A win over Denver guarantees the Chargers a trip to either Nashville or Jacksonville next weekend. Los Angeles is led by an elite passing offense, ranking fourth in the NFL with an average of 268.2 yards per game, but it is the Chargers’ defense that has shown remarkable improvement of late. When the Broncos and Chargers met back in Week 6, it took overtime for Los Angeles to emerge victorious, 19-16. Given L.A.’s improvement and the continued deterioration of Denver’s once-elite defense, few would be surprised to see that gap widen in Week 18. Still, the Broncos are a proud organization – and with plenty of players hoping to secure jobs next season and a head coach motivated to make the most of his two-game interim stint, Denver will want to send its fans home with a win to finish the season. 

New York Giants (9-6-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)

Time/TV: 3:25 p.m. CT/FOX

The Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants are both firmly in the NFC playoff field heading into the season’s final Sunday, but Philadelphia can ensure that it earns the No. 1 seed in the conference with a win or a 49ers’ loss. The Eagles are also still playing to secure an NFC East title, which they can accomplish with either a win or a Cowboys’ loss in Washington. All told, the Eagles should be plenty motivated – and with quarterback Jalen Hurts returning from injury, Sunday’s game is a great opportunity to get their offense back in rhythm before the playoffs. The New York Giants are locked into the No. 6 seed in the NFC regardless of this weekend’s results, and some outlets are reporting that many of New York’s starters will not suit up for Sunday’s divisional rematch. Philadelphia ran right over New York in the first matchup, a 48-22 rout that saw the Eagles rush for 253 yards on 8.2 per carry. If the Giants do ultimately decide to rest starters during Week 18, it is hard to imagine Sunday’s matchup looking much different than the first. 

Arizona Cardinals (4-12) at San Francisco 49ers (12-4)

Time/TV: 3:25 p.m. CT/FOX

There may not be a team in the NFL more excited for the 2022 season to finally end than the Arizona Cardinals. First, they’re scheduled for one final beating at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, who are finally getting healthier on offense with the returns of Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell. Arizona, meanwhile, is treating Sunday like a preseason game. The Cardinals are rolling with career benchwarmer David Blough at quarterback and sitting out running back James Conner and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in San Francisco. Arizona has lost six straight and eight of nine, scoring more than 20 points just once during that stretch. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury will likely be shown the door after Sunday’s inevitable defeat, and a franchise in disarray will attempt to regroup ahead of 2023. For San Francisco, Sunday is about setting itself up for playoff success. The 49ers can still earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a win and a shocking Philadelphia loss and are planning to play most of their starters Sunday afternoon. 

Detroit Lions (7-9) at Green Bay Packers (8-8)

Time/TV: 7:20 p.m. CT/NBC

The final game of the 2022 regular season will be played at Lambeau Field on Sunday night between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, a divisional matchup with serious playoff implications. Green Bay advances to the playoffs and eliminates both Detroit and Seattle if they win, while Detroit can still advance to the playoffs if it can win at Lambeau Field while the Rams win in Seattle. The Lions will know their fate before their game begins, as the Rams and Seahawks will finish up within an hour or so of Sunday Night Football. Detroit hopes to put forth a winning effort regardless, but it is hard to imagine human nature not having an effect if the Lions know they are out of contention before kickoff. Detroit toppled the Packers 15-9 when the teams met on Nov. 6 at Ford Field, a game unexpectedly dominated by both defenses. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw three interceptions in that game. Since then, he has only thrown four interceptions over a seven-game stretch during which Green Bay has gone 5-2. Temperatures will appropriately hover in the twenties for Sunday night’s game, and the cheeseheads of Lambeau Field will be at full throat with a Packers playoff berth on the line.

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