Ben Roethlisberger
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - JANUARY 09: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes the ball against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

As the NFL’s first-ever Week 18 kicked off, many playoff positions were firmly up in the air. It took every bit of the schedule to decide the first round of the playoffs, and until the final play of Sunday Night Football, AFC Wild Card teams were still not decided. Many clubs came out of the week as winners, while others sulked as losers going into a tough offseason. Week 18 included several meaningful upsets (Jaguars, Lions, Browns, etc.). Other teams won must-win games, including the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, with playoff dates and times set, NFL Wild Card Weekend promises to be one of the most intriguing and entertaining exhibitions in recent history.

Winner: 49ers

San Francisco came into Week 18 needing a win or a Saints loss to advance into the postseason. They got no help from New Orleans, so it meant they needed to defeat the L.A. Rams on the road. It took an overtime period, but they did exactly that. After Robbie Gould’s 24-yard field goal, the 49ers solidified their spot as the NFC’s #6 seed. In the process, they turned a 17-point deficit into a 4 point win and nearly caused the Rams to lose their own division. Quarterback Jimmy Garappolo is playing solid football, so it seems we can’t discount the 49ers in the playoffs. They will now face off against the Dallas Cowboys in a classic NFC matchup.

Loser: Colts

In the 2021 offseason, Indianapolis saw quarterback Philip Rivers retire, so they set their sights on a replacement. In stepped Carson Wentz, a former protegee of current head coach Frack Reich when both were in Philadelphia. The Colts gave up a first and third-round pick for Wentz only to see him blow a golden opportunity to make the playoffs. Wentz was frankly awful last Sunday and is single-handily responsible for Indy’s lackluster showing against the Jaguars. Moving forward, the Colts owe Wentz more than $100 million, and the team that traded him just made the playoffs. While there is still time for a turnaround, the immediate future looks bleak in Indianapolis.

Winner: Raiders

Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders needed a win or a tie to lock up a wild card spot in the AFC playoff picture in Week 18. Interestingly, if the Raiders tied in their game against the Chargers, both teams would have made the playoffs. Despite that, the two clubs played to win, and as it turned out, this Sunday Night matchup was one of the NFL’s best games this season. As mentioned, Las Vegas ended up pulling it out on a last-minute Daniel Carlson field goal, but not before Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert had a game for the ages. The second-year pro threw for 383 yards and 3 touchdowns, included an unbelievable 4th-and-long conversion on the Charger’s final drive. Going into the playoffs, the Raiders will face the Cincinnati Bengals on the road.

Loser: Giants

While Jacksonville Jaguars fans were donning clown suits for their final game of the season, the real clown show was happening up north in New York. Giants coach Joe Judge had another epic failure of a game against a lackluster opponent (Washington Football Team), this time losing 22-7. Judge was more concerned with Washington’s sideline behavior from several weeks ago than he was with his own team’s performance. Via a league source, Judge will be returning as head coach next season. But for a Giants team that just saw their GM retire before being fired (Dave Gettleman), the writing is on the wall for Judge: improve next season or follow Gettleman out the door. This is complicated by the fact that supposed franchise quarterback Daniel Jones seems to be just a placeholder.

Winner: Steelers

Pittsburgh, against all odds, made the playoffs after their edged out the Baltimore Ravens in overtime last Sunday. In what will be the last hurrah for Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers stuck into the postseason with a 9-7-1 record. Roethlisberger played smart football, throwing for one touchdown and one interception, and the Steelers avoided a loss at the hands of their arch-nemesis Ravens. Looking forward, Pittsburgh will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium next Sunday night. Although they are notable underdogs, the Steelers (specifically Roethlisberger) have a long history of upsetting the Chiefs on the road. Therefore, anything is possible in regards to this game.

Loser: Cardinals

Despite making the playoff as a double-digit win team, Arizona has markedly declined over the past two months. After starting the season 7-0, the Cards have gone just 4-6 since, including losing 4 of their last 5 games. Quarterback Kyler Murray is playing steady albeit not phenomenal football, but his team has seen a rash of injuries. Most notably, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season and could only potentially return if the Cardinals make it to the NFC Championship Game. Despite this, Arizona is still getting plenty of production out of new additions James Conner and Zach Ertz. They land on the loser’s list by failing to win a winnable game to claim their division title, a feat that could have been accomplished since the Rams lost.

Winner: Buccaneers

Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady is a freak of nature, that much is obvious. At the spry young age of 44, Brady led the World Champion Buccaneers to a division-winning 13-4 record. This includes a drubbing of the Carolina Panthers during their last regular-season game. The Buccaneers had to win their final game in order to lock up the #2 seed in the NFC after having lost an early-season game to the Rams. They took care of business at home and now will host the Philadelphia Eagles at Raymond James Stadium next Sunday. Although they are heavy favorites, the Bucs must avoid complacency in order to win. In fact, earlier this season they nearly lost a close game to the Eagles in Philadelphia, so this contest could be closer than people expect.

Loser: Vikings

Minnesota came into Week 18 with nothing to play for after being eliminated from the playoffs the previous week. Despite this, pride and draft position were on the line. The Vikings ended up easily beating the Chicago Bears by a final score of 31-17. But in the process, they lowered their draft picks and still saw their coach and general manager be fired. As it were, both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman were shown the door, and Minnesota is prepared to move forward with new leadership next season. The biggest question now is will Kirk Cousins be the quarterback moving forward? The answer is probably yes considering the success of the Vikings offense the past several years, but anything is possible. For now, the Vikings are a great disappointment.

Winner: Jaguars

The only team making this winner list that will not be playing playoff games is Jacksonville. The Jags won their final game of the season last Sunday, beating what seemed to be a playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts team. And until the Colt’s final possession, the game was not particularly close. The final score ended up being 26-11, thanks in part to a stellar final rookie performance by quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Apparently, Jacksonville’s “clown show” display by their fans was not enough to deter the football team. In fact, it probably served as motivation, especially because the Lions won their game against the Green Bay Packers. This was significant because it meant the Jags clinched the #1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Overall, it was a good day in Jacksonville.

Loser: Rams

Another team that made the playoffs (and won their division), but is still a disappointment is the Los Angeles Rams. Quarterback Matt Stafford has been very inconsistent the last several weeks. For the season, Stafford threw 15 interceptions, including multiple costly pick 6s. Now, the Rams face a tough opponent and division rival in the Arizona Cardinals. The two teams split their regular-season series, with the first game being a Cards win that was not particularly close. So, L.A. has their work cut out for them if they hope to advance past Wild Card Weekend. Regardless, we should still consider them a huge disappointment this year. This is because the Rams failed to place any higher than the 4th seed in the NFC despite the additions of Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr., Von Miller, and others.

The NFL Roundup

A wild final week of football punctuated what should be a thoroughly entertaining playoff sequence for the NFL in 2022. It was all made possible by several recent changes to the NFL schedule and process. This includes last year’s addition of a seventh playoff team as well as this year’s extra week add-on. Together, these and other changes made the drama-filled final week of the NFL season extremely entertaining. Now, analysts may continue to drool as “Super Wild Card Weekend” featuring 6 games gets underway. And as those games unfold, it’s a safe bet the playoffs will be just as fulfilling as Week 18 was.

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