nfl week 18: four things to keep an eye on
By Tayyib Abu
The 18th and final week of the NFL regular season is here. For some teams, it is a final tune-up for the playoffs; for most, it’s the end of a season that didn’t deliver, and for the select few, it is a do-or-die finale.
There are stories aplenty, including a Californian derby and a wild situation in the AFC that could occur. Everyone is tired, beaten up, and nursing an injury. However, that is no excuse for teams hoping to seal their playoff spots. Seventeen weeks of hard work comes down to one final 60 minutes.
Here are four things to watch in Week 18 of the NFL season…
Win And You're In!
Seventeen weeks of blood, sweat, and tears boil down to one game for the San Francisco 49ers. One playoff spot is available in the NFC, and the 49ers control their fate. Standing in front of Kyle Shanahan’s squad are the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams aren’t in rest mode; they need a win to seal the NFC West title and ensure a home playoff game.
Going on the road in a clinching situation is not easy for any team. However, the 49ers boast an impressive record over the Rams. San Francisco has won five games in a row over Los Angeles. Moreover, back in October, the Niners ran all over the Rams as they crushed them 31-10.
San Francisco used their innovative running game to power that victory, and they’ll need more of the same in LA. The Rams escaped the Charm City of Baltimore after living a charmed life. Sean McVay’s offense sputtered before they edged out a tough victory. The Rams’ offense has cooled again in the latter stages of the season. McVay’s offense has notoriously struggled against San Francisco.
Furthermore, the Rams are not playing good offense at this moment. Matthew Stafford’s EPA has fallen from a solid 0.5 to -0.2. Worryingly, Stafford is starting to throw more turnovers and panic in the pocket. Going on the road in a make-or-break year for Sean McVay in Wildcard Weekend would not be ideal. For the 49ers, they’ll take the field knowing what they must do. They control their fate. New Orleans is the only other side that could usurp San Francisco. If the Niners go down in Los Angeles, New Orleans could win and punch their ticket.
The final fight for the last playoff spot in the NFC comes down to a showdown in Hollywood, and it could hold far-reaching implications for the NFC playoffs. It’s a massive game to round out the season.
Win And You're In - Part Two!
The final game of the regular season features an AFC West showdown in the desert. An emotional Allegiant Stadium is the scene as the Raiders host the LA Chargers. In reality, this is already a playoff game. The winner will play on Wildcard Weekend; the loser will undoubtedly spend the weekend on the sofa.
Last Sunday, the Raiders dug out an impressive win on the road in Indianapolis while the Chargers eased past the Denver Broncos. The Raiders’ success last week came from their stifling secondary. Carson Wentz endured an ugly game. Wentz’s troubles allowed Derek Carr to manage the game and seal it in the late stages. Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow could play another pivotal part.
The Chargers are strong at defending slot receivers; their secondary rank fifth in DVOA against slot wideouts. It provides a fascinating tactical problem for the Raiders’ offensive staff because the Chargers’ defense ranks 31st against X receivers. Can the Raiders play Renfrow on the outside, or will Carr need to locate other weapons to keep the offense ticking?
For the Chargers, their success is dependant on Justin Herbert. The second-year sensation leads the league in EPA and is in the top ten regarding QBR. Herbert is a game-winner. If his offensive line can keep him away from Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue, Herbert will get chances to take shots. Overall, the Raiders’ secondary is a below-average unit. If Herbert gets time, he could dissect them as he did in the Week 4 matchup earlier in the season.
On that occasion, the Chargers comfortably defeated the Raiders. It should be much closer with so much on the line, and the spotlight may burn bright on first-year head coach Brandon Staley’s situational management. A frenzied atmosphere awaits both teams, and the winner must stay cool in the Nevada desert.
The AFC East Divisional Title Gets Decided
One of the most dramatic divisional races in recent memory comes to a head on the final Sunday of the season. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots decide who gets to don the T-shirts come Sunday evening. For Buffalo, the equation is simple; beat the New York Jets, and they are the AFC East champions.
For New England, they need a favor from Bill Belichick’s least favorite team and emerge victorious from the NFL’s Bermuda triangle. The Dolphins host the Patriots, and Brian Flores will wish to get one over his old mentor.
The Bills are more than good enough to handle business against a gutsy but ultimately weak Jets side. The Patriots should face a sterner test in South Beach. In reality, the outcome of these games may not change much. If the third seed Bengals opt to rest everyone, the winner of the AFC East should become the number three seed, with the loser taking the five seed.
However, both teams will desire a home playoff game. January in Buffalo or Foxborough is a tricky proposition for anyone, even more so if a dome team like the Colts end up visiting. Finally, the Patriots and Bills want bragging rights. After spending two decades in the shadows, Buffalo emerged last year to take the crown. New England’s decline lasted one season. With young quarterbacks at the helm, it seems as if this rivalry isn’t going anywhere.
Black Monday Looms
The final Sunday of the NFL season signals the end for some head coaches. Black Monday follows the last day of the season, and several head coaches are sweating on the hot seat. Matt Nagy is as good as cooked in Chicago. Four fruitless yielded a famous double-doink and a wasted experiment with Mitch Trubisky. The noises emanating from Halas Hall suggest that Nagy is on his way.
Staying in the NFC North, is Mike Zimmer’s time ending in Minnesota? The Vikes endured another season spent in purgatory. GM Rick Spielman has handed out big contracts to players since 2017-18. Zimmer’s Vikes have not won a divisional title following that magical year when they made the NFC Championship. The fans are getting restless. It feels like Zimmer and Minnesota are at the end of the line.
The Giants are one of the banner franchises in the NFL, and they need a change. GM Dave Gettleman spent the last three years building a competitive roster. The Giants are the only team never to get over.500 in the previous three years. Joe Judge’s time in New Jersey is undoubtedly over.
Tayyib is an avid NFL fan and, as a follower of the detroit lions, is a permanent resident in the honolulu blue heartbreak hotel. writing football articles since 2019, tayyib loves everything about the sport except that wins are not a qb stat. follow him on twitter @TayyibABU1