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Neil Reynolds' Week 18 Wrap Up

The NFL has traditionally used a slogan on the eve of each new season promoting a 'Back to Football' theme. It is an effective message signalling the end of the summer and the start of an exciting new campaign.

Over the weekend – and particularly on Sunday – 'Back to Football' took on a much deeper and more significant meaning than packing the flip-flops away for another nine months. When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest before the NFL world's very eyes on Monday Night Football, nothing mattered but his health. The NFL ground to halt and there was nothing to do but wait and hope.

As we got word of Hamlin's continued improvement throughout the week, NFL fans and media were able to do what the players and coaches were required to do… pivot to the playing of the final weekend of the regular season.

And that meant the Buffalo Bills were back on the field looking to deal with a multitude of emotions and a revised playoff scenario following the cancellation of their game with the Cincinnati Bengals. With Kansas City winning on Saturday night, the first-round bye was gone. But Buffalo could set up a unique situation with a win over the New England Patriots – victory would mean if they were to meet Kansas City down the road in the AFC Championship Game, that contest would be played at a neutral site.

Emotions were running high in Buffalo, as you would expect. The players had been left traumatised and heartbroken after Hamlin's cardiac arrest. But their spirits were lifted when their stricken teammate showed continued improvement throughout the week and Face-Timed into a team meeting on Friday. Hamlin also posted a message that he was watching the game from his hospital bed.

As motivational moments go, this was right up there with Adrian lying in her own hospital bed and telling Rocky to go and win!

And once the game kicked off, it took about 10 seconds to wonder if some things are just meant to be. With Highmark Stadium rocking, Buffalo's Nyheim Hines took the opening kickoff and raced 96 yards to the endzone for the touchdown. What a stunning start! The atmosphere was electric to begin with and got raised even higher with that score. It was a mix of pure, unadulterated joy with a few tears and a whole lot of pandemonium mixed in.

Saturday and Sunday was so much about Hamlin's number three, which was painted in Buffalo colours around the league, featured on warm-up t-shirts worn by all players and at the centre of so many heart-felt tributes. And that's what I mean about this being meant to be.

It had been three years and three months since Buffalo's last kickoff return touchdown. You couldn't make this stuff up. Hines later scored another kickoff return on a 101-yard runback and if he had added a third, I think I would have just got up and walked out of the Sky Sports studio.

As the rest of a very good game played out, I found myself rooting for Bills quarterback Josh Allen. It broke my heart to see how upset he was on the field on Monday night, to the point where it looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack.

He has enjoyed better statistical days in the NFL, but Allen took the game by the scruff of the neck and led Buffalo to a 35-23 win, throwing three touchdown passes; including a couple of absolute beauties to John Brown and Stefon Diggs. He showed just how special he is as a player, having shown what an amazing team leader he is all week long.

The Bills are going to be everyone's second-favourite team now and I hope they can do something truly special for Hamlin and for themselves. That, however, is all still secondary to the main goal; which is to see Hamlin out of hospital, fully recovered and on his way to leading a fully-normal life.

That will be bigger than any victory the Bills can secure between now and the end of this season.

Who's Hot…

The San Francisco 49ers… I'm wary about saying this because you never know what lies around the corner in the NFL, but the San Francisco 49ers look just about unstoppable right now. They have won 10 in a row and it hasn't slowed them one little bit moving from Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback to seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy. The young quarterback has a passer rating of 119.0 in his first five starts – all victories. The only passer to rate higher in the Super Bowl era is Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. With Christian McCaffrey undefeated in 10 starts in San Francisco and George Kittle in the form of his life at tight end, the Niners are scoring points for fun. In their last eight games, six wins have come with them scoring 38, 33, 35, 37, 37 and 38 points. The defense is also tough and opportunistic. San Francisco are going to be a very tough out in January.

Jacksonville's Defense… Jacksonville are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, winning five straight at the end of the year to steal the AFC South title. During a 7-2 run to end the regular season, so much was made of the offense playing the lead role and that was true. Trevor Lawrence has been a much-improved quarterback and the supporting cast has been excellent in Travis Etienne, Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, Zay Jones and Marvin Jones. But the offense was being held in check by a stubborn Tennessee team on Saturday night. And after back-to-back games where they allowed just three points, the D came up big one more time to secure the playoff berth. Rayshawn Jenkins hit Josh Dobbs and Josh Allen returned the fumble 37 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 2:51 remaining. Without that play, I'm not sure the Jags were going to get across the finish line; making this playoff charge a total team effort.

The Cincinnati Bengals… There are not many teams who will go into the playoffs feeling better about themselves than the Cincinnati Bengals, who racked up an eighth win in a row with a 27-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Cincy will face the Ravens for a third time this season when they take on their AFC North rivals in the wild card round of the AFC playoffs at home on Sunday night. Quarterback Joe Burrow is oozing confidence and Cincinnati continue to show their defense is much better than some people give them credit for. The Bengals are definitely a part of a big three in the AFC alongside Buffalo and Kansas City. It's going to be a proper heavyweight clash between that trio in January.

Who's Not…

Quarterbacks in Miami… The Miami Dolphins booked themselves a playoff spot for the first time since the 2016 season but only because their offense was slightly better than the dismal attack fielded by the New York Jets. Both teams were playing alternatives at quarterback and it showed. Skylar Thompson was subbing for the injured Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater and he threw for just 152 yards. Miami were kept afloat by 162 rushing yards and three Jason Sanders field goals in an 11-6 win. The Jets lost six straight to end the year and Joe Flacco threw for just 149 yards. Miami will only have a chance against Buffalo if Tua returns from his concussion while the Jets go into yet another offseason needing to find their franchise passer because Zach Wilson does not appear to be the answer.

Deshaun Watson… Cleveland's big-money quarterback threw another two interceptions on Sunday as the Browns ended their season with a 28-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a six-game run to end the year, Watson has not looked nearly good enough. He has regressed as a player and it looks very evident that he was out of the game for 700 days, entirely of his own doing it should be said. The problem for the Browns is the fully guaranteed contract they gave to Watson ($230 million). What if this is not a run of form but an indicative trend? All eyes will be on Watson in training camp this coming summer because jobs are going to be on the line in Cleveland if he does not live up to their lofty expectations.

The Indianapolis Colts… Somehow, some way, the Indianapolis Colts found yet another way to lose a game on Sunday. They gave up a Hail Mary touchdown to the Houston Texans that went right through the hands of defensive back Rodney Thomas and then allowed the two-point conversion to lose 32-31. That was the seventh defeat in a row to end the regular season and it spells the end of the Jeff Saturday experiment at head coach. The only good news for the Colts is that their terrible slide has landed them the fourth overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. They can finally go after a young franchise quarterback rather than chasing shadows with the likes of Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan.

The Fast Five…

  1. I have to give a huge amount of credit to Dan Campbell and his Detroit Lions. About 40 minutes before taking the field against the Green Bay Packers, the Lions were eliminated from playoff contention by a Jason Myers field goal for the Seattle Seahawks. But the Lions didn't cry. They fought and scrapped their way to a 20-16 win, knocking the Packers out of the race and sending Seattle to the post-season party. The Lions could be building something a bit special. They won eight of their final 10 games of this season and are going to look to go one stage further and make the playoffs in 2023.
  2. Houston's win and another loss for the Chicago Bears (against Minnesota Vikings) means the team from the windy city will have the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. And they can sell that selection for a king's ransom, especially if a quarterback-hungry team comes looking for a deal. The Bears are set at quarterback with Justin Fields, but they could pick up a couple of extra first-round draft picks to surround their young star with some playmaking talent.
  3. With some help from Detroit, the Seattle Seahawks have written themselves a very nice ending to the 2022 regular season. The Seahawks righted their seemingly-sinking ship at just the right time, finishing up with wins over the New York Jets and the Los Angeles Rams. They didn't exactly knock off powerhouses nor are they given much of a chance against San Francisco, but in a year when they moved on from Russell Wilson; Pete Carroll's team have gone 9-8 and got back into the postseason mix. With Geno Smith also showing signs of being a steady hand at quarterback and with some young stars in place on offense and defense, this season has to be deemed a success no matter what else happens.
  4. I was left wondering 'What will he think up next?' as Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs whirled around and around before breaking the huddle and scoring on a trick play against the Las Vegas Raiders that was sadly called back due to a holding penalty. Reid continues to show he has one of the most creative minds in the game. He also has Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and a defense that recorded six sacks on Saturday night. The Chiefs are going to be right at the heart of the AFC Super Bowl battle once again.
  5. The Philadelphia Eagles clinched the number one seed in the NFC playoffs with an uninspiring 22-16 win over the New York Giants. In truth, this entire game had a preseason feel to it and Philly never needed to get out of second gear against a New York team resting its key players. This was very much about getting Jalen Hurts some game reps and then getting him into another week off in good physical shape. The Eagles are the top seed in the NFC, but they need to recapture the form that got them there or they're going to come up short against San Francisco further down the playoff road.

Fact of the Week

With the Jacksonville Jaguars winning the AFC South, it means a team has gone from last place in its division to becoming a division champ the following year in 18 of the last 20 seasons. In further proof that there is hope for every team in each season, half of the playoff field this year (7 of 14 teams) features clubs who were not in the playoffs last year. Jacksonville, Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore and Miami are all new entrants in the AFC, while the NFC sees Minnesota, New York Giants and Seattle back in the knockout tournament.

Final Thought…

I would like to end my column this week by wishing for a continued speedy recovery for Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin. And I want to note that it is a recovery that is well underway thanks to the outstanding medical teams on hand in Cincinnati and at every NFL stadium every weekend. The treatment that is available to the players is best in class and is the reason Damar is still with us today. None of us will ever want to witness the events of Monday night ever again, but it is reassuring to know that such dedicated medical professionals lie waiting in the wings ready to spring into life-saving action whenever the NFL players need them. Forget about touchdowns and tackles, those ladies and gentlemen are the proper heroes and I hope the league honours them at this upcoming Super Bowl