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Neil Reynolds' Wraps Week 18

The playoff field is set with 14 NFL teams remaining on the road to Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas. And there are so many storylines to dig into after an enthralling Week 18 decided the lineup for the postseason and where each team will be seeded in the AFC and the NFC.

I would like to lead with the quarterback who led his team to the final playoff spot in the NFC – Jordan Love, of the Green Bay Packers. After 31 seasons of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, the Packers seem to have found their way to yet another high-quality starting quarterback in Love.

After sitting behind Rodgers for three years, Love is finally getting his opportunity to shine in his first full season as an NFL starter. And he delivered Green Bay a playoff berth with an outstanding performance against one of the form defenses in the league, leading the Packers to a 17-9 win over the Chicago Bears.

The 2020 first-round pick completed 27 of 32 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, continuing the good form that has been pivotal in Green Bay winning six of their final eight games. During that period of sustained success, Love has thrown 18 touchdown passes and just one interception.

He has come alive at the right time of the year and when his floundering team (the Packers opened the season 2-5) needed him the most. Love can make every throw in the book and he doesn't need to be in the textbook position to fire a pass downfield. He's got a long way to go, for sure, but there are elements of Patrick Mahomes in his game and you can see some of the tricks he has picked up from watching Rodgers in recent years.

I don't think we can overstate what a great job Love has done in leading Green Bay back to the playoffs. First, he has been required to fill Hall of Fame shoes with Rodgers departing. And he entered the spotlight on a team that demands to be on the biggest of stages at all times.

So, there has been the pressure of expectation all along and there were certainly some early-season doubters. Then the 25-year-old needed to be the 'veteran' leader of a very young attack. Love threw 32 touchdown passes during the regular season to rank second in the NFL… and 31 of those scoring strikes went to players in their first or second years in the league.

No quarterback has achieved so much with first- or second-year players in more than 50 years. And no Green Bay quarterback has ever reached the playoffs in his first full season as a starter. Again, this is a franchise with Favre, Rodgers and another massive Hall of Famer in Bart Starr.

Love and the Packers now face a real challenge as they head to Dallas to take on a Cowboys team that has not lost at home since Week 1 of the 2022 season. Regardless of how that game pans out, Love's first season at the helm in Green Bay has been a roaring success and his team is going to be relevant for years to come due to his emergence at the NFL's most important position.

Who's Hot?

Nico Collins… The Houston Texans are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2019 and, quite rightly, a lot of the excitement is centred around rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans. But it should be noted that wide receiver Nico Collins has enjoyed a career year and has been vital to the passing game, especially since Tank Dell was lost for the season to injury. During Saturday's 23-19 win over Indianapolis that booked a playoff passage for the Texans, Collins caught nine passes (on nine targets) for 195 yards and a touchdown, going 75 yards to the end zone on Stroud's first throw of the game. Such a performance was no fluke. In an early-December win over Denver, Collins caught nine passes for 191 yards and a touchdown. He has racked up a career-high 1,297 receiving yards in a career year and will be Stroud's main target as they take on an excellent Cleveland defense in the first round of the playoffs.

Dak and CeeDee… As the Dallas Cowboys prepare for a playoff run that they hope will take them past the Divisional Round for the first time since the 1995 season, they can rest easy knowing they have a prolific passing attack duo in Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb. Both were outstanding on Sunday night as the Cowboys secured the NFC East with a 38-10 thrashing of the Washington Commanders. Prescott threw four touchdown passes to give him an NFL-high 36 on the season. That number, by the way, feels surprisingly low to lead the league and perhaps speaks to quarterback injuries and defensive resurgences across the NFL. Anyway, back to the Cowboys. CeeDee Lamb is now firmly established as one of the elite wide receivers in the league. He caught two more touchdowns and reeled in 13 receptions to give him a league-leading 135 on the season. This pair will power the Cowboys through any postseason run.

Kansas City Chiefs Defense… The Cincinnati Bengals had the Kansas City Chiefs on their heels with 6:23 remaining in the first half on Sunday, taking a 17-7 lead at Arrowhead Stadium on Jake Browning's touchdown run. The Chiefs were staring down a seventh loss of the season and a fifth in front of their own fans. But the Bengals never scored again thanks to a Kansas City defense that is now firmly considered one of the best in the league. That allowed Kansas City to clinch the AFC West for the eighth year in a row even though their last six scores were all Harrison Butker field goals. The Chiefs dialled up consistent and confusing pressure that was too much for Browning. He was sacked six times and Cincinnati were held to just 263 total yards. There is no doubt Kansas City are stuck in mud on offense, so it looks like any title run is going to need to be powered by the defense.

Who's Not?

Trevor Lawrence… The Jaguars had it all there in front of them, requiring a win against a Tennessee Titans team merely playing for pride to make it into the playoffs. But, time and again, the Jaguars couldn't get the job done and they failed to take advantage of several late and great opportunities in a 28-20 loss. Their star quarterback was front and centre when it came to the failure to make plays at critical times. Lawrence couldn't get over the goal-line when reaching for a fourth down touchdown and he missed a wide-open Calvin Ridley on Jacksonville's final drive before firing high over the head of Evan Engram on a fourth down throw that ended the Jaguars' season. This team has not been nearly good enough down the stretch, losing five of their last six. Around six weeks ago, the Jaguars were being talked about as a potential one seed in the AFC and they had a 96 percent chance to make the playoffs. Their slide has been devastating and this crucial and unavoidable fact will travel with them into the offseason… Trevor Lawrence lost his last five starts of the season at a time when he and the Jaguars were expecting so much more.

Philadelphia Eagles… The slide of the reigning NFC champions has been one of the most shocking developments of this 2023 season. Philadelphia were far from perfect in the opening 11 weeks of the season, but they had a winning habit and opened the year 10-1. But Sunday's 27-10 loss to the New York Giants means that Nick Sirianni's team have now been defeated in five of six games to end the regular season. The defense – which was a real strength in 2022 – has been a disaster down the stretch and Jalen Hurts is also making way too many mistakes. He had just eight giveaways last season but registered 20 in 2023. And now injuries are creeping in. Hurts has dislocated a finger on his throwing hand and is "day to day." Add in star wide receiver A.J. Brown carrying a knee injury and what looked like a winnable first-round visit to Tampa Bay a month or so ago, could now be a real challenge. If the Eagles whimper out of the playoffs, it could be an interesting postseason evaluation in Philly.

New England Patriots… If his time in New England has come to an end, Bill Belichick went out in abject misery. The weather was atrocious in Foxboro and his team's performance was even more miserable as the Patriots fell to 4-13 on the season with a 17-3 loss to the New York Jets. The man who has taken centre stage in our NFL lives for more than two decades, cut a sad and lonely figure as he went out behind a ski mask with just his eyes showing. It was a bizarre and pitiful scene and it felt like Belichick didn't want the world to see his pain, his suffering and perhaps some anger as the curtain came down on the worst season of his coaching life. Belichick turns 72 in April and he will want to coach on, even though his style could be deemed as outdated in today's NFL. His legacy is already cemented as the greatest coach of all time with six Super Bowl wins as a head coach and two more as an assistant. But Belichick's pride will make him want to bounce back quickly. Keep an eye on teams like the Los Angeles Chargers (they have Justin Herbert) or the Washington Commanders (they can pick a quarterback second overall in April) once the inevitable departure from New England is made official.

The Fast Five

  • After all the excitement around the Miami Dolphins and the hand-wringing centred on the Buffalo Bills, it was business as usual in the AFC East where Sean McDermott's men have taken that division for the fourth year in a row. The Bills are far from perfect, but they know that Josh Allen is going to rise up at key times and make plays for them from the quarterback position. The Bills will certainly be dangerous in the playoffs. As for Miami? Injuries have hit them hard and knocked their season off course, but their offense – which was held down in the second half against Buffalo – will give them a puncher's chance as they head to Kansas City in the first round of the playoffs.
  • There was a lot of debate about the rest versus rust argument heading into Week 18. Teams such as the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams took the decision to rest key players with their postseason rankings already set. Detroit played their main guys during Sunday's win over Minnesota and I think that is reflective of the character of head coach Dan Campbell… we're the Lions… we play our starters… we don't back down!! That kind of thing. Well, Detroit got two key players hurt in a game that was always unlikely to change their seeding and now the Lions go into the playoffs without tight end Sam LaPorta and wide receiver Khalif Raymond. There's being tough and then there's being smart.
  • There has been speculation that Mike Vrabel could find a route from being head coach of the Tennessee Titans to taking charge of a New England team where he won three Super Bowls as a player. But I don't see why the Titans would want to let him out of town. Vrabel remains one of the better head coaches in the league and he only leaves if he forces his way out. It's been a miserable season for Tennessee as they have won just six games, but Sunday's downing of the Jaguars was a reminder that this team always plays hard for its head coach. That's a credit to Vrabel.
  • It's official… Puka Nacua, of the Los Angeles Rams, is the most prolific rookie wide receiver the NFL has ever seen. That's a lot of great wide receivers we're talking about there! Nacua racked up a couple of key milestones in the Rams' 21-20 win over San Francisco in Week 18. He broke Jaylen Waddle's rookie mark for catches by taking his season total to 105. And he smashed a record that had stood in the NFL since 1960 when he passed Houston's Bill Groman for 1,486 receiving yards. That is an incredible return from a fifth-round draft pick chosen 177th overall. Nacua is not only pivotal to LA's Super Bowl chances in the coming days and weeks, he is a reminder to us all that we simply must pay attention to the third and final day of the NFL Draft. There are gems to be found in those lower rounds!
  • It wasn't pretty but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the NFC South with a 9-0 win over the Carolina Panthers. And that puts a wonderful cap on a season of redemption for quarterback Baker Mayfield. The first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft is on his fourth NFL team in Tampa Bay and was only given a one-year deal for 2023. But he could have earned himself a longer stay and a bigger payday after starting all 17 games on the way to the playoffs. Mayfield has not been perfect, but his play has summed up his career to date. He is a fighter who refuses to give in and now he gets to play on the big playoff stage once again. That must have seemed a million miles away when he was cast aside by the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams.

Final Thought

The playoffs are a time for great NFL stories to be told and for legacies to be born, cemented and even destroyed. Everything is magnified in the postseason because there is no tomorrow. Win and you advance along the road towards the Super Bowl, lose and you have seven long months to think about where it all went wrong. So, this is a time for headlines and heroes. And the opening round of the playoffs is not going to disappoint when it comes to storylines. Veteran Joe Flacco and his Cleveland Browns taking on C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans. What a starter! How about Tyreek Hill's return to Arrowhead Stadium as Miami take on Kansas City? Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff swapped teams three seasons ago and now Stafford's Rams will visit Goff's Lions in a double-sided revenge game. And Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy gets to take on the team that fired him in 2018 in the Green Bay Packers. Everywhere you look, these playoff games are spiced with intrigue. I cannot wait to get started in our brand-new Sky Sports NFL studio from 8.30pm on Saturday night. See you then