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The First Read: What's at stake in the NFL playoff race in Week 18? Plus, risers/sliders from Week 17

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 18 of the 2023 NFL season, including:

But first, an overview of what's at stake in the final week of the 2023 regular season ...

This is it. The end of the regular season is finally upon us. We've grinded through 17 weeks of watching the NFL and we're still left to wonder how a handful of teams are going to finish this deal. At least we know who the top playoff seeds will be in each conference, as Baltimore and San Francisco secured those spots over this past weekend. What happens next is anybody's guess.

Four division titles remain up for grabs: the AFC East, AFC South, NFC East and NFC South. The second seed in the AFC will come down to the season finale between Buffalo and Miami on Sunday Night Football, while Detroit, Philadelphia and Dallas are still vying to claim that slot in the NFC. If you want to get into the scenarios for the final wild-card entries in each conference, you really better hunker down and keep some Advil within reach. There are five AFC teams still alive that haven't clinched a spot and six fighting for a postseason berth in the NFC.

All of that is why this edition of The First Read will focus on what's at stake for those contenders. Instead of delving into every team, we'll concentrate on those still chasing division titles and/or wild-card spots. Here's how one writer thinks it will all shake out.


What’s at stake: As painful as that blowout loss was to Baltimore, the Dolphins can still win the AFC East by beating Buffalo on Sunday night. That victory would also give them the No. 2 seed and a much-needed home playoff game on Super Wild Card Weekend. The value of that to Miami can’t be underscored. The Dolphins have lost only once at home so far this season; though, that one was a heartbreaking 28-27 defeat to Tennessee that involved Miami blowing a 14-point lead with three minutes left in the contest. Two Sundays ago, the Dolphins notched a huge win over the Cowboys at Hard Rock Stadium, which happened to be Miami’s first victory over a winning team this season. This coming Sunday night would be a great time to pick up a second.

Expectation: The Dolphins couldn’t handle Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ passing game in Sunday's 56-19 loss. You could easily see Josh Allen doing similar damage with the division title on the line, especially after the Dolphins lost yet another key pass rusher to a significant leg injury. It feels like Miami is heading toward a wild-card spot.

What’s at stake: The Jaguars can claim their second straight AFC South title with a win over the Titans. That’s a nice place to be after what they’ve endured over the past month. Jacksonville once stood at 8-3 and had a strong chance of claiming the top seed in the conference. That was before a four-game losing streak that finally ended with Sunday’s 26-0 win over Carolina. The Jaguars killed themselves with penalties and turnovers during that winless stretch. They played mostly clean football against the Panthers, which was encouraging. The Jags now control their own destiny. With a loss at Tennessee this Sunday, though, they could need some help to land a wild-card spot.

Expectation: The Titans looked awful in their 26-3 defeat to Houston on Sunday. They probably won’t look any better against Jacksonville in the season finale. Take the Jaguars to stay on top of the division for another season.

What’s at stake: The Bills have been winning ugly, but they’ll take whatever they can get at this stage. They were looking like a team that might not even make the playoffs a month ago. Now they have a shot to sew up a fourth straight division title on Sunday night. The task at hand: beating a team that they stomped by 28 points back in Week 4. The Bills have been through a lot this season, from injuries to key starters to the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey to the reports of controversial comments about 9/11 that head coach Sean McDermott uttered years ago in a team meeting. It says plenty about this team’s makeup that it can still snare the the AFC East crown and the No. 2 seed after all that. There is a way that the Bills could miss the postseason altogether -- by losing to Miami after the Steelers and Jaguars both win their respective games -- but it feels like Buffalo has come too far to let this opportunity slip away.

Expectation: It’s hard to bet against the Bills at this stage. They’ve gone on late-season runs in each of the last two years and they’re obviously comfortable playing through drama. That won’t change this season, as they take the AFC East once again.

What’s at stake: The Colts are in a similar position to their division rivals, Jacksonville and Houston: They have a shot at winning the division or earning a wild-card spot, depending on how things break. The first thing they must do is beat Houston in Saturday night's season finale, which would clinch a playoff spot. Then, if Jacksonville also loses at Tennessee on Sunday, Indianapolis wins the AFC South. The Colts have been an inconsistent team, but as Sunday’s win over Las Vegas proved, they have a penchant for making key plays at the right time. They’ll need that to happen once again in an AFC South showdown with the Texans.

Expectation: It’s not a good look to give up a season-high 299 passing yards to a quarterback as limited as Raiders rookie Aidan O’Connell. That’s exactly what the Colts did on Sunday, and those issues on pass defense could really hurt them against Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite C.J. Stroud. Indy feels destined to be the odd team out in AFC South postseason scenarios.

What’s at stake: Nobody was talking about the Texans as a playoff team when this season began. Look at them today. All they need is a win in Indianapolis on Saturday night and they’re going to the postseason. At the very least, that would get them a wild-card berth. But if that's combined with a Jaguars loss at Tennessee on Sunday, Houston claims its first AFC South title since 2019. Either way, the Texans are in position to take a huge step in the development of this franchise. It helps that quarterback C.J. Stroud is back on the field after missing two games due to a concussion.

Expectation: The Texans handled business with a 26-3 win over Tennessee in Week 17. On Saturday, they'll find a way to get revenge on the Colts for a loss all the way back in Week 2, consequently locking up a tourney bid.

What’s at stake: This is another team that needs help to reach the postseason. The best Pittsburgh can hope for at this point is grabbing one of the last two wild-card slots, and there are some sizable road blocks to the Steelers accomplishing that, starting with the two AFC South teams directly ahead of them right now: Houston and Indianapolis. Both of those squads beat the Steelers this season, so there are no tiebreaker opportunities there. The good news: While Pittsburgh must travel to Baltimore for Saturday's regular-season finale, the Ravens have nothing left to play for after securing the top seed.

Expectation: The Steelers got a huge win in Seattle and ensured Mike Tomlin will keep his streak of non-losing seasons in Pittsburgh alive. But this campaign will end with them watching the postseason from home.


What’s at stake: The NFC East crown. It’s sitting there for the Cowboys, so long as they beat a Washington team they crushed by a score of 45-10 on Thanksgiving. Dallas has been an unreliable road team, but this is one of those games that should be a gimme. The Cowboys are coming off a huge win over Detroit on Saturday. The Commanders are wrapping up a disappointing season that seems to be trending toward the firing of head coach Ron Rivera. After all the ups and downs the Cowboys have endured this season, they’re in position to possibly be playing multiple playoff games at home.  

Expectation: The Cowboys' offense dominated Washington in the first game. It will do the same thing in this one. Dallas takes the NFC East for the second time in the past three seasons.

What’s at stake: If the Eagles want to repeat as division champions, they’ll need plenty of help from Washington. It’s also not a given that they will roll over the Giants in the season finale. Philadelphia just suffered a stunning loss to Arizona -- after the Eagles held a 15-point lead at halftime -- and the G-Men gave Philly a real scare on Christmas. There’s no question Philadelphia has championship character in its locker room. What it lacks is a championship-caliber defense, and that’s not a good look at this time of year.

Expectation: The Eagles will find a way to beat the Giants, but there’s little chance Dallas blows its opportunity against the Commanders. Philly is headed for the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.

What’s at stake: You don’t want to say the Buccaneers were playing with house money this past weekend, but there’s a reason why their 23-13 loss to the Saints wasn’t totally devastating. All Tampa Bay needed was one win in the final two weeks of the season to take the NFC South. It can now get that against a Carolina team that has won two games all year. That isn’t to completely minimize what happened in the game against New Orleans. The Bucs were completely outplayed in suffering their first loss in the past five weeks. They’ll need to play much better to keep the Panthers from thinking upset.

Expectation: The Buccaneers have reached the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and won the division in the past two. They’ll keep both of those streaks alive.

What’s at stake: The Packers control their own postseason destiny at this stage. One more win and they claim a wild-card berth. The only question: Which Green Bay team will show up in Week 18 against Chicago? There have been plenty of encouraging signs from quarterback Jordan Love this season, but the defense has been unreliable for weeks. The Packers also will be facing a Bears team that is still feisty and playing well defensively. Although Green Bay has more to play for, you never know what will happen when these division rivals match up.

Expectation: It’s been a roller-coaster season for Green Bay, but head coach Matt LaFleur wins a lot of games at this time of year. He’ll find a way to handle business vs. the rival Bears and get his team back to the playoffs.

What’s at stake: This could’ve been much easier on the Seahawks if they had beaten the Steelers at home on Sunday. They came into last weekend needing only to win their last two games to clinch a playoff spot. After falling to Pittsburgh, though, they now need to beat Arizona in the season finale and have Green Bay lose to Chicago.

Expectation: Playing a bad Arizona team at this time of year once seemed like an easy win. However, the Cardinals just went on the road and beat Philadelphia. And with the way Green Bay beat up on Minnesota on Sunday night, it feels like Seattle is finished, even with a win over the Cards.

What’s at stake: The Saints need help to keep their playoff hopes alive. Even with a win over Atlanta on Sunday, New Orleans also needs Carolina to pull an upset over Tampa Bay in order for the Saints to take the NFC South. Aside from that, the path to the NFC's final wild-card spot is blocked by multiple teams. In order to sneak into the playoffs without a division title, the Saints have to win their 1 p.m. ET bout vs. the Falcons on Sunday, then pray Seattle drops a game versus Arizona and Green Bay falls to Chicago during the 4:25 p.m. ET window.

Expectation: The Saints showed well in the win at Tampa Bay on Sunday. But ultimately, it's a case of too little, too late.

What’s at stake: The 33-10 loss to Green Bay on Sunday night pretty much sealed Minnesota's fate. The Vikings can’t find their way to the postseason without winning at Detroit and getting a ton of assistance.

Expectation: It’s over.

What’s at stake: The Falcons' lone avenue to the playoffs is via the division title. Atlanta can win the NFC South with a victory at New Orleans and a Tampa Bay loss at Carolina.


Expectation: Trusting Atlanta to log a road win at rival New Orleans feels like a tall order to begin with, given how the Falcons have played lately. And in addition to that, the Falcons would need the Panthers to upset the Bucs. Can't see all of that coming to pass.


Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · Quarterback

The league MVP race is over. Jackson pushed into the lead with Baltimore’s big win over San Francisco last Monday and then wrapped it up with his performance in the Ravens’ 56-19 thrashing of Miami on Sunday. All Jackson did with the top seed in the AFC on the line was complete 18 of his 21 passes for 321 yards and five touchdowns. Remember that massive deal he signed this past offseason after a lengthy contract standoff? He’s been worth every penny.

CeeDee Lamb
Dallas Cowboys · Wide receiver

There’s been so much talk about other receivers this season -- most prominently, Miami’s Tyreek Hill and, for a stretch, Philadelphia’s A.J. Brown -- that Lamb’s ascension to the ranks of the elite has been overshadowed. Dak Prescott turned into an MVP candidate earlier this year when he started feeding Lamb, and Dallas' offense has been scintillating ever since. Lamb was brilliant once again in the Cowboys’ 20-19 win over Detroit. He finished with 13 receptions and 227 yards that included a 92-yard touchdown catch. In the process, Lamb set single-season franchise records in catches (122) and yards (1,651).

Joe Flacco
Cleveland Browns · Quarterback

There isn’t a better story in the league right now than Flacco. The Browns' offense changed the minute he decided to walk off his couch and onto this roster. Tight end David Njoku has been playing like an All-Pro. Wide receiver Amari Cooper set the franchise record for receiving yards in a game with 265 during a blowout win over Houston in Week 16. Flacco also threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns in Cleveland’s playoff-clinching win over the Jets this past Thursday. The Browns were simply looking for stability at quarterback when Flacco arrived. What they found was a savvy veteran who could lead them deep into the postseason.


Bailey Zappe
New England Patriots · Quarterback

The Patriots only lost by six points to Buffalo on Sunday, but this game should’ve been over in the first half based on Zappe’s play. Of the four turnovers New England committed in the opening 30 minutes of play, three came via interceptions by the second-year pro. One of those picks resulted in a 40-yard return for a touchdown by cornerback Rasul Douglas. At one point in the game, Zappe had more interceptions than the Patriots had first downs. It was yet another reminder of how badly New England needs to find another quarterback in the offseason, especially since Zappe is already a replacement for benched starter Mac Jones

Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia on the sideline during an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Friday, Aug. 24, 2018 in Tampa. The Buccaneers defeated the Lions 33-30.
Matt Patricia
Philadelphia Eagles · Senior defensive assistant

Philadelphia just suffered a brutal 35-31 loss to Arizona, and it was a defeat that can be laid directly at the feet of Patricia’s defense. The Cardinals, a team that ranked 26th in the league in scoring, reached the 30-point mark for the first time all year. Patricia also was at the defensive helm during Drew Lock’s 92-yard game-winning drive in a Week 15 loss to Seattle and during a surprisingly close call in a win over the Giants. The Eagles stripped defensive coordinator Sean Desai of play-calling duties because they hoped Patricia could do a better job. Now we know this defense might be beyond saving as the postseason nears.

This is a photo of Arthur Smith of the Tennessee Titans NFL football team. This image reflects the Tennessee Titans active roster as of Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (AP Photo)
Arthur Smith
Atlanta Falcons · Head coach

The Falcons head coach needed a win versus Chicago to bolster his team’s slim playoff hopes. He wound up reminding us why there have been rumblings about his job security throughout the year, with the Falcons losing 37-17. Atlanta couldn’t generate much traction offensively, and that comes back to Smith’s play-calling and utilization of players. Yes, the Falcons have real quarterback problems. They also have a coach who still can’t find a way to maximize the talents on his roster when it matters most.


Ravens blow out Dolphins. The battle for the top seed in the AFC was anything but that. Baltimore trailed, 10-7, at the end of the first quarter before going on to outscore Miami, 49-9, from then on in a 56-19 win. For the Dolphins, it was a stark reminder of how tough it's been for them to compete against top teams this season. The Ravens, on the other hand, made another strong statement right after dominating the 49ers last Monday night. The question about who's the best team in the league is now over. The Ravens have their best chance at a championship in the Lamar Jackson era.


  1. Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys: A controversial penalty on a two-point conversion gives Dallas a critical win in its quest for the NFC East title.
  2. Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles: Arizona overcomes a 15-point halftime deficit to win in the final minute against the heavily favored Eagles.
  3. Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants: Los Angeles does what it needs to punch its playoff ticket, thanks to a last-minute missed field goal by New York's Mason Crosby.


What seemed like a ridiculous thought a month ago has now become a reality: Buffalo can win the AFC East with a victory over Miami in the final game of the Week 18 slate. The Bills come in riding a four-game win streak after sitting at 6-6. The Dolphins must shake off a humiliating defeat in Baltimore and hope that some key starters can get healthy. (They played that game without running back Raheem Mostert and wide receiver Jaylen Waddle.) The Bills won the first meeting in a 48-20 rout back in Week 4. This one should be much closer.


A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 18 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 11:30 a.m. ET on Monday, Jan. 1):

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB
  • Caesars odds: -10000
  • Weeks in top five: 8
  • Next game: vs. Steelers | Saturday, Jan. 6
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB
  • Caesars odds: +2500
  • Weeks in top five: 8
  • Next game: at Dolphins | Sunday, Jan. 7
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB
  • Caesars odds: +2200
  • Weeks in top five: 8
  • Next game: at Commanders | Sunday, Jan. 7
Brock Purdy
San Francisco 49ers · QB
  • Caesars odds: +2500
  • Weeks in top five: 9
  • Next game: vs. Rams | Sunday, Jan. 7
Matthew Stafford
Los Angeles Rams · QB
  • Caesars odds: N/A
  • Weeks in top five: 1
  • Next game: at 49ers | Sunday, Jan. 7


My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Ravens over 49ers.

Previous picks ...

  • Week 16: Ravens over 49ers
  • Week 15: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 14: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 13: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 12: 49ers over Ravens
  • Week 11: Eagles over Ravens
  • Week 10: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 9: Ravens over Eagles
  • Week 8: Eagles over Bengals
  • Week 7: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 6: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 4: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
  • Week 2: 49ers over Bills
  • Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins

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