The end of the regular NFL season is always a sad day. It signals that there are only four weeks of NFL games left until the second week of September. That means I’ll have to spend my Sunday afternoons watching commercials for the next seven months, as there will be no more RedZone for the remainder of the season. (Plus, RedZone has been glitchy in the Fire TV NFL App for the past two weeks, so someone needs to take care of that.)
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With all the injuries, Sean Payton’s dissent against Russell Wilson, and Mike Tomlin’s skilled press conferences, 14 teams have made it to the playoffs, and 18 more teams will be making significant changes on the field and in the front office. And as always, the journey through the regular season schedule has been a thrill.
Once September ends, analysts and fans start to believe that there is clarity on how the remaining weeks will unfold. Then the San Francisco 49ers must deal with injuries to two of their top players, the Denver Broncos stealing a five-game winning streak, and finally, the Philadelphia Eagles unable to continue securing wins with a point spread.
Coaches have already been fired, and on Monday, there are sure to be more. Fans of teams not in the playoffs can watch YouTube highlights of college players who are expected to be available to their favorite team at the end of April’s draft.
After 18 weeks, it’s pretty clear that the Baltimore Ravens and the 49ers are the best teams in the NFL. Before the last game of the 2023 regular season, a game in which neither team approached with the urgency of a must-win, they were third and sixth, respectively, in the overall DVOA – two of the best in NFL history. The only other teams in the past 10 years to have been in the top 10 according to this metric have been the Buffalo Bills. Other teams with this value include the 1985 Chicago Bears, 1991 Washington R-words, 1987 49ers, and 2007 New England Patriots.
The Ravens and the 49ers are clearly the favorites for a rematch of their Christmas matchup on Super Bowl Sunday. However, in the NFL playoffs, there are no best-of-seven, best-of-five, or best-of-three series. Both teams have a wild card bye this weekend and will then enter a single elimination tournament.
If the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, and Tampa Bay Rays can be eliminated from the MLB before the League Championship Series, then both the Ravens and the 49ers could be upset before the big game in Las Vegas. The teams most likely to accomplish this are the Bills, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit Lions.
The only loss for the Buffalo Bills since late November came in overtime on the road. When they fell to a record of 5-5 after a home loss to the Broncos, there was little reason to believe in the Bills. They started the season with drama surrounding their second-best player – Stefon Diggs – and Josh Allen reverted to his turnover-prone ways. He ranks second in turnovers, second only to the recently replaced Sam Howell, who reentered the starting lineup in Week 17 after Jacoby Brissett’s injury.
The Bills have since won 7 of their games after their loss to the Broncos. A consistent commitment to the run has helped improve the 2023 season. In each of their wins, they have rushed for at least 100 yards as a team. The only game where the Bills had fewer than 30 rushing attempts since that loss was when they ran the ball 28 times against the Chiefs.
They have also become healthier on defense. DaQuan Jones returned to the field for the first time since October 8 in Week 18, and Kaiir Elam is back in the lineup. The Bills‘ defense ranked 21st in DVOA after their loss to the Broncos, but by the start of Week 18, they had advanced to 12th.
All of these improvements came as Diggs‘ production hit rock bottom. In five of the Bills‘ first six games, he had a total of 100 or more yards. Diggs has not had a 100-yard receiving game since Week 6 and did not reach 30 yards in Week 16 or 17. The Bills have evolved into a top-tier football team and have improved from 5-5 to the number two seed in the AFC.
Take the Dallas Cowboys for granted at your own risk
The Cowboys are so popular that they can be easily hated. Add to that a team owner who loves the spotlight and has made many personnel errors in both the coaching staff and the roster, and has not won any championships since the 1995 season, and the Cowboys can be a fun team to reject.
After a hot start to the 2023 season, they ended with a record of 12-5. Their worst stretch of the season was their back-to-back losses to the Bills and Dolphins in December. This Bills loss looked bad as the late afternoon featured game in Week 15, as the Cowboys were scattered across the field like crates in a new home. A defense outstanding in fantasy football was allegedly exposed in real life – a defense that has only given up 30 or more points three times this season.
Dallas is one of only four teams in the NFL to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive DVOA in Week 18. Dak Prescott ranks third in the NFL in passing yards and completion percentage, second in total QBR, sixth in yards per attempt, and leads the league in passing touchdowns.
The Cowboys are certainly not a perfect team, especially since Trevon Diggs will not be available until next season and Tyron Smith is dealing with a torn plantar fascia in his foot. They were also throttled by the 49ers in September but have been playing much better football since that night. The 49ers should not take them lightly if they meet in the NFC Championship Game.
Somehow, the Cleveland Browns gave their players a break in Week 18
Joe Flacco did not take the field against the Cincinnati Bengals for rest purposes. He is one of four quarterbacks to start for the Browns this season and was signed on November 20. Flacco started his first game on December 3. Cleveland has gone 4-1 in that time.
The Browns‘ injured reserve list is long. Deshaun Watson, Nick Chubb, both starting offensive tackles – Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr. – backup offensive tackle Jawand Jones, starting safety Grant Delpit, and starting middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. are all currently unavailable for the postseason. Yet, the Browns were able to easily make the playoffs, as their division was the only one in the NFL where all teams finished above .500 – according to RedZone.
They have assembled a running game with Jerome Ford, Kareem Hunt, and Pierre Strong Jr., all while starting reserve offensive tackles. Amari Cooper and David Njoku are playing the best football of their NFL careers, with Flacco throwing them the football. Additionally, their defense ranks among the best in the league and will pose a threat to any opponent in January.
The Detroit Lions will host a playoff game
At the start of the season, this was an expectation. A franchise with a Divisional Round win in the 1991 season, the only playoff win since 1957, was considered one of the best teams in their conference. The NFC North was weak, and the Lions were expected to chew the kneecaps off all their rivals on the way to their very first playoff game at Ford Field.
Their title-winning season since over 30 years was never in doubt at any point this season. They defeated the defending champion Chiefs in Week 1. During the 2023 season, they never lost consecutive games. Without a major officiating error in Week 17, they would have been second in the overall standings.
There wasn’t much to gain for the Lions in Week 18, while their opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, clung to faint hopes of the postseason. After a disappointing loss to the Cowboys, the Lions prevailed against the Vikings. They allowed Justin Jefferson 192 yards and a touchdown, and never looked back.
The Lions have many flaws. Jared Goff is lucky to play behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, as his numbers under pressure are not good. Additionally, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is doing wonders with his understaffed unit…