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Week 18 Winners and Losers: First-Year Starting QBs to Make Playoff Debuts.

The beauty of the NFL is that things rarely stay the same from season to season. Not many had the Los Angeles Rams, Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers (combined 2022 record: 16–34-1) projected to make the playoffs. I’ll admit it. I was very wrong about this being a rebuilding year for the Rams, even if I did have Puka Nacua and the rest of their promising 2023 draft class on my radar after a training camp visit with the Rams.

As for the Packers, I did predict they would make the postseason, but they made me question my decision after a rough few weeks early in the season. And regardless of whether you had the Texans in the playoffs, not many saw this level of excellence coming from the C.J. Stroud–DeMeco Ryans partnership in Houston.

The Packers, Texans, Rams, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions all made the postseason after missing it the season before There seems to always be five or six new playoff teams. Let’s remember that when making preseason predictions in the fall.

Here are the biggest winners and losers from the eventful final week of the 2023 regular season.

WINNERS Texans Stroud didn’t need to deliver a special performance against the Indianapolis Colts to prove he’ll soon be a top-five quarterback in the NFL.

But his fourth-quarter heroics in the pivotal game only confirmed what many already knew-the Texans have a special quarterback. Stroud went 7-of-7 for 82 yards on the go-ahead touchdown drive that eventually gave the Texans a 23–19 victory and a playoff spot.

The Texans (10–7) also clinched the AFC South thanks to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ upset loss against the Tennessee Titans. Not bad for a team with a rookie head coach (Ryans) and rookie starting quarterback. The Texans are on the rise and have much more to offer with stud receiver Nico Collins (and Tank Dell when healthy) and talented defensive playmakers such as Will Anderson Jr., Jonathan Greenard and Derek Stingley Jr.

The Texans are young and have a handful of notable injuries, but they have Stroud on their side, and that might be enough to upset the Browns in the wild-card round come Saturday.

Packers Similar to the Texans, the Packers (9–8) also have a new star quarterback in Jordan Love and a cast of up-and-coming playmakers. It was a rough first half to the season due to inexperience and injuries, but the Packers put it all together in the second half and earned a wild-card spot after defeating the Chicago Bears in the regular-season finale.

Some might have written off Love amid a four-game losing streak that included many costly turnovers from the first-year starting quarterback. He’s now protecting the football and making highlight throws that resemble his predecessors, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre. He’s also shown leadership by getting his young receiving corps to produce, including rookies Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks.

Don’t be surprised if Love goes toe-to-toe with Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys during their wild-card clash Sunday. Rams

Rams coach Sean McVay was playing with fire by leaving Nacua on the field during the third quarter of a somewhat meaningless game against the San Francisco 49ers.

But everything worked out in favor of the Rams (10–7), which has been the case since their midseason turnaround following a 3–6 start to the season. Nacua set the rookie records for receiving yards (1,486) and receptions (105). The cherry on top was ending the team’s nine-game regular-season losing streak to the 49ers thanks to Carson Wentz’s go-ahead touchdown drive in the final five minutes of regulation.

The football world should thank Wentz, because the victory ensured that the Rams will play Matthew Stafford’s former team in Detroit for one of the most intriguing playoff games of wild-card weekend. The Rams, who won seven of their final eight regular-season games, have enough star power to make serious noise in the NFC field. Steelers

Welp, I was wrong to put a fork in the Steelers (10–7) after their loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13. It initially seemed I was going to be proved right after Pittsburgh then suffered losses to the New England Patriots and Colts.

But everything changed after coach Mike Tomlin turned to third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph, who ended the regular season with three consecutive wins, including the finale against the Baltimore Ravens. They also received help from the Titans, whose victory over the Jaguars clinched a wild-card berth for the Steelers.

Hopefully Tomlin’s 11th career playoff appearance in 17 seasons is enough to silence the narrative about Pittsburgh needing to part with its longtime coach, who remains one of the NFL’s best. But Pittsburgh has a daunting challenge in Buffalo for the wild-card matchup, and might have to play without T.J. Watt, who’s dealing with a knee injury. Bills

The Buffalo Bills (11–6) sure love to make it interesting, but they continue to find ways to win games.

Buffalo went from having a 6–6 record at its bye week to taking the AFC East from the Miami Dolphins by completing a five-game winning streak to end the regular season. But even in the Week 18 victory, the Bills made it difficult as Josh Allen had three critical turnovers.

Sean McDermott’s defense stepped up to minimize the damage from the three turnovers, and eventually Allen took over to sweep the season series from the Dolphins. The Bills might be the one team that can hang with the Ravens in a playoff game because they have Allen.


Many of the strides the Bears (7–10) made in the second half of the season were quickly neutralized by a deflating loss to the Packers.

Justin Fields could have helped his case to remain the Bears’ starting quarterback by spoiling the Packers’ season in front of their fans at Lambeau Field. The flat performance probably didn’t determine Fields’s future, but he might now have less support from fans and media in Chicago, putting less pressure on the organization to retain him.

If the Bears fall in love with Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, they should absolutely draft a quarterback with the No. 1 pick. But their scouts may determine Fields is just as good as the incoming QB prospects, and Chicago could continue to move forward with him after a mostly promising 2023 season. The Bears have quality options, but they ended the year on a sour note with the loss to their NFC North rivals.

Eagles It’s hard to believe coach Nick Sirianni when he said his team will respond better in the postseason after the Philadelphia Eagles’ end-of-year collapse.

The Eagles (11–6) are talented, but they have a bad defense, a broken offense and a fatigued roster from last year’s Super Bowl run. To make matters worse, A.J. Brown, Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith are all dealing with injuries, putting their game status in doubt for the wild-card game in Tampa Bay.

It’s tough to back this team after it lost five out of its final six regular-season games, including to the Cardinals and New York Giants. They gifted the NFC East title to the Cowboys and now appear headed for a quick postseason exit.

One more thing. We need to stop with this nonsense about Sirianni needing to be on the hot seat. He helped the Eagles get to the Super Bowl last year and had them at 10–1 to start 2023. Obviously, changes need to be made, but he’s done plenty of winning since arriving three years ago.


If the Eagles want to feel better, they can look at the Jaguars’ late-season meltdown, which cost Jacksonville the AFC South and a playoff spot. The Titans spoiled the Jaguars’ season by defeating their divisional rivals, 28–20, gaining some measure of revenge for Jacksonville’s Week 18 victory over Tennessee in last season’s de facto AFC South championship. It was fitting that Derrick Henry ran all over the Jaguars during his potential final game with the Titans. He had seven games with at least 100 rushing yards in 15 career games against the Jaguars, including the 153 he recorded Sunday, and his 1,564 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns against Jacksonville are his most against any opponent.

The Jaguars (9–8) started the year with a promising roster. But they now have holes on both sides of the ball. Also, their franchise quarterback can’t stop turning the ball over. Trevor Lawrence, who had 21 total turnovers this season, drastically regressed after taking steps forward in 2022. The Jaguars will need to determine whether injuries played a factor or if Lawrence needs better coaching in ’24.


The Dolphins (11–6) showed very little in the regular season to be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

It feels like ages ago when Miami was running up the score on opponents in September. The Dolphins had another sluggish offensive outing in their Week 18 loss to the Bills that cost them the AFC East title.

Tua Tagovailoa failed to spark the offense in Miami’s two games against the Bills and in losses to other playoff teams such as the Eagles, Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs. He also had shaky performances against losing teams, most memorably the Monday Night Football loss to the Titans in Week 14.

The Dolphins are going to need a special performance from Tyreek Hill to beat the Chiefs in Hill’s return to Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday, because they’re dealing with several injuries to key players like Raheem Mostert and Jaylen Waddle.


The Colts (9–8) had a heartbreaking 23–19 loss to the Texans, costing them a spot in the postseason.

Colts coach Shane Steichen, running back Tyler Goodson and quarterback Gardner Minshew will spend the offseason wondering what could have been had they completed the fourth-and-1 play in the final minutes of the win-and-in matchup. Steichen took heat for not handing the ball off to Jonathan Taylor, but it was a well-designed play that had Goodson open in space for the first down. But Minshew threw a poor pass behind Goodson, who got both hands on it but couldn’t haul it in.

Overall, the Colts have plenty to be proud of during a successful Year 1 with Steichen. Many expected Indianapolis to end up with a high draft pick. Instead, this is a team on the rise, especially if rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson can stay healthy in 2024.







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