And so the Washington Football Team, with a record of 7-9, are into the NFL playoffs as NFC East winners. It would be churlish to begrudge Washington their place in the postseason: head coach Ron Rivera has had to cope with a cancer diagnosis, quarterback Alex Smith has come back from a horrific injury that almost cost him his leg and they have a defense that looks like it could dominate the division for years to come. And yet … they’re 7-9, and benefited from the Philadelphia Eagles pulling starter Jalen Hurts in the middle of Sunday’s game, which Washington won 20-14. There are teams that will feel deserve they deserve a shot at the Super Bowl this year at Washington’s expense. Here’s a look at some of them.
1) Miami Dolphins (10-6, 2nd in the AFC East)
What a brutal, brutal ending for the Miami Dolphins. All Miami needed to do was to beat the Buffalo Bills, who had already clinched a playoff spot, to make the playoffs. Instead, the Bills demolished them 56-26. Even then, the Dolphins still could have made the postseason with an Indianapolis Colts’ loss.
Unfortunately, the Colts beat the woeful 1-15 Jacksonville Jaguars, who will be a little less woeful when they pick Trevor Lawrence in the draft later this year. It has to be a deflating season for Miami, who looked like they would capitalize on the New England Patriots’ long-awaited fall. When they benched Ryan Fitzpatrick for rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, they looked like a better team, but then Tagovailoa started to play, well, like a rookie. His three interceptions against Buffalo will provide plenty of fuel for those who believe that the Dolphins shouldn’t trust him as a starter in his second season.
That feels unfair. While it would make sense to have Fitzpatrick, or a similar veteran quarterback, on the roster as insurance, they should head into this summer with Tagovailoa as their Plan A. It feels like a disappointment right now, but they should remind themselves that a 10-6 record is a marked improvement over the 5-11 record they had last season. And, going forward, they have a great coach in Brian Flores and a solid defense.
2) Arizona Cardinals (8-8, 3rd in the NFC West)
The Arizona Cardinals’ loss to the Los Angeles Rams was doubly painful: not only did it result in their own elimination it also meant that the Chicago Bears, who had an identical 8-8 record, had won one of the wildcard slots.
The results are even tougher to take for Cardinals fans since the Bears los their final game of the season. So, Chicago won despite losing. Maybe losing the game but winning a postseason spot is the best-case scenario as there were rumors heading in that the Bears would keep Mitch Trubisky as their quarterback with a victory over the Packers. They may have just avoided that scenario.
3) Las Vegas Raiders (8-8, 2nd in the AFC West)
The Raiders had a better record than any team in the NFC East and, it should be noted, were playing in a clearly tougher division. After all, the Raiders had to face the NFL-leading Kansas City Chiefs who went 14-2 this season. One of those two Chiefs losses was against these very same Raiders back on 11 October. One could argue that they deserved a shot in the postseason, although one could also argue that they were the victims of their own mistakes.
4) Minnesota Vikings (7-9, 3rd in NFC North)
There were three non-NFC East teams that ended their season with a 7-9 record: the Minnesota Vikings, the Los Angeles Chargers and the New England Patriots. All three teams ended up in third place in their respective divisions but that record would have been good for a share of first place in the NFC East. It’s still a losing record mind you, but, hey, the 2010-11 Seattle Seahawks went 7-9 in the NFC West and they managed to win a playoff game.
Which of these teams would have had a better shot at following in those Seahawks’ footsteps? Well, we’re looking at a team that will need a little luck and that absolutely counts the Chargers out. The Patriots? It’s really difficult to make the case that New England deserve even more playoff appearances than they have already had. Let’s give this final spot here to a Vikings team that possibly underperformed but still looked like they could be a postseason threat. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is capable of randomly having huge games, while wide receiver Justin Jefferson finished the season breaking the Super Bowl era record for receiving yards by a rookie.
“We probably weren’t good enough of a football team this year to be in the playoffs,” head coach Mike Zimmer said after the Vikings’ 37-35 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Maybe he was right, but maybe they just didn’t happen to be in the right division this season.
NFL wildcard round match-ups
Byes: Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs
AFC: Baltimore Ravens (No 5 seed) at Tennessee Titans (4); Cleveland Browns (6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3); Indianapolis Colts (7) at Buffalo Bills (2).
NFC: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5) at Washington (4); Los Angeles Rams (6) at Seattle Seahawks (3); Chicago Bears (7) at New Orleans Saints (2).
MVP of the week
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens. It looks like Jackson is ready for the playoffs. He threw for three touchdowns during a blowout 38-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Beyond the 113 passing yards he accumulated, he also ran for an additional 97, which helped ensure he became the first quarterback with back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons.
Video of the week
Week 17 is when things end up a little looser in the NFL, especially when your team has already clinched a postseason berth. There’s no better example than this clip of Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steffon Diggs flossing on the sidelines during Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.
Stat of the week
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans finished the season with more than 1,000 yards. With that the wide receiver became the first player to pass that milestone in each of their first seven seasons. Breaking the record may have come at a cost, however. On the very next play, Evans was taken off the field with a knee injury.
The Buccaneers had already clinched a playoff spot and were playing for nothing but seeding heading into the game. Head coach Bruce Arians had already suggested that he would have rested Evans if he had clinched this record before Game 17. So, there’s a lot of second-guessing going on in Tampa Bay right now, despite their 44-27 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Quote of the week
“It’s an honor to break Randy Moss’s record. Him being a Hall of Famer and just being so dominant in this league, to break his record is truly a blessing. It’s truly crazy to be in this position” – Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson after setting the rookie record for receiving yards.
Jefferson came up big in the Vikings’ 37-35 win over the Detroit Lions, adding 133 yards to his receiving yard total. He had 1,379 for the season, blowing past both Randy Moss’s franchise record of 1,313 and Anquan Boldin’s overall record of 1,377. He did it while wearing cleats that paid tribute to Moss, something which the legendary receiver acknowledged on Twitter.
Elsewhere around the league
-- A worrisome moment in the middle of the Arizona Cardinals’ game against the Los Angeles Rams as quarterback Kyler Murray left the field with an ankle injury and had to be replaced by backup Chris Streveler. Meanwhile, the Rams put in John Wolford, making his pro debut, filling in for an injured Jared Goff. Murray eventually re-entered the game, but it was not enough as the Rams beat the Cardinals 18-7, eliminating Arizona from the playoffs. The Rams will now face the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. It’s a shame things didn’t end up better for Streveler, who threw for both a touchdown and interception in the game, but the former CFL Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback still has the NFL’s greatest Wikipedia page bio photo.
-- The Cleveland Browns just barely hung on against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that was resting many of their regulars. They pulled out with a 24-22 victory to ensure their first trip to the playoffs in 18 years, something which they deserve to celebrate. It wasn’t anything resembling a decisive victory which doesn’t bode well for the Browns considering that their opponent in their wildcard game will be these very same Steelers – and next time don’t expect Pittsburgh to rest any starters.
-- One for the record books: Derrick Henry became just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes will probably be named MVP this season, but there’s a very good argument that Henry is a deserving candidate.
-- Before Sunday’s game, there came the unsurprising report that the New England Patriots are planning to move on from quarterback Cam Newton, who has failed to impress during his first season in New England. There’s a very real possibility that this could be the end for Newton, who was once the most exciting player in the NFL. Whatever his future, he excelled on Sunday against the New York Jets, throwing three touchdowns.
-- Speaking of the Jets, Sam Darnold threw two interceptions against the Patriots, making it more likely New York will go for Justin Fields with the No2 overall pick in the draft. Whoever starts as the Jets quarterback next season, he won’t be coached by Adam Gase. Gase was fired by the team on Sunday night. It was a predictable end for a coach who only the Jets ownership thought was a good hire. At the start of the season, Jets CEO called Gase a “brilliant offensive mind”. They went on to finish 2-14 with the league’s worst offense.