While there may not be as many playoff spots on the line at this stage as was promised when the league introduced the its new 17-game schedule, there’s still a lot at stake this weekend. Beyond the battle for seedings among teams who have already booked their postseason berth, there are five games that will decide who joins them in the playoffs: we preview them here.
What the Steelers need to do to win: If Ben Roethlisberger wants to extend his career at least one more game, he’ll need to win this game and then hope that the Jacksonville Jaguars upset the Indianapolis Colts. Pittsburgh can only control what they control and that means grinding out what’s sure to be another tough, physical game against their perennial rivals.
What the Ravens need to do to win: Chances are that Lamar Jackson won’t be back, which is already a huge disadvantage. It’s quite likely that Baltimore’s season will end as it began: with way too many players on the injured list. Still, the Ravens can at least play spoilers by winning what could be a defensive battle and taking advantage of Pittsburgh mistakes.
Key player: TJ Watt, outside linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers. With one more sack, Watt will tie Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5, and needs 1.5 to break it outright. And although Watt is playing in an extended 17-game season he has only made 14 appearances so far (Strahan achieved his record in 16 games).
Prediction: The Steelers beat the hobbled Ravens, who would still need additional help to make it to the playoffs even with a win. But it won’t end up mattering for Pittsburgh on account of a game down in Florida …
What the Colts need to do to win: Show up? The Colts are the far superior team and are playing for a postseason berth rather than to avoid the NFL’s worst record. They just have to play like they are not facing the season’s biggest embarrassment because if they sleepwalk through this game, the Jaguars will jump at a chance to make their opponent the butt of the joke for a change.
What the Jaguars need to do to win: Can they? Let’s be real: this game would be the Jaguars’ Super Bowl if they managed to win it. Sure, the organization would rather have the first pick in this year’s draft but no NFL team wants to go to that well two years in a row. It would be a sign of a franchise-wise failure to capitalize on landing Trevor Lawrence with the top overall pick last year.
Key player: Jonathan Taylor, running back, Indianapolis Colts. Aaron Rodgers has probably already secured a second-straight MVP but there’s still plenty of opportunities for Taylor to clinch a solid runner-up showing by putting together another 100+ yard rushing game.
Prediction: The Colts win and clinch a playoff spot.
What the Saints need to do to win: First of all, they should hope that the Falcons are checked out and don’t go full out in a game that means nothing for them. Assuming that Atlanta do play a competitive game, the Saints will have to hope that they get something out of their unsettled quarterback position. Can Taysom Hill really be their guy?
What the Falcons need to do to win: Technically, the Falcons’ season is done but they can play spoilers here, ending the Saints’ attempts to sneak into the postseason. As with the Jaguars, the question might be as much one of will as ability (although the team have already gone 0-2 against Hill as a starter; they may want to avoid 0-3 just for pride’s sake).
Key player: Matt Ryan, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons. Here’s an interesting Atlanta-centric subplot to this game, it could be Ryan’s final game as the Falcons’ quarterback. If so, it would be nice to end things with a win at his home stadium.
Prediction: Falcons win, ending the Saints’ playoff chances.
What the 49ers need to do to win: At this point, an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo means that they haven’t yet announced a starter at quarterback. Whether it ends up being Garoppolo or Trey Lance, the Niners must seize on the opportunity and not give head coach Kyle Shanahan a chance to regret his choice.
What the Rams need to do to win: LA have to be laser-focused and avoid scoreboard watching if they want to clinch the division with a win. Even with a loss, the Rams can still win the division should the Arizona Cardinals lose to the Seattle Seahawks. Oh and there’s the ball security issue: if Matthew Stafford has another multiple interception game, this one’s probably a wrap quickly.
Key player: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has a good chance of winning the award once again. A few big plays to help his team wrap up a division title won’t hurt his standing.
Prediction: Rams beat the 49ers, who still sneak into the playoffs thanks to the Saints’ loss and other extenuating circumstances.
What the Chargers need to do to win: This is how the league drew it up when they came up with the idea of a Week 18 game: a chance to end the season with an old-fashioned win-and-advance contest. The Chargers, like always, will rely on the dynamic arm of their quarterback (in this case, it’s Justin Herbert rather than Philip Rivers) and look to get separation on their opponents. If there’s one thing no Chargers fan wants to see it’s their team in a one-score game late in the fourth quarter.
What the Raiders need to do to win: The Chargers are a more talented team than these Raiders, but as Vegas will be playing at home against a team prone to late-game mistakes. The Raiders can’t exactly play conservatively but they will have to play smart, mistake-free football.
Key player: Derek Carr, quarterback, Las Vegas Raiders. At this point, Carr is a known entity. He’s a league-average quarterback who will have good games and bad games. This is his shining moment to put together a highlight-reel performance.
Prediction: It wouldn’t be a Chargers season without a last-minute collapse. The Raiders win, probably on a last-minute field goal, and move on to the playoffs while the Chargers go home.