NFL Week 18 storylines to watch: Who makes playoffs? End of Bill Belichick’s Patriots era?


Staff member

At long last, it’s the final week of the NFL regular season, and boy, has the football journey been a doozy!

Rampant injuries to starting quarterbacks. Season-saving performances by several of their backups, and utter futility from others. Uncharacteristic struggles by front-runners. Odds-defying success from underdog squads. Record-chasing performances by star players. Three in-season coach firings. And, of course, a very crowded playoff race.

As the action kicks off Sunday, nine teams’ playoff hopes remain alive. When the dust settles, only four of those teams will have qualified for the postseason, and the others will head for the offseason.

Here’s a rundown of five of the most compelling storylines as Week 18, and the regular season, wraps Sunday. (Find the NFL Week 18 schedule here.)

1. Bill Belichick’s last Patriots stand?​

The worst New England Patriots season in more than two decades will come to a close in Foxboro against the New York Jets. More importantly, Sunday likely represents the end of a truly legendary era, with Bill Belichick and the Patriots expected to part ways this offseason.

The Patriots’ accomplishments under Belichick: six victories in nine Super Bowl appearances, 20 winning campaigns in 23 seasons, 18 playoff appearances, 17 divisional titles. This run, however, will end in anticlimactic fashion. The 4-12 Patriots have already lost the most games of Belichick’s illustrious New England career (he lost 11 in 2000, when the NFL still played a 16-game season).

It’s fitting he may be closing out his Patriots tenure against the Jets, the franchise for which he agreed to succeed Bill Parcells as head coach in 2000, only to resign from the job after just one day. He has since whipped the Jets, going 38-11 against them and winning the last 15 games.

Belichick has lost his overall touch in recent years, however. He couldn’t find a worthy successor to Tom Brady, and he has struggled lately to find draft steals and overlooked bargain free agents to round out his roster. That led to the deterioration of what was once the NFL’s gold-standard franchise. But maybe, just maybe, Belichick has one more signature Jets thrashing left in his back pocket. (Jets at Patriots, 1 p.m. ET.)

2. BillsDolphins AFC East title bout​

Game No. 272 is a fitting grand finale for the regular season, because it features such high stakes and will dramatically impact the AFC playoff bracket. The Miami Dolphins (11-5) host the Buffalo Bills (10-6) with the AFC East title on the line. With a win or tie, the Dolphins will capture the division title for the first time since 2008. A Bills win would give them the division, and cap an impressive turnaround from once being 5-5 and 11th in the AFC.

Miami has already secured a playoff berth. Buffalo needs a win or tie to get in. If the Bills lose, they would need a loss or tie by the Jacksonville Jaguars to earn a postseason spot.

The Bills thumped the Dolphins 48-20 in Week 4. Can they pull off the sweep? The Dolphins boast an explosive offense, but they’ve gone 1-4 against teams that reached the playoffs last season, losing those four games by an average of 21 points. As last week’s 56-19 throttling by the Baltimore Ravens showed, Miami has also struggled against more physical teams. Since adapting a more balanced approach on offense, the Bills certainly fit that bill.

Is this shaping up for Buffalo to complete its season-saving comeback and enter the playoffs with a five-game win streak and loads of momentum? (Bills at Dolphins, 8:20 p.m. ET.)

3. Dogfights down South​

The AFC East isn’t the only division that remains undecided. The AFC South and NFC South (and NFC East, which we’ll get into below) are also up for grabs.

The Jaguars should have locked up the AFC South weeks ago. But injuries to quarterback Trevor Lawrence (who is expected to be a game-time decision Sunday) and overall offensive and defensive inconsistencies contributed to a 1-4 slide down the stretch. Jacksonville now must beat the Tennessee Titans on Sunday to make the playoffs. A victory will also give the Jaguars the AFC South. A loss sends Jacksonville home for the season and hands the division to the Houston Texans, who eliminated the Indianapolis Colts from playoff contention with a 23-19 win on Saturday night.

Meanwhile, after blowing a chance to clinch the NFC South last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers give it another shot Sunday against the 2-14 Carolina Panthers. The Bucs should win this and thus knock the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons out of division title contention. If Tampa Bay loses, however, the winner of the Saints-Falcons matchup would take the division. (Jaguars at Titans and Buccaneers at Panthers, 1 p.m. ET.)

4. Cowboys leapfrog Eagles

The Dallas Cowboys have spent the entire season chasing the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East title. However, Dallas’ Week 14 victory over the Eagles and Philadelphia’s stunning loss to the lowly Arizona Cardinals last weekend have opened the door for the Cowboys to win the division. Beat the Washington Commanders on Sunday and Dallas secures the NFC East and the No. 2 seed, which translates into a home game in the playoff opener — and possibly beyond.

The Eagles, meanwhile, face the 5-11 New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J. They must hope for a win and a Dallas loss or tie to regain first place in the division. Can the Cowboys take care of business, or will they underestimate 4-12 Washington and hand Philadelphia its second straight NFC East crown? (Eagles at Giants and Cowboys at Commanders, 4:25 p.m. ET.)

5. Black Monday awaits​

The ugly side of the business will rear its head Monday as teams move on from underperforming head coaches. The Raiders’ Josh McDaniels, Panthers’ Frank Reich and Chargers’ Brandon Staley have already been fired. As mentioned, Belichick could be joining them. So, too, could a few others.

In Washington, Ron Rivera’s gamble on Sam Howell and a poor offensive line backfired, and new owner Josh Harris is expected to take the team in another direction this offseason. In Atlanta, Arthur Smith’s miscalculations with second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder and inability to construct an offense that properly utilizes Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson could cost him his job. Matt Eberflus was believed to be in trouble in Chicago, but a 5-2 run in the season’s second half and improvement from Justin Fields may have saved his job.

Mike Vrabel is about to finish his second straight losing season in Tennessee, so that’s worth monitoring. So is the situation in Tampa Bay. Todd Bowles and the Bucs can lock up the NFC South with a win, but if they wind up missing the playoffs after blowing opportunities to win the division in back-to-back weeks, could Bowles receive his pink slip as well?