With the penultimate slate of regular-season NFL games complete, there is somehow only a single week left to play before pro football’s second season, the postseason, begins. While we can’t get to everything — like the possible end of the road for Russell Wilson in Denver with the Broncos — here are four of the top storylines to emerge from the NFL’s 17th week. (If you missed it, here’s a look at the oh-so-Detroit play that may end up defining the season for the Lions…a penalty.)
Hopefully Lamar Jackson’s second MVP year ends better
A favorite to win MVP heading into a week 16 matchup against co-favorite Brock Purdy of the 49ers, Lamar Jackson put his fellow quarterback to shame as the Ravens rolled San Francisco in a potential Super Bowl preview that wasn’t even close. The odds-on favorite at most books to win MVP entering a week 17 matchup against the Dolphins, Jackson locked up the award with a five-touchdown effort in a win that locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC for Baltimore.
Operating with a perfect passer rating for most of the day, Jackson went 18-for-21 with his five TD passes and finished with it as well. The blowout win for Miami was important on multiple levels for a team that led the Dolphins 35-14 at the start of the fourth quarter in Week 2 of 2022 and allowed four fourth-quarter touchdowns to lose the game.
Limited by injuries in two straight seasons heading into 2023, Jackson has regained the form that allowed him to capture just the second unanimous MVP award in NFL history in 2019, the same year he took over as the full-time starter in Baltimore. The Ravens also were the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC in ’19, and ended up being punched in the mouth in an upset loss to the Titans in the Divisional Round after sitting out the postseason’s first round with a bye.
While there’s no logical reason to think that this season’s version of the Ravens will suffer a similar fate, there’s always a certain amount of insecurity hovering around the team, possibly because they’ve always seemed to thrive on positive momentum and the emotions of head coach John Harbaugh as long as he has been in charge. Great when they are ahead, the Ravens have never been great at coming back — probably because they usually don’t have to.
That plagued the Ravens in ’19 against the Titans and it would be unfortunate for Jackson if that happens again during what should be his second MVP season, a year some are saying has already clinched him as a Hall-of-Fame quarterback.
“We remember 2019,” Harbaugh said after beating Miami. “You’re not going to take it for granted. Not that we ever would, but it’s one more thing that makes you who you are at this point in time. We haven’t forgotten that.”
For Jackson’s sake, hopefully that’s true.
Ryan Fitzpatrick Left His Heart in BuffaloThe Harvard grad started at QB for an NFL-record nine teams in 17 seasons
If CeeDee Lamb gets help, the Cowboys will be dangerous
For much of the season with the Dolphins seemingly scoring points at will with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa under center, Miami wide receiver Tyreek Hill was on pace to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season for receiving yards and was considered a dark-horse candidate to win Most Valuable Player. But the Dolphins, who lost Hill for a few games due to injury and were blown out 56-19 by the Ravens on Sunday in a game that saw Tagovailoa exit with a shoulder injury, have stumbled down the stretch and no longer boast a viable MVP candidate.
The Cowboys, who still have a shot at the NFC’s top seed at 11-5, still have a player with an outside shot at MVP in Dak Prescott, and Dallas also has another offensive game-breaker who deserves consideration: CeeDee Lamb.
Lamb, who leads the NFL in receptions (122) and receiving yards (1,651) and is tied for third in touchdowns (10) with one week left to play, was an absolute beast in Week 17 against the Lions on Thursday night and had a career-high 227 yards receiving on a career-best 13 catches to go along with a touchdown in his first 200-yard game. The performance broke Hall-of-Famer Michael Irvin’s single-season club records from 1995 for catches (111) and yards (1,603).
Hardly ever mentioned in the same breath with other top-flight receivers like Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson and Hill, at least until now, Lamb was instant offense for the Cowboys on Thursday night, but he had help as wideout Brandin Cooks (60 yards, one TD), running back Tony Pollard (49 yards on 16 carries) and kicker Brandon Aubrey (two field goals, two extra points) were all integral in helping Dallas put points on the board, as was Prescott.
For the Cowboys to really make some noise in the playoffs, that will have to continue as there’s no way that Dallas can expect Lamb to put up record-breaking performances in the postseason, especially against defenses that aren’t as porous as Detroit’s. The Cowboys, who went 8-0 this season at home, will guarantee themselves at least one playoff game in Dallas if they beat Washington next week as they own the tiebreaker with the Eagles for the NFC East crown. If Lamb grabs a TD catch against the Commanders, it will extend his club-record scoring streak to nine games. But if the Cowboys are going to get where they want to go, other ‘Boys will need to find the end zone.
“Gosh, what doesn’t impress me about Lamb?” asked Cooks after Sunday’s win. “To be so young and playing at a high level like this, and to break a franchise record like this — [and considering] some of the guys that have played here. The guy is electric and anytime he has the ball in his hands he makes our offense better. I love the growth. My challenge to him is to keep it going in the rest of the regular season and in postseason.”
He probably will — as long as he gets some help.
Justin Fields has made a strong case to stay in Chicago
Losers of four in a row to start the season and generally looking like one of the worst teams in the NFL, the Chicago Bears have gone 5-2 over their last seven games and could close out their season on a three-game winning streak if they are able to beat the Packers in Green Bay to close out the season in Week 18.
Chicago quarterback Justin Fields, who is just 10-27 as a starter in his career but is 5-7 this year, had one of the best games of his career in Week 17 in a win over the playoff-hungry Falcons and finished Sunday’s win over Carolina 20-for-32 for 268 yards and one touchdown with 45 yards and an additional score on the ground. There were some blemishes, but the 24-year-old had a jaw-dropping scramble when Atlanta linebacker Bud Dupree came unblocked and seemingly had Fields dead to rights for a drive-ending sack that demonstrated exactly why the Bears traded up to take their quarterback at No. 11 overall in the 2021 draft.
Seemingly playing for his starting spot in Chicago with the Bears now guaranteed the No. 1 pick in April (via Carolina), Fields was the only first-round quarterback in his class to take the field on Sunday as No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars). Zach Wilson (No. 2, Jets), Trey Lance (No. 3, 49ers) and Mac Jones (No. 15, Patriots) were all riding the pine due to injury or ineffectiveness. Fortunately for Fields, he balled out and appears to have the Bears faithful believing as Sunday’s game ended with Chicago fans chanting “We Want Fields!” as the clock wound down.
“You got to appreciate him, man,” Chicago safety Eddie Jackson said of Fields. “All the stuff he’s doing, he’s been going through, all the talk about him. He’s been blocking it out and going out here balling and leading this team. You got to tip your hat to a guy like that. He’s shown true resilience. He’s a true leader. He just keeps coming out here every week, denying what everyone says and just proving them wrong.”
It didn’t seem like it earlier this year, but Chicago sticking with Fields at QB1 now seems like the right decision.
Will Bill Belichick actually do what’s best for the team?
Subsisting at 4-12 with one week left to play in the season following a loss to the Bills that saw New England turn the ball over four times in the first quarter, the Patriots only have one thing left to play for in Week 18: a loss to ensure a top-3 selection in April’s NFL Draft..
That much-needed defeat may be tough to come by as the Patriots are taking on the New York Jets, a team that head coach Bill Belichick loathes and has not allowed New England to lose to since midway through the Obama administration. As terrible as the four-win Patriots have been this season, they were able to handle the Jets fairly easily on the road earlier this year and will get the chance to close out their disappointing year with a home game against their division rivals, who are 2-5 outside of New Jersey this season.
It seems like a slam-dunk win for the Patriots (favored by 2 points), whose 12 losses this season are the most in Robert Kraft’s 30 years of owning the team and the most for Belichick in 29 years as the head coach, but New England’s team would be better off losing in order to guarantee the chance to draft one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2024 class.
Therein lies the rub as Belichick, who hasn’t won a playoff game in five years and has been mum about his desire to stay with New England after going 29-38 (including playoffs) since Tom Brady left the Patriots, is still chasing the all-time wins record and has no motivation to help his current team secure a top draft pick if he don’t be around to coach them next season. Where the Patriots pick based on Sunday’s outcome will also have a potential impact on multiple other teams, including the Commanders, Cardinals, Giants, Chargers and Titans.
It’s an intriguing situation on so may levels as, in addition to it potentially closing the portal on Belichick’s tenure over the team he has coached for 24 seasons in front of a home crowd that is guaranteed to be lubed up, Sunday’s game against the hated Jets could ease open the door to New England having a new franchise quarterback via April’s draft…provided the Patriots lose. It might even be fitting if the Jets, who have lost 15 straight to the Patriots, beat their rivals in a game that means nothing to them and thereby give their New England unofficial 16th win in a row.
In all likelihood, that will only happen if Belichick practices what he has preached for two decades and subjugates his own ego to do what is best for a team he may not be a part of following Sunday’s game. He probably won’t.