This final weekend of the regular season creates some unusual circumstances in writing the $.10. As a result of a few factors, and with the blessing of my editor, we’re splitting this week’s dime into two nickels. This is the first part. The other half will come on Tuesday, presumably after some Black Monday news on the NFL coaching carousel.
$.01--The story of the NFL year is Bills safety Damar Hamlin. Heck, it’s the dominant news story of 2023 thus far outside of the political theatrics.
We know now that Hamlin is recovering from his near-death from a blow to the chest that quite literally stopped his heart in Buffalo’s Monday night matchup in Cincinnati. Quick reactions by the training staffs and first responders resuscitated Hamlin and saved his life. It’s been a true blessing that Hamlin survived and appears to be emerging without any long-term complications.
The outpouring of support for Hamlin has been fantastic. He’s become a unifying force for positivity and compassion, two qualities not found often enough in the world today. From the millions of dollars donated to the local toy drive he started as a college student at Pittsburgh to the heartfelt (no pun intended) conversation about seeing the humanity of the players, Hamlin’s tragic injury has turned into something much bigger and better than anyone could ever have anticipated in those anxious, speechless moments last Monday.
The Bills returned to action on Sunday with Hamlin watching from his hospital room in Cincinnati. He even posted a photo on social media just before kickoff. Hollywood couldn’t write a script any better than how the Bills matchup with New England began. Nyheim Hines received the opening kickoff for the Bills and returned it all the way for a touchdown. The Bills defense then sacked Mac Jones to force a quick 3-and-out.
Give the Patriots credit. In a win-and-they’re-in situation, they persevered and made it a game. New England tied it up at 14 at halftime and was very much alive. The Bills slammed the door and ended the Patriots season with another Hines kick return TD and a brilliant deep connection from Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs, plus two late Mac Jones INTs (one of which was absolutely not his fault).
Buffalo finishes 13-3 and the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The Bills proved they could move on from the horrifying scene that caused their Week 17 game to be canceled. They draw the Ravens, who limp in as the No. 6 seed with losses in three of their last four games and have broken the 17-point barrier just once in the last two months.
One extra penny here on the Hamlin situation…
His life was saved because of quick reactions by medical staff, which restored his heartbeat by performing CPR and using an AED defibrillator. If you’re looking for a way to honor Hamlin or give back to your community, learn how to perform CPR and how to use an AED. It’s a skill that doesn’t take a lot of time to learn and could very well save someone’s life.
We all won 🏾.— 𝐃𝐚𝐦𝐚𝐫 𝐇𝐚𝐦𝐥𝐢𝐧 (@HamlinIsland) January 8, 2023
I want to give back an ounce of the love y'all showed me. Proceeds of this shirt will go to first-responders and the UC Trauma Center.
Go get yours!https://t.co/YoDbBo6bzs pic.twitter.com/BQ6HHv5woF
$.02--The other team involved in the unfortunate Monday night game also nicely handled the emotional adversity. The Cincinnati Bengals rolled over the Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens, 27-16, to capture the AFC North crown.
It was a cathartic win, one the Bengals sorely needed. Cincinnati drew the shortest straw in the NFL’s resolution of how to handle the missed game in the standings, something for which the Bengals players did not hide their disdain. No coin flip was needed, alas, as the Bengals controlled this game the entire way.
Cincinnati raced out to a 17-0 lead and made it stand up. The game was effectively over when Joseph Ossai recovered a fumble by Ravens QB du jour Anthony Brown in the end zone. The Ravens scored the final 10 points but never challenged Cincinnati’s supremacy.
It’s the second straight division title for Zac Taylor’s Bengals, but this one feels a lot different than the 10-7 team that won in ‘21. Think back a year; the Bengals were a feel-good story of a team arriving a little earlier than expected thanks to a middling division around them. They proved to be formidable enough to win the conference championship.
This year they were the hunted. Joe Burrow and the Bengals handled the pressure by being even better. Bullseye on their back? No problem. They’re a dangerous foe even though they’re expected to be now, and that’s not always the case. Cincinnati will be a big favorite in the playoff rematch next week in Cincinnati. It will be interesting to see how they handle the raised expectations now that the stakes have turned do-or-die. I would not bet against Burrow or the Bengals, certainly not against a Ravens team that hasn’t scored more than 17 points in a game since Week 12.
$.03--Congratulations to the Jacksonville Jaguars on winning the AFC South division title for the first time since 2017. The Jaguars beat the Tennessee Titans, 20-16, on Saturday night in a win-or-go-home matchup for both teams.
The Jaguars win capped off an epic case of AFC South ships passing in the night. Jacksonville opened the season 2-6 and mired somewhere below mediocrity. Head coach Doug Pederson stayed the course and watched his young talent on both sides of the ball step up, namely QB Trevor Lawrence. The pass defense tightened up and the offense got better at pretty much everything. Aside from a Week 13 devastation in Detroit (40-14), the Jaguars were the better team in six of their seven games after the bye week--both on the scoreboard and in execution.
Tennessee’s season followed the opposite path. The Titans were once 7-3 and held a four-game lead in the division. After winning at Green Bay in Week 11, Tennessee did not win again. Injuries played a major role, one that cannot be overstated. Over 50 percent of their 2022 salary cap obligations wound up on injured reserve, including their three best offensive linemen and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Try as they might with unready rookie Malik Willis and then Lions practice squad refugee Joshua Dobbs, Tannehill proved irreplaceable given the dilapidated rest of the offense.
Despite all the injuries and adversity, for most of Saturday night, it sure felt like the Titans would prevail. Lawrence was having an uncharacteristic off night and the Titans run defense was suffocating. Tennessee led the slogfest 16-10 late in the third quarter, but that’s when the Jaguars pounced on their division title. Tyson Campbell picked off Dobbs late in the third and the game changed. It led to a field goal, a desperately needed one too. Jacksonville would take the lead with a strip-sack recovery by Josh Allen that the speedy EDGE took to the house, giving Duuu-val its first lead of the night.
Their defense made the Jaguars lead hold up and complete the remarkable turnaround. It’s a tremendous credit to Pederson in his first year as the coach to pull off the division title. And if Lawrence gets back to form after an off night against a good Titans defense, the Jaguars have a great chance to beat the enigmatic Chargers in the four vs. five matchup next weekend,
$04--The Philadelphia Eagles seized the NFC East title and the No. 1 seed in the conference with a 22-16 win over the New York Giants. The Eagles welcomed QB Jalen Hurts back to the lineup just in time to snatch the top seed.
Philly had missed Hurts in his two-game absence. He showed some rust on Sunday, but did enough to beat the Giants and backup QB Davis Webb.
This game highlighted divergent approaches to entering the playoffs. The Eagles used it not just to win the division, but also to stay sharp and reintegrate Hurts into the lineup. A.J. Brown, Devonta Smith, the offensive line--they all played and did so with purpose.
On the flip side, the Giants sat their important players. Granted their playoff seeding was already set with the sixth seed locked up, but it’s a curious choice. Weighing the risk of injury versus the concerns of losing sharpness and cohesion is a difficult choice, no doubt about it. And after falling behind big early, the Giants assortment of depth did pull back into the game. I also understand the worry that the starters would lose badly and lose confidence, though I think if that happened, the Giants have larger issues than a coaching decision.
I believe the Eagles needed the reps together, especially with them knowing a win gets them the bye week with the top seed and locks up a division title. It’s a no-brainer. For New York, which will play at Minnesota in the Wild Card, I would have opted to roll the starters for at least a half to keep them sharp. That’s a winnable game for the Giants, but they’ll need to come out strong and can’t afford any rust. We’ll find out in a week if it was a smart decision by rookie coach Brian Daboll.
--Kudos to Mike Tomlin for avoiding a losing season with the Steelers. This was his least-talented roster from top to bottom, but Tomlin guided Pittsburgh to a 9-8 finish by putting the Browns out of their misery on Sunday. Tomlin has never had a losing record in 16 years, even though he’s had a point differential in the negative 50s each of the last two seasons.
--There was a lot of hot air being floated that the Detroit Lions wouldn’t have anything to play for after being eliminated before Sunday night’s game in Green Bay when the Seahawks beat the Rams. Anyone spouting that nonsense clearly paid no attention to Lions head coach Dan Campbell or the grit mentality he’s cultivated with his players. Good on Campbell and the Lions for eliminating the Packers in their own house despite Detroit allegedly not having anything to play for. What does that say about the Packers? Hmmm…
--The entire NFC South finished below .500. Tampa Bay won the division at 8-9, failing to post a winning record. That’s because Atlanta pounded them on Sunday. The Falcons, Panthers and Saints all finished 7-10. All four NFC South teams finished with negative point differentials and negative turnover ratios.
--Packers LB Quay Walker was ejected for shoving a Lions trainer as the trainer attempted to tend to an injured player. That’s pathetic. And sadly it’s not even the first time Walker was ejected for doing just that. He also got tossed against the Bills. Expect a heavy fine, and it will be more than a little disappointing if the NFL doesn’t suspend Walker for his wanton foolishness.
--Hard to ignore the enigmatic Cowboys. Given a chance to play for a division title with a win and some help, Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys got spanked by the last-place Commanders. Dallas managed just 10 first downs, with QB Dak Prescott completing 14-of-37 passes and throwing a brutal pick-6 to Kendall Fuller just one play after Fuller dropped another chance at one.
The Cowboys are a high-variance team with several inconsistent performers in key spots, Prescott included. I caution anyone who writes them off in the postseason based on how awful they were on Sunday, but I’d equally caution anyone who thinks they’ll bounce right back and beat the Buccaneers in Tampa next weekend.
--I’ll go more into the Texans in part 2, but the way in which they came back to beat the Colts is a prime example that players do not tank. Davis Mills hitting a 4th-and-impossible throw and then also striking paydirt on the ballsy 2-pt conversion to win the game, and the Texans’ player reactions to the stunning win, is why it’s foolish to think that players as a whole would tank.
via @NFLResearch:— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) January 8, 2023
The Texans are the first team to lose 12-plus games in a season despite having a winning record vs divisional opponents (3-2-1).
--The New York Jets were a feel-good story earlier in the season. Then came the offensive crash:
In the last 20 years, just once has an NFL team scored less than 7 points in 3 straight weeks: the Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn 2009 Browns (coached by Eric Mangini).— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) January 8, 2023
The Jets are 6 minutes away from being the second. 3 points vs. Jacksonville, 6 vs. Seattle, 6 today vs. Miami.
Miami cliched a playoff berth by beating the Jets 9-6. My deepest sympathies to anyone who had to watch that game.
--A lot of good people are going to lose their jobs, their dreams, in the next few days. Many of them deserve to be terminated for poor performance. That’s part of the job and they know it. Doesn’t make it any easier for their families. Try and keep that in mind while you dance on their professional graves.
--The second half of the cents will come Tuesday morning. Thanks for following along with another very interesting NFL regular season!