Week 18 — the NFL’s so-called “season finale” — kicked off Saturday with two AFC games that shed some clarity on what had become a somewhat muddled bracket over the past week.
The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Las Vegas Raiders 31-13 to secure the conference No. 1 seed for the interim. However, if the Buffalo Bills win on Sunday, the Chiefs would have to face them at a neutral venue for the AFC Championship game rather than Arrowhead Stadium after the league embraced some unique contingencies following the collapse of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin in Week 17. canceled game with Cincinnati.
The ramifications of Saturday night’s Titans-Jaguars game were far clearer: win and secure the AFC South title… which the Jags have achieved for the first time since 2017.
But winners and losers can go a little deeper than the obvious. Here are a few more from Saturday:
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Damar Hamelin: He went into cardiac arrest and collapsed on the lawn of Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium Monday night before being resuscitated and taken to the hospital – a frightening scene that left the league and, really, the country waiting for positive news for days. He took another step towards recovery on Saturday. Hamlin took to social media to thank his legion of supporters on Instagram and Twitter a day after speaking to his relieved Buffalo teammates on FaceTime.
The NFL also kicked off a weekend to pay tribute to the 24-year-old, his players, coaches and staff with “Love For Damar” t-shirts. Fields in Las Vegas and Jacksonville were also among those that outlined Hamlin’s No. 3 jersey in Bill’s colors at the 30-yard line.
The Jaguars and Titans even got together for a pre-game prayer ahead of kick-off in their AFC South title showdown – and that drew another reaction from Hamlin.
An amazing achievement for a player who has moved the nation in many ways.
ESPN: The world leader offered Hamlin his own subtle tribute before the Jags-Titans game. Take a look at the mic flags from play-by-play man Joe Buck and analyst Troy Aikman, who also called the game Monday in Cincinnati as Hamlin went down.
ESPN’s Robert Griffin III also wore a No. 3 Bills jersey backwards on the pregame set – to showcase Hamlin’s name tag.
YES: It was the Jaguars’ defense that catapulted Jacksonville back into the postseason for the first time in five years. The Jags’ 10 points in the fourth quarter, turning a 16-10 deficit into a 20-16 advantage that counted as the final score, were built by takeaways. The coup de grace came courtesy of Rayshawn Jenkins’ stripe sack, which was returned 37 yards by Josh Allen for the game-winning TD.
KC D: The Chiefs ended the regular season with one of their best defensive performances of the season, limiting Vegas to 13 points and 279 yards while taking the ball twice and stacking six sacks. Hopefully a week off won’t slow the momentum of this session.
WEEK 18 NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE:Jaguars claim AFC South, Chiefs take AFC’s No. 1 seed, void special scenario
DAMAR HAMLIN:“The love was overwhelming,” posts Bills Safety and thanks the well-wishers
WEEK 18 NFL ELECTION:Which teams will reach the playoffs?
Jerick McKinnon: The ninth TD catch for the Chiefs’ diminutive third-down back, known as “Jet,” is the best by running backs in a single season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Josh Jacobs: The Raiders leadback finished the season with 1,653 rushing yards, a league-high that will almost certainly earn him his first rushing title just weeks before he is due to reach free agency. Still, it’s amazing that Jacobs, who ran for 45 yards on Saturday, was playing even just days after undergoing emergency heart surgery on his father. “The whole team, even the people upstairs who don’t really work with me every day. I definitely got that love and that support,” he said of the Raiders, even if this was his last game with a club that declined for the fifth time. Year option on his rookie contract last year. “Everyone was behind me and knew it wasn’t really about football, so I appreciate them.”
Ryan Steinhaus: The Titans rookie finished the season with a record 53.1 yards per punt, beating Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh’s 82-year-old record (51.4).
Logan Cooke: Yes, the Jags-Punter makes this list too. He dropped all four of his kicks, which averaged 51.0 yards, inside Tennessee’s 20-yard line on Saturday — a key way to further thwart a limited Titans offense.
Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the Chiefs: For the third time in five seasons, the seven-time AFC West champions and their two biggest stars also earned the No. 1 in the conference. (KC has never had a first-round bye at that stretch.) Kansas City’s win also eliminated a neutral-venue scenario in the AFC Championship — the Bengals would now have to come to Arrowhead — while a Buffalo loss on Sunday backing the Chiefs would stay home for the rest of January.
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce: The Raiders’ 31-13 blowout on Saturday was never in question — to the point where the Chiefs uncharacteristically ran (28) more often than they passed (26). That effectively shortened the game … and also cost Mahomes a shot at Peyton Manning’s one-season record (5,477) for passing yards and prevented Kelce from surpassing his own mark (1,416) because of his passing yards by a tight end in a received season. However, Mahomes’ league-leading 5,250 passing yards set a personal best and certainly won’t hurt his case for a second MVP honor. His combined 5,614 yards in passing, rushing and receiving is the most for any player in league history…maybe we need to revisit that “loser” segment.
Jarrett Stidham: Didn’t look much like a QB1 on his second start since replacing benched Derek Carr for the Raiders. Two turnovers and no offensive rhythm…makes you wonder where silver and black will turn under center in 2023. (Former Josh McDaniels employees Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, or even Jacoby Brissett could all be options…)
Joshua Dobbs: Didn’t look much like a QB1 on his second start since replacing rookie Malik Willis for the Titans. In fairness, Dobbs gave Tennessee a fighting chance on Saturday by rushing for 32 yards while passing for 179 and a TD in the first half. But second-half turnovers jeopardized his team’s flickering playoff hopes.
Titans: A team that made the playoffs in the previous three seasons and won the AFC South in 2020 and 2021 falls and burns with a seven-game chute at the end of the season. RB Derrick Henry just turned 29, injured QB Ryan Tannehill didn’t finish the season and WR AJ Brown’s rash trade during the 2022 draft may have doomed this squad from the start. A month after GM Jon Robinson’s surprise sacking remains to be seen.
Urban Mayer: It turns out the Jaguars had a capable core in 2021, notwithstanding the disastrous attitude of the disgraced former college coach, who won the national championship and played 13 NFL games. But the franchise — and sophomore QB Trevor Lawrence in particular — has bounced back quickly under coach Doug Pederson, who is making the playoffs for the fourth time in his last five seasons, factoring in his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. Good to see urban renewal in Duval County.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.