NFL Winners and Losers: Patriots had a shot at playoffs, but they aren't good enough

On one hand, the New England Patriots blew it. They led the Buffalo Bills in the second half of a game that, if they won, would clinch a playoff berth. On the other, the Patriots had no business being in the playoff race in the first place.

That's the conundrum of the Patriots. They're not good enough to be relevant to the championship chase anymore. But they're not bad enough to lead to an honest evaluation of the roster and perhaps a total rebuild that could be beneficial to getting back to the top of the NFL.

The Patriots' game on Sunday was a microcosm of who they are. They didn't get blown out by the Buffalo Bills. They led in the second half, teasing their fans that they could win and get the final AFC wild-card spot. But in the end they faded away and lost 35-23 to the Bills. They were decent, but not in the same class as the Bills. The Patriots' loss and the Miami Dolphins' win means Miami is in the playoffs and New England's season is over.

It's amazing the Patriots were alive for a playoff spot into the fourth quarter of their last regular-season game.

The offense has been miserable all season. The special teams on Sunday was a nightmare. The roster as a whole isn't good enough to compete with the top teams in the league. Bill Belichick's odd decision to have Matt Patricia be the offensive coordinator was bad from the start.

And yet the Patriots were alive until the end for a wild-card spot. That's the yin and the yang of having Belichick, the greatest coach of the era and probably of all time. He's good enough to will the Patriots into being competitive. That delays some inevitable decisions about the future and doing something beyond being average.

Sunday's game was frustrating. The Patriots probably outplayed the Bills, in Buffalo, for most of the first three quarters. They had a 17-14 lead in the third quarter despite giving up a kickoff return touchdown to start the game. And then the Patriots gave up another kickoff return touchdown to Nyheim Hines. There were four kickoff return touchdowns through the entire NFL in the first 17 weeks of the season, and the Patriots gave up two on Sunday.

The Patriots battled, but the Bills were better. With the Patriots having a slim hope of coming back in the fourth quarter, Mac Jones threw one too high and it was deflected and picked off.

The Patriots don't know if they have a quarterback answer after a down season from Jones, which included calls for him to get benched for Bailey Zappe. They won't pick high enough to fix everything in the 2023 draft. The roster has significant holes, and the coaching staff needs to be evaluated, but who knows if Belichick can make an honest assessment after making a mistake everyone saw coming with his offensive staff last offseason. It's going to be a long, and critical, offseason for New England.

This might be who the Patriots are for a while. Mediocrity is a tough place to be in the NFL. And the Patriots are stuck in it.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick couldn't guide his team to a win over the Bills with a playoff spot on the line. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)
Patriots coach Bill Belichick couldn't guide his team to a win over the Bills with a playoff spot on the line. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 18 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles made it more interesting than they wanted, but eventually they got the prize.

The Eagles have the NFC East championship, the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a bye after a 22-16 win over the New York Giants. The Giants sat key players with their No. 6 playoff seed locked up and while they scored two touchdowns late, the result of the game was never in doubt.

It was good for Philadelphia to see Jalen Hurts play, in his return from a shoulder injury, and then give him an extra week off after the win. Hurts didn’t need to do much but was decent and should be ready for the divisional round. The Eagles had a great regular season and are two home wins from the Super Bowl.

J.J. Watt: In a perfect world, Watt would be wrapping up his career in the playoffs. And his entire time with the Arizona Cardinals would have produced more team success.

But Watt, all the way through the last game of his career, was a factor. He had two sacks in the Cardinals' 38-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, which clinched the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the 49ers. Watt, who announced he'll be retiring after the season, added a third tackle for loss.

After the first sack, Watt bowed to the crowd.

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Watt finished the season with 12.5 sacks, and 114.5 for his career. He probably had another quality season or two but instead it looks like he’ll start the clock for his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.

Skylar Thompson and the Miami Dolphins: With a playoff spot on the line, the Dolphins had to turn to a rookie seventh-round pick at quarterback with Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater injured.

Thompson wasn't great, but he might be starting a playoff game next weekend.

Jason Sanders' 50-yard field goal with 18 seconds left, coupled with the Patriots' loss, puts the Dolphins in the playoffs. They're the No. 7 seed in the AFC with an 11-6 win over the New York Jets. When the Dolphins needed a drive, Thompson made a couple of key plays to set up Sanders' kick. That win means the Dolphins avoid the embarrassment of missing the playoffs after an 8-3 start.

Perhaps one of the Dolphins' veteran quarterbacks will return next weekend. If not, Thompson gets a cool chance to start in the playoffs against the Bills on the road.

Mike Tomlin: There are a pocket of Pittsburgh Steelers fans who like to criticize Tomlin.

They might be talking badly about the rightful winner of this season's NFL Coach of the Year award. Who did a better job than Tomlin, who took a roster with quarterback issues and a harmful T.J. Watt injury for much of the season, and guided it from 3-7 to a 9-8 finish? Tomlin, somehow, kept his streak of never having a losing season intact.

It might be a significant chapter in a coaching career that lands Tomlin in the Hall of Fame someday.

On Sunday, the Steelers needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. It was rough early on. But the Steelers found a way, as they have all season. The Steelers won 28-14 over the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh didn't get a playoff spot because the Dolphins won to get the No. 7 seed. It doesn't take anything away from the job Tomlin did this season.

Teams needing a QB in the draft: The Houston Texans likely weren't going to trade the No. 1 overall pick. They would decide on Alabama QB Bryce Young, maybe Ohio State QB CJ Stroud, and then begin a new chapter in their franchise.

The Chicago Bears? You assume they'll pick up the phone.

The Bears stole the first overall pick. The Texans inexplicably won Sunday with a touchdown on a desperation pass with 50 seconds left to beat the Indianapolis Colts 32-31. The Bears sat Justin Fields and started Nathan Peterman at quarterback, and they predictably lost 29-13 to the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears also put in Tim Boyle because Peterman apparently wasn't bad enough for their tanking effort.

With the Bears' loss and the Texans' win, Chicago has the first overall draft pick in April.

That gives the Bears options. They could stay put at No. 1 and draft a defensive star like Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson Jr. They also know what teams will pay in a draft-pick trade that involves a quarterback, and a lot of teams need a reset at QB. Chicago could get a massive draft haul for that top pick. The Bears have a lot of options. That will be a lot better than a forgettable Week 18 win.

LOSERS

Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys: Whatever is the opposite of momentum, the Cowboys enter the playoffs with it.

The Cowboys looked uninspiring for most of the final few weeks of the season and took a miserable 26-6 loss on Sunday to the Washington Commanders. Don’t blame motivation because the Cowboys played their starters with the small hope they could win the NFC East. And they were awful.

Prescott’s interception issues continued. He threw a pick-six. The offense in general did very little. The Commanders were eliminated from the playoffs last week, started rookie Sam Howell at quarterback and still looked like the far better team.

Dallas gets the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next weekend in a wild-card playoff game, and the Bucs are a bad team. Maybe the Cowboys are now too.

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley: What, exactly, was the point of Los Angeles playing starters Sunday?

The Chargers knew before kickoff they had the No. 5 seed in the AFC clinched, due to the Ravens loss. They played starters anyway. Pass rusher Joey Bosa limped off and receiver Mike Wiliiams had to be carted off with a back injury. It was a reckless decision with no benefit. The Broncos won 31-28, which made the Chargers playing out the game look even stranger.

The Chargers play at the Jacksonville Jaguars next weekend. If they’re shorthanded, or key players are fighting through injury to play, that’s a terrible look for Staley.

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay: Another tough loss won’t send McVay into the offseason in a good mood. And the Rams now start to wonder what happens next.

McVay’s future is in the air as the offseason starts for the Rams. This season has been a rough one for the reigning champs, but they didn’t quit. If McVay has an eye on the broadcast booth, it didn’t show. The Rams battled the Seattle Seahawks hard, but fell 19-16 in overtime. That result kept the Seahawks alive in the NFC playoff race.

The Rams were eliminated long ago. In terms of losses, they had the worst season ever for a reigning Super Bowl champ. It was frustrating, with early losses and injuries burying the Rams. And the Rams’ chances to rebound next season won’t get better if their coach steps away.

Those wanting coin flip drama: There will be no coin flip to determine home-field advantage for a Baltimore Ravens-Cincinnati Bengals playoff game after all.

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor wasn't happy with the NFL's ruling that if the Ravens won Sunday and the Bengals and Ravens were matched up in the wild-card round, a coin flip would determine home-field advantage (which honestly would have been some good drama, as far as flipping coins goes).

The Ravens didn't make that a reality. Baltimore, with Anthony Brown starting at quarterback, got beat 27-16 by the Bengals, who will have no asterisk attached to their AFC North title.

The Bengals also had one of the classic TD celebrations, with Joe Mixon pulling a coin out of his glove and mocking the NFL's ruling with teammates. The Bengals will be home for the wild-card round. No coin flip necessary.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: It's strange when teams that can't change their playoff seeding don't take a pseudo bye week in the regular-season finale.

The Buccaneers are mostly an old team and could have used some rest. Instead, Tom Brady said he wanted to play, and the starters played. It looked like head coach Todd Bowles let his quarterback call the shots, whether that is accurate or not.

And the Buccaneers got nothing out of it. Their center Robert Hainsey, who has started all season, injured his hamstring and left the game. Receiver Russell Gage grabbed his back in pain after catching a touchdown pass. The Atlanta Falcons beat them 30-17, so it's not like they gained some momentum.

The Buccaneers knew before Sunday they'd be hosting either the Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round. Both of those teams needed to play hard, with the NFC East and No. 1 seed in the conference undecided. The Buccaneers aren't better than either team, but having some rest could have given them some edge. Instead, they played their starters a lot of the game and lost to the Falcons. Hard to see the benefit in that.

Saints and Panthers: The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers played the epitome of a meaningless game on Sunday. Did the Red Zone Channel bother switching to it?

The Falcons and Saints were both eliminated from the playoffs last week. There was no real draft positioning drama. It was just two flawed teams, disappointed their season was over, playing out the string in an ugly game.

Panthers QB Sam Darnold was 2-of-8 for 4 yards, one interception and a 0.0 passer rating in the first half. The Saints could have won it in the final two minutes but missed a field goal. It wasn't a pretty game. Eddy Pineiro hit a 42-yarder as time expired and the Panthers won the finale 10-7. It's a good way for Carolina interim head coach Steve Wilks to end the season. For most everyone else in the game, they were probably happy to simply see the season end.