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NFL winners, losers from Week 18’s Saturday games: Damar Hamlin, defense and punters loom large – B87FM
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NFL winners, losers from Week 18’s Saturday games: Damar Hamlin, defense and punters loom large

Written by on January 8, 2023

Week 18 – the NFL’s so-called “Season Finale” – commenced Saturday with a pair of AFC games that provided some clarity on what had become a somewhat muddled bracket over the past week.

The Kansas City Chiefs snuffed the Las Vegas Raiders 31-13 to provisionally lock up the conference’s No. 1 seed. However if the Buffalo Bills win Sunday, the Chiefs would have to face them at a neutral site for the AFC championship game instead of at Arrowhead Stadium after the league adopted some unique contingencies in the aftermath of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin’s collapse in Week 17’s since-canceled game with Cincinnati.

The ramifications of Saturday night’s Titans-Jaguars game were far more clear: Win and lock up the AFC South title … which the Jags did for the first time since 2017.

But winners and losers can go a little deeper than the obvious. Here are some more from Saturday:

WINNERS

Follow every game: Latest NFL Scores and Schedules

Damar Hamlin: He suffered cardiac arrest and crumpled to the turf of Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium on Monday night before being resuscitated and whisked to the hospital – a frightening scene that left the league and, really, country rapt for days awaiting positive news. He took another step toward recovery Saturday. Hamlin took to social media to offer thanks to 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 paying tribute to the 24-year-old, its players, coaches and staffers sporting “Love For Damar” T-shirts. The fields in Las Vegas and Jacksonville were also among those outlining Hamlin’s jersey No. 3 at the 30-yard line in Bills colors.

The Jaguars and Titans even convened for a pre-game prayer prior to kickoff of their AFC South title showdown – and that drew another reaction from Hamlin.

An amazing outpouring for a player who’s galvanized the nation in many ways.

The Jacksonville Jaguars show a message of support for Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin.

ESPN: The Worldwide Leader offered its own subtle tribute to Hamlin prior to the Jags-Titans game. Take a look at the microphone flags for play-by-play man Joe Buck and analyst Troy Aikman, who also called the game Monday in Cincinnati when Hamlin went down.

ESPN’s Robert Griffin III also wore a No. 3 Bills jersey backwards – so as to showcase Hamlin’s nameplate – on the pregame set.

ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III wears Damar Hamlin's jersey.

JAX D: It was the Jaguars defense that propelled Jacksonville back to postseason for the first time in five years. The Jags’ 10 fourth-quarter points, which turned a 16-10 deficit into a 20-16 advantage that held up as the final score, were set up by takeaways. The coup de grâce came courtesy of Rayshawn Jenkins’ strip sack, which was returned 37 yards by Josh Allen for the game-winning TD.

K.C. D: The Chiefs concluded the regular season with one of their best defensive performances of the campaign, limiting Vegas to 13 points and 279 yards while taking the ball away twice and piling up six sacks. Hopefully getting a week off won’t slow this unit’s momentum.

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Jerick McKinnon: The ninth TD catch for the Chiefs’ diminutive third-down back, known as “Jet”, is tied for the most among running backs in a single season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

Josh Jacobs: The Raiders’ lead back finished the season with 1,653 rushing yards, a league-high total that will almost certainly convey his first rushing title just a few weeks before he’s scheduled to reach free agency. Yet it’s amazing Jacobs, who ran for 45 yards Saturday, even played just days after his father underwent emergency heart surgery. “The whole team, even people upstairs that 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 final game with a club that declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract last year. “Everybody had my back and they knew it wasn’t really about football, so I appreciate them.”

Ryan Stonehouse: The Titans rookie finished with a single-season record 53.1 yards per punt, breaking 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 a nifty 51.0 yards, Saturday inside the Tennessee 20-yard line – a key way to further inhibit a limited Titans offense.

Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the Chiefs: For the third time in five seasons, the seven-time defending AFC West champions and their two biggest stars have also earned the conference’s No. 1 seed. (K.C. has failed to notch a first-round bye just once in that stretch.) Kansas City’s win also eliminated one AFC championship game neutral site scenario – the Bengals would now have to come to Arrowhead – while a Buffalo loss Sunday would ensure the Chiefs remain home for the rest of January.

LOSERS

Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce: Saturday’s 31-13 blowout of the Raiders was never in doubt – to the point the Chiefs uncharacteristically ran the ball more times (28) than they passed (26). That effectively shortened the game … and also cost Mahomes a shot at Peyton Manning’s single-season record (5,477) for passing yards and prevented Kelce from besting his own mark (1,416) for receiving yards by a tight end in one season. However Mahomes’ league-leading 5,250 passing yards did establish a personal best and certainly won’t hurt his case for a second MVP award. His 5,614 combined yards passing, rushing and receiving are the most for any player in league history … maybe we have to reconsider this “loser” section.

Jarrett Stidham: Didn’t look much like a QB1 in his second start since replacing benched Derek Carr for the Raiders. Two turnovers and no offensive rhythm … makes you wonder where the Silver and Black will turn under center down the road in 2023. (Former Josh McDaniels collaborators Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo or even Jacoby Brissett could all be options …)

Joshua Dobbs: Didn’t look much like a QB1 in his second start since replacing benched rookie Malik Willis for the Titans. In fairness, Dobbs gave Tennessee a fighting chance Saturday, rushing for 32 yards while passing for 179 and a first-half TD. But the second-half turnovers staked his team’s flickering playoff hopes.

Titans: A team that had reached the playoffs in the previous three seasons, winning the AFC South in 2020 and 2021, crashes and burns with a season-ending seven-game slide. RB Derrick Henry just turned 29, injured QB Ryan Tannehill didn’t finish the season, and the ill-considered trade of WR A.J. Brown during the 2022 draft may have doomed this squad from the start. Remains to be seen where they go from here, a month after GM Jon Robinson’s surprising dismissal.

Urban Meyer: Turns out the Jags had a capable nucleus in 2021, the disastrous hire of the disgraced former national championship-winning college coach who lasted 13 NFL games notwithstanding. But the franchise – and, notably, second-year QB Trevor Lawrence – has recovered quickly under coach Doug Pederson, who’s playoff bound for the fourth time in his last five seasons when 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.


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