Cover 3: What to Watch for in Week 18 of the NFL Season
The final game of the NFL’s first 18-week regular season on Sunday night will have some impact on the participants in the playoffs.
Just how much remains to be seen.
Earlier this week, the NFL flexed the Los Angeles Chargers-Las Vegas Raiders game to the Sunday night showcase – the 272nd and final game of a regular season that started back on Sept. 9.
Makes sense it was moved to the Sunday primetime slot, seeing as the Chargers-Raiders showdown has the potential to be a de-facto playoff game, carrying the excitement of a play-in game with the winner punching its ticket to the playoffs and the loser going home.
However, there’s another scenario where the Chargers and Raiders square off on Sunday night in a mind-numbing 60-minute exhibition of quarterback kneel-downs.
If the Indianapolis Colts beat the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road Sunday afternoon, then the Chargers-Raiders winner will advance to the playoffs and the loser’s season will be over. Yet if the 2-14 Jaguars upset the Colts, then the Chargers and Raiders would both make the playoffs … if they tied.
So, there is certainly a possibility that if the Chargers and Raiders know prior to kickoff they can both make the playoffs if neither of them score, they can make some sort of agreement that they’ll simply play a game of pat-a-cake for the next 60 minutes and then both prepare for their next game – in the playoffs.
While it may seem improbable that scenario could play out given that Jacksonville is closing in on the top pick of the NFL draft for the second year in a row and heads into the final week having lost eight straight beginning with a 23-17 setback at Indianapolis in Week 10, the Jaguars for some reason have given the Colts trouble the past few seasons.
Indianapolis has lost six straight games in Jacksonville – its longest active road losing streak against any team and the Jaguars’ longest active home winning streak versus any opponent. And two of those Colts teams that lost at Jacksonville went to the playoffs while those Jags team went 1-15 and 5-11 in those seasons.
Although the Colts beat the Jaguars in mid-November, it wasn’t easy. Down by six points in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville was in Indianapolis territory and driving until Trevor Lawrence was stripped-sacked with just over a minute to go.
That loss gave the Jaguars a 2-2 record against the Colts dating to Week 16 of the 2019 season.
The Jags are 2-28 against all other opponents in that same span.
So, although the Colts are 15.5-point favorite over the Jaguars and our models give Indianapolis a 73% chance of winning, strange things have happened in this wacky 2021 season.
In Week 9, the Jaguars were a 15.5-point underdog to the Buffalo Bills and do you remember what happened? They ended up stunning the playoff-bound Bills 9-6.
This week, we’re again looking at three matchups, with our SmartRatings providing a bit of a guide.
SmartRatings is an AI-based platform that provides excitement ratings and real-time headlines for sporting events. The excitement scale, ranging from 0-100, is powered by complex algorithms that are predicated upon six primary variables: pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context, social buzz. The weight of each variable is dynamic and adapts as a season progresses.
The SmartRatings excitement scale translates to the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game), 85-100 (Great Game).
In Week 18, the AFC West showdown between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders is the highest ranked game of the week, and a “Great Game”, because the teams’ records are identical, indicating parity, they are divisional rivals, increasing novelty, and most critically, it’s a likely win-or-go-home scenario, making the context of the game as significant as possible for a regular season matchup.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Rams (Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX)
Line: Rams by 4 ½
The Analyst Win Probability: Rams 59%
Reasons to watch: The weekend’s only matchup between a team vying for a playoff spot and one looking to win a division crown. The Rams are in the playoffs and are currently in possession of the conference’s second seed. They can win the NFC West – which would be their third division title in six seasons since arriving in Los Angeles after winning three in 21 seasons in St. Louis – as well as home-field advantage through the division round with a victory. Should they lose, the Arizona Cardinals would snatch the division crown with a home victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers are in the playoffs with a victory at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, or if the New Orleans Saints lose or tie in their road game with the Atlanta Falcons.
Back in Week 10, San Francisco handed Los Angeles its most lopsided defeat of the season, rolling to a 31-10 win – its fifth straight victory in the series. On that Monday night at Levi’s Stadium, the Niners intercepted Matthew Stafford twice, sacked him twice and limited him to an average of just 5.93 yards on his 41 pass attempts. They also held the Rams to 3-for-10 on 3rd down conversions and 5.1 yards per play – exactly one yard less than their league-leading average.
That victory for the 49ers helped them get their season back on track, kickstarting a three-game winning streak. Beginning with that victory over the Rams, the Niners are allowing an average of 17.4 points and 287.5 yards while going 6-2 after losing five of their first eight games while allowing an average of 25.3 points and 338.1 yards.
Stafford will again be tested in a matchup with San Francisco’s defense as he tries to cut down on his turnovers. After throwing nine interceptions in his first 11 games of the season, Stafford has been picked off six times in the last three contests and threw his league-worst fourth pick-6 in last Sunday’s 20-19 comeback road win over the Baltimore Ravens.
While it’s no secret that Stafford and Cooper Kupp present one of the most dangerous passing tandems in the league, the Niners’ passing game is quietly one of the league’s most efficient.
Jimmy Garoppolo tested his score thumb in practice this past week but his status for the season finale is still uncertain. Trey Lance played well in making his second career start in last Sunday’s 23-7 win over the Houston Texans, completing 16-of-23 passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns and one pick. He had four passes go for 25+ yards and had an average of 11.91 air yards on his throws – the highest among QBs with at least 20 pass attempts in Week 17.
Key matchup: Cooper Kupp vs. 49ers’ Defensive Backs
One of the more interesting subplots of this game is if Kupp can achieve any single-season receiving records. Heading into the final weekend, he is the triple-crown leader in receiver statistics – first in receptions (138 – 21 ahead of the Green Bay Packers Davante Adams), first in receiving yards (1,829 – 320 ahead of the Minnesota Vikings Justin Jefferson) and first in receiving touchdowns (15 – two ahead of Cincinnati Bengals rookie Ja’Marr Chase). Only nine receivers have ever finished a season leading the NFL in all three categories, and it’s only been done three times in the Super Bowl-era, most recently in 2005 by Steve Smith.
While Hall of Famer Randy Moss’ single-season touchdown record of 23 from 2007 appears to be safe, the other two are within reach. Kupp needs 12 receptions to match the all-time single-season catches record of 149, set by Michael Thomas two years ago, and is 135 receiving yards shy of matching the receiving yards record of 1,964, held by one of Stafford’s former receivers from his days with the Detroit Lions – Calvin Johnson of 2012. Kupp has topped the 135-yard mark three times this season and did catch 13 passes in a win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 14. He has five games this season with 10 or more receptions – tied with Adams for the most in the league – one of which came at San Francisco, when he finished with 11 catches for 122 yards.
Kupp did most of his damage in the first matchup with the 49ers against K’Waun Williams, who was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday but can still be cleared ahead of this game. Williams hasn’t exactly been a shutdown corner this season, surrendering an open-allowed percentage of 88.4 – the third-worst rate in the league among corners that have been targeted at least 40 times. Josh Norman hasn’t been much better, posting an open-allowed percentage of 76.9. The league average for corners with at least 40 targets is 68.0%.
Rams coach Sean McVay said earlier this week they weren’t going to go out of their way to run plays for Kupp, but the team is fully aware of the milestones within reach. Kupp, obviously, is already a focal part of the offense, so it’s not as if the Rams need to draw up a bunch of new plays to get him the ball. This poses problems for a 49ers team that has been vulnerable this season against the pass on expected pass plays, ranking fifth worst in the NFL in pass defense EVE.
New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX)
Line: Saints by 5
The Analyst Win Probability: Saints 61%
Reasons to watch: This matchup tracked a bit lower in our SmartRatings, but it’s worth paying attention to as the Saints will be looking to sneak into the playoffs. Saints players and fans will surely be paying close attention to the 49ers-Rams game kicking off at the same time, seeing as if Los Angeles wins, New Orleans can earn a fifth straight trip to the playoffs with a victory. The only team with a longer active streak is the Kansas City Chiefs with seven.
It’s a wonder the Saints are even in this position given that they’ve endured a five-game losing streak and started four different quarterbacks – especially when those QBs are Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian and Ian Book! Hill returned last week after landing on the COVID list in Week 16, and had one of his better games, throwing for 222 yards with a touchdown in the Saints’ 18-10 win over the Carolina Panthers.
While Hill isn’t exactly rekindling any memories of Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense from the last decade, New Orleans has managed to win three of its last four behind some staunch defense to keep its playoff hopes alive. In the last three weeks, the Saints shut out Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, allowed one offensive touchdown in a loss to the Miami Dolphins and limited the Panthers to 41 yards of total offense after halftime. The Saints’ defense has buckled down in crunch time lately, allowing just 13 points after halftime in the team’s last four games. It now faces an Atlanta team that has scored just 32 second-half points in its last eight games – the fewest in the league since Week 10.
The Falcons, though, had no trouble scoring in the second half in the season’s first matchup in Week 9, notching 17 points after the break and winning 27-25 on Younghoe Koo’s 29-yard field goal as time expired at the Superdome.
The Saints have managed just two wins at the Superdome this season, enjoying most of their success outside of New Orleans – they beat the Green Bay Packers in a “home” game in Jacksonville in Week 1 and are 5-3 in true road games. Since the start of the 2018 season, they’ve gone 25-7 on the road – the best mark in the NFL. They’ve won all three of their games in Atlanta in that span, and are seeking their first four-game winning streak there since 1991-94.
Key matchup: Cameron Jordan vs. Jake Matthews
The play of Cameron Jordan has been instrumental to the Saints’ playoff push. He recorded 3.5 sacks, eight tackles and three quarterback hurries last Sunday to earn his second NFC Defensive Player of the Week Award in the last three weeks. He’s amassed at least two sacks in each of the last three games, and since 2013, only four other players have registered multiple sacks in three straight games in a season – Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, J.J. Watt and Von Miller. Pretty good company.
None of this comes as any surprise to Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
Jordan sacked Ryan once in the season’s first matchup, and of his 106 career sacks, 22 of them have come against the Falcons signal-caller.
Jordan figures to be mostly matching up against left tackle Jake Matthews, who was beaten by Jordan back in Week 9 but has permitted just one other sack on the season. Matthews has won 88.09% of his one-on-one matchups this season, while the season average for offensive tackles sits at 78.41%. His adjusted sack-allowed percentage of 0.9% ranks eighth in the NFL among left tackles with at least 200 plays in pass protection.
Despite the solid play of Matthews, the rest of the Falcons’ O-line has been susceptible. Ryan was sacked five times in last week’s 29-15 loss to the Buffalo Bills, and no quarterback has been pressured more this season than Ryan at 302 times.
Los Angeles Chargers vs. Las Vegas Raiders (Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC)
Line: Chargers by 3
The Analyst Win Probability: Chargers 52%
Reasons to watch: A playoff berth will ideally be at stake in the final regular-season game of the NFL’s first 17-game season if the Colts beat the Jaguars earlier. However, if the Jags end up pulling the upset, it will still be worth tuning in to see how these teams go about determining their playoff fate – especially in the fourth quarter.
Los Angeles moved back into the playoff picture by snapping a two-game skid with last week’s 34-13 home win over the Denver Broncos. The Chargers allowed fewer than 14 points for the first time all season while scoring at least 28 for the fifth straight game. The franchise’s only longer streak of consecutive games scoring 28 points or more in a single season was a six-gamer back in 1982.
Las Vegas stayed in the hunt for a playoff berth with last Sunday’s 23-20 win over the Colts on Daniel Carlson’s 33-yard field goal as time expired – its third straight victory following a 1-5 stretch. The Raiders have won these last three by a grand total of nine points – the first time they’ve won three straight in a single season by nine points or fewer since 1998 – and they are now in position to make the playoffs for just the second time in 19 seasons.
The Raiders started this season with three straight victories before losing to the Chargers 28-14 in Week 4, when the offense was held to a season-low 213 yards. The team’s offense has been experiencing similar struggles lately at Allegiant Stadium, scoring 17 points or fewer in each of its last four games there while going 1-3. So, after averaging 26.5 points and 422.3 total yards in their first four games in Vegas, the Raiders are averaging 14.8 points and 307.3 yards in their last four home games.
Derek Carr is on the verge of breaking Rich Gannon’s single-season passing record for a Raider of 4,689 yards, set in his 2002 MVP season. In need of just 72 yards to break the record, Carr had season lows of 196 passing yards and 5.76 yards per attempt against the Chargers back in early October.
His Los Angeles counterpart, Justin Herbert, set the Chargers’ single-season passing touchdown record last Sunday with his 35th. He is 171 passing yards shy of tying the franchise record for passing yards in a season of 4,802, set by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts in 1981. Reaching that mark would also make Herbert just the fourth player in NFL history with at least 4,800 passing yards in his age-23 season or younger, joining Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford and Dan Marino.
While the 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers appears to be the favorite to win a second straight league MVP with an NFL-best 111.1 passer rating and the 44-year-old Tom Brady is also in the conversation as he leads the league in passing yards (4,990) and passing touchdowns (40), Herbert is putting the finishing touches on a superb sophomore season.
Key matchup: Raiders’ Pass Rush vs. Justin Herbert
Despite being young, Herbert has shown the maturity of a savvy veteran at times. He makes good reads, smart decisions and rarely attempts dangerous throws. Even when under duress, he is usually able to find an open receiver.
On 152 pass attempts under pressure this season, he is throwing a catchable ball 71.7% of the time – the league’s sixth-highest rate among QBs with at least 100 attempts under pressure. He is also putting the ball into harm’s way at a smaller rate despite having defenders in his face. He is compiling a 1.97 pickable pass percentage in passes under pressure compared to a 2.52 pickable pass percentage in all other situations.
The Raiders applied pressure on Herbert 15 times in the season’s first matchup, with defensive tackle Darius Philon sacking him twice. Maxx Crosby has amassed 106 QB pressures on the season – second most in the league behind Aaron Donald’s 130 – and the Pro Bowler has won 45.58% of his one-on-one matchups. The league average for edge rushers in 22.17%. He’ll be going up against either Storm Norton or Trey Pipkins, who got the start last week. Norton has won 63.98% of his one-on-one matchups, while Pipkins has won 76.92% of his 26 one-on-ones in limited work. The league average for tackles is 78.41%.
On the other side of the offensive line, Pro Bowler Rashawn Slater will be tasked with matching up with edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, whose 10 sacks are four more than Crosby for the team lead. Slater has won 90.19% of his one-on-one matchups.
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