32 things we learned from Week 18 of 2021 NFL season: Playoff picture gets last-second shake-up
The 32 things we learned from Week 18 of the 2021 NFL season:
1. Parity, perhaps the NFL's most important calling card, continues to create rampant playoff turnover. Ever since the league first expanded the playoff field to 12 teams and began seeding them in 1990, at least four new clubs have reached the postseason every successive year. The 2021 lineup features seven (50%) – the Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers – that didn't participate a year ago.
2. With the Cards limping into the field, breaking a six-year drought, every NFC team has participated in the Super Bowl tournament at least once since 2016 – when the New York Giants and Detroit Lions last qualified. The New York Jets maintain the league's longest playoff drought, one that extends to 2010, followed by the Broncos. Denver, which hasn't returned since winning Super Bowl 50 following the 2015 season, fired coach Vic Fangio on Sunday morning.
3. What's different about this year's playoffs? Maybe not a whole lot given Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are both back once again. But you won't see either on the league's first Monday night wild-card broadcast, a rubber match forum as the Cardinals visit the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC West rivals' third meeting of the season.
4. Also different? The presence of Raiders QB Derek Carr, who will be making his long-awaited postseason debut. Carr was an MVP candidate in 2016, when the Silver and Black last reached the playoffs. But he suffered a season-ending broken leg in Week 16.
4a. Las Vegas' Rich Bisaccia also becomes the first interim coach to guide his team into postseason.
5. But what an amazing finale Sunday to wrap up the league's first 17-game regular season. The Pittsburgh Steelers clinging to life with an overtime win at Baltimore and help from an unlikely source in Trevor Lawrence. Then the 49ers making a memorable comeback in Los Angeles, punching their wild-card ticket with an overtime triumph over the Rams, who backed into the NFC West crown anyway thanks to a loss by Arizona. But that all paled to an insane game No. 272, the Raiders beating the LA Chargers 35-32 on Sunday night with a field goal on the final play of overtime – after the Bolts called a widely parsed timeout that might have nixed the tie which would have permitted both teams to pass beyond the playoff velvet rope. An absolutely stunning day of football.
NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE:Raiders seal wild-card spot, push Steelers into field with OT win vs. Chargers
NFL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE:Times, dates, matchups, TV info for wild-card round through Super Bowl
5a. But is there a more fun team to watch than the Chargers, especially if you don't have to endure that roller coaster with an emotionally tied rooting interest? From coach Brandon Staley's (sometimes wild) analytically based decisions, to the talent that pervades the roster, to QB Justin Herbert – he has the goods to be the face of the league at some point – to those sweet, sweet uniforms ... let's hope Bolts get five prime time games in 2022.
6. Apparently the Indianapolis Colts really didn't feel like doing more "Hard Knocks" episodes. How else to explain Sunday's unforgivable 26-11 loss to the Jaguars in Jacksonville, where the Colts amazingly haven't won since 2014? Now, a team that appeared primed to potentially do significant damage in the playoffs, prematurely heads into an offseason where many will openly wonder if the Carson Wentz trade – and it will now cost Indy its 2022 first-rounder – was worth it.
6a. And bummer for Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, the NFL's 2021 rushing king (1,811 yards) by a sight, who saw his credibility as an MVP candidate drain away on a forgettable 77-yard day.
7. But it was pretty fun to see the Jags – they scored at least 24 points for the first time this season – prevail given what a rough year everyone in Duval County has had. And their victory proved totally disruptive to the AFC playoff picture for the remainder of Sunday.
8. That's six straight wins for Kyle Shanahan's San Francisco 49ers against Sean McVay's Rams, Sunday's overtime thriller cementing the Niners' wild-card berth. Get ready for endless replays of "The Catch" and "How 'bout them Cowboys?!?!?" with the 49ers headed to Dallas for the wild-card round.
9. The NFC East champion Cowboys finished 6-0 against their divisional rivals but were 6-5 against everyone else, including a 3-4 mark against teams finishing above .500.
10. MVP? In a half of work against a bad Lions team, Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers passed for 138 yards and two TDs.
10a. Trade bait? In a half of work against a bad Lions team, Green Bay Packers QB2 Jordan Love passed for 134 yards with two INTs and a TD.
10b. Is it a totally fair comparison? Of course not, especially – for example – given Love didn't have the benefit of working with WR Davante Adams. Still, a real-time reminder that the Pack and Rodgers would be wise to extend a marriage that seems to be off the rocks and perhaps headed toward major bliss in a few weeks.
11. Oh, and Adams? He put in just enough work Sunday – six grabs for 55 yards – to establish a new team record for receiving yards (1,553) yards in a season, topping Jordy Nelson's former mark by 34 yards.
12. Obligatory Brady update: The 44-year-old Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback joined Drew Brees as the only players with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons, and TB12 also surpassed Peyton Manning as the oldest player to pace the league in passing yards (career-best 5,316) and TD throws (43). (Manning was 37 when he managed the feat in 2013 for Denver.) Lastly, with the advantage of a 17th game, Brady swiped Brees' single-season record for completions (471) by hoisting 485.
12a. TB12 also kept slinging it in Sunday's 41-17 rip job of the Carolina Panthers, refusing to sit until his longtime buddy, TE Rob Gronkowski, reached reception and yardage figures sufficient to trigger $1 million in bonus money.
12b. And chew on this – Brady is already No. 2 on Tampa Bay's career list for TD passes with 83. He would overtake Jameis Winston by tossing 39 next season.
13. Bucs WR Mike Evans has played eight NFL seasons ... and has 1,000 yards receiving in every one of them. No one else can stake a similar claim at the outset of a career.
14. If you haven't been paying attention to the Tennessee Titans, shame on you. Their next road trip will either be in the 2022 regular season ... or to Super Bowl 56 after they strapped down the AFC's first-round bye and home-field advantage Sunday. Now RB Derrick Henry has two more weeks to prepare his surgically repaired foot to complement an underrated defense that always seems ready. Nobody should be eager to go to Music City this month.
15. The AFC East champion Buffalo Bills land in the playoffs with a conference-best four-game winning streak. They also piled up nine sacks in Sunday's win. An up-and-down regular season is trending the right way at the right time.
16. Rams WR Cooper Kupp didn't break any major records Sunday, but he became only the second player to surpass 1,900 receiving yards (1,947) and finished 18 short of breaking Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson's record.
17. The Rams led the 49ers 17-3 at halftime. Welp. McVay is now 43-1 when up at intermission.
18. Who would have figured Houston's NRG Stadium to be the O.K. Corral? Nonetheless, Titans QB Ryan Tannehill and Texans counterpart Davis Mills combined for seven TD passes and nearly 600 yards passing in what turned out to be a surprisingly competitive 28-25 game won by Tennessee. Kudos to Mills, who's had at least as good a rookie season as many of his more high-profile peers and certainly deserves to compete to be the starter in 2022.
COVID-19. Thankfully, not as prevalent an issue in Week 18, though a dozen Philadelphia Eagles wound up on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including DT Fletcher Cox and TE Dallas Goedert. Now we're left to wonder how the virus might impact the league's 13 postseason games ...
20. Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase finished the regular season with 1,455 receiving yards, a new single-season Cincinnati record that also extended Chase's rookie record in that department during the Super Bowl era (since 1966). He fell just short of snatching Bill Groman's all-time rookie record of 1,473 yards, set in 1960 with the American Football League's Houston Oilers.
21. Miami Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle finished the regular season with 104 receptions, breaking Anquan Boldin's 18-year-old record (101) record for a rookie receiver.
22.5.Steelers OLB T.J. Watt matched Hall of Famer Michael Strahan's single-season sack record by finishing at 22½. Strahan played in 16 games in 2001 ... when Brett Favre help him set the "record." Watt appeared in 15 games this season and got no help from the Ravens on Sunday.
23. How about this as a potential epitaph to Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger's career: In 18 NFL seasons, he's never finished below .500, a league record for a player.
24. If Sunday was QB Russell Wilson's final game with the Seattle Seahawks, he went out with a relative bang, accounting for four TDs in a 38-30 victory at Arizona which cost the Cardinals an NFC West crown.
25. Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny, a first-rounder in 2018, likely made himself some money heading into free agency. His 190-yard output Sunday gives Penny, finally healthy, 671 yards and six TDs on the ground over the past five games.
26. The Giants scored 26 points – total – over their final four games.
27. Meanwhile, the Jets mustered four first downs and 53 total yards in their final "performance" of the season.
28. Any surprise New York's finest are both 22-59 since the start of the 2017 season, tied for the league's worst record over that span?
29. And the Jets didn't get any 2022 favors from Seattle, which won its final two games to drop its first-round pick – Gang Green owns it due to the Jamal Adams trade – to 10th after it appeared for a while like the NYJ might get two selections in the top five of the upcoming draft.
29a. The Giants will pick fifth and seventh overall thanks to the Bears' 6-11 finish – which included a Week 16 victory at Seattle. Big Blue obtained Chicago's first-rounder this year on a 2021 draft night trade that brought QB Justin Fields to the Windy City.
30. Fangio's dismissal means three league jobs are open, the Jaguars and Raiders undergoing midseason changes on the sideline. However Vegas' stunning playoff entry under Bisaccia could change the post-Gruden calculus. (UPDATE: Three more coaching posts were vacated on Monday morning after Miami's Brian Flores, Chicago's Matt Nagy and Minnesota's Mike Zimmer were all dismissed.)
31. Remarkable season by the New Orleans Saints given their injuries, particularly the revolving door at quarterback. But probably for the best we weren't subjected to a wild-card game started by Trevor Siemian, effective as he was Sunday in relief of injured Taysom Hill.
32. The Jaguars might have created the most chaos in Week 18 ... but they also remain the league's worst team and will pick No. 1 overall in the draft for the second straight year. Safe to say they won't be taking a quarterback.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.