Lamar Jackson did not start for the Ravens until Week 11. Nick Foles did not take over the Eagles’ offense until Week 15. But after leading their teams to huge wins on Sunday, both former backup quarterbacks are headed to the playoffs.
And partly as a result of those wins, Kirk Cousins’s season came to an unexpectedly early end and Ben Roethlisberger’s was hanging by a thread Sunday evening.
Week 17 was chaotic by design. The N.F.L. rearranged its schedule to maximize the drama, with the battles for the A.F.C. North and the N.F.C.’s second wild-card slot all happening concurrently, and it delivered thrills, indeed — even if not all the games were entirely close.
When the dust settled after the late-afternoon games, Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens had captured the A.F.C. North by barely hanging on to beat the Cleveland Browns, 26-24. The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles earned a wild-card spot with a 24-0 win over the Washington Redskins combined with the Minnesota Vikings’ 24-10 loss to the Chicago Bears — though Philadelphia’s win came with some worrying news, as Foles left the game in the fourth quarter with a chest injury.
And Pittsburgh, trying desperately to stay in the playoff picture, beat the Cincinnati Bengals by 16-13, leaving Roethlisberger and the Steelers to wait and see if they could get a miracle — a tie between the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans in Sunday’s late game — that would lead to a wild-card berth.
There were plenty of other consequential results in the regular season’s final weekend Sunday — the Kansas City Chiefs clinched home field advantage throughout the A.F.C. playoffs and the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams both clinched first-round byes — but all of that paled in comparison to the shocking turnarounds for the Ravens and Eagles.
Ravens 26, Browns 24
Back in Week 9, the Ravens’ season seemed finished. They were 4-5 after a loss to the Steelers, and it was considered a matter of time before Coach John Harbaugh would be fired.
After that game, Roethlisberger, whose team improved to 5-2-1, talked like a quarterback on his way to a Super Bowl.
“We feel that we can do what we want to do,” he said. “We’ve got roadblocks, which are great defenses on other teams, trying to stop us, but we’ve always said — and no disrespect to other teams — they don’t stop us, we stop ourselves.”
Roethlisberger clearly did not see Jackson coming, but, in the quarterback’s defense, neither did Harbaugh.
Peppered with questions the next day as to whether he would stick with Joe Flacco as his quarterback, Harbaugh, who coached Flacco and the Ravens to a win in Super Bowl XLVII, brushed off the inquiries as ridiculous.
“Joe has played well,” Harbaugh insisted, “So I don’t want to get into all of that. We’re rolling right now with what we got.”
Apparently unknown to Harbaugh at the time was the fact that Flacco was nursing a hip injury. He did not throw another pass for Baltimore this season, sitting at first because of the injury and then because of Jackson’s brilliant play.
Jackson, a 21-year-old who was taken with the 32d overall pick in this year’s draft, took over under center and refashioned the team’s offense into something the N.F.L. had not seen in decades. Over the season’s final seven games, he and running back Gus Edwards, also a rookie, led an offense that generated an incredible 1,607 rushing yards (an average of 229.6 a game), outgaining their opponents in that regard by 1,178 yards, which according to Stats Inc. set a record for the largest margin over seven weeks in the Super Bowl era.
Even Michael Vick was questioning the Ravens’ reliance on quarterback runs, but it worked, leading to a 6-1 record and a division title that seemed unimaginable seven weeks ago.
On Sunday it was no different, with Jackson coming out on top against Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, the quarterback who was taken 31 picks before him in the draft. Mayfield’s play this season has given Cleveland plenty of reason for optimism going forward, but Mayfield, who set a rookie record for touchdown passes with 27, was outmatched by Jackson, who had 90 of his team’s outrageous 296 rushing yards and threw for another 179.
It was the Ravens’ punishing defense, however, that sealed the win when C.J. Mosely intercepted Mayfield with just under a minute remaining in the game and the Browns creeping toward field-goal range. It was a bookend for the interception Baltimore had snagged on Mayfield’s first pass of the game, and one of three turnovers generated by the defense.
Harbaugh gushed about his team after the game, saying that in terms of actual teamwork it was the best squad he had ever been associated with.
“If you wanted to write a book about this season, I think no one would believe it,” he said.
Eagles 24, Redskins 0
Foles and the Eagles had less to be nervous about as they rolled over Washington to earn a playoff berth — at least until the quarterback left the game with an injury.
Like Baltimore, Philadelphia appeared to be doomed after an injury to its starting quarterback this season. The Eagles were 6-7 after a Week 14 loss to Dallas, and shortly afterward it was announced that Carson Wentz would be out indefinitely with a fractured vertebrae in his back.
But just like he did last season in his race to being named Super Bowl M.V.P., Foles seamlessly transitioned into the offense in place of Wentz. He threw for 270 yards in a shocking win over the Rams, and threw for 471 yards and four touchdowns in an even more-stunning win over the Texans. On Sunday he was less spectacular but still passed for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Redskins, though he had to exit with a chest injury in the fourth quarter.
Regardless of the severity of Foles’s injury, Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia’s outspoken safety, was confident heading into next week’s wild-card round.
“We’re not sneaking in. We’re here to do some damage,” Jenkins said.
During his postgame news conference, Foles indicated that the extent of the injury had yet to be determined.
“I’m sore right now,” he said. “We’ll find out what’s going on tomorrow. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
In Foles’s absence, Nate Sudfeld, Philadelphia’s third-string quarterback, threw the first touchdown pass of his career.
Even with Sunday’s win, which was powered mostly by Philadelphia’s defense and Washington’s general ineptitude, the Eagles needed help to get into the playoffs — and they got it from the Bears, who limited Cousins to just 132 passing yards in a game in which Chicago was locked into the No. 3 seed in the N.F.C. regardless of the result.
Minnesota’s loss was the conclusion to an uneven season for Cousins and the Vikings. After last year’s appearance in the N.F.C. championship game, Minnesota tried to get to the next level by adding Cousins as a high-priced free agent. Instead, a regression by the team’s defense and an inconsistent effort from Cousins and the offense left them out of the playoffs entirely.
With the final spot in the A.F.C. yet to be determined, here are the other playoff seedings.
1. Kansas City Chiefs, 12-4, A.F.C. West champions
2. New England Patriots, 11-5, A.F.C. East champions
3. Houston Texans, 11-5, A.F.C. South champions
4. Baltimore Ravens, 10-6, A.F.C. North champions
5. Los Angeles Chargers, 12-4, wild card
6. Colts, Titans or Steelers
1. New Orleans Saints, 13-3, N.F.C. South champions
2. Los Angeles Rams, 12-4, N.F.C. West champions
3. Chicago Bears, 12-4, N.F.C. North champions
4. Dallas Cowboys, 10-6, N.F.C. East champions
5. Seattle Seahawks, 10-6, wild card
6. Philadelphia Eagles, 9-7, wild card
Colts/Titans/Steelers at Houston, Saturday, 4:35 p.m., ESPN
Chargers at Baltimore, Sunday, 1:05 p.m., CBS
Eagles at Bears, Sunday, 4:40 p.m., NBC
Seahawks at Cowboys, Saturday, 8:15 p.m., Fox