Week 18 — the NFL’s so-called “Season Finale” — kicked off Saturday with a pair of AFC games that brought some clarity to what had become a bit of a messy bracket over the past week.
The Kansas City Chiefs snuffed out the Las Vegas Raiders 31-13 to temporarily lock up the conference’s No. 1 seed. But 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 enacted some unique contingencies in the wake of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin’s collapse in Week 17’s then-cancelled game with Cincinnati .
The implications of Saturday night’s Titans-Jaguars game were far more clear: Win and lock up the AFC South title … as the Jags did for the first time since 2017.
But winners and losers can go a little deeper than the obvious. Here are a few more from Saturday:
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Damar Hamlin: He went into cardiac arrest and crumpled to the turf at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium on Monday night before being revived and taken to the hospital — a terrifying scene that left the league and, essentially, the country rapt for days awaiting positive news. He took another step towards recovery on Saturday. Hamlin took to social media to thank his legion of supporters on Instagram and Twitter a day after talking to his relieved Buffalo teammates on FaceTime.
The NFL also kicked off a weekend with a tribute to the 24-year-old, its players, coaches and staff with “Love For Damar” T-shirts. Fields in Las Vegas and Jacksonville were also among those outlining Hamlin’s No. 3 jersey at the 30-yard line in Bills colors.
The Jaguars and Titans even came together for a pregame prayer before kickoff of their AFC South title showdown — and it drew another reaction from Hamlin.
A fantastic outpouring for a player who has galvanized the nation in many ways.
ESPN: The Worldwide Leader paid its own subtle tribute to Hamlin before the Jags-Titans game. Take a look at the mic flags of 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 backwards No. 3 Bills jersey — to show off Hamlin’s name tag — on the pregame.
JAX D: It was the Jaguars’ defense that propelled Jacksonville back to the 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 stood as the final score, were set up by takeaways. The coup de grace came courtesy of Rayshawn Jenkins’ fumble, which was returned 37 yards by Josh Allen for the game-winning TD.
KC D: The Chiefs finished 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 collecting 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 the “Jet,” is tied for most among running backs in a single season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Josh Jacobs: The Raiders’ leading back finished the season with 1,653 rushing yards, a league-high total that will almost certainly convey his first rushing title just weeks before he hits free agency. Still, it’s amazing that Jacobs, who ran for 45 yards Saturday, played just days after his father underwent emergency heart surgery. “The whole team, even people upstairs who don’t really work with me every day. I definitely got that love and that support,” he said of the Raiders, even though this was his last game with a club that declined the fifth- year’s option on the rookie contract last year. “Everyone 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 Cook: Yes, the Jags punter makes this list too. He dropped all four of his punts, which averaged 51.0 yards, Saturday inside the Tennessee 20-yard line — a key way to further hamper 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. (KC has failed to earn a first-round bye just once in that stretch.) Kansas City’s win also eliminated an AFC Championship Game neutral scenario — the Bengals would now have to come to Arrowhead — while a Buffalo loss Sunday would ensure the Chiefs stay at home the rest of January.
Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce: Saturday’s 31-13 blowout of the Raiders was never in doubt — to the point that 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 tying his own mark (1,416) for receiving yards by a tight end in one season. However, Mahomes’ league-leading 5,250 passing yards established 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 of any player in league history…maybe we need to rethink that “loser” part.
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 TD in the first half. But the turnover in the second half put the team’s flickering playoff hopes in jeopardy.
Titans: A team that had reached the playoffs in the previous three seasons, and won the AFC South in 2020 and 2021, crashes and burns with a seven-game season ending. RB Derrick Henry just turned 29, injured QB Ryan Tannehill didn’t finish the season, and the ill-conceived trade for WR AJ Brown during the 2022 draft may have doomed this squad from the start. It remains to be seen where they go from here, a month after GM Jon Robinson’s surprise firing.
Urban Meyer: It turned out the Jags had a capable core in 2021, the disastrous hiring of the disgraced former national championship-winning college coach who lasted 13 NFL games notwithstanding. But the franchise — and especially second-year QB Trevor Lawrence — has rebounded quickly under coach Doug Pederson, who is headed to the playoffs for the fourth time in the past 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.