The Miami Dolphins limped out of Baltimore and right into an AFC East championship game they didn't want.
It's not all doom and gloom for the Dolphins — they certainly could win a home game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night, after all — but a regular season that was so promising just a few weeks ago looks like it could come to a disappointing end.
When the Dolphins beat the Washington Commanders on Dec. 3, they were 9-3 with a three-game lead over the Bills in the division. The Dolphins were closer to having the No. 1 seed in the AFC than losing the division. The Bills were closer to being out of the playoffs altogether than dreaming about a division title.
The final few minutes in a Monday night game the following week started to bring down the Dolphins. They took a 14-point lead on the Tennessee Titans with less than five minutes to go and somehow lost. Then they lost in Week 17, with an embarrassing 56-19 blowout to the Ravens. That's how they find themselves needing to win in Week 18 just to secure one home playoff game. The winner of the Bills-Dolphins game on Sunday night will be the AFC East champion and the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Dolphins were the exciting story of the first couple months of the NFL season, with an offense that seemed to be unstoppable in a low-scoring season. Miami looked like Super Bowl contenders. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was an MVP candidate and Tyreek Hill was going to run away with NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
The Dolphins' story shows how fragile the NFL can be. Injuries piled up. The Dolphins had lost pass rusher Jaelan Phillips for the season, then lost Bradley Chubb for the season late in Sunday's loss. Miami played Sunday without running back Raheem Mostert and receiver Jaylen Waddle, and it can only hope those players return for Week 18. Cornerback Xavien Howard was carted off due to a foot injury. Hill is playing through a sprained ankle. The offensive line has injuries.
That's what the Dolphins face going into one of the biggest games for the franchise in many years. At stake is the chance to have Miami's first home playoff game since January 2009. They'd have the No. 2 seed with a win, and fall to No. 6 and a wild-card date at the Kansas City Chiefs with a loss. They have to navigate the final game with a lengthy injury report, against a Bills team that is surging and already beat Miami 48-20 earlier this season.
A win Sunday night and the Dolphins should feel like this was a fantastic season, no matter what happens in the playoffs. And not that 11 wins and a playoff berth is ever bad, but a loss would make the Dolphins' season feel a bit disappointing. Given how promising it looked a few weeks ago, ending the season without a division title or a home playoff game would feel empty.
Here are the power rankings after Week 17 of the NFL season:
32. Carolina Panthers (2-14, Last Week: 32)
The Panthers' offense needs a lot of work. Carolina didn't have a play longer than 18 yards in the 26-0 loss to the Jaguars. The Panthers didn't have a run play gain more than 7 yards. After a couple weeks of progress on offense, Sunday was ugly.
31. Washington Commanders (4-12, LW: 31)
Washington has the second pick of the 2024 NFL Draft, according to Tankathon. Beating the Cowboys in Week 18 and potentially ruining their bid for an NFC East title would be a fun way to end the season. But let's be honest: The next 10 years might look a lot brighter if Washington loses Sunday.
30. New England Patriots (4-12, LW: 29)
The Patriots finish at home against the Jets. The question all week will be surrounding Bill Belichick and if that's his last game as New England's head coach. Will he acknowledge that possibility in any way?
29. Arizona Cardinals (4-12, LW: 30)
Kyler Murray playing so well Sunday might cost him a shot to throw to Marvin Harrison Jr. for the next few years. The Cardinals moved from No. 2 to No. 4 in the draft, which means they might watch someone else take Harrison third. But there is a lot of value in that win over the Eagles and the confidence it should bring in what head coach Jonathan Gannon is building.
28. Tennessee Titans (5-11, LW: 26)
Will Levis came back from a high ankle sprain and then suffered another injury and left Sunday's game. While it would be ideal to get Levis as many reps as possible before the end of the season, it was probably unwise to rush him back. And you'd assume his season is done now. He showed promising things as a rookie.
27. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11, LW: 27)
The Chargers need the season to end. Sunday's loss to the Broncos was an ugly one, especially on offense.
26. New York Jets (6-10, LW: 25)
The Jets have probably gotten a pass they didn't entirely deserve. Sure, it's hard to recover from losing a starting quarterback. But the Browns did too and the difference between the teams last week was startling. Other teams have managed to be competitive after losing their starting QB. The Jets just fell apart.
25. New York Giants (5-11, LW: 28)
Darius Slayton is having a strong finish to the season. The past two weeks, he has 196 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He's 26 and has just a $2.5 million base salary next season. He might not be a true No. 1 receiver, but he'll be a good piece for the 2024 Giants.
24. Atlanta Falcons (7-9, LW: 23)
The Falcons aren't eliminated from the postseason race, but they are limping to the finish with another loss on Sunday. Unless the Falcons get a lot of breaks and get a playoff spot, you'd assume a coaching change is coming.
23. Las Vegas Raiders (7-9, LW: 18)
Aidan O'Connell wasn't that bad Sunday. He had 299 yards and two touchdowns. It still seems hard to believe he's the Raiders' locked-in 2024 starter or anything, but there will be plenty of teams chasing quarterbacks and some teams are losing out on that game of musical chairs.
22. Denver Broncos (8-8, LW: 24)
Benching Russell Wilson didn't exactly transform the offense (and no, benching Wilson wasn't "just a football move," as you may have read last week). Assuming Wilson is going to be cut, the $85 million dead salary-cap hit that's coming means things will probably get worse in Denver before they get better.
21. Minnesota Vikings (7-9, LW: 17)
Going to rookie Jaren Hall in what amounted to a must-win game was always risky, and it turned out as bad as it could have been with the Vikings getting blown out in the first half and having to go back to Nick Mullens. The Vikings' offseason will be spent wondering what might have been if Kirk Cousins stayed healthy.
20. New Orleans Saints (8-8, LW: 21)
The Saints' performance Sunday at Tampa Bay might have been their best all season. Derek Carr was good. The defense was excellent (most of the Bucs' yards came in the fourth quarter with the game decided). That's great but it's also frustrating, because where was this all season?
19. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8, LW: 14)
The Bengals didn't pack it in after Joe Burrow's injury and that says a lot about the character of the team. But now that they are officially eliminated, the reality of a wasted season with a great young core is about to set in.
18. Seattle Seahawks (8-8, LW: 12)
Seattle's defense had a huge letdown in a big spot. The Steelers ran all over the Seahawks. That was the biggest reason they lost and now have a much tougher path to the playoffs. Defense has to be a top priority in the offseason. Again.
17. Chicago Bears (7-9, LW: 22)
The Bears were too low in the rankings last week. They've played as well as any non-playoff team over the past few weeks. And the Week 18 game at Green Bay is very similar to last season, when a hot Lions team that had been eliminated from the playoffs treated a finale at Lambeau like their playoff game, won and used that momentum right into the next season.
16. Green Bay Packers (8-8, LW: 20)
The Packers have gone up and down and back up and back down, and now they're up again. What a weird season they've had. But making the playoffs, which Green Bay will accomplish with a Week 18 win, would be a success in a big transition season.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7, LW: 19)
The Steelers turning their season around is a shock. It's a bigger shock that Mason Rudolph has been a catalyst for it. Rudolph starting in Week 18 was the obvious move, but the bigger question is what their QB depth chart will look like through the offseason. Does Rudolph have a shot at the job next season?
14. Indianapolis Colts (9-7, LW: 16)
The Colts make the playoffs, and get to 10 wins, with a victory at home against Houston in Week 18. They would have signed up for that at the beginning of the season. Even with a loss, it has been a fantastic first season in the Shane Steichen era.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8, LW: 11)
The Buccaneers were looking like a team nobody wanted to play in the wild-card round. Then they were awful in Week 17 at home against the Saints. They'll still win the division if they beat the Panthers in the finale, but Sunday's performance was a big step back.
12. Houston Texans (9-7, LW: 15)
Houston overpaid for defensive end Will Anderson Jr., trading a ton to move up and get him third overall in the draft. But it's looking now like they might be right. Anderson is a fantastic player who was a force Sunday. If that's a sign of what's to come, Houston's gamble will pay off.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7, LW: 13)
Even though their all-important Week 18 game is at Tennessee, the Jaguars should win it. If they lose, there still is a path to the playoffs with help. But if the Jaguars can't beat Tennessee to win the AFC South, they don't deserve to be in the postseason anyway.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5, LW: 6)
The Eagles blowing a 21-6 lead and losing to the Cardinals at home is the most damaging loss of the NFL season. Philly probably gave away the division with that loss. And the worst part is they were completely outplayed. The Cardinals outgained them 449 yards to 275. The game exposed how the bottom has fallen out for Philly. It's hard to see them fixing all their issues, particularly a bad defense, this late in the season.
9. Los Angeles Rams (9-7, LW: 10)
Sunday's Rams win was more impressive than they'll get credit for. Sure, the Giants aren't a good team. But the Rams were playing an early game after a cross-country flight. The Giants played hard and they've been competitive with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. The Rams caught breaks with Taylor missing on a wide-open 2-point conversion pass in the fourth quarter and the Giants missing a 54-yard field goal in the final seconds, but it was a good win. And they're in the playoffs.
8. Cleveland Browns (11-5, LW: 9)
The Browns are one of the teams facing a decision on whether to play starters in Week 18. They are locked into the AFC's No. 5 seed. It's a great opportunity to get some players rest before they face the AFC South champ on wild-card weekend.
7. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, LW: 8)
The Chiefs are locked into the AFC's No. 3 seed. There's no reason to play key starters in Week 18. But the offense does not look playoff ready. Settling for six field goals Sunday, even in a win, was another reason to be concerned.
6. Miami Dolphins (11-5, LW: 4)
5. Detroit Lions (11-5, LW: 7)
Most likely, the Lions get the No. 3 playoff seed in the NFC. They have no shot at the No. 1 seed and the bye. This is a great opportunity for head coach Dan Campbell to rest starters. But does Campbell seem like the type of coach who would sit anyone?
4. Dallas Cowboys (11-5, LW: 5)
The officiating controversy on Saturday night has massive ramifications. If the referee acknowledged Taylor Decker reporting as eligible and the Lions still get that 2-point conversion (that's no sure thing if the Cowboys knew Decker was eligible), then the Cowboys aren't looking at an NFC East title simply by beating the Commanders in the finale. Considering how much better the Cowboys are at home, it's not outrageous to wonder if that report/didn't report fiasco ultimately ends up changing who wins the Super Bowl.
3. Buffalo Bills (10-6, LW: 3)
The Bills got what they wanted, a shot at the AFC East title in the final game of the regular season. There's also a chance the Bills go into that game looking at a division title with a win and being completely out of the playoffs with a loss. And the win-or-go-home scenario isn't that farfetched:
Drama for Game 272 …
If the #Steelers and #Jaguars win, and the #Texans-#Colts game does not end in a tie, it’s all-or-nothing for the #Bills on Sunday night in Miami:
Win, and Buffalo wins the AFC East and gets the #2 seed in the playoffs.
Lose, and Buffalo is eliminated. https://t.co/jWmA3N9Ody
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 1, 2024
2. San Francisco 49ers (12-4, LW: 2)
Getting the No. 1 seed in the NFC already was big for the 49ers. They can rest key players like Christian McCaffrey, who had a strained calf. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has already said McCaffrey will not play. Just what the rest of the NFC wanted: Extra rest for the 49ers before they host a playoff game.
1. Baltimore Ravens (13-3, LW: 1)
For the second straight week in this space: Wow. Here are some of the Ravens' most eye-opening results this season:
Week 1: 25-9 win vs. Texans
Week 4: 28-3 win at Browns
Week 7: 38-6 win vs. Lions
Week 10: 37-3 win vs. Seahawks
Week 15: 23-7 win at Jaguars
Week 16: 33-19 win at 49ers
Week 17: 56-19 win vs. Dolphins
The Ravens aren't just beating good teams. They're destroying them.