The first sign that the first-ever Week 18 Sunday in NFL history would be so wonderfully unpredictable came when the Colts, seemingly in a comfortable spot with a win-and-they’re-in playoff scenario against the lowly Jaguars, surprisingly fell behind 13-3 at halftime and inexplicably trailed 23-3 in the fourth quarter. Indianapolis even had Jonathan Taylor, the NFL’s leading rusher, stopped on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, cementing the Colts’ fate in a 26-11 defeat that helped spark some of the chaos that would define the day.
Amid Sunday’s ensuing surprises, two quarterbacks believed to be playing the final games for their respective teams stood tall and did their part to make postseason football a reality.
Roethlisberger puts retirement on hold
Ben Roethlisberger engineered the winning drive in the Steelers’ 16-13 overtime victory in Baltimore, but the 18-year NFL veteran didn’t know his impending retirement would be delayed until the Raiders’ thrilling 35-32 OT win eliminated the Chargers and punched Pittsburgh’s ticket as the last AFC wild-card team.
Roethlisberger completed 30 of 44 passes for 244 yards and one touchdown and one interception. The Steelers leaned on his experience late in OT when he made three clutch throws to pick up first downs on a 15-play, 65-yard drive. He found tight end Pat Freiermuth for 14 yards on third-and-7 and wideout Diontae Johnson for 11 yards on third-and-9. His biggest throw came on a fourth-and-8 at the Baltimore 41 when he completed a 10-yard dart to Ray-Ray McCloud. Four plays later, Chris Boswell kicked the winning 36-yard field goal.
“Earlier in that drive, Ray-Ray — I’d hate to call it a drop — but to come back like that, to make a play? When he came into this locker room, guys were hugging him,” Roethlisberger told reporters. “I love giving a guy an opportunity like that. For Ray-Ray to make that play, to give us a chance to win it, is special.”
Roethlisberger’s final home game at Heinz Field — a Week 17 victory over the Browns — became an emotional farewell to Steelers fans for him and his family. He said Sunday’s regular-season finale didn’t have him wondering if his legendary Pittsburgh career was “almost over.”
“We knew we had to take care of our business, first and foremost,” Roethlisberger said. “It took extra time, but we found a way to do it.”
“I think it shows something about this team that you can continue to fight and never give up,” he added.
The Steelers, the No. 7 seed in the AFC, will face the second-seeded Chiefs in a wild-card matchup next Sunday in Kansas City.
Jimmy G extends stay in the Bay
Jimmy Garoppolo’s time with the 49ers could have come to an end Sunday at SoFi Stadium. Instead, the much-maligned veteran who’s been keeping the starting QB job warm for first-round pick Trey Lance helped make a stunning 27-24 comeback win over the Rams in overtime possible.
San Francisco, which needed a victory to qualify for the playoffs, fell into a 17-0 first-half hole. Sixty-one of the Niners’ 83 first-half yards came on their final drive of the half that produced a 42-yard Robbie Gould field goal. Garoppolo, who was playing with a painful right thumb injury, managed only 90 yards on 9-of-12 passing. The 49ers returned to the field after halftime a completely different team.
“We just started making plays,” Garoppolo explained. “Honestly, it wasn’t anything crazy. It wasn’t scheme or anything like that. Guys were just making plays. Guys stepped up in big moments. The defense really gave us a shot. It really was a full team effort today.”
Garoppolo finished with 316 yards on 23-for-32 passing, throwing a 16-yard TD to Deebo Samuel to pull San Francisco within 17-10 right after halftime. His second interception of the game midway through the fourth quarter led to the Rams’ go-ahead touchdown, but he made up for that mistake by successfully orchestrating a two-minute drill that covered 88 yards in five plays. The drive featured a 43-yard reception to Samuel, and Garappolo finished it off with a 14-yard TD strike to Jauan Jennings for a 24-24 tie wth 31 seconds left in regulation.
“If you can get them the ball in space, those guys are going to go make plays for you,” Garoppolo said. “That’s really what I was trying to do today — let those guys make plays and let those guys be special.”
In OT, Garoppolo marched the Niners 69 yards for Gould’s go-ahead 24-yard field goal, picking up first downs on third-down completions of 13 yards to Samuel and then 34 yards and 9 yards to Jennings. Ambry Thomas’ interception of Matthew Stafford secured the win and San Francisco’s return to the postseason after a one-season absence.
Garoppolo admitted there were “a lot of emotions” felt by him and his teammates during a rivalry game with so many “ups and downs” and so much at stake.
“Getting off to a slow start and then coming back like we did, it took everything. … It was one of those games that you won’t forget anytime soon,” he said.
Garoppolo’s future as a 49er remains murky. Lance should be ready to take over Kyle Shanahan’s offense next season, making Garoppolo one of the top targets for QB-needy teams in the offseason. For now, Jimmy G and the sixth-seeded 49ers will get to rekindle an old playoff rivalry when they face the No. 3 Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday.
Best defensive performance
T.J. Watt, Steelers. He finished with five tackles (one for loss), three QB hits, one pass defensed and one forced fumble, but most notably, Watt got the sack that tied Michael Strahan for the NFL’s single-season sacks record. Both hold the mark with 22 1/2 sacks. Making history very well could be the factor that gives Watt the edge in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Best special teams performance
Daniel Carlson, Raiders. He not only made five field goals — including the 47-yarder to send the Raiders (and the Steelers) to the playoffs — but he also overcame the broadcast jinx of NBC play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, who repeatedly mentioned that Carlson had not missed a kick at Allegiant Stadium. Nice try, Al.
- “Yeah, it definitely did, obviously.” — Quarterback Derek Carr on whether the Chargers’ timeout with 38 seconds left changed the Raiders' minds about playing for a tie that would’ve qualified both teams for the playoffs.
- “I don’t think it changed their mindset because they ran the ball on the play before and then they ran the ball the very next play. So we wanted to make sure that we got our run defense in there. We obviously didn’t execute well enough.” — Head coach Brandon Staley on the thinking behind his controversial timeout.
There were plenty of significant season-ending numbers on Sunday.
- Ja’Marr Chase set the Bengals’ single-season record with 1,445 receiving yards, eclipsing Chad Johnson’s 1,440 in 2007.
- Davante Adams set the Packers’ single-season mark for receiving yards with 1,553, surpassing Jordy Nelson’s 1,519 in 2014.
- Mark Andrews finished with 104 catches to set a new Ravens single-season record, topping Derrick Mason’s 103 in 2007.
- Marvin Jones Jr. reached 70 receptions to earn an extra $500,000.
- Tom Brady established a new career high of 5,316 passing yards. His previous best was 5,235 in 2011.
- Cooper Kupp captured the NFL’s receiving triple crown with the most catches (145), yards (1,947) and touchdowns (16).
The Lions use this crazy play on receiver Tom Kennedy’s 75-yard TD pass to Kalif Raymond.
Allen Lazard keeps his eye on the ball to complete the catch on Aaron Rodgers’ 37th TD of the season.
The Lions dig into their bag of tricks again, this time for Jared Goff’s 36-yard TD to Brock Wright.
Trevor Lawrence shows off the skills that made him the No. 1 pick (even after a bad snap) on this 3-yard TD pass.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill finds the escape hatch to gain a crucial first down for the Titans.
Lions rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown bounces off the hard hit and just keeps running.
Saints rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo makes the one-hand grab to intercept a Matt Ryan pass.
Cardinals RB James Conner breaks a tackle and hurdles a defender on a 20-yard TD catch-and-run.
Deebo Samuel throws the option pass to Jauan Jennings for a tying 49ers touchdown.
Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny caps his late-season surge with a 62-yard TD run.