Lombardi: A look ahead to NFL Week 18

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The NFL season is much like sailing from the shores of England to America in the 18th century. Both required a test of endurance to handle the roughness of the seas, the weather, the constant battles, the long journey across the mighty Atlantic.  Sailing then was a test of wills—fueled only by the promise of a better future.   And for some, that was true.  For others, seeing New York harbor on the horizon felt like a huge disappointment. It’s exactly the same feeling all 32 teams share with different emotions as they conclude their year and deboard into the off-season or the playoffs.   

In Week 18, all teams see the end of the season, but they don’t have the same agendas as they sail into the harbor.  Completely understanding those agendas will help us break down the games.  For example, many might believe the Houston Texans’ agenda would be to lose their last game to the Colts and secure the number one pick in the draft.  Wrong.  The Texans under head coach Lovie Smith are fighting for their lives, not the pick.  Smith is 27-76-1 in his last eight years as a head coach in the NFL and college, and even though one more win won’t dress up his winning percentage, he cannot allow the Texans ownership group to see him lose another game.   I understand the smart thing to do would be for Nick Cesario the general manager to walk into Smith’s office and say, “Lovie, play all the young guys, don’t worry about the game, get ready for next year.”  Since Smith isn’t guaranteed to be back in Houston as the head coach next season, how can Cesario encourage Smith to lose, then fire him three days later?   Not happening. I have a strong belief that draft positioning and tactics for the weekend were never discussed by either man all week.   Winning matters for Smith, which then allows him to walk into the owner’s office and proclaim over the last five weeks the team is 2-3 with a chance to beat Dallas and Kansas City.  He can sell improvement, hoping not to be another one-and-done coach.  I agree, winning the game for the Texans is a moot point, but coaches don’t think that way—especially coaches who feel their jobs are in peril.  Most coaches live in the moment, believing one win can cure the sins of 13 defeats. 

 

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Smith’s opponent, the Colts, has a different agenda, one fueled by self-preservation.  Jeff Saturday should have zero chance to become the next head coach of the Colts based on his lack of experience, awareness, and refusal to accept he is in over his head.  Yet, we all know Jim Irsay, the owner of the Colts, is unpredictable and loves Saturday.  So, an impressive showing by the Colts at home might do the convincing, except the players know the real deal.  The locker room knows Saturday is not ready for prime time, or even high school time, so their thinking centers on “when can we put this season behind us?”  When the players sense the head coach isn’t coming back—which in this case, they know shouldn’t happen, they play to get the game over and stay healthy.  Saturday has little to no control of the locker room, or the staff as the last eight weeks have proven his lack of readiness for the position (his team has been outscored 126-212), and everyone in Indy knows the end is near—and it can’t come fast enough. 

How about the Commanders’ agenda now with starting rookie Sam Howell?  Ron Rivera, the head coach of Washington, has not had a winning record in five years as a head coach. Under normal circumstances, his job security could be in question. But as we all know, nothing is normal in DC, and with the sale of the team looming large, Rivera might get another pass until the new owner arrives.  And all the coaches on the Commanders recognize the uncertainty of their future, which isn’t good.  They don’t feel like they are on the Titanic—yet. However, they know the iceberg is going to hit soon.  With Carson Wentz headed for the waiver wire at the end of the season, Rivera turns to Howell to determine if he could be a possible starter next season.  Behind a bad offensive line and a Dallas defense that can rush the passer, Howell steps into an enormous challenge for his first game.   If you want to play Dallas, beware. They might retreat once they know the Eagles are winning—so handicapping this in-game might be the best play. 

The Lions are a team to count on—not because they are the fighting kneecaps of Dan Campbell. Rather, they are playing for next year, regardless of the Seattle/Rams outcome.  The second-half momentum the Lions have accumulated since their bye can carry them into next season, and this game will be their playoff game, therefore, handicap accordingly. 

The same goes for the Browns.  Their season has been a huge disappointment considering the Steelers with much less talent are in a position to make the playoffs and the Browns are eliminated.  Head Coach Kevin Stefanski must demonstrate he is worthy of another season as the head man, and this game means a great deal to those wearing the orange and brown.  Count on them to play their best—even though Deshaun Watson isn’t close to being the player he once was. 

Both Steve Wilkes and Dennis Allen have their teams fully engaged, and even though the game is meaningless to the playoffs, it holds substantial meaning to both coaches.  Wilkes has the vote of the locker room. With a win, he could guarantee himself the head position for the next four years.   Allen, with his team finally healthy, appears to have turned things around, and they want to send the lowest pick possible to the Eagles.  This game will be a fun watch. 

Before making any wager, always ask yourself:  Is the head coach returning?  And if the answer is yes, then you know the players will be competing hard for their jobs and playing the game as if it were Week Three of the season.  The return of the coach doesn’t guarantee they will win—only that their effort will be strong.  If the answer is no, then proceed with great caution. 

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