Oct 24, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury looks on as Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) warms up prior to the game against the Houston Texans at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Cardinals eye NFC West crown, wary of wounded Seahawks

Arizona clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2015, but the Cardinals have plenty to play for on Sunday.

The Cardinals can still win the NFC West title and earn a home playoff game by taking care of business against the Seattle Seahawks — and getting some help — in Week 18.

The Cardinals (11-5) are a game behind the Los Angeles Rams in the division chase entering Sunday’s regular-season finale with the Seahawks (6-10) in Glendale, Ariz.

Last week, the Cardinals snapped a three-game losing streak with a 25-22 victory at Dallas as Kyler Murray completed 26 of 38 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 44 yards.

The Cardinals are just 3-4 at home, having lost four in a row.

“I think we just gotta play better at home. I think that’s what it comes down to. Nothing more, nothing less,” Murray said. “I definitely feel like as a team, it’s about getting hot at the right time and going into the playoffs. You wouldn’t want to go into the playoffs feeling how we felt three weeks ago, that’s for sure. I think that was a good head start to win this past Sunday and hopefully get the job done this weekend that we can feel even better going into the playoffs.”

Running back James Connor, whose 14 rushing touchdowns are two shy of the franchise record, missed two games in a row with a heel injury and has been limited in practice this week.

Chase Edmonds rushed for a game-high 53 yards against the Cowboys before leaving with an ankle injury and is also questionable for Sunday’s game.

“We’ll see how they progress in the next couple days. I don’t know how much we’ll use them, but we want to make sure they’re ready for the playoffs,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Connor and Edmonds. “That’s when we’ve been at our best when both guys are healthy and getting to play and taking some snaps off of each other. We’d like to get back to that …”

The Seahawks will finish with a losing record for the first time in the decade-long Russell Wilson/Bobby Wagner era. Seattle snapped a two-game skid last weekend with a 51-29 victory against visiting Detroit.

Wilson threw four touchdown passes – three to DK Metcalf – and Rashaad Penny rushed for a career-high 170 yards and two scores.

“Watching the film against Detroit, they were tremendous in all three phases, playing hard, playing to win,” Kingsbury said. “You would never guess that they aren’t going to the playoffs, honestly watching that team play.”

Wagner suffered a knee injury on Detroit’s first offensive play and didn’t return. The linebacker said he hopes to play Sunday.

“I think it’s just always important to try your best to finish what you start,” Wagner said. “So regardless of how the things play out, you never want your circumstances or what’s going on around you to dictate whether or not you’re going to play or how hard you’re going to play.”

Wagner is one of 10 Seahawks who have missed practice this week with injuries. The list includes linebacker Carlos Dunlap II (ankle), safety Quandre Diggs (knee) and tight end Will Dissly (heel).

The Cardinals won earlier this season in Seattle 23-13 behind backup quarterback Colt McCoy, who threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Conner scored on a 1-yard run with 2:20 remaining to clinch the victory.

–Field Level Media

Oct 4, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) prepares to take the snap against the Las Vegas Raiders at SoFi Stadium. The Chargers defeated the Raiders 28-14. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Raiders, Chargers serve Week 18 nightcap playoff play-in style

Only one game remains Sunday when the afternoon slate of games is complete. The league can unofficially welcome the start of the playoffs, when the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders put the cap on the 2021 regular season in the nighttime finale.

A meeting of 9-7 AFC West rivals in the final game of the league’s first 17-game regular season includes this kicker: the winner earns a spot in the NFL playoffs.

“We know what’s at stake,” Chargers defensive lineman Justin Jones said.

Los Angeles arrives feeling fortunate to still be kicking on the heels of a humbling 41-29 defeat at lowly Houston in Week 16. The Chargers bounced back last week with a convincing 34-13 victory over the Denver Broncos.

Drama has met the Raiders at multiple turns this season and they, too, appeared to be left for dead following a 48-9 thrashing by the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 12. The Raiders were 6-7 with a schedule dominated by likely playoff teams. But they closed with three consecutive victories, including a 23-20 nail-biter last week at favored Indianapolis.

Aside from playoff implications, the quarterback showdown has its own intrigue. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert got the best of the more experienced Derek Carr of the Raiders in Week 4.

Herbert threw three first-half touchdowns against the Raiders but the Chargers had to scramble late to secure a 28-14 victory. Carr had two TD passes in the third quarter to make it interesting.

Yet all signs point to the Chargers running the ball Sunday. Austin Ekeler had a career-high 117 yards in the victory over the Raiders and the Los Angeles rushing attack has been improved of late with an average of 134.3 yards over the last four games.

“I feel like we’ve been able to establish some continuity here in the second half of the season,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said. “I think you’ve seen that in how we’ve run the football the last three, four games. That has been a strength of ours. It makes us a much more difficult offense to defend.”

Ekeler has rushed for at least 50 yards in 12 games this season. The Chargers are 9-3 in those contests.

In a tumultuous season, the Raiders have shown staying power. The last-second 33-yard field goal last week to give the Raiders a 23-20 victory over the Colts was Daniel Carlson’s fifth game-ending kick for a victory this season.

Through it all, the Raiders have overcome the resignation of head coach Jon Gruden, the tragedy of a deadly car crash involving former wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and the release of cornerback Damon Arnette following a video that included death threats. Cornerback Nate Hobbs was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge.

And last week, former Raiders head coaching legend John Madden passed away.

All eyes will be focused toward Carr on Sunday to see if he can get the Raiders through a win-or-go-home challenge.

After the Chargers’ victory over the Raiders earlier this season, star Los Angeles defensive end Joey Bosa said of the Raiders’ QB: “Great dude, great player … but we know once you get pressure on him, he kind of shuts down.”

Carr’s chance at a retort has arrived. He is just 72 passing yards away from breaking Rich Gannon’s single-season franchise record of 4,689 set in 2002.

“To be completely honest, I feel like that’s kind of been the feeling around our team and around my heart the last month,” Carr said about the do-or-die scenario. “… It’s exciting, it’s against a division team but nothing changes. I always say, if you have to change something in your preparation, you’re not playing the right way.”

Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (ribs) and tight end Darren Waller were limited in practice Wednesday, while defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins did not participate. Waller, defensive end Carl Nassib and guard Jordan Simmons were activated off the reserve/COVID list.

Chargers defensive lineman Joe Gaziano (ankle) and center Corey Linsley (back) did not participate, while linebacker Drue Tranquill (ankle) was limited.

–Field Level Media

Jan 2, 2022; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Chiefs to play it straight, not safe, at Denver

Kansas City will cruise into Denver on Saturday with a chance to finish with the top seed in the AFC while knowing a loss to the Broncos could slide the Chiefs down to the fourth spot.

While potential No. 1 seed Cincinnati — Tennessee and New England also could climb into the home-field and first-round bye scenario — declared a week of rest for several starters, Kansas City heads into its final game of the regular season planning to keep its foot on the gas.

The Titans have the inside track for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, needing just to beat Houston on Sunday to clinch it. The Chiefs, who currently are No. 2, can put pressure on the Titans with a win Saturday afternoon.

If both Kansas City and Tennessee win in Week 18, the Chiefs will still secure the No. 2 seed, and while it won’t mean a first-round bye, it does ensure at least two home games should the Chiefs get past the wildcard round.

Kansas City (11-5) controlled its fate until a 34-31 loss at Cincinnati in Week 17. That clinched the AFC North for the Bengals kept them alive for the top seed, should the Chiefs and Titans both lose.

The loss to the Bengals – after Kansas City led 28-14 – stung and will be a motivation going into the game against the Broncos (7-9).

“After you lose a game like you lost [Sunday], it shouldn’t be difficult to get ready to go again the next week,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “I think guys will be ready to go. We’re playing Denver, and they’re a good football team. They gave us a challenge this last time we played them, like they always do, and we’re playing in Denver, which is a tough place to play. We’ll try to fix some things and play better football this week.”

The Chiefs have won 12 straight against the Broncos, a reversal of fortunes from Peyton Manning’s days as quarterback in Denver from 2012-15.

A 13th straight win looks likely with the Broncos limping toward the finish line. Denver has lost at least three straight for the second time this season and was eliminated from the postseason with a loss at the Los Angeles Chargers last week.

This week has been less about preparing for Kansas City and more about the future of the franchise. The Broncos’ ownership situation is still in limbo, and the fate of head coach Vic Fangio is a big topic. Fangio is 19-29 in his three seasons as the head coach.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur also could be on the hot seat with the offense struggling.

“I don’t think about it, I really don’t worry about it,” Shurmur said. “We as coaches, we are where our feet are, and we’re getting ready to play this game and do everything in our power to put a winning performance on the field.”

Denver’s defense has been the stronger of the two units, and the revolving door of quarterbacks hasn’t helped the offense. Drew Lock, last year’s starter, lost the job to Teddy Bridgewater but hasn’t been able to produce enough points. With Bridgewater going on injured reserve with a concussion, Lock will start his third straight game.

Safety Kareem Jackson and guard Dalton Risner also were placed on injured reserve.

The Broncos activated 12 players from the COVID-19 list, most notably receivers Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick, and Bradley Chubb, Baron Browning, Bryce Callahan and Mike Purcell on the defense.

Kansas City’s most notable absence from Wednesday’s practice was running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder injury), but coach Andy Reid won’t rule him out for Saturday’s game.

–Field Level Media

Jan 2, 2022; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley celebrates with Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) after a touchdown in the second half the game against the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Final three NFL playoff spots still up for grabs in Week 18

Five of the seven AFC playoff spots are secured, with five teams fighting for the final two conference tickets to the postseason in Week 18.

The Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers enter the final weekend of the debut 17-game regular season with a shot at the expanded playoffs. Seven teams in each conference will make this month’s postseason field in an NFL first.

Only one spot is open in the NFC with the Green Bay Packers locked into the No. 1 seed and lone first-round bye with a dominant victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night.

Home-field advantage remains uncertain in the AFC, but the Tennessee Titans (11-5) clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win at Houston (4-12), among other possibilities involving ties and losses by the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals.

Three teams — the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals — are in the NFC field with three certain division champs: the Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Still alive for the seventh spot are the San Francisco 49ers (9-7, at Rams) and New Orleans Saints (8-8, at Atlanta).

The 49ers are in with a win, tie or Saints loss. New Orleans must win and pull for the Rams to beat the 49ers to sneak into the postseason.

If the Titans lose, the Bengals or Chiefs could steal the top seed in the AFC.

The Chiefs are the No. 1 in the conference with a win and Titans loss or tie. If the Chiefs tie, they’d still have a shot at the No. 1 seed if the Titans lose to the Texans.

Cincinnati (10-6) has a more complicated route to the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage, but the Bengals do have a chance. It would require losses by the Chiefs and Titans and a loss or tie by the New England Patriots in addition to a Bengals’ win.

New England (10-6) winning could throw the playoff picture for a loop. The Patriots would claim the No. 1 seed with a win, combined with losses from the Bills, Chiefs and Titans.

Sunday night in Las Vegas will determine the outlook of wild-card weekend. The Chargers (9-7) visit the Raiders (9-7) with the winner getting a playoff ticket.

The Colts (9-7) need to win or tie at the Jacksonville Jaguars to get in the easy way after losing to the Raiders last week. Because of tiered tiebreakers, the Colts could sneak in with a Chargers’ loss plus a tie in the Baltimore Ravens-Steelers game, or a Miami Dolphins win combined by losses by the Chargers and Steelers.

The Steelers (8-7-1) could earn a playoff spot if they win, the Colts lose, and the game between the Raiders and Chargers doesn’t end in a tie.

–Field Level Media