The first Week 18 in history is packed with big divisional battles on the gridiron.
In this edition, we’re breaking down two matchups with playoff berths riding on the line: 49ers vs. Rams and Chargers vs. Raiders. Which teams will secure their spots for the postseason?
And we’ve also got a scorcher on the hardwood as the Heat and Suns face off Saturday night.
Miami Heat vs. Phoenix Suns
Saturday, January 8 | TV: Bally Sports / NBA League Pass
The Heat head into Phoenix after losing two of their last three games on this road trip, but they’ve kept things close even in those defeats. Unfortunately, the Suns have been an incredibly tough team to beat on their home court, as they tout a 17-4 record at the Footprint Center. That includes Thursday night’s 106-89 blowout of the Clippers, in which Cameron Johnson continued his 3-point shooting barrage. Overall, Johnson is shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc.
The Suns and Heat both rank in the top 15 in total points per game, but their defenses also rank in the top five this season. Miami could have a little trouble matching offensive firepower if Jimmy Butler can’t suit up. The Heat star missed Wednesday’s game with a sprained ankle. Without Butler on the court, Max Strus sank seven 3-pointers in Miami’s win. The undrafted guard has been an absolute flamethrower when given extended minutes. Rookie center Omer Yurtseven has likewise been on a tear in Bam Adebayo’s absence. The Turkish big man has 12 or more rebounds in 10 straight games.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Rams
Sunday, January 9 | TV: FOX
The 49ers can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Rams, who they’ve beaten in five consecutive head-to-head matchups. The Rams also have something to play for. They’ll clinch the NFC West title if they can snap that losing streak against their rivals (or if they get some help and Seattle defeats Arizona). The 49ers’ defense has been much improved down the stretch as they’ve reeled off wins in six of their last eight games. There’s also a good chance the Niners get Jimmy Garoppolo back under center. The 49ers QB returned to practice and may be cleared to play through a torn ligament in his right thumb. In a good sign, wide receiver Deebo Samuel said “Jimmy just looked like Jimmy to me.” That said, Jimmy G did not look inspiring in his last game in Week 16 against the Titans.
The Rams are riding a five-game winning streak, including tough victories over the Ravens, Vikings, and Cardinals, and they boast a 5-2 record at home. When these teams last met in Week 10, the Rams lost 31-10, as the 49ers went with a run-heavy approach, but Jimmy G still managed to throw two touchdowns on his 19 attempts. Rams wideout Cooper Kupp is aiming to become the fourth player in history to lead the NFL in receptions, yards receiving, and touchdown catches.
Los Angeles Chargers vs. Las Vegas Raiders
Sunday, January 9 | TV: NBC
In the most intriguing playoff scenario of Week 18, both the Chargers and Raiders could sneak into the playoffs if the Jaguars beat the Colts and this game finishes in a tie. This being a bitter division rivalry, of course, leaves slim odds of that happening. The Raiders have posted a mixed 4-4 record at Allegiant Stadium, but the crowd will be electric for this Sunday night showdown, especially with John Madden’s family on hand to light the Al Davis Memorial Torch, among other tributes planned for the legendary coach. Since it’s a must-win game for the Raiders, star tight end Darren Waller will likely be back on the field after returning to practice this week.
Los Angeles holds the head-to-head edge with a 28-14 victory over Las Vegas earlier this season. In that game, quarterback Justin Herbert (three TDs) and running back Austin Ekeler (117 rushing yards and two TDs) had their way with the Silver and Black’s defense. Herbert has really shined in his five career night starts, throwing 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. The Raiders do have momentum on their side, however, with three straight victories, while the Chargers have lost two of their last three games (including a 41-29 drubbing by the Texans).