Late-era Aaron Rodgers couldn’t carry the Green Bay Packers into the playoffs
The stage was set for the Green Bay quarterback to pull off his usual heroics on Sunday night. But the old brilliance was notably absent when it mattered most
As it should, the 18th and final weekend of the NFL regular season belonged to Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, still in a Cincinnati hospital but in great spirits. But there were still 16 games to play, playoff berths to be earned, brackets to fill, six holes in the TV schedule to plug.
The 271st and last game was played for high stakes on a rutted field and under the lights Sunday in frigid Green Bay, which all but guaranteed that Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ 39-year-old quarterback and guiding light for ages, would help complete the big picture.
Although they’d been eliminated from playoff contention less than an hour before kickoff, the Detroit Lions got in Rodgers’ way – or, more accurately, in the way of his 27th and final pass of the game, picking it off to seal a 20-16 victory … and hand the 14th and final playoff berth to Seattle.
The Seahawks (9-8) would have been knocked out of contention had the Packers (8-9) beat Detroit (9-8), and that seemed likely because Green Bay were at home and had won four in a row. Seattle stayed alive Sunday by defeating the Los Angeles Rams in overtime, 19-16.
The Seahawks hardly get a pushover as their first playoff opponent: Seattle, as the NFC’s seventh seed, will play a road game against the San Francisco 49ers (13-4), who have won 10 games in a row. But at least the Seahawks get another game this season. Not Rodgers.
A stocking cap pulled on his head, Rodgers walked off the field arm-in-arm with his longtime teammate and friend, receiver Randall Cobb, saluting the crowd. Rodgers declined to give his jersey to a Lions player, so perhaps – perhaps – he’d played his last game in Green Bay.
The Lions took the lead on a one-yard touchdown run by Williams with less than six minutes to play. The drive was extended with a senseless unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on Quay Walker, who was ejected after thumping into a Lions trainer who’d come on the field.
This was the part where Rodgers leads the Packers to victory thanks to a few daredevil plays and throws that only he and Patrick Mahomes can pull off. But the 2023 version of Rodgers is merely a serviceable quarterback rather than a great one – the kind who throws an interception precisely when he needs a touchdown (his 91.1 passer rating this season is his lowest since he became Green Bay’s starter in 2008). Detroit defensive back Kerby Joseph picked off Rodgers’ long pass that was intended for the Packers’ Christian Watson, and the Lions disposed of the game’s final 3 minutes 37 seconds.
It was not the first time Sunday that a team had been knocked from a playoff perch.
Earlier Sunday, the Miami Dolphins (9-8) squeaked into the AFC playoffs with an ungainly 11-6 victory over the New York Jets (7-10), the one-time contender who crashed out with six losses. Miami were streaky all season: win three, lose three, win five, lose five, win one. Miami get to play a first-round playoff game at Buffalo – and good luck with that, Fins.
Miami won despite using their third-string quarterback, Skylar Thompson, a rookie who was the team’s seventh-round draft pick in 2022. The Dolphins’ chances in their playoff game against Buffalo will improve if starting QB Tua Tagovailoa is cleared to return from a concussion. But Mike McDaniel, the second-year coach who does not look like a coach, says he will manage.
“I am not one to feel entitled to anything,” McDaniel said. “Also, my walks of life have kind of led me to have an infinite memory of anytime someone takes a chance on me.”
MVP of the week
Foyesade Oluokun, linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars. Oluokun, a five-year veteran from Yale who is in his first season with the Jaguars, was superb in a punishing and thrilling 20-16 comeback victory Saturday night over the Tennessee Titans, compiling 13 tackles and a sack to enable Jacksonville (9-7) to win the AFC South. Oluokun had nine tackles after halftime. Of much more importance, the Jags defense scored the game-winning touchdown after safety Rayshawn Jenkins’ strip-sack of Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
Video of the week
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes called this funky spinning-huddle tactic “snow globe”. Unfortunately, the ensuing nine-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Kadarius Toney was called back because of a holding penalty. But Toney, the Giants’ 2021 first-round pick whom the Chiefs acquired in October, scored on an 11-yard run on the next play from scrimmage, so perhaps “snow globe” messed up the Raiders. Toney has played in nine games for the Giants and Chiefs this season – all victories for his team.
Stat of the week
Two ballsy points were scored on a conversion pass from Houston quarterback Davis Mills to Jordan Akins with 50 seconds left to lift the Texans (3-13-1) to a 32-31 victory over the Indianapolis Colts – and hand the No 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft to the Chicago Bears (3-14). The Bears already have a promising young quarterback, Justin Fields (who sat out Sunday’s 29-13 loss to Minnesota with a strained hip), so the Texans were likely to select a new QB whether they chose No 1 or 2 while Chicago may choose to trade down with a quarterback-hungry team. Lovie Smith won’t be around to direct Houston’s future though – he was fired Sunday evening despite his team showing plenty of fight at the end of the season.
Quote of the week
“Tell Someone You Love Them Today!” – Damar Hamlin on Twitter.
Hamlin tweeted out the message hours before the Bills played the Patriots on Sunday. Almost as if scripted, after the Bills saluted Hamlin before the game, the Bills’ Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown – the first time the Bills had returned a kickoff for a TD, the team pointed out, in three years and three months (aptly, Hamlin’s jersey number is No 3). Hamlin promptly tweeted: “OMFG!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Elsewhere around the league
— Because Miami squeezed past the Jets, the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8) fell short of sneaking into the playoffs. But veteran coach Mike Tomlin deserves a lot of credit for turning around a season that started with four losses in five games. Pittsburgh ended the season with six victories in seven games, including a robust 28-14 victory Sunday over Cleveland, to extend the club’s remarkable streak to 19 consecutive .500-or-better seasons. Only the Dallas Cowboys, who had 21 consecutive .500-or-better seasons from 1965 to 1985, have a longer such streak in the NFL. The New England Patriots also have a 19-season .500-or-better streak, set from 2001-19.
— So how worried – or, rather, how much more worried – do perpetually gloomy Eagles’ fans need to be after what unfolded at home Sunday? Philadelphia (14-3) clinched the NFC East and the conference’s No 1 seed with a 22-16 victory over the New York Giants, who were 16-point underdogs because the Giants were expected to sit a number of starters, including quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts returned to action after a two-game absence because of a shoulder injury, but the Eagles managed only one touchdown and five field goals. The Giants (9-7-1) hung tough behind third-string quarterback Davis Webb, and Philadelphia needed to recover an onside kick with 1 minute 38 seconds left to ice it. The Eagles get a first-round bye, but the entire Delaware Valley is likely to simmer for two weeks because the Eagles have been less than awesome for their last four games.
— The drama around Sean McVay’s future will only grow from here. Less than one full year after he led the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl victory, word dribbled out that the 36-year-old is thinking seriously about taking a break from coaching (but not football altogether, it was reported that McVay may like to move into the commentary booth). After the Rams lost in overtime to Seattle to finish the season at 5-12, McVay was asked if he’d be coaching the Rams next season. “I’m not thinking about that right now,” McVay said. What does “that” mean? “That I’m right here, right now, and we’ll deal with that stuff at a later time,” he replied.
— The Raiders became just the fifth team in NFL history, and first in 23 years, to have a 1,500-yard rusher and a 1,500-yard receiver in the same season: Josh Jacobs, with 1,653 rushing yards, and Davante Adams, with 1,526 receiving yards. That is great, but … each of the other four teams finished with winning records and made the playoffs: 1991 Cowboys, 1995 Cowboys, 1995 Lions and 1999 Colts. The Raiders finished 6-11, with four losses in their last five games. Plus, Jacobs is to become an unrestricted free agent, and veteran quarterback Derek Carr, who did not play Saturday, will most likely be traded.
— An 82-year-old NFL record set by none other than Slinging Sammy Baugh was broken late Saturday, and rather easily, by the Tennessee Titans’ rookie punter, Ryan Stonehouse. The 23-year-old belted three punts for a total of 166 yards in the loss to Jacksonville, helping him improve his season average to 53.1 yards per punt. Baugh, a Hall of Fame quarterback who played for Washington from 1939 to 1952, averaged 51.4 yards on 35 punts in 1940, including an 85-yarder. Baugh led the NFL in punting five times. Stonehouse’s longest punt this year was 74 yards, and his net average was 44 yards per kick.
AFC. Los Angeles Chargers (5) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (4); Miami Dolphins (7) @ Buffalo Bills (2); Baltimore Ravens (6) @ Cincinnati Bengals (3).
NFC. Dallas Cowboys (5) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4); Seattle Seahawks (7) @ San Francisco 49ers (2); New York Giants (6) @ Minnesota Vikings (3).