Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a fantastic finish of a Week 17 in the NFL. ...
• Aaron Rodgers made it worth the wait for the Green Bay Packers. So did Randall Cobb. And now who in Wisconsin can't find anything good to say about that Week 12 tie against Minnesota at Lambeau Field?
That dreaded and derided 26-26 tie against the Vikings just put the Packers into the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, at least in conjunction with Green Bay's ridiculously dramatic 33-28 conquest of Chicago at Soldier Field on Sunday.
Rodgers showed why the Packers were so patient with him and his broken left collarbone, an injury that cost him nearly eight full games after he suffered it in Week 9 against these same Bears. And Cobb showed why the Packers were willing to bide their time until he was ready to return from the broken tibia he suffered at Baltimore in Week 6.
Those two comebacks led to one hugely improbable comeback for Green Bay's playoff hopes, when Rodgers hit a wide-open Cobb from 48 yards out with 38 seconds left to stun the Bears, on a 4th-and-8 pass that very nearly never got launched due to an onrushing Julius Peppers. But thanks to Packers fullback John Kuhn throwing the block of his life, Rodgers had just enough time to elude Peppers rolling to the left, and fire the bomb that will go down in Green Bay lore.
They're back alright, Rodgers and Cobb, the two most valuable playmakers in the Green Bay arsenal. And so too are the Packers, whose NFC North division title earns them the NFC's No. 4 seed and a first-round playoff game with No. 5-seeded San Francisco (12-4) in Green Bay next weekend.
The Packers at 8-7-1 are the ugliest NFC division champ since Seattle won the West at 7-9 in 2010, and they're the first NFC North champ to ever finish with fewer than 10 wins. But I bet they don't care. In a game that featured five lead changes, Green Bay found a way to outlast the defensively deficient Bears, with Rodgers and Cobb at the heart of the Packers' formula for victory.
Rodgers was a gutsy 25-of-39 for 318 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. And in a plot twist that you just can't make up, both scoring passes were to Cobb, who was only activated off injured reserve on Saturday. Cobb caught just two passes in the game, but both came in the second half, and gave Green Bay a lead. His seven-yard touchdown grab put the Packers up 20-14 midway through the third quarter, and his game-winner unfolded on a play where the Bears gambled and brought extra pass pressure on Rodgers.
I'm not going to get carried away by Green Bay's near-death experience on Sunday in Chicago and proclaim the Packers the NFC's most dangerous playoff qualifier. They're not. I'd be surprised if they find a way to beat the mighty 49ers next week, with San Francisco having won six in a row entering the playoffs and owning as many wins as anyone in the NFC outside of top-seeded Seattle (13-3).
But the Packers are a different team with Rodgers and Cobb, and they will go into the 49ers game as the most feared eight-win playoff team in NFL history -- at least as far as I can recall. The 49ers defeated the Packers last year in the regular season, did it again (decisively) in the NFC divisional playoffs and made sure everyone knew it wasn't a fluke by repeating the beating in Week 1 of this season. One of those San Francisco victories came at Lambeau, so even that venerable stadium is not intimidating to Jim Harbaugh's club.
But the Packers have been expending so much energy and angst just to survive during Rodgers' absence that the accomplishment of making the playoffs, at what was almost literally the last possible second, has to ease some of the pressure and give them a sense of confidence and relief as they face January.
Green Bay waited for what must have seemed like forever for Rodgers and Cobb, and they delivered in the most dramatic fashion. Sometimes, even in the hurry-up-happy NFL, good things really do come to those who wait.
• I don't put the blame for the Bears' gut-wrenching homefield loss to Green Bay on the Chicago offense. It was the Bears defense that broke down again and again, inexplicably allowing the Packers to score their first touchdown when receiver Jarrett Boykin picked up a live ball and waltzed into the end zone from 15 yards out in the second quarter.
But that said, this game won't help quarterback Jay Cutler get that big contract extension he's hoping for from Chicago. Cutler was a sharp 15-of-24 for 226 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception, and 103.8 passer rating. But in the three games he played after returning to the lineup from injury in Week 15, Chicago lost twice and won in so-so fashion at Cleveland. Cutler is also a miserable 1-8 against Green Bay in his Bears career. After a 3-0 start to the season, Chicago won just five of its final 13 games, and fading down the stretch is beginning to become the Bears' trademark move.
• Raise your hand if you looked at the 4-6 San Diego Chargers after their Week 11 loss at Miami and said, "Yep, that's a playoff-bound club.'' Anyone? But then the Bolts went into Kansas City and stunned the 9-1 Chiefs, and wound up winning at Denver in Week 15. All told, San Diego won five out of its last six games, scratching its way to 9-7 and the winning lottery ticket for that highly-contested AFC six seed.
How sweet it must have felt for Philip Rivers and his veteran Chargers teammates to come back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to nip the No. 5-seeded Chiefs 27-24 in overtime at Qualcomm Stadium. After all those bitter collapses and blown leads and playoff losses in the team's Norv Turner coaching era, the Chargers are the Cinderella team in this year's postseason. Is there anything better in the NFL than the playoff berth that no one saw coming? From 5-7 over the course of three months, to 4-0 down the stretch when it really matters?
The Chargers needed the Ravens to falter in the past two weeks, and they did. They needed the Dolphins to sputter and die against the likes of the third- and fourth-place teams in the AFC East, and they obliged. They needed help, and they needed to keep winning. They got it, and they did their part, winning division games against Kansas City, Denver, Oakland and the Chiefs again in the final six weeks of the season.
Expect plenty of folks to jump on the Chargers' bandwagon and pick them to beat the Bengals next week in Cincinnati. That San Diego offense can move the ball, and the Chargers fit the "hot team'' label to a tee. Luck was certainly on their side on Sunday against the Chiefs. Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop will never have to buy another beer in San Diego if he so desires. It was Succop's uncharacteristic miss of a 41-yard, game-winning field-goal attempt near the end of regulation that breathed new life back in the Chargers' magic carpet ride.
• Getting eight wins out of a Jets team that was thought to have three- or four-win talent, at least on offense, probably should result in Rex Ryan getting some Coach of the Year votes. So owner Woody Johnson's decision to bring Ryan back for a sixth season in New York was very defensible on a lot of levels. The Jets defense has a chance to be special, and there's something to be said for continuity and patience on the coaching front. We don't know yet if Ryan has earned a short contract extension or will work next season in his so-called lame-duck season.
But New York's challenge in 2014 remains the same: getting its offense up to the level of the teams in the upper half of the league. Quarterback Geno Smith definitely made some late-season strides of improvement, but offensive playmakers remain in woefully short supply in New York. Ryan has never really been able to get his team's offense fixed for long, and that's very similar to the situation he endured in Baltimore as defensive coordinator: the Ravens seemed to be forever a defensively-led team that was offensively-challenged.
• Give this year's Joe Flacco-well-timed-free-agency award to Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy, who hung up four of the Panthers' NFL season-high nine sacks against Atlanta, and now has a career-best 15 as he approaches his opportunity to hit the market.
Hardy had three sacks in Carolina's pivotal home win over New Orleans last week, and his four against the Falcons means he had almost half of his 15 sacks in the final eight quarters of the season. He's only earning $1.35 million in the final year of his rookie deal, but after tying Kevin Greene's Panthers' team record, he's going to do exponentially better than that, no matter if he re-signs in Carolina or changes teams next spring.
• What a playoff-contending tease the Dolphins (8-8) turned out to be. With the postseason within its grasp, Miami came up ridiculously small in Weeks 16-17, losing 19-0 at Buffalo and 20-7 at home against the Jets on Sunday. One touchdown in the final eight quarters is pathetic, especially since the Dolphins had beaten the Jets, Steelers and Patriots before losing to the clubs that had occupied the bottom two spots in the AFC East for most of the season.
Miami had everything to play for against New York, but had no spark or sense of urgency, going scoreless after taking a 7-0 lead. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was picked off by the Jets three times, with a pair of those by much-derided rookie cornerback Dee Milliner, New York's first-round pick.
• It's going to be a bit strange this year, not having Baltimore in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But the defending Super Bowl champs just ran out of gas two weeks shy of the postseason, losing their final two games by a combined 75-24 against playoff-bound New England and Cincinnati.
The Ravens looked listless and flat for much of their 34-17 loss at Cincinnati on Sunday, and you have to wonder if John Harbaugh's team spent all of its emotion and energy on those two remarkable comeback victories against Minnesota and Detroit in Weeks 14-15. Maybe there is something to the idea of a Super Bowl hangover, because when Baltimore needed to find an extra gear the past two weeks, it just wasn't there.
With the Ravens eliminated from the playoff race, the NFL's longest current streak of consecutive playoff seasons now belongs to New England and Green Bay, with five.
• The Bengals found a way to get it done against the Ravens and finished 8-0 this season at home, and 11-5 overall. But I still don't have a lot of confidence in my AFC preseason Super Bowl pick heading into the playoffs. I'm pretty sure it has plenty to do with those four Andy Dalton interceptions against Baltimore.
The picks weren't all Dalton's fault, but it wasn't the kind of note the Bengals' quarterback wanted to enter the postseason on, even if he did wind up setting team records for touchdown passes (33) and passing yards (4,296) this season.
The No. 3-seeded Bengals will draw upstart No. 6-seeded San Diego (9-7) at home in the first round of the playoffs next week, and be comfortably favored, and rightly so. But the game will be pressure-packed for Cincinnati, given the history of the Bengals in the playoffs. They've lost on the road at Houston in the first round in each of the past two years, and Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game of any sort since a win over the Houston Oilers in the 1990 postseason.
Nothing less than at least one playoff win should suffice this year in Cincinnati. The Chargers should be playing loose and with house money in the postseason after their December rally. But if the first Bengals home loss of the season is next weekend, no amount of spin will be able to disguise the fact that Marvin Lewis's team again underachieved in 2013.
• Gutty win for the Panthers at Atlanta, because Carolina overcame a sluggish first quarter and withstood a late comeback attempt by the Falcons, who were bidding an emotional farewell to retiring tight end Tony Gonzalez (and this time he really means it).
The Panthers hung on for a 21-20 win, earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC and receiving a much-needed first-round bye, and a divisional-round home game. That's time off Carolina desperately needs, because the thought of a legitimate Super Bowl run being mounted without a healthy Steve Smith is far-fetched. The veteran receiver sat out the Falcons game with a knee sprain and now won't have to test it for two weeks.
Carolina's pass rush was phenomenal against Atlanta, with an NFL season-high nine sacks, setting the Panthers' one-game record and giving them a club-record 60 this season. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's defense is playing as well as any other team in the league at the moment, and it looks ready to withstand the pressure of the postseason.
• I know this might not be a popular notion in eight other NFL cities about now, but if form holds and the top two seeds in each conference wind up meeting in the conference title games, how could we complain about Carolina at Seattle in the NFC, in a matchup of dominant defenses; and New England at Denver in the AFC, in another Tom Brady-Peyton Manning playoff duel?
• Vikings rookie Cordarelle Patterson's absence from this year's NFC Pro Bowl team takes the notion of a Pro Bowl snub to a whole new level. The Pro Bowl, of course, has done away with kickoffs this season for the first time, and that leaves Patterson and his league-best 32.4-yard kickoff return average on the outside looking in.
Patterson made his omission a glaring one with his performance in Sunday's 14-13 win over Detroit, scoring on a scintillating 50-yard rush late in the first quarter, and a pretty 8-yard catch early in the fourth quarter. The rushing touchdown was the longest in Vikings history by a receiver, and he set another team record for the most rushing touchdowns in a season by a receiver, with three.
It's hard to take the Pro Bowl seriously any way, but without the dangerous and multi-faceted Patterson on the NFC roster in some capacity, it's a complete joke.
• The Rob Chudzinski tenure in Cleveland isn't looking very long-term at the moment. (UPDATE: The Browns have fired Chudzinski, per multiple reports.) Had one long-time NFL source in the coaching community tell me his surprise head coaching vacancy will be in Cleveland, where the Browns front office is apparently disappointed in some aspects of Chudzinski's first-year work. The source noted that Chudzinkski, of course, wasn't the first choice of team president Joe Banner last year (that was Oregon's Chip Kelly), and that Browns decision-makers haven't liked Chudzinski's inability to stop the bleeding in the second half of the season.
Cleveland started a very competitive 3-2 in the AFC North, despite playing quarterback roulette between Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell for most of the season, but lost 10 out of 11 and its final seven games to finish 4-12, one game worse than its last-place showing of 2012. The Browns are said to have their eye on either current Penn State head coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien or current New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel. That sounds like Browns general manager Mike Lombardi, who worked with Bill Belichick in Cleveland in the early '90s, isn't exactly in the Chudzinski camp.
• Not really a fan of how the Chiefs helped decide the AFC's sixth and final playoff berth in favor of San Diego. Kansas City, locked into the AFC's No. 5 seed and having nothing to play for against the Chargers, decided to rest Len Dawson, Mike Garrett, Otis Taylor, Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, Jim Tyrer and Curley Culp.
Well, actually, rather than members of their 1969 Super Bowl team, the Chiefs sat Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, Derrick Johnson, Branden Albert, Dwayne Bowe, Tamba Hali and Dontari Poe. But the effect was the same. Kansas City played its JV squad against the Chargers, no matter that Pittsburgh needed a Chiefs win over San Diego to make the playoffs. And even though Kansas City played the game hard with those players available, it's the mentality of resting players en masse while the playoff races are still on that doesn't sit right.
Three weeks ago, this is what Hall of Fame head coach John Madden had to say about Mike Shanahan's decision to bench quarterback Robert Griffin III for the final three games of the year: "We have an integrity piece here, too. You can say, 'Well they're 3-10, they're out of it, so now they can do these things.' No you can't. This is still regular-season football. Draft order, that's one small thing, but you still owe it to the people that are playing, that are still in the playoff picture. And when you can affect that and you don't affect it with an all-out performance, then I think that affects the integrity of the game."
If Griffin's benching affected the integrity of the game, even though Washington only played one more game against a playoff contender (at home in Week 16 against Dallas), then how is Kansas City's decision to bench seven of its best players any different? It certainly impacted the AFC wild-card playoff race in terms of the No. 6 seed.
You can say that Kansas City earned that right, and I suppose the Chiefs did. But that doesn't mean it's the right call for the integrity of the playoff races. It's not and it never will be in my view. Just like when the 2009 Colts barely played Peyton Manning in Week 16 against the Jets, who went on to make the playoffs because of it, and eventually win their way to the AFC title game.
I don't think Pittsburgh can complain too loudly, given that the Steelers started 0-4 and went just 8-8. But the rest of us can. The Chiefs en masse benching stinks in my opinion. It's one of the ways Week 17 can wind up offering a less than level playing field for playoff contenders.
• That RGIII trade looks better for the Rams all the time. The blockbuster deal eventually played a role in getting Mike Shanahan fired in Washington (after perhaps initially earning him a fourth season in D.C.), but it has been nothing but aces for St. Louis. With Washington's loss to the Giants, the Redskins (3-13) locked up the No. 2 pick, which they will promptly ship to the Rams as the final payment in the Griffin trade.
The Rams traded their No. 2 pick in 2012 and received first-round selections in 2012 and '13, with a second-rounder in 2012, and now, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014. They won't get a king's ransom in trade for this No. 2, but they might again put it up for auction and see if a quarterback-needy team, or someone in love with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, comes calling.
Players who have been drafted by the Rams with those picks from the Redskins, or the extra picks that St. Louis turned them into, include defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, linebacker Alec Olgetree, running back Zac Stacy and whomever comes their way via the No. 2 pick in 2014. Maybe not Herschel Walker-turn-the-franchise-around-overnight-like, but a pretty good haul nonetheless.
• Peyton Manning hung up video-game numbers this season and his record-breaking totals of 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards have to earn him the distinction of the greatest season ever produced by a quarterback.
But, and we're repeating ourself here, if it doesn't produce a Super Bowl ring for the Broncos, it's going to be perhaps the most bitter pill Manning has ever had to swallow in his tortured playoff history. That's just the reality of his record-shattering -- and no doubt MVP-winning -- performance in 2013.
Manning knows that better than anyone. Either he parlays the Broncos' No 1 seed and all that offense into the big confetti shower on the night of Feb. 2 in his little brother's home stadium, or his historic production is going to feel like it has gone for naught. I don't think it's a stretch at all to say this year is his last, best chance to join the two-ring club.
• I know there was some reporting that Raiders head coach Dennis Allen is safe for the 2014 season, but that was before Oakland went out and trailed visiting Denver 31-0 at the half. The Broncos pulled Manning after four touchdown passes and a 25-of-28, 266-yard first half, and that helped the Raiders lose by a more respectable 34-14.
But with back-to-back 4-12's in Allen's first two seasons in Oakland, I won't be shocked if Raiders owner Mark Davis decides not to show the patience he planned on and asks this young head coach to turn in his key card and his parking space at some point in the coming days.
• The Texans are going to interview San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as the final candidate for their vacant head coaching job, and they reportedly might be ready to make a hire as early as Tuesday. While ESPN reported that Houston is already in negotiations to hire Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien, don't sell Whisenhunt's chances short.
Texans general manager Rick Smith is thought to be very high on Whisenhunt's candidacy, and the former Arizona Cardinals head coach is no cursory interview. He'll get his fair shot to make a case for the job, and one league source close to the situation told me Saturday night to be wary of prematurely locking in O'Brien as Houston's selection, even if he is the overwhelming favorite. Remember, last year during hiring season, Andy Reid was reportedly "95 percent'' certain to be Arizona's new head coach.
• Remember when the Colts seemed to bury themselves in the first half every week? Those days seem gone. Indianapolis raced out to a season-high 17 points in the opening 15 minutes, then cruised past Jacksonville 30-10, to win its third straight game and fourth in five games.
And it looks like the Colts have a found themselves a legitimate go-to receiving threat to replace the injured Reggie Wayne. Second-year veteran T.Y. Hilton had a monster game with a career-best 11 catches for 155 yards, and the Colts offense was going so good against the Jaguars it even got a rushing touchdown from Trent Richardson -- his first since Week 4.
Indianapolis is seeded fourth in the AFC and will play host to No. 5 Kansas City next week in the first round of the playoffs. And at 11-5, the Colts matched their regular-season record of last year, settling one question, I suppose. There were those who wondered if head coach Chuck Pagano or interim head coach Bruce Arians deserved the credit for Indy's remarkable turnaround season of a year ago. But in leading the Colts to an identical record, plus a division title (rather than a wild-card berth), Pagano more than proved his coaching value this season.