On Saturday night, Aaron Rodgers left Lambeau Field in a daze. Whether it’s for the final time remains unknown, but the loss is crushing.
Where to go from here?
The No. 1 seed, home-field in a building where the Green Bay Packers hadn’t lost all year, and a beat-up, warm-weather team coming into Lambeau Field on a 12-degree night.
Aaron Rodgers, the presumptive back-to-back MVP, had it teed up. And then the Packers lost.
In a stunning NFC Divisional round game on Saturday night, the San Francisco 49ers toppled the top-seeded Packers, 13-10, winning on a last-second, 45-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.
At the game’s outset, Rodgers led an opening drive of 10 plays and 69 yards for a touchdown, accounting for 54 yards through the air. Afterwards, save for a busted coverage leading to a 75-yard catch-and-run for running back Aaron Jones, Rodgers was 15-of-23 for 96 yards.
While it’s fair to point at rancid special teams play — they had a 39-yard field goal blocked before giving up a crushing blocked punt touchdown with 4:41 remaining in regulation — Green Bay needed its generational quarterback to make a few plays. He never came close.
For Rodgers, it’s not merely the latest in a long string of brutal playoff exits. It’s the worst.
At 38 years old, Rodgers knows this was his last best shot.
This Green Bay team was loaded. A No. 1 seed for the second straight year, and a conference headlined by a wounded Tampa Bay Buccaneers team and the Los Angeles Rams, led by a quarterback with one playoff win.
Somehow, the Packers failed to even reach the NFC Championship Game, with Rodgers failing to put together a single drive after the opening march. On his 27 targets, 21 were for either receiver Davante Adams or Jones.
Rodgers only threw four interceptions this year, by far the fewest of any quarterback who started the majority of his team’s games. But on Saturday, that presented as part of the problem. San Francisco doubled Adams and challenged Rodgers to make tight throws elsewhere to lesser targets. As aforementioned, he didn’t make any effort to do so.
Now the Packers enter an offseason where they’re projected to be $40.6 million over the cap with a litany of stars hitting free agency including corners Rasul Douglas and Jaire Alexander, All-Pro linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, tight end Robert Tonyan and Adams.
To be cap compliant, it’s likely edge rushers Za’Darius and Preston Smith are released to save $28.25 million. Randall Cobb, Rodgers’ longtime teammate who he lobbied for in the offseason, is almost certainly gone to save an additional $7 million.
Green Bay, barring an incredible draft class, is going to be a lesser team in 2022.
Which raises the question, does Rodgers want to stick around?
After the game, Rodgers stated he’s unsure about his future including the possibility of retirement. He stated he doesn’t want to be involved with a rebuild and with a serious cap crunch looming, it brings up a legion of questions for both Rodgers and Green Bay’s front office.
For general manager Brian Gutekunst, maybe it’s time. Yes, Rodgers is brilliant and irreplaceable, but Jordan Love is entering his third year on a cheap rookie deal. If he can’t play by now, when? Also, Gutekunst can reset the franchise financially while stockpiling a hoard of assets. Rodgers, even at his age, will be worth a fortune in a trade.
And quietly, would Green Bay welcome a change of tone in the building? Rodgers is phenomenal but difficult, breathtaking and baffling. He’s irrepressible and impossible, this year fighting wars with the media and culture critics alike. If the noise comes with Super Bowl parades, fine. If it comes with early exits and painstaking offseasons, that’s another story.
Most endings, in life and football, aren’t pretty. Few end like John Elway. Most end like Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath. Hell, even Joe Montana or Tom Brady. Different uniforms, a few final seasons searching for glory, and then exit stage left.
Where to go from here? Perhaps another city. Maybe this time, it’s a mutual desire.
Top 10 (retired) quarterbacks to never win a Super Bowl
1. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins
2. Dan Fouts, San Diego Chargers
3. Warren Moon, Houston Oilers
4. Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills
5. Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings
6. Sonny Jurgensen, Washington Football Team
7. Ken Anderson, Cincinnati Bengals
8. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
9. Boomer Esiason, Cincinnati Bengals
10. Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles
"“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it, so you know, we will just take it day by day and kind of see where we are at.”"
– Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady on whether he’ll retire
Brady turns 45 years old in August, but it’s hard to see him retiring. The Buccaneers should be terrific again next season, playing in a weak NFC South. The seven-time champ is coming off a season where he threw for 5,316 yards and 43 touchdowns, and Tampa Bay won 13 regular-season games.
With one year and $25 million remaining on his deal, the most-likely scenario is Brady plays one more time.
The Houston Texans are the only franchise to never play in a conference championship game.
Info learned this week
1. Chiefs-Bills author instant classic, perfection personified
Patrick Mahomes won, but Josh Allen didn’t lose.
In a 42-36 overtime thriller which saw the Kansas City Chiefs advance to their fourth straight AFC Championship Game — all at Arrowhead Stadium — Mahomes was unrelentingly phenomenal. Yet the Buffalo Bills showcased who could be his equal in Josh Allen, who went throw-for-throw, run-for-run with Mahomes on his own turf.
All told, Allen was 27-of-37 for 329 passing yards and four touchdowns with another 68 yards on the ground. Mahomes somehow was even better at 33-of-44 for 378 aerial yards and three scores, along with 69 rushing yards and another touchdown.
In the final two minutes, each man drove his team to multiple scores, including a two-play, 10-second, 44-yard drive by Mahomes to set up a game-tying 49-yard field goal by Harrison Butker as regulation expired. After Kansas City won the all-important coin toss, Mahomes finished the Bills with an eight-play, 75-yard drive capped by an 8-yard laser to tight end Travis Kelce in the right back corner of the end zone.
For Kansas City fans, an elating victory. For Buffalo supporters, an all-time defeat. The proverbial agony and ecstasy of sports.
Yet the game will live on, largely remembered more for Allen and Mahomes than anything else. On Sunday night, a national audience got to witness two men in their primes, on great teams, playing at the zenith of their abilities. It was the sport of football being played at its highest level, with Mahomes providing another indelible memory and a chapter in his legacy.
The Chiefs won to advance, while the Bills head home on the longest two-hour flight in history.
We’ll be seeing plenty more of this matchup in the future, and we should all be grateful.
2. Vrabel, Tannehill must wear brutal defeat for top-seeded Titans
Of the four losing teams this week, everybody has a reason to be sick. For the Tennessee Titans, the nausea should be shared between head coach and quarterback.
On Saturday evening, Mike Vrabel and Ryan Tannehill combined in a disastrous loss from the one-and-done Titans, who went from top seed to ousted in three hours by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Tannehill threw a trio of interceptions, including a mind-numbing throw with 20 seconds remaining at the Cincinnati 47-yard line. Four plays later, it was over. 19-16 Bengals. While Tannehill was under pressure much of the night, his interceptions were all result of bad process — and a very athletic play by Mike Hilton.
As for Vrabel, the time management was stunning. Tied at 16, Tennessee possessed the ball at its own 16-yard line with 2:43 remaining in the fourth quarter. On first down, Derrick Henry ran for three yards before Vrabel let the clock run to the two-minute warning. Afterwards, a pass for 16 yards and a Cincinnati injury timeout.
First and 10, 1:45 remaining from the Titans’ 35-yard line, and a Henry run for no gain. After letting 38 seconds elapse, Tennessee threw short across the middle for five yards. Then, after running the play clock all the way down, Tannehill threw an interception on third down.
What is that? Tannehill has been fit for goat horns and rightfully so, but Vrabel was a mess. If he doesn’t believe in his quarterback to that extent, Vrabel needs to tell general manager John Robinson to start replacing Tannehill yesterday. Furthermore, either try to win the game or run the clock out. The Titans played the bizarre middle ground and got beat for it.
3. Rams show their strength, flaws in dizzying win over Buccaneers
At 27-3, the Los Angeles Rams were cruising to a win over Tampa Bay and Tom Brady.
Then, after three turnovers in barely a quarter, it was 27-27 and the Rams were on the verge of an all-time collapse. But ultimately, it was Matthew Stafford delivering with a 44-yard bomb with 27 seconds remaining, setting up Matt Gay for a game-winning 30-yard field goal.
Over the final 18:02, the Rams lost three fumbles including Cooper Kupp being stripped at Los Angeles’ 40-yard line, a snap over Stafford’s head on the play after Von Miller stripped Brady with a two-touchdown lead, and then Cam Akers losing his second fumble with 2:32 remaining up 27-20 at his own 30-yard line.
It was a meltdown, right up until it was saved by Stafford, who won his second playoff game and first away from home.
For the Rams, the game can be seen in two lights. One, they fell apart against an injured, overmatched Bucs team that had no business being alive in the fourth quarter. Two, Los Angeles lived a nightmare but pulled through, something which makes it stronger.
We’re going to find out soon, with the Rams hosting the 49ers as they try to snap a six-game losing streak to Kyle Shanahan’s club.
4. Giants hire Schoen as GM, who understands importance of getting QB right
A few important, non-playoff items and we start with the New York Giants hiring Joe Schoen away from Buffalo.
Schoen comes over after five seasons in Buffalo, where he watched the team transform once Josh Allen took wing. Before his stop in western New York, Schoen spent 2002-07 with the Carolina Panthers and 2008-16 with the Miami Dolphins. In both places, he watched as the franchises struggled to maintain relevance without top-tier quarterbacks.
After seeing Allen’s ability lift the Bills from perennial losers to consistent contenders, there’s little doubt Schoen understands his biggest task. Yes, New York needs to find the right head coach, but with two first-round picks to use, Schoen needs to upgrade Daniel Jones.
While the Giants will publicly back Jones, they realize he’s not the answer after three turnover-filled campaigns. Whether there’s a rookie Schoen believes in is unknown, but such draft capital could also be used in a trade, say for Russell Wilson.
5. Saints could be looking for new coach amid Sean Payton rumors
Sean Payton has helmed the New Orleans Saints since 2006. Perhaps that run ends now.
Payton, the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL behind Bill Belichick in New England, is reportedly unsure whether he wants to coach in 2022. Despite having three years remaining no his contract, reports state the 58-year-old could step back before returning to the NFL later on.
If Payton leaves New Orleans, the Saints could be in full-on rebuilding mode. For the better part of the last decade, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has defied the salary cap, eating hoards of dead money while restructuring his sheet into hell. Payton’s exit would provide an opportunity to reset, especially without an expensive quarterback on the roster to placate.
As for Payton, watch for the Dallas Cowboys. If he’s really looking for only a one-year hiatus and Mike McCarthy blunders again, Payton is extremely close with Dallas owner Jerry Jones. Payton, who served under Bill Parcells as an assistant with the Cowboys, is known to spend time with Jones when possible at NFL events.
It would be a great fit for both team and coach, should it line up.
Tease the conference championship games. Over at WynnBet, you can get the 49ers up to +9.5 and the Chiefs’ number to -1, making it essentially a moneyline pick.
The Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders have a combined drought of 40 seasons since their last playoff victories. There’s a reason why, and it’s been on full display this offseason.
Despite winning records in each of the last two seasons with a horrid offensive line and a limited quarterback, the Dolphins fired head coach Brian Flores. Immediately, Flores became of interest to almost every NFL team with an opening. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross decided to move on from a talented, 40-year-old coach who had respect in the locker room, and then the convenient leaks began about clashes within the building.
In Las Vegas, owner Mark Davis one-upped Ross on his malpractice. Last week, the Raiders announced the dismissal of general manager Mike Mayock, but only after multiple candidates and subsequent interviews dates were made public. Las Vegas is within its rights to fire Mayock, but being so sloppy with the process is a pathetic look.
Additionally, Davis watched interim coach Rich Basaccia pull a miracle by leading the Raiders to four consecutive wins to finish the regular season, earning the franchise’s second playoff berth since 2002. Basaccia, who remains a candidate for the permanent job, has seen star edge rusher Maxx Crosby go on a media tour loudly supporting him, but Davis is reportedly smitten with the idea of hiring University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The Dolphins and Raiders both finished with winning records in 2021, and Las Vegas reached the postseason despite an incredibly difficult year.
Thanks to their owners, both find themselves potentially going backwards.
Inside the league
Expect the head-coaching and general manager vacancies to get filled this week.
With Senior Bowl week beginning on Jan. 31, teams are going to make decisions in the coming days. The trip to Mobile is somewhat of an unofficial deadline, because nobody wants to be scouting players without a complete staff on hand.
Within the next five days, we should see movement from the Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Texans, Dolphins, Raiders, Bears and Giants.
Super Bowl XII was historic in many ways.
When the Broncos and Dallas Cowboys met in New Orleans, it marked the first time Super Sunday took place indoors. It was the also the first Super Bowl at night.
The action produced one last oddity, with the game’s MVP being split between Cowboys’ defensive stars Harvey Martin and Randy White. Dallas won 27-10, giving it a second title in the decade.
We just witnessed the greatest weekend of playoff football in NFL history.