We don’t make ‘em up.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Packers were sitting at 4-8, and angry Cheeseheads were calling for Jordan Love to take over for Aaron Rodgers. But not now. Because now Green Bay has a pulse again, winning its last four -- including Sunday’s 41-17 rout of division-leading Minnesota—to move into the unlikeliest of positions.
The Packers are one victory from the postseason.
Surprising? More like stunning. Because it’s not Rodgers who has them there. It’s a running game that shredded Minnesota for 163 yards Sunday and an opportunistic defense that forced 12 takeaways the past four games.
Trust me, that’s not how this season was supposed to move.
Preseason forecasts had Rodgers competing for another MVP award, and the Packers running away with the NFC North. But those predictions quickly evaporated as the Packers sank in the standings, and Rodgers underperformed, losing more games and throwing more interceptions than in his last two years combined.
Something had to give, and something did.
The Packers relied more on backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon than Rodgers, and the results speak for themselves. Over the past month, the running game produced more TDs (7) than A-Rod scoring passes (4). Coincidentally, the Pack’s time of possession accelerated, with Green Bay holding a decisive advantage in each of its four wins.
As opponents fell behind, they threw more … and you saw what happened to Kirk Cousins on Sunday: He was intercepted three times Sunday, including one for a pick six, pushing the Pack’s total to nine picks over its last four starts.
Bottom line: It took time, but Green Bay finally seems to have found its identity.
Which brings us to next weekend. All the Packers must do is beat Detroit at Lambeau Field, and they’re in the playoffs. Under normal circumstances, that would be nothing but net. The Lions are 3-19 in Green Bay since 2000. But there’s nothing normal about these Lions. They won seven of their last nine, including a 15-9 defeat of the Packers, and – like Green Bay -- are in the playoff picture.
Nevertheless, it’s the Packers who hold the upper hand. If they win, and they’re in. If the Lions win, they’re not. Not immediately. They’ll need help.
“We’re becoming a more dangerous team,” a subdued Rodgers admitted Sunday. “We’ve all seen some of the commentary outside as we went from 4-8 to 5-8 to 6-8 … and nobody’s worried about the Packers … and blah, blah, blah. Now what are they going to say?”
We just said it.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
1. Mike Tomlin is pushing the envelope. The Steelers’ head coach hasn’t had a losing season since taking over in Pittsburgh in 2007, but this was the year that streak was supposed to end. Except it hasn’t. Winning five of their last six games, the Steelers are 8-8 and a longshot to make the playoffs. You heard me: The playoffs. With a victory against Cleveland next week, they preserve Tomlin’s record and get a shot at the postseason. Once, both seemed unimaginable. Now, it’s Mike Tomlin doing what he’s done since taking over from Bill Cowher: Keeping the Steelers competitive.
2. Jarrett Stidham passed the audition. I know, he committed a fatal interception in OT, but a show of hands, please, for all those who expected him to throw for 365 yards and three TDs vs. San Francisco. “I think he shocked a lot of people,” said receiver Davante Adams, “(but) he didn’t shock me.” I didn’t like what happened with Derek Carr last week, either, but I liked what I saw from Stidham when he got his chance. I know it’s one game, but you had to wonder: Why did the Patriots let him go?
3. Daniel Jones just punched his ticket for 2023. The Giants didn’t pick up his fifth-year option for a reason: They didn’t believe in him. Well, now they do. So do the legions of fans who chanted his name Sunday. And they should. He just led Big Blue to its first playoff appearance since 2016. Happy New Year, Daniel. You’re not going anywhere. The Giants will make you a rich young man this year.
4. The Chiefs’ Jerick McKinnon is a lethal weapon. Once upon a time, he was little more than a role player. Not anymore. Now he’s a Red Zone monster. He has at least one touchdown catch in each of his last five games, which ties a record for running backs in the Super Bowl era. Over the same span, he has eight scores, including seven receiving – or more than in any of his previous seven seasons. Next to Travis Kelce, McKinnon has become Patrick Mahomes’ most dangerous weapon.
5. Tom Brady won’t go away. Just when we’d given up on him, Tom Terrific re-emerges – throwing for a season-high 432 yards and three touchdowns to clinch a must-win over Carolina and another 19th division title. Granted, at 8-8 the Bucs aren’t much of a postseason threat. But with Brady in the playoffs? That makes anyone he quarterbacks dangerous.
THIRD AND 20
1. And that, people, is why nobody trusts Minnesota to go deep in the playoffs.
2. Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander won’t be your Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s your Defensive Player of the Day. That’s because the Packers’ star cornerback did what others have not: Make Justin Jefferson a non-factor. He had one catch for 15 yards, and, no, that’s not a misprint. Remember: It was Alexander who last week called Jefferson’s nine catches, 184 yards and two TDs vs. Green Bay in the season opener “a fluke.” Then he went out and proved it.
3. Consider that a playoff warmup for San Francisco’s Brock Purdy. He had to rally the 49ers from a 10-point deficit, and he responded with poise and big plays. On an afternoon when the league’s toughest defense sprung a leak, Purdy kept the 49ers from fading away … and that should make him ready for what’s next in January.
4. Hard to believe but … Jalen Hurts may have gained more MVP traction. I know, he didn’t play. Gardner Minshew did. But look what Philadelphia did sans Hurts: Zilch. The Eagles lost their second straight without him, and maybe, just maybe, that convinces some voters of Hurts’ value. Philadelphia is 13-1 with him;-0-2 without.
5. Mike Evans is still a game changer. He hadn’t scored since Oct. 2 and, until Sunday, had only three TDs all season. Then he erupted for 207 yards and three scores to lead Tampa Bay to its second straight NFC South championship – the first time the Bucs won back-to-back division titles. If the Bucs are to make noise in the playoffs, Evans must not disappear again.
6. So Denver GM George Paton is safe … for now. One question: Why? He flubbed the two biggest decisions for a general manager. -- botching the head-coach (Nathaniel Hackett, fired after 15 games) and quarterback (Russell Wilson) hires. Worse, he gave up the farm for Wilson, then paid him a gazillion bucks. Those are swinging strikes that get most GMs fired.
7. The Broncos reportedly will be “ultra aggressive” in their pursuit of a new head coach. If that’s true, here’s a suggestion: Do what it takes to lure Sean Payton or Jim Harbaugh.
8. Shame on Ron Rivera. It wasn’t Wentz who put the Washington Commanders in playoff contention. It was Taylor Heinicke. Wentz is an accident waiting to happen, and we got a front-end pile-up Sunday. Put a quarterback at the head of Washington’s wish list for 2023.
9. Nobody does stretch drives like Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur. He’s 18-1 in regular season games in December and January, including victories in his last 15 games in December. But now comes the litmus test: The Pack ends its season vs. Detroit next week, and, like Green Bay, the Lions are surging.
10. There will be a bull’s eye on Joe Mixon’s jersey Monday. But that’s what happens when you call your club “the big dog of the AFC,” say “for anything to happen it has to go through us’ and then line up to play Josh Allen and Buffalo.
11. So Justin Fields runs for another132 yards. He’s a quarterback, not a running back, and he threw for 75 yards. Moreover, Chicago had 7 net yards at the half, 30 for the game and lost its ninth straight. Fields has no 300-yard games this season, two of 200 or more and two under 100. I don’t care how many yards he picks up with his legs. You can’t win with Bobby Douglass II.
12. New England is still alive for a playoff spot, and that’s the good news. The bad? The Pats go to Buffalo next weekend. With home-field advantage at stake, the Bills won’t be resting starters.
13. OK, I’ll ask it again: How on earth does Austin Ekeler go undrafted? All he’s done is lead the league in TDs the past two seasons.
14. We know that Philadelphia must beat the Giants in their season finale to lock down the NFC’s top playoff seed. What we don’t know is if the Giants’ Brian Daboll rests his starters. The Giants are the No.6 seed no matter what happens next week, so logic says Daboll sits his first team. Except … except Tom Coughlin didn’t do that for the 2007 season finale vs. then-unbeaten New England, and look what happened.
15. I’m with Tony Romo: Only the No. 1 or 2 seeds in the NFC reach the Super Bowl.
16. Now playing at a theater near you: “Nope,” the story of the New York Jets’ quest for their first playoff spot since 2010.
17. That was more than a big win for Seattle’s Geno Smith. It was a big pay day, too. His contract calls for a $1 million-dollar bonus if he passed for 4,000 yards. He just did.
18. Kenny Pickett is beginning to make the Steelers look like geniuses. That’s two straight starts with game-winning TD passes in the last minute -- with Sunday’s the more significant. It broke a streak of 15 straight quarters at home where Baltimore hadn’t allowed a touchdown.
19. Tua Tagovailoa reportedly wants to return to the Dolphins if they reach the playoffs, but that can’t be his call. He’s had three concussions this season. It might be time for an intervention.
20. Tough weekend for the Harbaughs. Jim and John were 0-2 vs. TCU and the Steelers.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET STATS
n Mike Evans has nine straight 1,000-yard seasons, tied with Hall-of-Famer Tim Brown for the second longest streak. Only Jerry Rice (11) is better.
n Atlanta’s Tyler Allgeier has 1,039 scrimmage yards this season, the most for a Falcons’ rookie in 40 years.
n New England is 8-0 when it allows fewer than 20 points. It’s 0-8 when it allows 20 or more.
n Detroit’s Jared Goff hasn’t thrown an interception in his last eight starts.
n According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Raiders are the first team in NFL history to lose five games in a season where they led by 10 points or more in the second half.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES
n This was one of the best games I’ve seen Tom play since he’s been here.” – Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans on Tom Brady.
n “If Patrick Mahomes made this play, we’d be putting into the Hall of Fame. That’s a Patrick Mahomes kind of magical moment in the clutch part of a game that sets quarterbacks apart.” – NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth on Kenny Pickett’s game-winning touchdown pass.
n “A huge accomplishment.” – N.Y. Giants’ running back Saquon Barkley on the Giants’ reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
n “Obviously, if he’s ready to go, he’ll play.” -- Philadelphia coach Nick Sirianni on Jalen Hurts’ availability next week.
n “I’ve got a ton of respect for him. He played his ass off.” – Las Vegas defensive end Maxx Crosby on Jarrett Stidham.