The Lions had lost 11 of 12 games and eight in a row. Their defense was near the bottom of the NFL in every important statistical category, and dead last in passing yards allowed.
And in a hugely important game for the Packers that meant nothing for the Lions and their awful defense, Aaron Rodgers’ line at one point was 2-of-12 for 29 yards. The Packers trailed 14-0.
Rodgers will be credited for a second-half rally, but the truth is if the Lions had a remotely competent quarterback, the Packers would have lost. Green Bay needed every second against a putrid Lions team to squeeze out a 23-20 win and clinch a first-round bye. Rodgers threw a pair of second-half touchdowns and Mason Crosby hit a game-winning field goal as time expired. The Packers were even alive for the No. 1 seed, just needing a Seahawks win over the 49ers on “Sunday Night Football.”
It might be the least intimidating 13-3 team we’ve seen in a long time. Part of that is the quarterback, who might have moved from all-time great to currently good.
No matter if Rodgers doesn’t have a lot to work with outside of Davante Adams, if Matt LaFleur’s scheme is new and maybe not fitting, Rodgers shouldn’t have let the Lions hang around that long on Sunday. The Rodgers of five or 10 years ago would have buried the Lions by halftime.
It’s not that Rodgers is bad. And he’s still capable of moments where he looks great, like some plays in the second half Sunday. But it’s hard to see the Packers rolling through the playoffs if they can barely beat the Lions. Rodgers couldn’t get anything going on a possession at the two-minute warning and threw an interception on third-and-20, but the Lions were so bad they gave it right back with plenty of time to get a field goal.
While it seemed that injuries the past couple years, or Mike McCarthy’s coaching, were holding back Rodgers, maybe the decline was already happening. Rodgers has been healthy this season. He had a new coach who was supposed to bring creative offensive ideas. And while the Packers have had a good season, it was clear all year they were over their skis a bit as their record kept improving. The Packers rarely looked like a 12-3 team. And even when they did, it was because Aaron Jones was dominating or the defense was on a hot streak. Rodgers has been good. Not great.
When the playoffs start, you’ll hear about the Packers being dangerous because of Rodgers. And prime Rodgers was one of the best quarterbacks ever, so it’s hard to rule out him having a great playoff run. Being in Lambeau Field in January is a tremendous equalizer. But a few years ago, the thought of having to face Rodgers and a 13-3 Packers team in Green Bay for the playoffs would have been frightening. Not so much anymore.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 17 of the NFL season:
Dallas Cowboys, kinda: Hey, the Cowboys played one of their best games of the season.
Great. It’s mostly a reason to ask where this was most of the season. Ezekiel Elliott looked great, scoring two touchdowns. Michael Gallup reemerged and looked like the breakout player he was earlier this season, scoring two spectacular touchdowns.
And it meant very little. The Eagles won in New York, clinching the NFC East title. The Cowboys needed a Giants win to stay alive and while that looked possible for a while, a crucial Daniel Jones fumble in the fourth quarter washed that away.
There will be huge changes in Dallas this offseason. Week 17 won’t give them false hope that they don’t need a housecleaning.
Gardner Minshew II: The Jaguars will undergo some changes, big and small this offseason. The new decision-makers might not like Minshew.
But they’ll evaluate him, and his last impression of 2019 was pretty good. Minshew threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns as the Jaguars rolled past the Colts 38-20.
Minshew has had his uneven moments, but the rookie sixth-round pick provides some moments in which he looks like a legitimate long-term starter. That was the Minshew we saw on Sunday. That will help him as the offseason gets going.
The Jaguars will look different in 2020. Minshew probably earned the right to be a big part of whatever the new-look Jaguars do.
New Orleans Saints: The 2019 Carolina Panthers have quit like few teams in NFL history. There has not been a sign of life since Ron Rivera was fired. It has been an embarrassing display of professionalism. It feels even a little wrong to put the Panthers and “professional” in the same sentence after what they’ve put on film the past month.
And still, the Saints deserve credit for building a 35-0 lead before halftime over Carolina. For the past few weeks this looks like a team that is peaking as it gets closer to the playoffs. There was a bit of a lull, but that’s over. The Saints look like they’re back.
The Saints were rooting for the Lions to knock off the Packers and clinch a bye, and that didn’t happen. The Saints might be the rare team that doesn’t need a bye to make a Super Bowl. They look ready to make a run.
Brian Flores: It’s not like he’ll get any coach of the year awards, and there were weird mistakes (Miami could probably have used Kenyan Drake more), but the Dolphins have to love what they have with Flores.
The notion that the Dolphins were perhaps the NFL’s worst team was correct after September, and it also seems like 100 years ago. The Dolphins are not very good but they played hard. Perhaps that screwed up a plan to tank and draft high, but at least they know they have a quality coach.
Nobody expected the Dolphins to put a scare into the Patriots on Sunday. New England had to win to clinch a bye. But Miami played like it has for most of the final three months, and beat the Patriots in the final minute. It was one of the upsets of the NFL season. The Dolphins are playing hard for Flores, and Flores and his staff are getting the most out of the talent on hand. It’s been a while since we’ve said that about a Dolphins head coach.
And if nothing else, Flores will never have to pay for a meal in Kansas City again.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs had an enormous day on Sunday.
Lately, the Chiefs have looked like a Super Bowl contender. They weren’t getting a ton of attention, perhaps because everyone knows how tough the road can be without a bye. Well, on Sunday, the Chiefs clinched a bye.
The Dolphins pulled off one of the upsets of the NFL season by winning at the New England Patriots, and the Chiefs handled business with a 31-21 win. The scenes of the Chiefs crowd celebrating when the Dolphins took the lead is one of the great Week 17 moments.
All of a sudden, Kansas City’s path is a lot more palatable. They’ll get a week off to rest. They’ll host a second-round game instead of going on the road. The Chiefs have been playing well, and they caught one huge break on Sunday, thanks to the Dolphins.
Shaq Barrett: When you pass Warren Sapp for a sacks record, you’ve had a good year.
Broncos general manager John Elway has made plenty of mistakes and his missteps at quarterback get about 99 percent of the attention. But what about letting Barrett walk to the Buccaneers on a one-year, $4 million deal?
Needless to say, Barrett is going to get a lot more than $4 million on his next deal. He had a monster breakout season, capped by breaking Sapp’s single-season Buccaneers record for sacks on Sunday.
Nobody expected to read this sentence a few months ago, but Barrett could end up being the hottest free agent to hit the open market in March.
Dan Quinn and the Falcons: Did you know the Falcons were 6-2 in the second half of the season? That probably flew under the radar.
While there’s plenty of reason to wonder how a team capable of being that good in the second half could go 1-7 in the first half, give Quinn credit. Falcons owner Arthur Blank offered him some patience, and he turned things around. That’s how you save your job.
The season ended on a too-perfect note, as Jameis Winston threw a pick-six in overtime. Deion Jones grabbed it and returned it for a score. The Falcons will at least take some momentum into the offseason. And the same coach into 2020.
Oakland Raiders: It has to sting for the Raiders to not even finish .500 or alone in second place of the AFC West.
A 16-9 loss at the Denver Broncos, when the Raiders still had slight playoff hopes, was a tough way to end a once-promising season. The Raiders were eliminated with the Titans’ win at Houston, but winning and finishing 8-8 would have been a decent consolation. Instead they lost to the Broncos, who feel like the non-Chiefs AFC West team that goes into the offseason with some positive vibes. Denver finished 7-9, just like the Raiders.
The Broncos clinched the 16-15 win when they batted down Derek Carr’s two-point conversion attempt with seven seconds left. The Raiders had a nice drive at the end capped by Hunter Renfrow’s touchdown and decided to go for the win instead of an extra point to send the game to overtime. But they couldn’t finish, which sums up their season.
The Raiders were 6-4 at one point and had a fairly clear path to the playoffs. They stumbled after that. Carr’s play tumbled a bit, which will lead to another offseason of speculation regarding his future. The Raiders have officially played their last game as the Oakland Raiders, and they’ll move into Las Vegas on a bit of a down note.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ultimately, the Steelers being a fantastic story for most of the season couldn’t last.
The Steelers hit a wall in December. The offense was already shaky and a few key injuries ruined it. They didn’t have a quarterback and while it was remarkable that they were in the AFC wild-card race in spite of that, eventually it caught up to them. Playing against a Ravens team sitting several key starters, the Steelers rarely moved the ball in a loss.
The Titans won in Houston so the Steelers wouldn’t have gotten the No. 6 seed anyway. But the way the Steelers season ended was discouraging. And they traded their 2020 first-round pick to Miami for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick during the season. All to finish 8-8.
The Steelers have to hope for Ben Roethlisberger to have a seamless recovery from major elbow surgery. At age 38, that’s no sure thing. But that would at least be something positive to wash away the memory of how this season ended.
Jets, Jets, Jets: The Buffalo Bills didn’t want to play Sunday’s game. This kind of summed up their excitement for playing the finale ...
And the Jets still struggled mightily against a team that rested many key starters and was quarterbacked by Matt Barkley most of the day. The Jets finally took a lead in the fourth quarter and went on to a wholly unimpressive 13-6 win.
Maybe you’re an optimistic Jets fan and think year two of the Adam Gase era will be better. It’s not based on anything tangible that happened this season. Sam Darnold didn’t progress, Le’Veon Bell was turned into a below-average back. There was nothing all too positive from this Jets season.
The finale was just a reminder of the Jets’ malaise. We saw that even a Bills team playing its junior-varsity squad is about as good as the Jets.
Matt Nagy and the Bears: A year ago, the Bears were the team with nothing to play for that still managed to beat the Minnesota Vikings in Week 17. A lot has changed since then. The Vikings had no interest in playing on Sunday, like the Buffalo Bills, and their backups almost beat the Bears anyway.
Chicago stumbled into a late 21-19 win over the Vikings, a win that shouldn’t be too comforting heading into the offseason.
Nagy had a great first season. His meltdown over criticism early in this season was troubling. Then the Bears looked like a team that had no idea how to generate any offense. The defense wasn’t great either. What happens in year three? A lot of that will depend on how the Bears answer their quarterback question, but a lot of the goodwill Nagy built up in 2018 will be gone. The finale on Sunday was a reminder of how far he and the Bears fell in just one year.
The 2019 Cleveland Browns: There was no more fitting end than the disappointing Browns getting beat 33-23 in the finale by a 1-14 Bengals team.
The Freddie Kitchens era has to end after one year — and it did. Though, it’s the Browns and good decisions haven’t always been their forte. Not many teams over the past few years have gotten less out of the talent on hand than this year’s Browns team. That was clear before Week 17. The loss to the Bengals just hammered the point home.
The Browns coaching job won’t be as attractive as it was a year ago. There are way more questions about Baker Mayfield. Odell Beckham Jr. is a headache, again. This season reinforced the losing culture of the franchise.
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