Week 12 Musings: That’s a Wrap, Green Bay

12 weeks down, 5 weeks to go in the regular. Like every year around this week, the playoff picture is starting to crystallize. Sure there will be surprises and Week 17 do or die games. But even when you marry math with momentum, some teams on the margin just look like playoff teams.  The Seahawks are certainly one example, as are the surging Colts, Luck’s multiple interceptions aside. Decidedly and dramatically not in the conversation are the Green Bay Packers.

Aaron Rodgers knows it. Rodgers tried to keep a straight face when explaining how the now 4-6-1 Packers, after a crushing 24-17 defeat to the Vikings, could make the playoffs. “Beat Arizona. Beat Atlanta.” he began stoically. But by the time he rattled off all the opponents the Packers would have to beat, including the mighty Bears, he couldn’t even mutter “and get a little help” at the end without a knowing smirk.

The Packers have an approximately 2% chance of making the playoffs.  They have lost eight in a row on the playoffs.  Mike McCarthy’s game calling has been subpar, his game management more than subpar. But the stunning element of this latest defeat was Aaron Rodgers essentially throwing in the towel.

The Packers got the ball down 10 points with 4:30 remaining. Tough but not inconceivable when you have Rodgers.  The offense gelled to drive the Pack within striking distance of the end zone. 2nd and 1 on the Vikes’ 20.   It looked like Rodgers was about to do his thing and with a defensive stop could get the ball back and set up for a game-tying field goal. Again, anything seems possible when you have Rodgers. But he proceeded to hastily throw a pass too low for Equanimeous St. Brown who was open on a short out route. Then he completely missed Davante Adams who was WIDE open in the end zone.  Rodgers had enough time on both throws to better set his feet, release and deliver one of those money shots for which he has become synonymous. It was a very strange couple of plays.

Mason Crosby kicked a field goal and while there was technically time left, the game and season were over.

McCarthy is in his 13th, and likely final year, as head coach of the Packers. He’s been Rodgers’ coach since 2006. The longevity is especially impressive given that McCarthy is often viewed under the lens of wasting the prime of arguably the greatest thrower of all time. When you have a talent like Rodgers, one Super Bowl isn’t enough.

McCarthy’s tenure has mostly been successful in terms of wins and playoff berths and he’s never had massive locker room disasters. The Packers have run a mostly high-level, classy organization under McCarthy’s watch. But compared to the new wave of young coaches, his vision is too conservative now. It’s just time for a fresh start.

Rodgers turns 35 next week. Who knows when his prime will be over.  Judging by Drew Brees and Tom Brady, he could have a good half-decade left. Aside from Rodgers, the Packers have some exciting, young pieces in place including defensively.  Rookie CB Jaire Alexander is particularly intriguing. So is the prospect of Rodgers paired with a gutsy offensive guru. You never know with NFL coaches. Marvin Lewis is still kicking in Cincy but if the football gods have a say, they’ll pair Rodgers with a fresh perspective.

Other musings from an intriguing Week 12…

* Can someone please explain why the Bengals thought hiring Hue Jackson to “help” with defense was a good idea?  Cleveland won the Hue Bowl 35-20 Sunday and it was evident that they wanted this one BAD. On one touchdown TE David NJoku, who drops about 25% of his catches, hurdled over two defenders and then dragged them into the end zone. Later on, Nick Chubb made the catch of the day using a defenders neck for ball stability as he entered the end zone.

I can’t even imagine the Jackson chatter in the lead up to this one. The Browns were a focused bunch with layered motivation.

* Baker Mayfield had an especially incredible afternoon with four touchdowns. While I didn’t agree with Mayfield’s notion of being put off by Jackson’s new employment in the same division (guy can coach where he wants), I did appreciate the honesty. Jackson’s “it’s not my fault” tour post-firing had to be a major turnoff.  Besides, Mayfield is a star and it was clear during Hard Knocks that he was being hampered by a below average coach who didn’t inherently warrant much respect. Side note: Mayfield has my vote for offensive rookie of the year.

* The Jaguars were supposed to have the NFL’s top defense and instead they are in the bottom half, despite having no major injuries. So the organization decided to bench Blake Bortles and fire OC Nathaniel Hackett, whose play calling was a massive part of the Jags late season success last year. I don’t get part two of this at all.

*The 49ers have some major soul searching to do. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan seemingly brought some much needed leadership and vision to the organization but Lynch looks horrible after the latest Reuben Foster DV arrest (and revelation that there was yet another DV incident last month). In a disturbing media session following Foster’s release Sunday morning Lynch said [Foster] “didn’t protect the team” (how about someone protecting women???) and that Foster’s draft report “wasn’t nearly as bad as a lot of them.”  The fact of the matter is that Lynch blew it on Foster and as well intentioned as he was, never got Foster the proper treatment. Putting Foster next to Richard Sherman in the locker room is not exactly the same thing as mandating regular mental checks.

On the field, Lynch’s other first round pick, DE Solomon Thomas has made almost no impact. Obviously the injuries to Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon were crushing but this team is now in line for the no. 1 overall pick in the draft. So they’ve actually regressed since the new regime came to town. Lynch would be wise to follow Cleveland’s lead and hire Scot McLoughan as a draft consultant.

*Drew Brees for MVP. Obviously there are other worthy candidates but Brees’s team has the best record in football and he has the best TD-to-INT ratio by a mile. Patrick Mahomes is the flashier player but Brees’s season has been incredible to watch.

*What a disappointment Adam Gase has turned out to be in Miami. He was supposed to be Sean McVay before Sean McVay and wow his playbook is just not up to snuff.

*Crazy state time: With the Steelers loss, the Patriots jumped up to the no. 2 seed. The last time New England didn’t have a playoff bye? 2009 (They lost in the wildcard round to Baltimore)

Speaking of Baltimore, time to officially give Lamar Jackson the keys. 2 start, two wins. Jackson’s skill set obviously reinvents the playbook and he’s also the type of quarterback that will continue to get comfortable with game action. With rookie contracts, teams only have a short window to build complete championship teams. Given that the Ravens traded up to the first round to snag Jackson, there’s no reason to waste any time while they still have a cap advantage. See the Rams and Bears as models.

*Kudos to Amari Cooper who looks like he’s on the path to vindication in Dallas after the 180-yard, two touchdown game on Thanksgiving. I’m happy to eat crow on my notion from a few weeks ago that the Cowboys and Jason Garrett were done. Having a receiver who can actually get separation has worked wonders for that offense.

*This was the best week the NFL has had for celebrations and we tracked them all. My favorite:  The Vikings limbo