Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have been scrutinized and derided all season as their teams struggled and the end looked near. Rodgers produced some of the worst stats of his career as the Packers started 4-8. Brady looked miserable as the Bucs roster fell apart and they dropped to 6-8.
There’s just one problem. The old men still have it.
Brady put the Bucs on his back Sunday, erasing an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Panthers and secure the NFC South title. Rodgers and the Packers haven’t clinched a playoff berth, but they beat up the Vikings, 41-17, for their fourth straight win to get to 8-8 and set up a potential winner-take-all game against the Lions this Sunday in Green Bay.
The Bucs and Packers still have significant flaws, but no opponent will feel comfortable facing Brady or Rodgers in the postseason. Their late-season charges lead off the Week 17 Review:
▪ In 2016, Rodgers led the Packers from 4-6 to the postseason, and this year he said he didn’t lose faith after the Packers lost seven of eight. The Packers ripped off a couple of wins over the woeful Rams and Bears, gained confidence with a big road win at Miami, then blew out the 12-win Vikings thanks to a kickoff-return touchdown and a pick-6. The defense also held Justin Jefferson to one catch for 15 yards.
“I do believe in the power of manifestation, and I do believe in momentum, and I believe very strongly in the force of the mind,” said Rodgers, 39. “And when you start to believe something strongly, some miraculous things can happen.”
The Packers’ path to the playoffs is straightforward: Beat the 8-8 Lions at Lambeau Field. Rodgers is 18-7 against the Lions, including 10-1 at home in non-season-finale games. The Lions did stifle the Packers in a 15-9 win back in Week 9, and Detroit’s fifth-ranked scoring offense is dynamic enough to keep the game interesting for four quarters.
But Rodgers is 28-4 all-time at home in the regular season in December and January. Bet against him at your peril.
▪ This season has felt like a disaster for Brady — rampant injuries at receiver and offensive line, the league’s worst run game, no Rob Gronkowski as his safety net, questions about the effectiveness of coaches Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich, and family matters off the field.
Even with all of that, and at age 45, Brady can still carry his team. He was masterful against Carolina, overcoming a 21-10 deficit with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 30-24 win. Brady threw 45 times for 432 yards, tied for the seventh-highest total in his career, and was just about perfect in the fourth quarter — 12 of 13 for 166 yards, two touchdowns and a 158.3 passer rating.
It’s his 19th division title in 21 full seasons as a starting quarterback, and the Bucs have the first back-to-back division titles in the franchise’s 47 years. They’re 8-8 and have a minus-32 scoring differential, but who cares? They get to host a home playoff game, most likely the Cowboys in the first round. And as Brady proved in 2020, when he won the Super Bowl as a wild card, anything can happen in a short season.
▪ Speaking of NFL legacy teams that usually make the playoffs, how ‘bout those Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin? Left for dead at 2-6 entering their bye week, the Steelers have gone 6-2 and have a serious shot to back-door their way into the playoffs after pulling off a 16-13 win over the Ravens. The 8-8 Steelers can make the playoffs with a win over the Browns at home this Sunday plus losses by the Patriots and Dolphins.
The Steelers have been beating up on the dregs — the Colts, Falcons, Panthers, Raiders, and Ravens without Lamar Jackson — and their offense is just 29th in scoring (17.5 points per game). But they are winning the old-fashioned Steeler way, behind a stout defense that is allowing just 14.7 points per game in winning five of six games. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett isn’t lighting it up, averaging just 184 passing yards per game, but he is growing up in real time, with last-minute, game-winning touchdown passes in each of the last two weeks.
Not only is a playoff berth on the line, but also Tomlin’s streak of 15 seasons without a sub-.500 record, dating to his hiring in 2007. Regardless of whether the Steelers make the playoffs, simply getting to Week 18 after a 2-6 start is impressive.
▪ Maybe Derek Carr really was the problem in Las Vegas? Former Patriot Jarrett Stidham got his first NFL start, and he was a revelation in a 37-34 overtime loss to the 49ers.
Stidham threw for 365 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions, and the Raiders racked up 500 yards against the 49ers’ No. 1-ranked defense. Stidham hit nine completions of at least 20 yards, scored points on four of his first five drives, and went 75 yards for a touchdown with the game on the line in the final two minutes of regulation.
The interceptions in the fourth quarter and overtime ultimately cost the Raiders the game, but Stidham, set to be an unrestricted free agent come March, certainly impressed in his debut. He may have earned himself a nice backup quarterback contract, or perhaps even an opportunity to compete for a starting job somewhere.
▪ Before the NFL expanded the playoffs in 2020, just one team in history overcame a 2-6 record to make the postseason, the 1970 Bengals. Now with seven playoff teams per conference, the Commanders did it in 2020, and three teams have a shot this year — the Jaguars, Steelers, and Lions, who each sit at 8-8.
▪ It’s remarkable how consistently volatile the NFL is. The Giants clinching the playoffs makes it 33 years in a row that the NFL has had at least four new playoff teams. This year the newcomers are the Giants, Chargers, Ravens, and Vikings, with the Jaguars, Dolphins, Seahawks, and Lions all still alive.
▪ The blowout loss to the Packers was a “told you so” result for those who don’t believe the Vikings are as good as their record suggests. They have won 11 games by one score, which certainly is impressive, but also suggests a thin margin for error. Point differential is often considered a better indicator of a team’s strength, and the 12-4 Vikings are minus-19, which ranks 20th.
▪ Since the calendar turned to December, the Jets and Dolphins are a combined 0-10. Their schedules got tougher, a few injuries hit (particularly at quarterback), and they were exposed. Playing each other Sunday, either the Dolphins will turn 8-3 into 8-9, or the Jets will turn 7-4 into 7-10.
▪ Wait, hiring a totally unqualified interim coach wasn’t the secret weapon to turn the Colts’ season around? They are 1-6 under Jeff Saturday, with three losses by at least three scores. Jim Irsay probably will still keep him anyway.
▪ The Eagles need Jalen Hurts back pronto. They have lost two in a row to make things a little hairy in the NFC East, and they scored one touchdown in 11 drives in Sunday’s loss to the Saints, with Gardner Minshew throwing a game-sealing pick-6. The Eagles can still wrap up the No. 1 NFC seed against a Giants team with nothing to play for.
Tracking former Patriots
▪ Raiders coach Josh McDaniels: Great job getting Stidham ready to play, but why not go for 2 at the end after cutting the score to 34-33? The Raiders had nothing to lose, and it would have been fun to see Stidham go for the win. Instead the Raiders lost their fifth game in which they held a double-digit lead in the second half, a new NFL record. At least their games are entertaining.
▪ Titans coach Mike Vrabel: The Titans haven’t won since before Thanksgiving, turning a 7-3 record into 7-9. They can still win the AFC South with a win Saturday night in Jacksonville, but their offense is ravaged by injuries, averaging just 14.8 points per game in their last six, 29th in the NFL.
▪ Giants coach Brian Daboll: He took a team that went 4-13 under Joe Judge and has gone 9-6-1 and clinched the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2016. Put him in the running for Coach of the Year.
▪ Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury: Started his fourth quarterback of the year (David Blough) in a 20-19 loss to the Falcons that dropped the Cardinals to 4-12. A lot of the dysfunction seems out of his control, but it would be an upset if Kingsbury is back for next season.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.