Packers don't gain ground in NFC playoff race during bye week
The Packers could come out of their bye week healthier and more competitive, but they remain a game behind the Cardinals for the NFC's top playoff seed.
The Green Bay Packers could come out of their bye week healthier and more competitive, especially with Za'Darius Smith hinting at a return. Still, they remain a game behind the Cardinals for the NFC's top playoff seed.
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Which NFC playoff contender had the most shocking result Sunday?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: The San Francisco 49ers dropping a divisional tilt with the Seattle Seahawks has to rank among the strangest outcomes from Week 13 regardless of conference. The 49ers had won four of their last five games and seemed on a bullet train to a wild-card berth. Meanwhile, the Seahawks seemed totally adrift with Russell Wilson struggling mightily since returning from finger surgery, Pete Carroll stepping over Shane Waldron's offensive scheme, and the defense rating among the league's worst at stopping the pass.
Instead of an easy victory, the 49ers literally handed the Seahawks multiple extra possessions and fell 30-27. Jimmy Garoppolo turned back into a pumpkin — an inevitability that many chose to ignore during his brief flirtation with consistency — and the offense sputtered without Deebo Samuel providing a spark as a do-everything weapon.
From the Packers' perspective, the outcome doesn't really make a difference. Neither team has a realistic chance of catching Green Bay in the standings, and any outcome would affect strength of schedule the same. Still, given the fluky nature of the contest, the Packers can't feel great about the Seahawks' chances of upsetting the Los Angeles Rams or Arizona Cardinals later in the season.
Peter Bukowski: Minnesota did something that hadn’t happened all season, in fact, hadn’t happened in almost a year to the day: They lost to the Detroit Lions. After getting a potential statement win over the Packers, the Vikings are losers of two in a row and now sit a full four games behind Green Bay in the division.
It’s not as if this team was some sort of hegemonic force before this stretch, but they’ve played every game close, including games they had no business playing close. That said, that also included games they should have won against good teams like the Cardinals, Ravens, and Bengals among others.
The Vikings have now lost to Cooper Rush, the previously winless Lions and because Kirk Cousins doesn’t know the difference between his guard and his center.
Given the Week 13 results, do you expect the Packers to end the regular season with the No. 1 seed in the NFC?
JBH: The Packers certainly didn't receive much help during their bye week with the Cardinals blowing out the Chicago Bears and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking care of business against the Atlanta Falcons. Accordingly, the outlook for Green Bay doesn't seem much different than it did before Sunday. Arizona has a one-game lead while Tampa Bay still lurks right behind.
The Packers could still gain some ground given the Cardinals' remaining schedule. They host the Rams next Monday, face a lesser but still feisty Indianapolis Colts squad two weeks later, then travel to North Texas for a showdown with the Dallas Cowboys in their penultimate game of the regular season. Arizona could win each of those, but it probably won't run the table.
However, the Buccaneers have a much less difficult path. They host the Buffalo Bills next week before playing a four-game stretch against exclusively below-.500 opponents. Barring injury, the Packers will enter all of their remaining games as the favorite (with Week 15's tilt against the Baltimore Ravens a possible exception) and currently hold the conference-record tiebreaker over Tampa. Still, it only takes one slip to open the door for Tom Brady and the Bucs to take the inside track.
So while the Packers don't need much outside help to take the top seed, too many variables exist to feel great about their chances of landing it, at least at this time.
PB: I wish I got to answer this question in 24 hours because I want to see how Buffalo looks against the Patriots on Monday night. Why? Buccaneers-Bills. The Packers are going to be challenging the Bucs for that No. 1 seed. The Cardinals still have to play the Rams, Colts, Cowboys, and Seahawks and I expect them to drop at least one of those games if not more.
That leaves the vanquishing foe from the NFC Championship Game a year ago for Green Bay. If the Bills get beat by the Patriots, I’m giving the edge to Tampa Bay because their schedule is cashmere soft to close out the season with the Panthers twice, and the Jets. Yes, somehow Tom Brady gets to pad his playoff positioning against the Jets for the billionth year in a row.
Green Bay has a chance to win out as likely favorites in every game except their trip to Baltimore in two weeks. If they win out, they hold the tiebreaker with Tampa because of the conference record (but would lose a four-way tiebreaker with Arizona, Tampa, and Dallas to the Cowboys because of conference record).
They’re the 1 if they win out, but I think Tampa has a better chance to win out, so I’ll give the Bucs the edge.
What we're hearing/seeing
JBH: Over the NFL's past five hiring cycles, the volume of head-coaching vacancies has outstripped the supply of attractive candidates. While the number of openings this year remains uncertain — the Las Vegas Raiders will need to make a full-time hire, turnover seems likely for the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos, and the Minnesota Vikings appear in limbo — the pipeline of non-retread coaches has dried to a trickle. Kellen Moore and Eric Bieniemy, leftovers from previous years, headline the rollcall followed by college coaches like Cincinnati's Luke Fickell and Matt Campbell that might feel compelled to make the jump, but the list of obvious candidates ends soon thereafter.
That group effectively lost another name this week when the Carolina Panthers fired Joe Brady, the 32-year-old offensive coordinator best known as the architect of the title-winning LSU offense from 2019. Brady earned inclusion on Tom Pelissero's annual list of under-45 coaches in search of their first NFL head gig from less than three weeks ago, making his fall from grace all the more shocking. While nothing stands in the way of a team hiring Brady as its next head coach, that optics of tabbing a recently fired coordinator for a top NFL job will likely prevent him from making the leap in 2022.
All of which means a lesser-known candidate could jump the line in the upcoming cycle and land a head gig. The Leap has previously highlighted one such option, Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. But with the Brady news and several big names from the college ranks such as Lincoln Riley off the table for now, Hackett could see a boost in stock. Green Bay's offense has adapted well to extremely challenging circumstances, and while head coach Matt LaFleur rightfully deserves a large share of the credit, his highest-ranking offensive assistant should garner some acclaim as well.
Hackett, of course, should also benefit from Aaron Rodgers' endorsement, praise the three-time MVP bestowed upon the offensive coordinator earlier this year. If a team in need of a head coach and a quarterback thinks Rodgers will indeed force his way out of Green Bay this offseason, Hackett could carry additional appeal.
PB: The Packers have chosen wisely off the Sean McVay coaching tree. In Seattle, Shane Waldron has been a mess for the Seahawks, who needed a punt fake to score their first touchdown and a safety to score another two points. He could well be one-and-done in Seattle.
Meanwhile, the Packers defense under Joe Barry has made steady improvements year-over-year despite facing critical injury issues. They’re better than the version currently playing in L.A. under Raheem Morris, who McVay hired to replace Brandon Staley. And Green Bay has played better than the Chargers defense being run by the aforementioned Staley.
Considering the head coach is also technically part of the McVay tree and is off to one of the best starts in modern NFL history for coaches, it’s fair to say the Packers have nailed it poaching from McVay.
JBH: As Peter detailed earlier, the Lions managed their first victory of the season to improve their record to 1-10-1. That outcome elicited an outright party in the Detroit locker room, with head coach Dan Campbell literally calling the win "unbelievable."
While the celebration fully reflects the downtrodden state of the Lions franchise, it also speaks volumes about the 2021 Vikings. While the team possesses a decent amount of talent and has the ability to pull upsets such as Week 11's victory over the Packers, Minnesota also has a defined ceiling. It drops too many games it shouldn't, fails to put away opponents, and has gradually regressed from the Super Bowl contender of 2017.
The Vikings could still make the playoffs this season, but that doesn't ultimately matter. This iteration has no realistic shot at a championship and no foreseeable alterations in the offseason will alter that reality. Minnesota isn't a bad team, but it also probably needs to take a page out of Jack Donaghy's playbook and climb down into the darkness in order to come out better on the other end.
PB: With a four-game lead in the division, the Packers can clinch a playoff birth with a win over the Bears on Sunday. Clearly, the bar for this team will be much higher than merely making the playoffs. This isn’t baseball where they’ll spray Budweiser bottles everywhere for just getting into the postseason (also, get some better beer).
But the Packers were supposed to regress in 2020 after a 2019 season featuring close-game wins and a rocky offense. Then, 2021 was supposed to be bumpy because of a drama-filled offseason thanks to the quarterback, which preceded injuries ravaging the roster.
With all that, the Packers are 9-3 with a chance to clinch a playoff birth two weeks before Christmas. Considering the season is an extra week this year, that’s an even bigger accomplishment than it would normally be. What Matt LaFleur has done turning the culture around while Brian Gutekunst retooled the roster on the fly is uncommon. Teams don’t fire Super Bowl-winning head coaches after disastrous seasons full of aging veterans and go to the NFC Championship Game the next year with a team full of new, impact players.
And no one does it two years in a row under a first-time head coach. This is a special Packers team under a coach shaping up with a special start to his career.