It is often said that the NFL is becoming more and more of a young man's game. That has rung true for a lot of this season as we have purred over the skills of the likes of Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts and Justin Jefferson.
But on Sunday, Week 17 reminded us that the old guard are not quite ready to put on the slippers and dressing gown in order to sit by the fireplace and talk about all their yesteryears. After struggling through a lot of the 2022 season, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are eyeing the upcoming NFC playoffs with great interest.
Brady's Bucs booked their passage to the postseason with a 30-24 win over the Carolina Panthers. That victory was about so much more than evening up Tampa Bay's record at 8-8. This was about sending a message that Brady can still be a particularly dangerous foe in the playoffs at the age of 45. He threw for 432 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for a score.
The Bucs look to Brady to be the saviour more often than is healthy given his advancing years, but he certainly delivered on Sunday and Mike Evans was his primary target, stretching the field time and again in another timely reminder of their potency as the playoffs loom on the horizon.
Tampa Bay have their flaws, but who would want to play them in Florida on the opening weekend of the playoffs?
The same will be said of Rodgers and the Packers if they close out their remarkable run with a win over Detroit next weekend. After languishing at 4-8, Green Bay have won four in a row following Sunday's emphatic 41-17 win over Minnesota and can become just the third team in NFL history to start 4-8 or worse and make the playoffs.
Rodgers has not wowed us with statistics during Green Bay's winning run, but he has truly shown himself as a great leader of men. He has remained calm and authorative and has led the Packers from the front, refusing to give up on the season when things seemed dire. And he has shown occasional flashes of brilliance and that has been more than enough given the outstanding play from the running game, the defense and special teams.
Rodgers and the Packers have to get one more win next weekend to complete their remarkable journey. And then records go out the window. If Green Bay can get in, they will do so as one of the form teams of the NFC and very few will want to take them on.
The old guard are not going quietly into the NFL night.
Green Bay's Pass Defense… The Packers came into Week 17 as the third-ranked defense in the NFL and they lived up to that lofty status in Sunday's beat-down of the Vikings. Green Bay were far too fast and physical for a Minnesota passing attack that has dominated its fair share of matchups in 2022. They played with an in-your-face swagger that proved too much for Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson to handle. Cousins was intercepted three times and sacked on two occasions, while Jefferson – who has been on a record pace all season long – caught just one pass for 15 yards. It was stirring and stunning stuff from the Packers.
Mike Evans… What a perfect time for Tampa Bay's leading receiver to hit full stride. Evans found his top form just in time to help the Buccaneers clinch the NFC South Division and he will scare the opposition once the playoffs kick off in mid-January. Evans came into Sunday's game against the Panthers with just three touchdowns on the year and none since Week 3. He exploded to the tune of 10 catches for 207 yards and three scores and looked more explosive and healthy than at any other time during this season.
Davante Adams… If Adams is going to sulk following the benching and inevitable parting of ways between the Raiders and his quarterback best friend Derek Carr, the perennial Pro Bowler has an amazing ability to hide it. In what turned out to be another heartbreaking loss for the Raiders – 37-34 in overtime against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday – Adams caught seven passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns. He pulled in two of the greatest catches you will ever be lucky enough to witness and was a major reason for Jarrett Stidham's big debut start for the Silver and Black (365 passing yards and three touchdowns). In a season where Justin Jefferson and Tyreek Hill have been discussed as the best receivers in the game, let's not forget about Adams in Las Vegas.
The Miami Dolphins… After winning their previous five games, the Dolphins have now lost five straight after Sunday's 23-21 loss at New England and they are going to need some help to get into the AFC playoffs. Likely led by rookie third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson, Miami will need to beat the New York Jets in Week 18 and hope that the Patriots fall to the Bills in Buffalo. But even if the Dolphins get into the playoffs, can we expect them to make much noise when they get there? Their fall has been one of the more frustrating storylines in the second half of this season. I thought this team was too good to miss out on the playoffs. Apparently not.
The Philadelphia Eagles… Not now, Eagles. Not now. For the second week in a row, the Eagles missed the chance to seal the NFC East Division and book themselves homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Philly fell 20-10 at home to the New Orleans Saints and have now lost two contests without star quarterback Jalen Hurts at the helm. Injuries are beginning to put a chink in Philly's armour. Hurts continues to nurse a sprained shoulder and the loss of offensive lineman Lane Johnson is a big one. The good news for the Eagles is that they have one more chance to seal that number one seed and it comes against the New York Giants next weekend. The Big Blue are locked in as the six seed and will likely rest their starters in a meaningless game on their end.
Carson Wentz… Every time he is given another chance, it feels like Carson Wentz hits the self-destruct button on his own career. Desperate to keep his team on track in the NFC playoff race, Ron Rivera turned back to Wentz with a view to becoming more explosive on offense. There was more dynamite on display but Wentz spilled most of it onto himself. He was intercepted three times during Sunday's 24-10 loss to Cleveland which, with other results, saw Washington knocked out of the race. Wentz threw for just 143 yards and posted a QB rating of 31.4. It's hard to picture him as Washington's QB1 in 2023.
The Fast Five…
- Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions are so prolific at home this season and were emphatic 41-10 winners over the Chicago Bears in Week 17. The one-sided win marked the eighth time this season that the Lions have scored at least 30 points. Jared Goff threw for 255 yards, three touchdowns and no picks and even if Detroit don't squeeze into the NFC playoffs, they have to feel good about the direction in which they are heading.
- Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson knew his team had nothing to play for in Week 17, but he kept telling us over and over about the importance of "momentum." He insisted his team would not take their foot off the gas and he was right. They recorded their fourth win in a row in defeating Houston 31-3. And now they play for the AFC South in Week 18 in much better shape than the Tennessee Titans, who have now lost six in a row.
- Look out for the Los Angeles Chargers once the AFC playoffs begin. Brandon Staley's team picked up win number 10 on the season by beating the Rams 31-10 on Sunday, giving the Chargers a fourth straight victory. The Chargers are getting healthy and that is great news for their explosive offense. Few will want to face Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams in the knockout tournament.
- San Francisco were given all they could handle by the Raiders in Week 17, but they have now won nine in a row and rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has led four victorious starts and you can give him another win over Miami when he first replaced the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. Purdy threw for 284 yards and two scores and I've seen enough to believe the Niners can go all the way with the rookie quarterback at the helm.
- The New York Giants are in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 following Sunday's 38-10 win over the Indianapolis Colts and the achievement is thoroughly deserved. The Giants are led by a quarterback few believe they want in the long term in Daniel Jones and the receiving corps is wafer thin. Yet this team has nine wins to their name and Brian Daboll has been outstanding in his first season as an NFL head coach.
Fact of the Week
When David Blough started for the Arizona Cardinals during Sunday's 20-19 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he became the 64th starting quarterback across the league in 2022. That ties a non-strike season record from 2007.
I've said this before but I will say it again, this playoff series that lies just around the corner is going to be wild and wide open. Who will emerge from an AFC featuring quarterbacks such as Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert? Each is capable of delivering enough magic to knock off the other on any given playoff occasion. And will Philadelphia be able to prove they are the class of the NFC? Or can the likes of Dallas, San Francisco or maybe even Green Bay – if they get in – go all the way? We have one more weekend of regular season football and then all of those questions will get answered as we get to the knockout stage of the campaign. Happy New Year indeed!