Important Takeaways from Week 18 of the NFL: Jordan Love Is Ready to Take on the Role of Following Aaron Rodgers
It was even on the morning of his playoff-clinching victory over the Bears that the former quarterback for Green Bay sent a text message to his successor. There is also an appreciation for Bill Belichick, the Bills are a formidable team, the Texans are on the rise, and the Texans are scouting quarterbacks for the collegiate championship game.
The Green Bay Packers have completed a whole regular season after Aaron Rodgers left the team, and they appear to be in the same boat as they have been in the past. Having said that, I am not going to convince you that the Packers are about to start on another 15 years at quarterback, just like they just enjoyed 30 years at the position.
What about the question of whether or not you are capable of following a legend? Jordan Love has shown all of those qualities.
And all he has done is bring the Packers back to a state of normalcy, which is familiar to them. And this sense of normalcy was powerfully expressed in a text message that Rodgers sent to Love on the morning of Sunday.
“It was just a little something,” Love began over the phone, exclaiming with a hint of embarrassment, before going on to describe the message that his predecessor had sent. Beat the Bears, you, guys!
In addition, that portion was the same as it will ever be on Sunday. When facing Chicago, Brett Favre had a record of 23–13. Famously, Rodgers had a record of 26–5. Love is now 2-0.
Even more impressive is the fact that the 25-year-old quarterback surpassed that milestone while also accomplishing a number of personal high-water marks. He completed 27 of 32 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns in Green Bay’s nonchalant victory of 17–9. His completion percentage of 84.4 percent, his yards per attempt of 9.9, and his passer rating of 128.6 were all at their highest levels of the season. Two things are demonstrated by all of this. First, that, as the Packers had anticipated, he is a great deal more experienced than he was when he won his first game against the Bears at Soldier Field in the first week of the season. And two, that their tolerance with him was well-founded, because it was not only through some difficulties this year, but also throughout the course of the previous four years.
In the end, he is a kid, if you still want to call him that, who is convinced that he is exactly where he should be in his development. He hasn’t really doubted that his development is coming along at any point this season, even when he went three consecutive games with a passer rating that was below 70, or when the Packers had to ride out a stretch of two games in a row that followed the high of that Week 1 victory.
And perhaps, just possibly, that is due to the fact that he was able to observe the ups and downs of a season three times over before he was forced to experience them as a starter. This has provided him with the advantage that Matt LaFleur and his staff had hoped he would take away from waiting, which is true assurance that can be maintained over time.
“I came into this year with no expectations,” Love recalls. “I was surprised by how well I did.” I wasn’t trying to put a feeling on what we could be as a team or what I could be. I just wanted to be myself. To tell you the truth, I merely came in with a grateful attitude and the desire to make the most of the chance that was presented to me. Throughout the entirety of the season, I maintained an attitude that was similar to that. There were times when we felt hopeless. There were times when we excelled. There was no intention on my part to limit our potential.
At this point, the ceiling appears to be significantly higher than it was three or four months ago.
During the course of Sunday, thus much became clear not only in Love, but also in the breadth of what is surrounding him. Again, without Christian Watson and with Jayden Reed sidelined with an injury, the quarterback was able to get six receptions and two touchdowns from rookie fifth-round pick Dontavion Wicks. Wicks has emerged as a contributor in a group of young receivers that includes Watson, Reed, and Romeo Doubs.
According to Love, “Those two plays were just very big-time plays that he had written.” When it came to the first one, he had to establish a significant amount of distance between himself and the defensive back in order to become wide open and complete the grab. Just the effort, just running the slant, is what the second one is all about. I don’t know where he got stopped, maybe at the three-yard line, but the fact that he was able to put his head down and fight to get those yards into the end zone was a major accomplishment. Unparalleled efforts on his part.”
And as Wicks, the other three receivers, and novice tight ends Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft have grown, Love has grown along with them, trusting that it would rub off on him. Love has grown with them. The obstacles have been overcome, and the steps have been performed in concert with one another. The end effect is a group of guys who are competing with one another and seizing control of the offense for themselves.
Love explains, “That has been a significant component of it.” Being aware that it was going to be a process, we went into the year with that knowledge. In the beginning, it was not flawless. We weren’t attempting to be flawless in any way. On plays, we concentrated on attempting to improve ourselves and gaining an understanding of what we need to do. To put it simply, the receivers have been exerting a great deal of effort in an effort to align themselves with my perspective. I believe that the results of all of the hard work that we have been putting in are finally beginning to show.
The fact that we are still very young as a team makes it really difficult. There is a lot of credit to be given to everyone around me for the amount of effort that they have been putting in.
During the most important Sunday of the week, it paid off. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, while the Bears were getting closer to having a 14–9 lead, Love hit Reed with a pass that went for 59 yards, which set up a field goal that extended the Bears’ lead to 17–9. And the second time the Packers received the ball after that, with 6:08 left on the clock, Love’s group churned up four first downs and never handed it back to them.
As a result, the game came to a close on two kneel downs, which provided Love with something that Rodgers and Favre did not have: a playoff berth in his first season starting. In addition, Love has passed for more yards, more touchdowns, and less interceptions than Rodgers did in 2008 or Favre did in 1992. This is something that should be taken into consideration.
Again, this does not mean that Love is heading in the direction of the rarefied air that those aforementioned folks would eventually climb to.
But what we can say with certainty now is that he did not cower in the face of the challenging responsibility that was placed in front of him in April of last year, after Rodgers was moved. This task was, in many respects, the football equivalent of taking Derek Jeter’s seat on the infield dirt at Yankee Stadium.
Love is quoted as saying, “Pressure is a privilege.” I am thankful for the opportunity that has been presented to me, and I want to utilize it to its fullest potential. Just going out there and playing, having fun, and making the most of the opportunity that I have is exactly what everyone else in the locker room has done. I have blocked out all of the noise and I have not even made an effort to think about how much pressure it might be. Being under pressure is a perk. It is a blessing that we are here. It is not the pressure that we are concentrating on.
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that Falcons owner Arthur Blank is set to make a significant move. And that, in my opinion, would explain the 180-degree turn that the 81-year-old founder of Home Depot has made over the course of the past month, when it appeared to be a given that Arthur Smith would be returning four or five weeks ago.
Even though they started the month of December with a record of 6–6, the Falcons finished with a record of 1–4. In addition, the fact that Smith had set up the quarterback situation in such a way that it continued to undercut the club did not help.
The culmination of everything occurred when the squad arrived back from New Orleans late on Sunday night. After arriving to his residence, Blank arranged a meeting with Smith and Rich McKay, who was the president of the team. As the season came to a close and a third season without making the playoffs was already in the past, he decided to terminate Smith.
At the end of the day, it does feel like that, and the blowout loss to the Saints (which was punctuated by the midfield squabble between coaches) simply provided Blank with the opportunity to do what he really wanted to do and act on the urgency he has displayed privately, as a guy who does not have an endless string of opportunities to get it right. Furthermore, as a result of this, there have been numerous indications in league circles that Blank was getting ready to pick up the bat and go for the kill.
The Falcons have been linked to the Patriots coach Bill Belichick, according to no fewer than a half dozen of the folks I’ve spoken to over the course of the past week. It has also been brought to my attention that Blank has at least considered the possibility of employing either Belichick or Jim Harbaugh, the coach at Michigan. According to a source with ties to the organization, “I wouldn’t sleep on Atlanta” with Harbaugh taking over for Smith there. A idea that had been going through his head up until this point was that he would probably only fire Smith if he was certain that he would catch one of those huge fish. To be sure, he will. It’s also possible that Sunday was the day that pushed him over the brink with Smith.
In either case, a team that has a roster that is young and rapidly progressing requires a coach. And there is currently a tremendously talented offensive coach available for hire in the market. That is not how many people, including myself, anticipated that this would turn out just a few weeks ago.
To tell you the truth, there was a good reason to suppose that things had become tired.
As a result of the heartbreaking overtime loss in Philadelphia, the Bills dropped to a record of 6–6. They were experiencing aging at tackle and receiver, as well as in a number of defensive positions. There were simply too many teams to leapfrog in the American Football Conference in order to get into a decent position for a postseason run. Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano were not going to return, Josh Allen had been a little loose with the ball, the team wasn’t running it very well, and there were simply too many teams to leapfrog across.
At that time, a few days after Thanksgiving, nobody would have guessed that the Bills would end with a record of 11–6, win the AFC East for a fourth consecutive year, and not only qualify for the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, but also qualify as the second seed in the conference. Nevertheless, that is where they are now after Buffalo’s courageous victory over the Dolphins by a score of 21–14 on Sunday night. In addition, I will explain why I made the statement that I did regarding the tenacity of the team: they overcome a lot to get here, even on this one night.
There were three instances in which Allen threw the ball away, including two interceptions in the end zone and a fumble that was a game-changer deep within Miami territory. During the thirteenth play of a drive that had traveled 59 yards, Allen was unsuccessful in gaining possession of the ball. An opportunity to score a touchdown was missed by James Cook. The Bills were trailing by seven points going into the fourth quarter, having fallen behind twice in the first half of the game.
And from that point on, they used all exertion possible in order to emerge victorious from Miami. The game-winning touchdown was scored by Deonte Harty, who returned a punt for 96 yards. Allen made passes to Dalton Kincaid for a distance of 26 yards and Khalil Shakir for a distance of 28 yards, which resulted in a swing pass to Dawson Knox for a distance of five yards, which allowed him to take the lead. The defense of the Bills was able to shut down an explosive offense from Miami by first forcing a three-and-out and then forcing a turnover (Tua Tagovailoa was picked off by Taylor Rapp).
So, no, this club lacks the visual appeal that the old Bills had. However, they are more resourceful and have more methods to win, which normally helps in January.
This is an excellent place to give the Buccaneers some credit. This was meant to be Tampa Bay’s reset year. Tom Brady has left. The Bucs took on more than $80 million in dead cap to pay off credit card debt from their relentless (and correct) win-now approach during the Brady era, which meant that more than 35% of their permitted cap money went to players who were no longer on the team. They were younger in some places, but a year older in others.
Now it’s January, and the Buccaneers are in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, tying a team record. They are division champions for the third consecutive year and for the first time.
And all of that confirmed what the players there had always known: Brady is the greatest of all time, but he was never all the Bucs had, which is why the famous quarterback opted to go there in the first place. Sunday was another illustration of Brady’s assistance and the foundation he left behind, with Tampa’s AFC South victory coming with the defense allowing less than 100 passing yards in a 9-0 shutout in Carolina.
Bottom line, the Bucs knew exactly what they had all along.
“We don’t really listen to outsiders,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, a 12-year veteran, told me postgame from the locker room. “Coach [Todd] Bowles does an excellent job of keeping us away, simply ensuring that everything that happens in the locker room stays there and does not go. That is who we are rocking with. We know who we’ve got and what we’re capable of. We were able to seize the occasion today.”
They did, and in the same way they got through the season: by adapting to shifting surroundings and circumstances.
Tampa’s last three victories included Baker Mayfield and the offense scoring 29, 34, and 30 points, but it was clear early on that the Panthers intended to turn this into a rock fight behind a strong, powerful defense. As a result, the Bucs prevented the Carolina offense from crossing their own 40-yard line on five of their six first-half possessions, forcing and recovering a fumble on the other.
Meanwhile, the attack crossed midfield five times. Three of those times, the Bucs kicked field goals. On the final one, they converted three consecutive third downs to advance to victory formation.
“We just stayed the course for four quarters, stayed disciplined, stayed doing what we do, especially defensive-wise, and were able to get a shutout and win the division,” David said. “Our ultimate goal was to come out here today and play four whole quarters. We were able to accomplish it.”
As the clock ticked down, David took a minute to reflect on his long career as a Buccaneer.
At one dark point, he claims, the team brass approached him and promised that things would soon change—he had began his career with eight consecutive playoff-less seasons. They would, and David was pleased he listened, looking back on Sunday.
“The past four years, it’s been that way, and I’m loving it,” he said. “It’s been great to be with one team the entire time. It simply demonstrates their regard for me, my craft, and my demeanor in the locker room. I’m quite proud to be a part of it and to observe the changes.
In many ways, he and players like Mike Evans and Vita Vea were the change, before Brady came along to top it all off.
On Sunday, the rest of us finally got to see it for ourselves. Buy as much shares in the Texans as possible. I’ll say this for several reasons. Coach DeMeco Ryans is certainly a famous name. Nick Caserio, the general manager, is another. A core made up of guys including Will Anderson Jr., Jonathan Grenard, Derek Stingley Jr., Tank Dell, Nico Collins and Laremy Tunsil is certainly a big part of that, too.
But, to be honest, much of this revolves around one player: C.J. Stroud.
And on Saturday, he ticked off another box in a rookie season full of them: showing up big in a big position.
In a de facto playoff game, the No. 2 selection accomplished exactly that, beginning the night with a 75-yard bomb to Nico Collins for a touchdown and finishing with a 12-play, 73-yard drive that won the game. He finished with 264 yards, a 134.1 passing rating, and a spot in the postseason for the Texans, who haven’t been there in four years. So, certainly, the 23-19 victory was about many people. Nobody more than the quarterback, who, according to one worker, “played a special game.”
Of course, it didn’t take Bill Walsh to see just how good Stroud was under the bright lights in Indianapolis. But I thought it would be interesting to observe what made the Texans’ performance so good. And after some digging, there were three throws—none of them, interestingly, the 75-yarder to Collins—that blew the staff away. These were…
• A five-yard completion to Eric Saubert on a second-and-3 in the second quarter did little else than get a drive going, with its initial first down near midfield. However, the call and how Stroud handled it revealed more to the coaches. The call was forceful, bordering on hazardous. Many rookies would have forced the ball down the field. Instead, Stroud calmly read the coverage and got to his third progression, keeping the Texans on schedule, and where they needed to be to take a 14–3 lead six plays later.
• The second one you will remember—the 14-yard, scramble-play connection with Collins, where Stroud escaped and executed what looked like a simple throwaway but was actually an unbelievable effort to get the ball to a spot where he knew only his receiver would have a shot at it. The ball probably traveled 40 yards in the air, somehow, with Stroud back-pedaling from two free rushers, and was an example of the special connection the two have.
• The third came three plays after that, and after Devin Singletary was buried for a loss that put the Texans in second-and-13 on the Colts’ 30, tied at 17, with 6:45 left. The Texans’ defense failed. Stroud stood in anyway and made a throw around a defender that he couldn’t step into, to a receiver he couldn’t see, to a spot he had to have faith his guy would get to. It took trust, awareness, confidence and arm talent. Stroud has all those things in spades, and the result was a 23-yard dart to Collins over the middle of the field.
Houston scored the game-winner on the next play and now, for the first time, a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback have won a division title together. Obviously, it’s about more than those two guys. But those two are an awfully big reason to feel good about where the Texans are headed. And especially Stroud.
The game that gave the Texans that division title—Titans over Jaguars—could be a pivot point for both teams. And we can start with the team that won it, Tennessee, because as much character was shown in the gutsy 28–20 win, an old identity that’s faded away came through, too.
If you squinted, you could probably see 2019 again, with Derrick Henry running over and through the Jaguars for 153 yards, and Ryan Tannehill making enough plays—including a six-yard touchdown throw to DeAndre Hopkins that provided the scoring difference—and the defense bowing up when it needed to.
That’s something that the older Titans talked about, too, with this game seeming like a capstone on an era. And while they aren’t going to the playoffs, they were able to prevent someone else from going and give themselves one last memory in Nashville. Tannehill’s in a contract year. So, too, are Henry and the receiver rental Hopkins. They’ve got, in Ran Carthon, a first-year GM and a lot of speculation on Mike Vrabel’s future, and all the uncertainty that goes with that.
“It wasn’t like a long sit-down conversation or anything,” Tannehill told me postgame. “A lot of the veteran players that have been here, Derrick and I included, realize what the business is and what the situation is, and acknowledge that this would probably be the last time taking the field together as Titans. We wanted to go out in the right way, go out with the win. Thankful for the opportunity to be able to go out and do that. We had a lot of fun doing it.”
The win got them to 6–11—which isn’t anything anyone will look back on fondly. “It’s been rough,” Tannehill concedes. But, the quarterback continued, as he and Henry and Jeffery Simmons (the one player from the old core who’ll almost certainly remain) have seen guys such as Taylor Lewan and Kevin Byard ushered out, there’s been a dignity in how those who’ve stayed have tried to maintain what they built.
And Sunday, with a 69-yard run from Henry setting up the Hopkins score, and the defense forcing a four-and-out to end the game, the traces of that past were everywhere.
“It felt like an old school, vintage 2019, 2020, 2021 Titans game—hard-fought, back-and-forth a little bit, defense making a big stop, offense answering, big runs from Derrick, plays in the play-action pass game, all of that,” says Tannehill. “For that and a lot of other reasons, it was a lot of fun.”
Obviously, things will look differently next year—and Vrabel’s future is a part of that. But even after a tough year personally, Tannehill advocated for the team to do all it can to keep him aboard.
“He’s a heck of a coach obviously,” Tannehill says. “Learned a lot of ball from him. He educates the team in a way that I’ve never had any other coach do as far as the other side of the ball, teaching offense, teaching defense, situations on tape every week, things that come up throughout the week, nuanced rules that can be used to your advantage, if you know the rules. He does a good job with all those different types of things. If they get the right people and players in place, I think they can have a lot of success here.”
With a busy week ahead, we’ll attempt to keep the fast hitters, well, quick. I apologize to my editor, Mitch, for not doing this last week.
• The Browns-Bengals game was one of several games on Sunday that were unlikely to be considered seriously. But I believe the Cincinnati staff and players deserve credit for finishing 9-8. With Jake Browning coming in to finish the season at quarterback, few teams would have continued to swing like way. And Browning, who performed admirably on Sunday, has likely earned himself a decade in the league as a backup, which is pretty nice pay if you can get it.
• I enjoyed Dan Campbell’s taunting of the league by throwing to Dan Skipper on Sunday. Skipper, you may recall, was the player who referee Brad Allen ruled eligible on Taylor Decker’s disallowed game-winning two-pointer against Dallas. Officially, that call lost the Lions the second seed in the NFC bracket.
• This is mind-blowing to me: the Detroit Lions’ 94-year existence includes only two 12-win seasons. The other one occurred in 1991, the last time the Lions won a playoff game. That year, they defeated Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys and advanced to the NFC Championship Game, where they were defeated by Mark Rypien and Washington.
• Derek Carr was terrific for the Saints on Sunday, throwing for 264 yards, four touchdowns, and a 145.5 passer rating against the Falcons. He played hurt for much of this year and has improved nicely from a difficult 2022.
• Carr may hire new offensive coaches next year, and Buffalo’s interim coordinator Joe Brady has emerged as a potential option. In 2017 and 2018, Brady served as Sean Payton’s quality-control coach in New Orleans. And if the Bills continue to succeed, they may have to strive harder to retain him.
• The Seahawks won, but the Cardinals deserve a lot of respect for going up against another incredibly excellent team. Jonathan Gannon’s club fought hard all year, and the team now has a solid foundation and will enter the offseason with a pair of first-round picks and more over $50 million in contract space, as well as increased trust in Kyler Murray, which most people did not expect.
• What’s the issue with the Eagles? A lot of stuff. The defense is outdated, and the front line needs to improve significantly—Philly needs to get more from young players like Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter. And on offense, you’d have to hope that much of it is due to Jalen Hurts’ finger injury.
• On the other hand, the Giants’ progress after a rocky start has been quite consistent. They are preparing to take a step back up next year. A big unsolved concern for me is: how does the staff attempting to take that step with Brian Daboll look? Is Wink Martindale part of it? If not, there will be a market for the DC, who operates a scheme that many teams enjoy (including Mike Macdonald in Baltimore and Jesse Minter at Michigan).
• CeeDee Lamb has a high net worth.
• Happy trails, Ron Rivera. I know it’s not official yet, but I hope he can depart with his head held high, knowing he guided the brand through an unthinkable scenario three and a half years ago and that many people are better for having crossed paths with him.