Aaron Rodgers walked off the frozen tundra Sunday night in Green Bay, arm in arm with friend and wide receiver Randall Cobb up the tunnel to the Packers’ locker room, and into a very uncertain future.
For the first time since 2018, and only for the second time in his career, Rodgers and the Packers’ season ended without a playoff appearance following a 20-16 loss to the rival and upstart Detroit Lions.
Following a 2022 season that saw Rodgers pass for his fewest yards (3,695) since an injury-shortened 2017 season and most interceptions (12) since the final year of the George W. Bush Presidency in 2008, there’s a very real possibility he has thrown his final pass in a Packers uniform.
“I was never concerned in any of the previous years that Aaron would retire or be traded,” former Packers fullback and Rodgers’ teammate for nine seasons, John Kuhn, told Heavy. “And, I would say now that I feel like anything and everything is on the table.”
Rodgers’ future likely hinges both on his desire to continue in a situation with Green Bay aiming to develop young receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs — entering this offseason approximately $13 million over the salary cap — and has Jordan Love waiting in the wings, after showing promise in limited playing time this season.
Keeping Rodgers would seemingly delay a full-fledged rebuild for a franchise that came up one game shy of the playoffs, and could even trigger Love, its 2020 first-round draft pick, to request a trade entering his fourth NFL season.
The bottom line, as former Green Bay Packers Vice President Andrew Brandt points out, the financial ramifications of Rodgers retiring or playing elsewhere are substantial.
“Aaron and the Packers had to contemplate this a year ago,” Brandt told Heavy. “The bottom line is $40 million in dead money was certainly outrageous years ago — and having managed their cap for 10 years, especially for the Packers — but, things are different now.”
As Brandt points out, Carson Wentz cost the Eagles $34 million when Philadelphia traded him to the Colts, and the Falcons ate $40.5 million when Atlanta dealt him to Indianapolis.
“There’s a chance the Packers have budgeted for Rodgers’ retirement or a trade,” Brandt suggested.
Regardless of the outcome, the Packers can ill afford another protracted standoff with Rodgers, as last season was. Brandt believes a scenario exists, similar to Brett Favre’s Green Bay departure, that could see Rodgers walk away with $25-30 million either into the sunset of retirement or his next destination.
If Rodgers has played his final game in a Packers uniform, even with just one Lombardi Trophy returned home to TitleTown, Kuhn believes No. 12’s legacy is cemented.
“Aaron will go down as one of the best quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen,” Kuhn said. “He’ll undoubtedly be linked to many late-season failures after breaking through in 2010.
“Depending on the eye of the beholder, there will always be debate of whether the teams he played on should have won more NFC Championship Games or Super Bowls. Or, if those were in fact teams carried as far as they were because of his greatness.”
Who Will Crash the Party & Make a Surprise NFL Playoff Run?
Last season, the Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati Bengals and the star-studded Los Angeles Rams entered the postseason as No. 4 seeds, only to make their way to SoFi Stadium for the 2022 Super Bowl, in one of the more surprising matchups for the Lombardi Trophy in recent memory.
As the postseason begins with Super Wild Card Weekend, the Rams are spectators, and the battle-tested Bengals are rightly considered a legitimate threat to make it to Super Sunday based on a loaded roster and the experience of being battle-tested one year ago.
But, who are the teams capable of shocking the world and making a surprise Super Bowl run, or ruining a favorite’s championship aspirations? To get a feel for how the league views this season’s playoff field, Heavy surveyed a handful of current NFL coaches, executives and players on which team has the best chance to make a surprise run:
NFC Personnel Executive: “The Jaguars. They’re on an absolute roll right now. If they can get the lead at home, watch out. I love Trevor Lawrence, he’s a great young QB.”
AFC South Scout: “Miami. That Dolphins’ offense can go KABOOM at any given moment.”
NFC Scout: “I’d watch for the Giants. They haven’t exactly played great down the stretch, but they are getting healthy, so that’s a big positive for them.”
NFC West Player: “It’s not really a surprise, but I think the 49ers can wreck your day.”
NFC Pro Personnel Director: “If Lamar Jackson plays on Sunday, the Ravens have the pieces to make a run.”
Super Wild Card Weekend Picks
Jaguars over Chargers
Trevor Lawrence and Justin Herbert are two of the league’s brightest young stars at quarterback, are both making their postseason debut, but the Jaguars’ signal-caller has the benefit of a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Doug Pederson and a menacing and opportunistic defense that is punching above its weight.
Jacksonville’s +5 turnover differential is seventh-best in the league, after the Jaguars punched their ticket by intercepting Titans quarterback Josh Dobbs once and recovering a fumble to clinch the AFC South. If Lawrence can continue to protect the football, and the Jaguars’ pass-rush duo of Travon Walker and Josh Allen can harass Herbert in the pocket, Jacksonville might run away with it.
Bengals over Ravens
Lamar Jackson’s availability remains the great unknown in this game, but the Bengals simply outclassed the Ravens in all phases in Week 18, with the AFC North on the line.
It will be a different Ravens team, with J.K. Dobbins among the starters returning to action after resting in the regular season finale. However, Cincinnati’s offensive firepower will prove too much for the Ravens to keep up with.
Bills over Dolphins
Josh Allen made a strong closing argument to be the league’s MVP, in an emotionally supercharged Week 18 win against the New England Patriots, who needed a victory to make the postseason. Allen passed for 254 yards with 3 touchdowns to 1 interception, as Buffalo used a pair of special teams touchdowns, a stifling defense, and an offense that consistently pushed the ball downfield to close out the season with a victory.
If Tua Tagovailoa is available, the Dolphins’ offense is as explosive as they come, especially with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle firing on all cylinders. However, as Allen proved the last time these teams met in Orchard Park on December 17, if the Bills have the ball last, there’s a good chance Miami’s flight home will be a quiet one. Buffalo is simply too talented on both sides of the ball to be taken down in the Wild Card round.
Buccaneers over Cowboys
Is anyone betting against Tom Brady, in the postseason? Especially after Brady engineered five 4th quarter comebacks this season, tying his career-high?
The Buccaneers’ offense — and Brady — have been wildly inconsistent throughout this season, but Brady still finished third in the league in passing yards. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ defense has struggled closing out opponents over the final six weeks of the season, and Dak Prescott has tossed at least 1 interception each of the past seven games, with 2 returned for touchdowns over that span.
Brady and the Buccaneers find a way late to end the Cowboys’ season early — again.
Giants over Vikings
The Giants took the Vikings to the brink on Christmas Eve, falling 27-24 when Greg Joseph split the uprights from 61 yards out as time expired. Minnesota’s victory was its 11th by one score or less, in a season that saw the Vikings walk the highwire on a weekly basis.
New York enters with plenty of swagger, understandably playing with house money, but with Daniel Jones protecting the football and Saquon Barkley rushing for a career-high 1,312 yards. If the Giants can limit turnovers, establish the run early on, and limit Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson and the Vikings’ offense’s opportunities, Brian Daboll’s team’s Cinderella campaign will continue.
49ers over Seahawks
The 49ers have the defense, and the playmakers on offense, to make a legitimate Super Bowl run in the NFC.
Over the past five weeks, DeMeco Ryans’ defense has held opponents to just 17.4 points per game, as third-string quarterback Brock Purdy executed Kyle Shanahan’s offense to near perfection, surpassing 35 points in four of those five contests. After making the Super Bowl and NFC Championship Game over the past three seasons, this is a battle-tested veteran group that has the pieces to hoist the Lombardi.
Quotable: Joe Burrow on the Bengals’ Super Bowl Window
“The window is my whole career … our window is always open.” – Joe Burrow on the Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl window
Burrow is right. The 26-year-old led the Bengals to a Super Bowl berth in his first full season as a starter, and has the rare combination of being one of the more cerebral passers in the game with a supporting cast around him that makes Cincinnati’s offense prolific. Burrow’s presence alone, gives the Bengals a puncher’s chance at making it through the AFC gauntlet past Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, Josh Allen’s Bills, and Lamar Jackson’s Ravens into the Super Bowl every season.
Cincinnati is one of the hottest teams entering the postseason, winners of eight straight games and 10-of-11 to finish the season 12-4 and AFC North champions, while playing their best football of the season. The Bengals’ strong finish was powered by dominant offensive line play, and Burrow throwing his way into the forefront of the NFL MVP conversation.
As the playoffs begin, Burrow is 11-0 in his career in December and January. That’s what the Ravens — on Super Wild Card Weekend — and the rest of the AFC are up against.
Finishing the 2022 campaign passing for 4,475 yards with a career-high 35 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, the scary thing for the rest of the NFL is that Burrow’s best football might be still in front of him.
Burrow’s 69% completion percentage is second only to Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith, and his 2.55-second average release ranks second only to Tom Brady, this season, according to NextGenStats.
The more snaps Cincinnati can get Burrow with receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, along with running back Joe Mixon, all behind a vastly improved offensive line Burrow dragged into Super Bowl Sunday last February, the more dangerous this team is going to become in future years.
The AFC is going to be a battle royale for years to come because of the elite quarterbacks within the conference, but Burrow and the Bengals have all the pieces in place to be the hunted — rather than the hunter — for years to come.
Heavy In The Trenches is a weekly Wednesday column by Heavy’s NFL insider Matt Lombardo, bringing you insight on the latest storylines and rumblings around the league. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattLombardoNFL.