MINNEAPOLIS – Since winning its last Super Bowl a little less than two years ago, the Green Bay Packers have perfected the art of the high-wire act. Whether it's taking a run at an undefeated season last year with Aaron Rodgers putting up other-worldly numbers or the team overcoming a slow start this season, the Packers are nothing if not entertaining.
But when it comes to focusing on the little things that win and lose games, Green Bay sometimes makes you wonder. Such instances occurred Sunday, when Green Bay dropped the regular-season finale 37-34 to the Minnesota Vikings and blew a first-round bye.
Among the little things the Packers did wrong were …
• Committing three false-start penalties and a delay-of-game error. Two of those four flags contributed to stalled drives that ended without points.
• Inexplicably burning two timeouts inside Minnesota's 10-yard line in the first half, leaving them without a timeout and the opportunity to challenge a questionable play later on.
• And of all things, seemingly composed head coach Mike McCarthy nearly recreating the famed Jim Schwartz Thanksgiving Day mistake by throwing a challenge flag at the wrong time. Put it all together and you have a Packers team that seems hell-bent on creating a higher degree of difficulty than already exists.
The Packers did that in a bigger sense by blowing a chance for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. While the Packers didn't need that bye in 2010 on the way to the title and wasted it last year by losing to the New York Giants, there's no question they wanted it.
"A lot of us wanted that extra week," said Rodgers, mindful of the fact that wide receiver Randall Cobb and safety Charles Woodson are still nursing injuries and didn't play against the Vikings. "This was a playoff atmosphere [Sunday]. We played tough and came back from behind. We have nothing to be ashamed of."
While that's fair, Green Bay has some cause for concern. The aforementioned errors contributed to a 20-10 halftime deficit. The failure to corral a batted pass in the second quarter that should have been intercepted contributed to a touchdown drive. The injury to Woodson came into focus on several key second-half completions from Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder, who threw three touchdown passes for the second time in his career.
The Packers are a team capable of extraordinary things and would have been a strong favorite for another title with another week off. Rodgers is in his second year of playing at a level unseen before in NFL history, and he's doing it despite constant injuries to receivers such as Cobb, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson. As it was, he completed 28 of 40 passes for 365 yards and four touchdowns. There were times that the Vikings didn't even dare to blitz him or apply a heavy rush, seemingly just hoping that he'd miss.
Rodgers didn't miss much. When he did, it's because sometimes the shot was just too impossible to make.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 17:
• Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli appears to be a winner, of sorts, as two sources said they strongly believe he will survive despite Kansas City's 2-14 season. Pioli and owner Clark Hunt are extremely close, which will allow Pioli to withstand having gone through two coaches already. Pioli will have to find another coach after Romeo Crennel is fired as expected. Pioli is also expected to get a chance to pick another quarterback. The problem is that Kansas City is going to be picking a quarterback in a year when the draft looks very thin. Three personnel men said this week that they think the drop-off from the 2012 quarterback draft class to the 2013 group is a cliff. "Some people are saying that [Matt Barkley's] situation is going to be a lot like Aaron Rodgers [who fell to No. 24 in 2005]," said one GM, comparing the USB QB to the Packers' passer. "The difference is that you knew that Rodgers had the physical tools. He fell for other reasons, like nobody was really desperate for a quarterback. Barkley isn't Rodgers." The GM was then asked about Geno Smith of West Virginia, who is expected to be the first quarterback taken. "Geno Smith at No. 1? He's an interesting player, but that would scare me." That means that the Chiefs and Pioli may be looking at veteran quarterbacks who are expected to be on the market, such as Alex Smith or Michael Vick. Washington could also make Kirk Cousins available.
• Aside from experienced candidates such as Bill Polian and Mike Lombardi, the most obvious names you will hear over the next week or two as teams look for general managers are directors of player personnel David Caldwell (Atlanta Falcons) and Tom Gamble (San Francisco 49ers), and New York Giants director of college scouting Marc Ross. But one person who is currently a bit under the radar is Jon Robinson, the director of college scouting in New England. Robinson is highly thought of by those who know him and is in his mid-30s, which is about the age that appeals to most teams.
• Congrats to Tennessee Titans linebacker Zach Brown and return man Darius Reynaud, who each had the best game of their careers as they combined to score four consecutive touchdowns on returns. Brown started that off with a 79-yard interception return against Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne. Reynaud then had punt return scores of 69 and 81 yards. Brown capped the amazing run with a 30-yard touchdown return. By the fourth quarter, Tennessee had 35 points despite quarterback Jake Locker having thrown only 11 passes.
• Congrats to Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who finished the season with 1,964 yards, establishing the NFL record and breaking one of Jerry Rice's records in the process. However, it should be noted that Johnson, according to unofficial stats kept by the NFL, was targeted more than 200 times this season. That's believed to be the most times a receiver has been targeted in any season. Take nothing away from Johnson, who is an amazing player and a classy person. However, this record is partly a matter of force-feeding by the Lions, who also had quarterback Matt Stafford set the NFL record for attempts in a season (727).
• Speaking of Johnson, tip your cap to Chicago for holding him to 72 yards on five catches Sunday. Johnson was held under 100 yards receiving in five games this season. Two of those were against the Bears, who held him to three catches for 34 yards earlier this season. Overall, Johnson had just eight receptions for 106 yards against Chicago this season, despite being targeted 24 times.
• Nice work by the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers to put on an entertaining show in the season finale. At a time when most mail it in (and yes, neither of these teams did much on defense), at least these two teams put on an offensive show for the fans. Better than some of the ugly games in Buffalo, New York and Pittsburgh.
• Like Kansas City, the Buffalo Bills are expected to be in the market for a quarterback this offseason. General manager Buddy Nix has already declared that, at least. The question is whether Nix and coach Chan Gailey will be the ones picking the quarterback. The Buffalo News reported Sunday that the Bills are expected to fire Nix and the coaching staff. The current regime erred in its patchwork approach at quarterback with Ryan Fitzpatrick, a solid, tough player who is long on makeup and short on skill. The really sad part is that Nix and Gailey have had three pretty decent drafts in their three seasons in charge. Unfortunately, between failing to get a quarterback and Gailey hiring friend Dave Wannstedt to be his defensive coordinator, their chances may have run out.
• NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell needs to get a clue and fix this stupid challenge rule play before it creates an even bigger nightmare. Sure, the fact that Mike McCarthy threw a challenge flag that should have overruled a touchdown by the Packers and given the Vikings a crucial turnover was embarrassing for McCarthy (he fully owned the mistake after the game). However, in the heat of an emotional game, things happen. The NFL claimed during the game that it had buzzed down to the field before McCarthy threw the flag, but that explanation seemed iffy, at best, and put the league in a difficult position of potentially being seen as favoring a team. If Goodell wants to make sure that everything is transparent, he needs to change this rule before the playoffs start to make sure it doesn't happen again.
[Playoff picture: Texans lose swagger, grip on AFC's top seed]
• Detroit's defense performed as usual, which is to say badly, on a 60-yard receiver screen to Chicago Bears receiver Earl Bennett in the first quarter. The play set the tone for the Lions ultimately laying down on the job in the final game. Bennett ran free as four Lions defenders, most notably linebacker DeAndre Levy, failed to even touch him. There have been rougher plays in seven-on-seven drills. If this game is any indicator, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz may be in trouble. Reports and sources have gone back and forth on Schwartz over the past week, although his contract extension through 2015 may be enough to save him, for now.
• Chicago fans can be happy that they won in the season finale to get to 10 wins and protect coach Lovie Smith's job. However, the continued sloppy play of quarterback Jay Cutler has to be driving those fans nuts. Cutler had another of his many odd plays as he killed Chicago's first drive by fumbling without being hit. While Cutler's talent is unquestionable and, at times breathtaking, he plays with no sense of urgency or passion. He is the most maddening player in the league.
• Nice work by the Philadelphia Eagles to send coach Andy Reid out (official announcement reportedly coming Monday) on such an uplifting note. Between the early pick by quarterback Michael Vick and the general ineptitude of the Eagles' defense (where is Juan Castillo when you need him?), Philadelphia ended Reid's 14-year run with the worst record of his career. They also ended the season by falling behind by their biggest margin of the year (35-7) … by halftime.
• There is an obvious opportunity to rip New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez after he threw yet another interception that was returned for a score. This one came in the first quarter against Buffalo. However, there's a certain point where the blame for Sanchez's mistakes go to higher echelons, such as coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. With Sparano expected to be fired, Sanchez would be working with his third offensive coordinator in three years if he's back next season. For a guy who is already lacking confidence, it's going to be a nightmare if Sanchez returns.
• Speaking of the Jets, for all those people who accused backup quarterback Tim Tebow of quitting on his team, did you happen to catch how the rest of the team played Sunday? Or over the past three weeks, for that matter. Q-U-I-T, QUIT, QUIT, QUIT.
Predictions for 2013 from Yahoo! Sports:
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