NFL Winners and Losers: Don't count out Aaron Rodgers-less Packers yet

Shutdown Corner

At kickoff on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers might have been the best team in the NFL.

The Packers were 4-1 despite battling through various injuries. They were coming off a nice win against the Dallas Cowboys, and getting healthier. As long as they had Aaron Rodgers, they’d have a shot to win it all.

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Now Rodgers might not play again until next season. An NFL season can change that quickly.

We’ve all seen the hit by now. Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr watched Rodgers throw a pass, took a step, hit him and drove him into the ground. Rodgers broke his collarbone. The game was just in the third quarter when the Packers announced Rodgers might be done for the season. You can assume the Packers weren’t joking around there.

While the Packers take a big step down in class without Rodgers for the rest of the season (or even a large portion of it), let’s not count them out of a playoff spot yet. Brett Hundley won’t be Rodgers, but he could prove to be a capable replacement.

The Packers seem better equipped to handle Rodgers’ absence than they were in 2013, the last time Rodgers broke his collarbone. That year, Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace started the seven games Rodgers missed. The Packers went 2-4-1 until Rodgers returned and the Packers beat the Chicago Bears in Week 17 to take the NFC North title. Hundley has much more ability than that trio.

It’s a blind leap of faith to believe Hundley can keep the Packers afloat. Hundley wasn’t good on Sunday. He went 18-of-33 for 157 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He led the Packers to only 10 points. But coming in cold after not getting any practice reps with the starters is a tough assignment, especially on the road against a good defense. After the game, Packers coach Mike McCarthy noted that there were adjustments within plays that weren’t executed, which is to be expected from an inexperienced quarterback who hasn’t worked with the starters.

“I’ll feel a lot better. I’ll tell you that much,” Hundley said about starting next week against the New Orleans Saints after getting all the practice reps, according to the Packers’ transcripts. “Like I said, it’s different, being a backup when you don’t get any reps during the week, and then you’re just out there. But we have to prepare that way.”

It’s not fair to judge Hundley off what he did Sunday. But there isn’t much more game tape on Hundley. He was 2-of-10 for 17 yards and an interception in his NFL career before Sunday.

However, Hundley has played well in the preseason. He led the NFL with a 129.6 passer rating his rookie preseason in 2015, barely played in the 2016 preseason due to an ankle injury and then posted a solid 88.8 rating this past late summer. Preseason stats don’t matter, but Hundley looked good. He has a good arm, can run a bit and throw on the move too. He was a solid prospect out of UCLA, slid to the fifth round in the draft and looked so good in preseason play that he became the subject of trade rumors.

There are only a few NFL teams that should have some optimism about their backup quarterback, and the Packers are one of them.

“We’re going to rally around this thing and have a game plan to beat the Saints,” McCarthy said. “I have confidence in Brett Hundley. More importantly it’s how it all fits together. We are going to have strengths as an offense and we are going to focus on those, look at the matchup of our opponent, and go get it.”

The Packers seem deeper around the quarterback position than they were in 2013, though it would be nice if the injuries slowed down. But assuming the Packers can get reasonably healthy around Hundley, they have a good team. There’s obvious talent at receiver. The offensive line, when healthy, is solid. The running game with Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones should be capable. The defense has been decent, again assuming better health moving forward. McCarthy has proven to be skillful at adjusting to make up for injuries. Hundley steps into a very good spot.

The rest of the NFC North is beatable. The Bears had a nice win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday but they’re not a challenger. The Detroit Lions looked horrible in falling to 3-3 at the Saints. The Vikings are 4-2 and they’re probably considered the front-runner now, though they have injuries too.

Don’t leave the Packers for dead quite yet. Losing Rodgers is awful, and the Packers aren’t a Super Bowl contender anymore with his absence. Nobody will claim they’re the best team in the NFL anymore. But making the playoffs is possible. Hundley is in a position to succeed. This isn’t DeShone Kizer or Mitchell Trubisky stepping into the starting job on a terrible team. If Hundley is as good as he has shown in the preseason and during his best days at UCLA, he could surprise some people.

It’ll be interesting to see if Hundley can make a name for himself during his big opportunity. He has the ability to do just that. The Vikings should get a healthy run for the division title even with Rodgers out.

“Obviously Aaron is Aaron, but I’m Brett,” Hundley said. “So let’s have some fun.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley will replace Aaron Rodgers. (AP)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley will replace Aaron Rodgers. (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 6 in the NFL:

WINNERS

Jordan Howard: Give Howard a game ball for what he did against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Maybe even give him two or three.

The Bears don’t have much on offense. Their receivers, after many injuries, are mostly anonymous. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky might be good someday, but he’s struggling now. He completed only eight passes in a game that went to overtime Sunday (though he completed a big one to Kendall Wright in the extra session). Knowing they had few other options, the Bears kept giving Howard the ball. And he delivered.

Howard ground out tough yards and eventually popped one big play. In overtime he broke through a tackle attempt by safety Eric Weddle, got to the sideline and broke free for 53 yards. Again, that was with the Ravens having no concern about any other playmaker. It set up Chicago’s game-winning field goal.

Howard finished with 167 yards on 36 carries. That’s a workhorse day. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, only 68 players have ever logged more carries in a game. And those were hard carries without any threat of a passing game to help out. It was an impressive game, capped by a great overtime run.

New Orleans Saints and their chances in the NFC South: Through two weeks, the Saints weren’t impressing anyone. Their defense looked historically awful, again. They were 0-2.

Three wins later, they are in pretty good shape in the NFC South.

The defense allowed too many yards and points in a 52-38 win over the Detroit Lions, but a lot of the Lions’ production came after the Saints had a 38-10 lead early in the third quarter. And the Saints’ defense scored three touchdowns itself.

The rest of the division doesn’t look scary. The Atlanta Falcons are 3-2 with a last-minute win over the Bears, a win over the Lions in which they got a very fortunate call on a touchdown reversal to end the game, and back-to-back home losses to the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. The Carolina Panthers are 4-2, but have a loss to the Saints at home. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a debacle.

The Saints don’t need to be great on defense. They need to be decent and make a big play or two. They’ve been able to do that the past few games, and if that continues they’ll be a factor in a wide-open division.

New York Jets: The Jets didn’t get a victory on the field Sunday, but they put quite a scare into the New England Patriots. Had a controversial call on an Austin Seferian-Jenkins catch-turned-fumble not gone against them, maybe they would have beat New England. Instead, they lost 24-17.

Before the season, “Jets vs. Patriots” looked like the type of ridiculous blowout we see happen dozens of times every Saturday in college football. That the Jets could lead the Patriots 14-0 Sunday and have a chance to at least tie at the end says a lot about the ongoing and baffling mediocrity of the Patriots, but it also says something about the Jets. New York didn’t even have its best offensive player, running back Bilal Powell, on Sunday. They still played hard, and pretty well.

The Jets are far better than anyone expected this season. Coach Todd Bowles has done a very good job in what looked like an impossible situation. They didn’t win on Sunday, but nobody expected them to get a victory. They’re showing they’re going to be a tough out this season.

Adam Gase and his stubbornness: It’s probably safe to say other coaches would have benched Jay Cutler long before the end of Sunday’s win by the Miami Dolphins against the Atlanta Falcons.

Despite Cutler’s yardage total dropping every week (230 in the opener to 220 to 164 to an incredible 92 last week), Cutler remained the starter. When he and the Dolphins looked terrible in digging a 17-0 hole against the Falcons on Sunday, Gase didn’t put in Matt Moore. Cutler had 64 yards in the first half and it would have been justified to pull him.

In the second half, the Dolphins pulled off one of the more improbable wins of this NFL season. It wasn’t so much because of Cutler, who finished with just 151 yards, but Cutler did contribute. He threw a couple short touchdown passes. And thanks to Jay Ajayi’s 130 rushing yards and a great second-half defensive performance, the Dolphins shocked the Falcons 20-17.

And that ensures there will be no quarterback change coming in Miami this week.

LOSERS

Oakland Raiders: There was some regression to be expected after the Raiders caught break after break last season (at least until Derek Carr’s season-ending injury). But it seems the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

The Raiders are 2-4 after a last-second loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, and they’re not getting any breaks. Carr returned from breaking three transverse processes in his back (h/t to NFL.com for reporting the full extent of the injury) but he wasn’t very productive. He had just 171 yards passing. Marshawn Lynch was a little better than he has been in previous weeks with 63 yards on 13 carries, but he didn’t sustain drives. With a chance to put the game away at the end, the Raiders went three-and-out. The Chargers took possession and won the game with a field goal on the final play.

The Raiders’ offense has disappeared during a four-game losing streak. Some of that is Carr’s injury. Oakland has scored 10, 10, 17 and 16 points their last four games.

The schedule doesn’t get easier either. Next up for the Raiders is a Kansas City Chiefs team coming off its first loss. All of a sudden it’s looking like a must-win for Oakland.

The historic hard-luck 49ers: The San Francisco 49ers might be the best 0-6 team ever. At least they’re the one with the worst luck in close games.

The 49ers made history Sunday. They’re the first NFL team to lose five games in a row by three points or less. Two of those losses were by two points. On Sunday the 49ers battled hard once again against a pretty good Washington Redskins team but fell 26-24. Kyle Shanahan is still seeking his first win as head coach.

This time the story had different twists. The 49ers inserted rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard for struggling Brian Hoyer, and he played fairly well with 245 yards and a touchdown. And in this loss, the 49ers were on the wrong end of a bad call.

With the 49ers driving and on the edge of field-goal range, Pierre Garcon ran a slant. He ran into a Redskins linebacker, and it looked like a pick play … except that Garcon was the intended target. Even though you’re not doing a pick play right if you run into a defender when the ball is coming to you, Garcon got called for offensive pass interference. The 49ers never recovered from that and the game ended on an interception.

It was a terrible call and the 49ers should be upset about it. At this point, they’d take any break they could get to pull them out of this historic rut of close losses.

Dirk Koetter: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had three extra days to prepare for the Arizona Cardinals, after playing last Thursday night. That’s what makes them looking entirely unprepared so inexcusable.

The Cardinals blasted the Bucs. The 38-33 score was a lot closer than it should have been. The game was over quick. The Cardinals led 31-0 at one point. Don’t blame Jameis Winston’s injury; the Buccaneers trailed 24-0 by the time their quarterback left the game.

The Buccaneers looked like a breakout team this season. There’s a lot of talent. But aside from a turnover-fueled blowout against the Bears early in the season, the Buccaneers haven’t been good. They have lost three of their last four, and the one win required a field goal on the final play to beat a New York Giants team that lost its first five games. The defense has many key injuries, but it doesn’t fully explain how terrible they are on that side of the ball. Quarterbacks complete passes at will against the Buccaneers’ secondary.

At some point the Buccaneers’ struggles fall on Koetter. Tampa Bay doesn’t look like it’s getting the most of its talent. They made the reeling Cardinals look like a playoff contender on Sunday. If the Buccaneers don’t look better going forward, Koetter’s seat will get hot. Tampa Bay should be better than it has looked this season.

Hue Jackson: Jackson is becoming a regular visitor in the weekly losers segment, and it’s going to end up costing him his job.

Jackson looked like a great hire last year. The Browns do not have much talent, and their best players are mostly very young. Nobody expected that much from Jackson. Yet, however low the bar was set for him, Jackson’s Browns haven’t been able to jump over it. I’ve said before that the Browns needed to give Jackson at least four years regardless of his record, but this level of incompetence from Cleveland is extreme. Jackson is 1-21 as Browns coach. It’s hard to believe a coach could survive a 1-15 season and then another 0-2 win season. And a 0-2 win season is on the table, and seems likely at this point.

Jackson played a pretty big card this week, benching rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer for Kevin Hogan. The Browns looked no better with a new quarterback. Hogan had 140 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in a wholly uncompetitive 33-17 rout against the Houston Texans. Now Jackson is reportedly leaning toward going back to Kizer, which makes it look like the Browns are a team without any plan.

Even worse, the Browns got to see Deshaun Watson play well firsthand. The rookie Texans quarterback had 225 yards and three touchdowns. The Browns traded the pick that became Watson. The Browns still don’t have a quarterback and have shown no progress. Having a beacon of hope like Watson could have bought Jackson more time. Then again, maybe Watson would have looked terrible on the Browns, like every other Browns quarterback.

While the Browns don’t have a ton of talent, they shouldn’t be this bad either. Whatever talent the Browns have, Jackson isn’t getting the most out of it. Compare the job Jackson has done to what Todd Bowles is doing with the Jets. Starting the merry-go-round at coach again just forces the Browns to start all over again. But it’s getting harder to believe the Browns could justify bringing Jackson back for a third season.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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