With 11 NFL games played simultaneously early Sunday afternoon, there were half a dozen big ones with playoff implications. The Vikings pounded the Texans. The Bengals snatched the final AFC playoff spot away from the Steelers. The Redskins held on to beat the Eagles. The Cowboys lost a thriller to the Saints. The Colts clinched a return to the playoffs in Kansas City. The Patriots struggled to put away the pesky Jaguars.
Those were all good games, so you can be forgiven if you overlooked the Packers’ 55-7 blowout of the Titans, a snoozer that was over a few minutes after it began. But for my money, the Packers made a stronger statement about their status as a Super Bowl contender than any of the teams in those other games I mentioned.
Yes, the Titans are a bad team, but even against the bad teams, you can be impressed with the way a good team plays. And I have to be impressed when I see Aaron Rodgers go 27-for-38 for 342 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. I have to be impressed when I see three wide receivers — James Jones, Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings — all catch touchdown passes, while tight end Jermichael Finley had his best game of the season, with 70 receiving yards. I have to be impressed when running back Ryan Grant, last year’s starter who just re-signed in Green Bay three weeks ago, gained 80 yards and scored two touchdowns.
But we already knew the Packers would be fine on offense, as long as Rodgers is around. Even more importantly, I was impressed with a Green Bay defense that saw six different players — A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Clay Matthews, Mike Neal, Dezman Moses and Sam Shields — sack Titans quarterback Jake Locker. And I was even impressed by the special teams — which had been the biggest weakness of the Packers this season — stepping up on Sunday. Jeremy Ross had a 58-yard punt return, while Mason Crosby finally settled down and made both of his field goal attempts, although his 48-yarder bounced off the upright before falling through.
Does all that add up to the Packers being the best team in the NFL right now? I don’t know. If I had to pick a best team right now I’d probably go with Seattle, which pounded San Francisco on Sunday night for its third straight blowout win. But I’m not sure how relevant the title of “best team” is at this time of year. We often see that the universally recognized best team in the league in late December isn’t still standing in early February — as the Packers found out the hard way last year.
What I do think that is that if I were a fan of a playoff team, the Packers — who have now won four straight and nine of their last 10 — are the team I’d least want to be playing when the postseason starts. This Green Bay team is really, really good, and remember: If we have a rematch of that Seahawks-Packers “Fail Mary” replacement ref debacle in the postseason, the rematch will most likely be at Lambeau Field. A Seahawks-Packers playoff rematch would be a matchup of the two NFC teams that are playing their best football right now, and in Green Bay, I’d pick the Packers.
That 55-7 Packers score was what really made me sit up and take notice on Sunday. Here are the other items that caught my eye:
The NFL’s schedule makers dropped the ball with Sunday afternoon’s slate. Putting 11 games in the 1 o’clock kickoff slot and only three games in the 4 o’clock kickoff slot is a dumb way to divide up the afternoon games. With a bunch of good games in the early window, it was hard to follow all the action. And with three lousy games in the late window, the end of the day felt like a letdown.
Jamaal Charles tops Jim Brown. Charles didn’t just rush for 226 yards in the Chiefs’ loss to the Colts. He also broke Jim Brown’s half-century old record for the highest career yards per carry average for a running back. In the official NFL Record and Fact Book, a player needs 750 career carries to qualify for the all-time record, and among running backs, Jim Brown’s career average of 5.22 yards per carry has always been the gold standard. But on Sunday, Charles got his 750th career carry and jumped ahead of Brown in the record book. Charles now has 770 career carries for 4,483 yards, an incredible career average of 5.82 yards a carry. Any time a running back tops Jim Brown, he has done something special. To top Jim Brown’s longstanding record average by more than half a yard per carry is stunning.
Janoris Jenkins has had a remarkable rookie season. Jenkins entered this year’s NFL draft widely regarded as one of the most talented players available, but also as an off-field problem child who could turn out to be more trouble than he’s worth. Well, the Rams drafted Jenkins in the second round, and he has had some off-field trouble — Rams coach Jeff Fisher benched him for one game for missing curfew — but no one could possibly argue that Jenkins is more trouble than he’s worth anymore. Jenkins has been a fantastic cornerback on an improving St. Louis defense, and on Sunday he scored his fourth defensive touchdown of the season. Do you know how hard that is to do? Deion Sanders is the best defensive player I ever saw at making plays after turnovers, and even Deion never scored four defensive touchdowns in a season. Jenkins is one of only three players in NFL history to have three interception returns for a touchdown in his rookie season, and the other two — Lem Barney and Ronnie Lott — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If Jenkins can steer clear of off-field trouble, then Fisher is going to look back on drafting Jenkins as the single most important decision he made in his first year as the Rams’ coach.
Blair Walsh has had a remarkable rookie season, too. Never before in NFL history had anyone kicked more than eight 50-yard field goals in a season. Walsh, Minnesota’s rookie kicker, booted his ninth field goal of 50 yards or longer when he connected from 56 yards against the Texans on Sunday. Everyone knows the Vikings are playoff contenders because they have the NFL’s best running back in Adrian Peterson. But don’t overlook the importance of having the NFL’s best kicker in Walsh.
The Broncos are doing it at the right time. We that the six AFC playoff teams will be the Texans, Broncos, Patriots, Ravens, Colts and Bengals. But the only one of those six teams that really looks like it’s playing its best football late in the season is Denver. The Texans got pushed around by the Vikings on Sunday, the Patriots followed a loss to the 49ers last week with an ugly win over the Jaguars this week, the Ravens played well on Sunday but have struggled through most of the last month, and the Bengals and Colts barely squeaked by in their wild-card clinching wins on Sunday. I see big question marks about those five AFC playoff teams, but no major questions about the Broncos, who played great offense and great defense in pounding the Browns on Sunday. How does Peyton Manning leading the Broncos to the Super Bowl against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers sound?