The playoffs are finally here — and there’s a lot to talk about. The Cleveland Browns are representing a dying era of football, the Carolina Panthers are trying to remember how to play football and there are postseason predictions to be made. But first, let’s try and catch up with the Green Bay Packers, who are running full speed into a new era of football.
Jordan Love had a first-year breakout with room for more
The Packers really might have done it again, man. Three straight franchise quarterbacks going back to the Brett Favre years, through 15 years of Aaron Rodgers and now Jordan Love has arrived on the scene and has the Packers in the playoffs in his first year as the team’s starter.
Love finished the season second in passing touchdowns (32), ninth in ESPN’s quarterback rating metric (62.0) and 11th in net yards per pass attempt (6.4). There were bumpy points early for him in the season, but by the end of the regular season he looked like a player ready to tear apart the league moving forward — and there’s still room for him and this Packers team to improve.
As most know, despite Love wrapping up his first year as a starter, he’s actually in his fourth year as a pro after sitting behind Rodgers at the beginning of his career. The Packers ripped the Band Aid off, traded Rodgers to the New York Jets and it turned out to be a brilliant move for the team.
The Packers struggled early with an incredibly young offense, with multiple rookies starting at wide receiver and tight end, and young players on the offensive line. Once those players gelled and got used to playing together amid the rigors of the NFL, the potential of this group with Love at the helm really started to pop.
Over the final eight games of the season, Love threw for 2,150 yards, 18 touchdowns, one interception and completed 70.3% of his passes while being sacked only 11 times. That’s comfortably elite production that will secure him a lucrative contract extension this offseason when the Packers are able to give him a multiyear deal on top of the one-year extension he received prior to the season. That will end up being one of the few big-money deals on one of the cheapest offenses in the league in terms of spending.
According to Spotrac, the Packers are spending $39.1 million, comfortably the lowest figure in the league. These are mostly players who are on rookie deals outside of David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins on the offensive line. That gives the Packers an unbelievably high floor moving forward because they’ll have the flexibility to be aggressive in the caliber of players they can add before they have to start paying their young core. It’s an exciting time to be a Packers fan and fan of the NFL.
Love will make his first playoff start in Dallas against Dak Prescott and the No. 2 seed Cowboys, which will be a tough game — and also give him a chance to start writing his chapter in Packers lore if he can pull of a big upset. Easier said than done, but an opportunity is all Love has ever needed. This season is proving that.
Joe Flacco vs C.J. Stroud is the cross-generation QB duel this season deserves
The previous generation of legendary quarterbacks who ruled the league in the 2010s is just about out of the door. Tom Brady is enjoying retirement and dabbling in content creation. Matt Ryan and Tony Romo are broadcasting for CBS. Philip Rivers is coaching high school football in Alabama. These guys are largely on the next phase of their lives, but there is one straggling champion who is holding it down for the old guard to show the young guns who ran this league: Joe Damn Flacco and the tints of gray that are starting to take over his beard.
Flacco (and the No. 1-ranked Browns defense!) has Cleveland heading to Houston to take on C.J. Stroud and the Texans, who quickly have the potential to develop into a superpower based on how Stroud played in his rookie season.
Stroud being in this position as the second pick in the 2023 draft is far less surprising than Flacco. He had high expectations and exceeded all of them. Meanwhile, Flacco was essentially out of the league and has now become the face of the veteran, grisly quarterback class that’s onto their second careers.
This game is fascinating because it was so out of the blue. When the Browns signed Flacco to take over as the starting quarterback after a slew of injuries and poor play from other starters, it felt like their season was over. He has been fairly inconsistent over the five games that he started, but he still has his trademark rocket arm strength and fearlessness that forces defenses to fear chunk plays at any point in the game. That’s a lot more than what the Browns were getting from their other quarterbacks, even if it’s imperfect.
In a year when a handful of teams lost starting QBs to season-ending injuries, it’s fitting that the representative of the last group of “traditional” pocket passers is Flacco. Stroud is just starting in his promising career while Flacco is trying to make one last run in the playoffs before Deshaun Watson takes over as the starter next season. No one could have predicted this before the season, which is what makes it a captivating story.
Flacco vs. Stroud. The last stand of the 2008 draft class and the first breath of the 2023 class. Stroud was 6 years old when Flacco signed his rookie contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Now they lock into combat to inch closer to the universal goal of every player: hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The most correct playoff prediction you’ll ever see
Everyone is going to have their predictions for the playoffs and how they’ll unfold, but this prediction right here is more correct than anything you’ll find on the internet. You won’t even have to watch the games themselves after reading these predictions. From the wild-card round through the Super Bowl, here’s how the playoffs will unfold.
No. 5 Cleveland Browns over No. 4 Houston Texans: The Browns’ defensive line is too much for rookie C.J. Stroud in his first playoff game and the Browns get just enough from Joe Flacco to give them the dub.
No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs over No. 6 Miami Dolphins: Miami is too banged up on defense for this task and it has struggled to score against quality opponents all season — including against the Chiefs in Germany. Chiefs get another playoff win in the Patrick Mahomes era in a low-scoring, cold affair.
No. 5 Philadelphia Eagles over No. 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs have a real chance to win this game, but it basically comes down to which version of Baker Mayfield shows up. Seems like a good opportunity for the Eagles to start playing defense again if the Mayfield from the past two weeks shows up.
No. 6 Los Angeles Rams over No. 3 Detroit Lions: Jared Goff’s revenge shot against the Rams comes up short in a shootout where the Lions’ defense doesn’t have enough juice to stop the Rams’ revamped offense.
No. 2 Dallas Cowboys over No. 7 Green Bay Packers: The Packers will give the Cowboys a tough game with Matt Lafleur giving Dan Quinn the blues, but the Cowboys’ overall talent pulls them away at the end.
No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs over No. 2 Buffalo Bills: Patrick Mahomes gets the win in his first career road playoff game. Josh Allen gives the Bills a fighting chance, but ultimately Bills offensive coordinator Joe Brady can’t crack Steve Spagnuolo’s defense.
No. 1 Baltimore Ravens over No. 5 Cleveland Browns: Joe Flacco’s return to Baltimore goes poorly as the Ravens shuts him down throughout the day.
No. 2 Dallas Cowboys over No. 5 Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles will get stampeded on the road as they have no answer for Dak Prescott and the red-hot Cowboys offense.
No. 1 San Francisco 49ers over No. 6 Los Angeles Rams: Expect the Rams to put up a good fight here, but the 49ers’ talent wears them down by the end of the game.
Conference championship round
No. 1 Baltimore Ravens over No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs: Despite Patrick Mahomes’ best efforts, the Chiefs don’t have the firepower to get past Baltimore’s defense and Lamar Jackson is off to his first Super Bowl.
No. 1 San Francisco 49ers over No. 2 Dallas Cowboys: Kyle Shanahan beats down Dan Quinn once again in the playoffs, sending Shanahan back to the Super Bowl for the second time as the 49ers’ head coach.
Ravens over 49ers: This game doesn’t end up as lopsided as their Christmas night matchup, but Lamar Jackson dazzles again as he finishes a season with his second MVP and his first Super Bowl MVP.
Enjoy your January and February weekends, they’ve just been freed up thanks to yours truly.
Patience is the word of the day for the Panthers
It’s been said ad nauseam that Panthers owner David Tepper needs to show patience to get through this total mess of a rebuild, but examining what a rebuild for the Panthers looks like is another thing.
In a season when the NFC South was the NFL’s worst division, the Panthers didn’t have a prayer of competing with the rest of a bad division over the course of a 17-game season. Bryce Young’s rookie season was wholly forgettable and there are questions about how high his ceiling is in the NFL. The wide receivers room needs to be stripped down and rebuilt, the Panthers struggled to run the ball and the offensive line was porous. That’s just on offense!
There is no quick fix to the problems they have going on and even a quick examination suggests it will take multiple seasons to get back to a playoff-caliber roster.
Getting the offense up and running has to be priority No. 1, 2 and 3 for the Panthers. There aren’t many, if any, quarterbacks who could put together a productive season based on what the Panthers had for Young — let alone a rookie who is less talented physically than the majority of his peers. There is a pathway for Young to improve his efficiency, but it’s going to take a lot of help. And it’s help the Panthers might not be able to really start acquiring this offseason.
They already don’t have their original pick for the upcoming draft, which wound up first overall. Their salary cap situation is fine with roughly $40 million available before they make any moves, but that is not enough money to plug every hole. Perhaps they can woo a Tee Higgins with a big contract, but they also have to ask themselves if that’s the move to make when every position group on offense needs help.
There’s also the matter of what to do with star pass rusher Brian Burns, who is set to hit the open market and recently said he didn’t feel like he was the top priority for the team (which, unfortunately, he can’t be right now). According to OverTheCap, if Burns were to get hit with the franchise tag it would cost in the range of either $21 million or $23 million depending if he’s designated as a defensive end or a linebacker. Either figure would be a big chunk of Carolina’s cap space for 2024, which might make it a foolhardy move considering Burns didn’t have a great 2023 season.
Eight sacks isn’t worth breaking the bank for, so they might have to let him walk and recoup on a third-round compensatory pick in 2025. That has to be frustrating for the Panthers and their fans because ESPN reported in 2022 that the Rams had offered multiple first-round picks for Burns that they turned down. They could use a first-round pick right about now and Burns not being a Panther in 2024 is a very real, if not likely, possibility.
The Panthers can free up cap space at the start of the offseason, to expand upon the $40 million they’re projected to have, but there is no way for the team that spent the 2023 season mostly doing cardio on the field to make the leap into the playoffs next season. They’re too far away. Add some talent, assess pieces to keep for the future, grit your teeth and try to get somewhere back to looking like a professional football team in 2024. If Young makes strides and looks like a franchise quarterback, then the Panthers will be cooking moving forward and they can start getting aggressive again. Right now, they need to find a new head coach, general manager and get on base so they have a product worth selling to fans.
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