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NFL Reset: Team rankings, Aaron Rodgers’s future, catch-rule issues, NFC East

Quarterbacks Jordan Love, left, and Aaron Rodgers sit on the Packers' sideline during Sunday night's loss at Philadelphia. (Chris Szagola/AP)

Aaron Rodgers said during a broadcast interview Tuesday he expects to be able to play this weekend for the Green Bay Packers. Yet it feels inevitable that third-year understudy Jordan Love will get some starts down the stretch while Rodgers’s season perhaps will end early, even if that does not occur this week.

Rodgers underwent further tests Monday on the rib injury that caused him to leave Sunday night’s loss in Philadelphia. He already had been playing with a broken thumb. Coach Matt LaFleur continued to say Monday that Rodgers will start Sunday’s game at Chicago if he’s able to play.

Aaron Rodgers leaves Packers’ loss to Eagles with rib injury

“We’re not eliminated,” Rodgers said Tuesday during his regular appearance on the Pat McAfee Show. “I got good news with the scans yesterday. So I plan on playing this week.”

The Packers’ record dropped to 4-8 with the 40-33 defeat in Philadelphia. Afterward, Rodgers said that he would like to play as long as the Packers are mathematically in the NFC playoff race, but he acknowledged the situation would change if they are eliminated.

Love looked greatly improved during his relief appearance against the Eagles, throwing a 63-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Christian Watson. It was perhaps the first on-field evidence that the first-round draft pick the Packers invested in Love in 2020 was not wasted. A few solid starts by Love during the playing-out-the-string portion of this season perhaps would embolden the Packers to move on from Rodgers, who turns 39 on Friday.

The dynamics will be far different than they were last offseason. Rodgers no longer will be a two-time defending league MVP. The Packers no longer will be a year removed from consecutive appearances in the NFC title game. An overhaul might be in order. For Rodgers, it might make sense to retire or to finish his career elsewhere. He said Sunday he would not make a decision until the offseason about whether he intends to play next season.

If Rodgers retires, he would forfeit the $59.5 million guaranteed to him for next season under the new contract he signed in March. If the Packers were to trade him, they would have to absorb a $40.3 million salary cap hit next season. They could divide that ($15.8 million next season, $24.5 million in 2024) by trading him after June 1.

It should surprise absolutely no one if the Packers provide themselves with a sneak preview of their potential post-Rodgers existence at some point in December or early January.

Top five teams

1. Chiefs
Their offense was not efficient against the Rams, repeatedly squandering red-zone chances. The Chiefs will take a five-game winning streak into Sunday’s contest at Cincinnati.
2. Dolphins
They had no issues with the Texans and improved to 8-0 in games QB Tua Tagovailoa starts and finishes. LT Terron Armstead’s pectoral injury apparently won’t end his season. That would have been a major loss.
3. Eagles
That was an astounding offensive performance in the win Sunday night over the Packers, with 363 rushing yards and 40 points. The only concern is putting Jalen Hurts so frequently in harm’s way.
4. Cowboys
The victory over the Giants on Thanksgiving Day was the most-watched game in NFL history. A Cowboys run deep into the playoffs would be a very good thing for the league, viewership-wise.
5. Bills
Now they have to show they can win somewhere other than Detroit. It’s an AFC East-centric schedule the next few weeks, with the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins up next.

What’s a catch (again)?

A measure of “what’s a catch?” confusion returned to the NFL during the Week 12 games.

This was supposed to have been resolved, remember, when the NFL revised its catch rule in 2018, attempting to put more of a common-sense approach in place.

It has worked, for the most part. The rules are far less confounding, and debates over what is and what is not a catch have not been such a frequent exercise.

But that changed in recent days, with catch-rule controversies involving New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry on Thanksgiving and New Orleans Saints wide receiver Chris Olave on Sunday.

Henry’s would-be touchdown catch against the Minnesota Vikings was overturned by an instant replay review and ruled an incompletion. Olave likewise had a catch turned into an incompletion via a replay review, initiated by a San Francisco 49ers challenge.

That led Saints Coach Dennis Allen to say during his postgame news conference: “I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t know what a catch is in our league anymore. It’s kind of changed multiple times.”

That might be overstating it a bit these days, but such confusion is not supposed to exist any longer.

Under the revised rule, a player is credited with a legal catch if he has possession of the ball with two feet on the ground, then performs a third act (such as taking an additional step, turning upfield, avoiding or warding off an opponent, tucking the football away or extending it forward) or has sufficient time to have done so.

It is that third element that was the key to both the Henry and Olave no-catch replay rulings.

If the third element is not present before the player goes to the ground while still in the process of making the catch, he must maintain control of the ball while on the ground to be credited with a catch. That’s the leftover portion of the previous catch rule that created so much confusion, angst and controversy.

Henry made the catch at the goal line and was tackled immediately without being able to take another step or make a football move. He seemed to have his hand underneath the ball as he went to the turf, with the ball across the goal line. But because he had not fulfilled the third element of the new catch rule, he was required to maintain control of the ball while on the ground. That didn’t happen; the ball slipped from his grasp temporarily while he rolled over, and then he re-secured it.

Olave, similarly, stumbled just before his foot hit the ground for what would have been a third step with the ball in his possession. It is debatable whether he got that foot to the turf to fulfill the third element of the rule; the officials determined that he did not. So when he lost possession of the ball after going to the ground, it became an incompletion.

In both instances, a case could have been made that there was not clear-cut video evidence to overturn the on-field call of a legal catch. Instant replay is supposed to be used to correct obvious officiating mistakes, not to re-officiate close plays. Particularly on the Henry play, the NFL failed to make the fine points of the new catch rule clear in its public comments about its ruling.

Bottom five teams

28. Saints
Sean Payton and Drew Brees are not coming through that door. Are they?
29. Cardinals
Having QB Kyler Murray and WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown on the field together for the first time this season didn’t help, and speculation about Kliff Kingsbury’s job security is increasing.
30. Rams
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp aren’t playing. Aaron Donald is now injured as well, with a high ankle sprain. Sean McVay isn’t even safe on his own sideline, with his players running into him.
31. Broncos
This is a mess. There’s no reason to believe Nathaniel Hackett can fix it. It is increasingly difficult to imagine him being retained for a second season, if he even keeps his job for all of this one.
32. Texans
It doesn’t matter whether Kyle Allen or Davis Mills is at QB. Neither is the answer. The Texans are basically on the clock now for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. They can take the QB of their choosing.

NFC East exploits

The NFC East is thriving. It’s not exactly back to the glory days, when Super Bowl victories were stacked up practically on a yearly basis. But this is a good week for the division’s revival, with all four teams in playoff position in the NFC.

The Eagles are the conference’s No. 1 seed entering December. The Dallas Cowboys are fifth. The New York Giants are sixth. The Washington Commanders are seventh.

No NFL division has had four playoff teams since the 2002 realignment. Of course, it only became possible in the 2020 season, when the NFL expanded the playoff field to seven teams (including three wild-card entries) per conference.

The turnaround is striking for the NFC East, which had a below-.500 division champion only two years ago: the 7-9 Washington Football Team.

NFL Sunday takeaways: 49ers surge, Broncos struggle, Jets’ QB switch works

The Eagles have steadied themselves with two straight victories since their sloppy loss to the Commanders knocked them from the unbeaten ranks. The Cowboys have won four of their past five games, with a puzzling loss at Green Bay being their only misstep during that stretch. The Commanders are surging, with six victories in seven games since a 1-4 start, and they have found a winning combination with Taylor Heinicke at quarterback.

The Giants must gather themselves for the stretch run. They have lost three of four games since a 6-1 beginning. And there might not even be anything for them to fix. They overachieved early under Brian Daboll, their rookie head coach. This might simply be a return to something resembling their actual level. The Giants still must face the Commanders and Eagles twice each, along with a Dec. 24 road game at Minnesota. If Daboll gets them into the postseason, he truly will have worked some first-year wonders.