With four games left in the 2018 season, the Mike McCarthy-era came to an end in Green Bay.
McCarthy had led the Packers to one Super Bowl title, four NFC Championship games and nine playoff appearances during his nearly 13 seasons on the job. And he helped get Brett Favre’s career back on track and Aaron Rodgers’ career get started.
But with the Packers sitting at 4-7-1, team president Mark Murphy fired McCarthy — who left with the second-most wins (125) and as the second-longest tenured coach in team history.
“The exit, it left a dent, just to be honest, with our family,” McCarthy, who now coaches the Dallas Cowboys, said last month. “But it’s been four years. We’re so much better because of it. We’ve had time to process it all and it’s a little unique.”
Now, in a remarkable story dripping with irony, McCarthy’s Cowboys could eventually determine whether the 2022 Packers reach the postseason.
The Packers have won three straight games, improved to 7-8 and are tied for No. 8 spot in the NFC with Seattle and Detroit. The New York Giants (8-6-1) are currently seeded sixth and Washington (7-7-1) holds the seventh and final playoff spot.
Green Bay must win out and hope for some help along the way.
The Giants — who host a dreadful Indianapolis (4-10-1) team and Philadelphia (13-2) — need just one win in their final two games to earn a playoff spot. The website FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Giants a 92% chance of making the playoffs.
So Green Bay’s most likely path to the playoffs is for Washington to lose one of its final two games. And that’s where McCarthy and the Cowboys come in.
Washington hosts a subpar Cleveland team (6-9) Sunday and the Commanders are a 2-point favorite. Washington then hosts Dallas in Week 18 — a game in which the Cowboys would typically be a slight favorite.
Dallas (11-4) is locked into the No. 5 spot in the NFC, though. And with no chance of moving up or down, the Cowboys would have little incentive to play their starters in Week 18.
If Dallas plays many of its reserves in the season finale — giving Washington a far greater chance to prevail — McCarthy and the Cowboys could be a big reason Green Bay eventually misses the playoffs.
“I’d like to be, let’s see what are we, 7-8?” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after Green Bay defeated Miami on Sunday. “I’d like to be, you know, 10-5, 11-4, but considering where we were a few weeks ago, a lot of has happened in our favor. All the games that needed to go a certain way needed to go a certain way.
“Now, there’s obviously much left, but again, we’ve played meaningful games in December, we won all three of those. Now we’re playing meaningful games in January, and we’ve got to win those.”
Green Bay’s final two games are both at home — against Minnesota and Detroit.
If the Packers — who have a 27% chance of making the playoffs — win both of those games, they’ll pass the Lions. And while Seattle — which has home games with the New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams — could get to 9-8, the Packers would win that tiebreaker because they’ll have a better record against NFC teams.
With the Giants positioned to lock down the No. 6 seed, Green Bay’s best hope seems to be passing Washington. Of course, McCarthy and the Cowboys could take their foot off the gas in Week 18, making it even tougher for the Packers to pass the Commanders.
Back in 2011, Green Bay went 15-1 in the regular season and had the No. 1 seed in the NFC wrapped up late in the year. So in the regular season finale, McCarthy sat standouts Rodgers, Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews and pulled many of his starters early in the game.
“It was important to get those guys rested … and they’ll be ready to go through the process next week and improve as a team,” McCarthy said that day.
They weren’t ready — as Green Bay lost its 2011 playoff opener to the New York Giants, 37-20.
“No excuses,” McCarthy said afterwards. “There’s nothing in the preparation that led me to believe that this was going to occur.”
During McCarthy’s remaining time in Green Bay, the Packers battled for playoff positioning until the final week of the season. So resting his front-liners wasn’t really an option.
It will be interesting to see if McCarthy opts to rest many of his standouts in Week 18 — or have them play against Washington.
Many across the NFL, including McCarthy himself, thought his firing was handled poorly.
McCarthy joined Gene Ronzani (1953) as the only coaches in team history to be fired mid-season. And considering McCarthy had a Super Bowl on his résumé, many felt his dismissal showed a lack of respect.
“If we missed the playoffs, I expected change might happen,” McCarthy told ESPN.com after the 2018 season. “But the timing surprised me. Actually it stunned me. It couldn't have been handled any worse.”
Amazingly, McCarthy could get some revenge in the days ahead.
What Green Bay’s former coach opts to do will make for fascinating viewing.