WR Jones among key Packers facing uncertainty
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP)
Wearing his familiar knit cap and a blue San Jose State sweatshirt, Packers receiver James Jones looked like he was ready to escape the bitter cold and take the first flight back home to the West Coast.
He will take a month or so to decompress with family before starting to think about football again. But with free agency looming, there's no guarantee the veteran wideout will be back in Green Bay.
The 23-20 loss Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC wild-card game started the painful but familiar process Monday for players of saying goodbyes, looking forward to rest and wondering which teammates would be back next fall.
''You know what, to be honest with you, I'm not even worried about it. I'm at peace. I'm just chilling,'' Jones said on a morning when players were having exit interviews and cleaning up their lockers. ''Whatever may happen, happens. I would love to be back here.''
The productive Jones is among the highest-profile Packers facing free agency, along with tight end Jermichael Finley; cornerback Sam Shields; center Evan Dietrich-Smith; and defensive linemen B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett.
''Seventeen of us on the free agents list, so that makes it difficult,'' Neal said. ''A lot of guys I came in with, a lot of guys I've been here with, so it's a little different.''
Finley, who was sidelined for the year in October with a neck injury, may not be back, so the Packers could look to the draft at that position. Safety is a position that could be upgraded, and the defense overall could use another playmaker or two to go with Matthews at linebacker.
But the Packers (8-8-1) appear to be set for years with rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who added the much-needed threat to make opposing defenses pay for focusing on quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers came close to extending their season one more week before Phil Dawson hit a 33-yard field goal as time expired to win it. For a second straight year, Green Bay's season began and ended with losses to San Francisco.
Green Bay was worn down by injuries and maligned by defensive struggles at the same time that Rodgers went down for seven games with a left collarbone injury. But a 3-1 stretch to finish the regular season and the return of Rodgers brought new life.
A ''never-give-up'' identity emerged as the Packers rallied for all three wins, and players had a sense that maybe, just maybe, things were breaking their way after Chicago and Detroit each took turns slipping from the division lead.
''People can ridicule our team from different aspects, but you go through what we've been through ... and still come into the playoffs and lose by a field goal with a second on the clock - I don't care what nobody says, that's a hell of a football team, and I applaud everybody for that,'' Neal said.
Neal left Sunday's game with a right knee injury, but he says there's no concern about ligament damage. Shields hurt his left knee against the Niners, though he posted on Twitter that his injury was ''nothing major.''
Shields and fellow cornerback Tramon Williams elevated their play down the stretch. Neal thinks his transition from defensive end to rush linebacker went smoothly, and the position switch helped make up for when pass-rushing specialist Clay Matthews was sidelined with a broken right thumb.
Besides Lacy, left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Micah Hyde also played well among the rookie class. Hyde got better as the year went along in the return game.
After struggling to find an adequate replacement for Rodgers, Matt Flynn returned to Green Bay and helped win two crucial games in December including the rousing 37-36 victory on Dec. 15 over Dallas. The Packers had rallied from a 23-point halftime deficit.
Clearly though, Rodgers' injury on Nov. 4 was a turning point. Green Bay managed to get 5-2 until then in spite of injuries to Finley, Matthews and receiver Randall Cobb, among others.
They went 2-5-1 before both Rodgers and Cobb both returned in Week 17, connecting for the stunning 48-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-8 to help beat the Bears 33-28 in Week 17 to take the NFC North.
''These opportunities are pretty special and you've got to make the most of them,'' Rodgers said after Sunday's loss. ''It's nine years for me now, blessed to play that long, and would love to play another nine if possible, but this is an opportunity we let slip through our fingers.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP