This is exactly how it was supposed to play out for the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers would dominate the Cleveland Browns and the Minnesota Vikings would lose on the road to the Pittsburgh Steelers, setting up a battle for first place in the NFC North next week in Lambeau Field. Technically, the Packers (4-2) will enter the game against Brett Favre and the Vikings (6-1) a game and a half behind their arch rival, but the contest will go a long way towards determining who will wear the crown.
The Packers put themselves in this position by dismantling the Browns 31-3 on Sunday. While the victory was impressive, it was also expected – the Browns are quite possibly the worst team in the NFL. However, the Packers could have easily overlooked this team with an eye towards their rematch with Favre and the Vikings. That didn’t happen and the Packers dominated throughout, establishing momentum and riding a two-game win streak going into their game with the Vikings.
The Packers looked awfully good in just about every aspect against the Browns. While I’d caution about reading too much into a game against a team that ranked last in the NFL in total defense and second to last in total offense coming into the game, the Packers used the Browns to work on some of their problems and build confidence.
For the first time this season, Packers running back Ryan Grant looked like a top-of-the-line feature back, rushing for 148 yards (the third highest total of his career) and a touchdown on 27 carries. Grant was a given an opportunity early and often and responded by averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
“He ran hard, he had his pads down, he protected the football well, and made a couple guys miss,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “My guess is when we go back and look at those long runs he had, we’re going to see that maybe there was a linebacker or a safety who had an arm out or hand out or grabbed an ankle, but he ran through some of those.”
Grant ran harder than he has all season and he seems to have gotten the message relayed by the Packers signing of Ahman Green.
In addition to Grant showing up for the first time this season, the Packers offensive line can be commended for doing the same. After leading the league with 25 sacks allowed through six weeks of the season, the Packers gave up zero sacks on Sunday. In addition to the line’s improved play, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers also got rid of the ball quicker than he has been prone to. While the Browns aren’t known for their vaunted pass rush, Sunday’s performance is a step in the right direction. Rodgers threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers looked equally as good. Charles Woodson caused two turnovers, intercepting the Browns’ Derek Anderson and forcing a fumble that Brandon Chillar recovered. The Packers have a plus-10 turnover differential on the season. It’s also promising that Aaron Kampman had his second sack in as many weeks, bringing his total to three on the season.
If there were any negatives to come out of this game, and believe me – there are, fingers can be pointed at two of the usual suspects – Mike McCarthy and Mason Crosby.
Let’s start with McCarthy. The Packers committed eight penalties on Sunday, five of which resulted in Cleveland first downs. Several of the penalties demonstrated the Packers lack of discipline (Atari Bigby’s late hit, Al Harris’ face mask, 12 men on the field), which goes back to McCarthy. The Packers have been at or near the top of the league in penalties committed since McCarthy has coached the team. The Packers led the league in penalties coming into the Browns game, so clearly, not much has changed. The lack of discipline the Packers display week in and week out is McCarthy’s fault and if they team hands over first downs via penalty to the Vikings, they’re going to be in for a long day.
McCarthy also seems to be confused as to how to get his team into the end zone once they break the opponent’s 20-yard-line. Last week against the Detroit Lions, the Packers were one-for-five in the red zone. This week they were two-for-three. However, one of those touchdowns took six plays to score from the three after a pass interference penalty. The time the Packers didn’t score a touchdown, they had first-and-goal from the eight. Six games into the season, McCarthy should know what his best goal line plays are and who his go-to players are. The Packers lack of success inside the red zone is inexcusable with the offensive weapons this team possesses.
Secondly, you have to wonder about Mason Crosby. Sure, the field goal he missed was a 55-yarder. That’s excusable. What isn’t excusable is kicking the ball out of bounds on kickoffs, which Crosby did twice. The Packers were trying to keep the ball away from return man Josh Cribbs, which was the correct strategy, but if you’re going to give the opponent the ball on their 40-yard-line, you may as well take your chances with the return. Crosby has one job – to kick the football and to kick it well. He’s failed to do that on several occasions this season, whether he’s missed a field goal or couldn’t execute a kickoff. If the trend continues, the Packers would be well served to look elsewhere for a kicker next season.
In the end, the Packers beat a team they were supposed to beat. They’ve improved in several areas and built some confidence.
“In the end, we got some confidence going. Football is a game of confidence. Right now we’re playing at a pretty high level. I think we’ve figured some things out in terms of how we want to best utilize our personnel, we’ve made some tweaks and it seems to be effective for us. So hopefully, that will continue against a team (Minnesota) you’d say is a little higher up the chart in terms of where they rank in offenses in the NFL,” Kampman said.
Everything has gone according to plan since the Packers have returned from their bye week. The highly-anticipated return of Brett Favre to Lambeau Field is set up perfectly. Next week, we’ll really learn something about these Green Bay Packers.