The resounding win over the Vikes was just what the doctor ordered. In the two prior playoffs, Green Bay was consistently accorded underdog status, but the team has now served notice it’s the top dog – the favorite to win it all. This is the first time I’ve felt relaxed during a Green Bay game in about two years.
Congratulations are in order, from top to bottom, to the whole Packers organization. That’s right it was Mark Murphy who hired Brian Gutekunst. It was Brian who assembled this formidable roster – and who continues to keep tweaking it. It was Rodgers who carried the club through the 5-win stretch drive. And it was De’Vondre Campbell, Rasul Douglas, and all those second- and third-string O-line fill-ins who plugged up the fissures. All the players are aware that their biggest hurdle remains. But they have proved to be the best in their division and the best in the NFC, and that merits a big celebration.
We now even have reason to believe that the special teams deficiencies are getting fixed. Let’s start there, and then touch upon the many other positives that emerged on Sunday.
By constantly trying to make personnel upgrades, and by staying the course with Mason Crosby, GM Gutekunst has things looking up. Though kicks go for shorter distances in wintry conditions, Mason put most of his kickoffs into the end zone, and was accurate on his place kicks. Newcomer David Moore looked solid on punt and kick returns, including the taking of fair catches. A Round 7 pick by the Seahawks in 2017, he’s since been with the Panthers, Raiders, Broncos, and now the Packers.
In each of the Vikes’ three kick returns, there were plenty of tacklers surrounding the returner.
Dillon and Jones
Gutekunst undoubtedly had a game just like this one in mind when he selected the 250-pound A.J. Dillon in the second round in 2020. Fans got a glimpse of the future last season in Week 16 when A.J. outplayed the Titans’ Derrick Henry, with 124 yards and two TDs in 21 carries.
The idea that Dillon could protect leads late in the games, and especially so in wintry weather was borne out against the Vikes. As A.J. plowed his way to 63 yards on 14 carries, you could see the Minnesota defense deflating. The success of platooning Dillon and Aaron Jones was on full display, as Jones added 76 yards on just eight carries. On the year, Jones has 799 rushing yards and 391 receiving yards; Dillon has 740 and 309. Jones ranks 16th in rush yardage, and Dillon ranks 24th.
It now appears to me that Jones had earlier been playing at less than full strength, but now he’s healthy – and at just the right time. The duo also caught seven of nine throws, good for 50 yards. That strategy needs to continue throughout the playoffs.
I think it says a lot about the team-first attitudes of these two guys – they could individually be having much superior statistical years, as the featured back on another team. This platooning costs each any chance of being named an All-Pro. We’ll have to wait and see if both are retained by Green Bay for 2022.
The cupboard of receivers is about as bare as it can get, yet it doesn’t seem to matter. Against the Vikes, Davante Adams and Allen Lazard combined for 17 catches for 208 yards, which comprised over two-thirds of the Pack’s 307 passing yards. Much of the rest came from the running back duo. I keep hoping that someone else will step up, or get healthy, but it hasn’t been the case for St. Brown, Deguara, Davis, Winfree, Dafney, Malik Taylor, or Amari Rodgers. Thank God for Adams! There are some other players to consider. Lazard is having a fine late season. Valdes-Scantling has his moments, and is valuable simply for being a deep threat. I do expect that Randall Cobb will be back for the playoffs.
Given Rodgers’ quality of play, this lineup will probably serve the Packers’ passing needs adequately.
More on Rodgers
Every time Aaron faithfully adheres to a quick-throw regimen, good things happen. He did so against Minnesota, and he’s tended to do so ever since he had the toe fracture. One result of his quick and disciplined passing was a second straight no-sack game. This is one of the less-appreciated reasons why the team’s injury-riddled offensive line has exceeded all expectations. Aaron stands at 27 sacks on the year, which is about where you’d like him to be.
Healing and Rest
In his first post-game comments, Matt LaFleur gave indications that his starters would not play much against the Lions. He has since backtracked on that notion, though I still doubt that many starters will play beyond the first quarter. Since the Pack has now secured a bye during the first weekend of playoffs, that means the team will have almost three weeks to get healthy before they have their first playoff outing.
Will all of that healing and rest time be enough to have Jaire Alexander, David Bakhtiari, Za’Darious Smith and/or Josh Myers available? It should at least be enough time to get Cobb back, and provide healing time for Aaron’s bad toe. Given this is a 17-game season, the Packers should be more well-rested than other teams who get no break at all between the regular season and the postseason.
Brady and the Buccaneers
It’s quite conceivable that the Packers and Bucs will meet in the Super Bowl game. Winners of six of their last seven, Tampa Bay and Brady are on a hot streak. I mention this because the Bucs suffered a loss on Sunday – though not in the win/loss column. Despite never leading until under a half minute remained, the Bucs managed to get past the 4-12 Jets.
The loss I’m referring to is that of Antonio Brown. While many might not regard this as a major setback, the (former) 33-year-old NFL bad boy has been a valuable weapon on the field for the Bucs. In playing in only seven games this season, and starting in only three, the COVID paperwork forger still managed to catch 42 of 62 throws by Brady, and for 545 yards (13.0 ypr) and four TDs. Brown also had a touchdown reception in the Bucs’ Super Bowl victory last February. Brady has lost one of his favorite targets.
Antonio could put enormous stress on a defense; he still has enough speed to go deep, and he has the quick moves to be a great red-zone and end-zone target. However, we won’t be seeing him on a football field anytime soon.
Rodgers’ all-time low interception percentage is by now legendary – as it should be. Even so, this season has been one for the ages. Aaron now stands at 35 touchdown throws and four interceptions. Not counting his three seasons as a backup, he has only thrown fewer than four interceptions once in 14 years: he had only two Int’s (and 25 TDs) in the team’s 6-9-1 2018 season. He hasn’t been picked since Week 10.
As if that’s not enough, Rodgers has only fumbled three times this season, and none were recovered by the opposition. This turnover stat might be almost as incredible and rare as Aaron’s interception stats. Tom Brady, for example, has lost three fumbles this season. Patrick Mahomes has fumbled nine times, and lost four of them. In addition to everything else, Aaron is the all-time ball security king of the NFL.
The media has been following Matt LaFluer’s win/loss record all season. After his team’s latest win on Sunday, Matt now stands at 39 regular season wins and nine losses as an NFL head coach. This eclipses the 38-10 regular season record that the 49ers’ George Seifert established from 1989 through 1991 in his first three years as an NFL head coach.
You’re probably also familiar with the fact that in his three years as HC, LaFleur’s teams have yet to loss two consecutive games (in the same season). I’m not sure if that’s a record, though Seifert did lose twice in a row in 1991. Regardless, it’s an example of LaFleur’s remarkable consistency and stability as the team leader. And remember, LaFleur took over a team coming off of two losing seasons in a row. By contrast, Seifert inherited a team that was the defending Super Bowl champ.
Yes, Matt is truly a one of a kind head coach.
A side benefit to the Pack securing the NFC’s top seed is that Jordan Love should get the majority of the snaps against Detroit. We’ll see if he improves upon his performance against the Chiefs in Week 9, when he went 19 of 34 for 190 yards, and with 1 TD, 1 Int, and 1 sack. Against the Vikings he got in for one drive, began with two nice completions, and then had two poor throws that were short of the receivers – I think he started aiming instead of flinging. Still, he looked comfortable in the pocket, and found the open receivers. He also made a good decision by breaking out of the pocket on a third and ten, and then slipping a tackle to barely reach the first down marker.
It looks like it will mainly be Love versus Tim Boyle in Detroit.
I’ve watched a lot more non-Packers NFL games than usual this season. What has most amazed me is how prone to senseless penalties most teams are. Especially from inside the opponent’s 5-yard line, I’m continually seeing flags thrown for false starts, illegal shifts, and man-in-motion violations – these usually lead to field goals rather than touchdowns.
On the defensive side, how many times have you seen incompletions or interceptions nullified by off-sides or roughing the passer penalties? I can recall a few times Packers opponents have kept drives going due to roughing the passer flags, but in most cases the roughing calls were questionable. Such penalties often lead to games being lost that should have been won.
This led me to take a glance at some penalty statistics. To date this season, I see that Green Bay has had 19 pre-snap penalties – that’s seven fewer than the next closest team; six teams are in the 40’s.
Overall, Green Bay is listed as having 68 penalties called against them so far this season (not including offsetting or declined penalties). Once again, Green Bay leads the league (by just one) in fewest penalties. By comparison, the Cowboys have had the most penalties,122, called against them.
Yardage-wise, the Packers have had 678 yards marched off against them – that’s the sixth lowest in the league. In contrast, Las Vegas, Dallas, and San Francisco have each been penalized over 1,000 yards.
What this suggests to me is that the Packers have been well trained and coached to minimize penalties. It also seems that Packers players keep their emotions more in check, and play with more discipline and precision, than most teams. If so, that’s once again a great credit to LaFleur and his coaching staff.