It has been difficult to remain positive about the Packers during the second half of the season. Going 4-6 after starting 6-0 can do that to a fan base. On Sunday, when Aaron Rodgers was sacked in the endzone for a safety, and the Packers had dug themselves an early hole, trailing 11-0, it was even more difficult. It got a whole lot easier when they scored 17 unanswered points and got things going again.
With all of Packers fandom now in a more positive frame of mind, and the team playing well in Washington, it is no longer absurd to make a case for the Green Bay Packers to be Super Bowl 50 Champions. Yes, the same Green Bay Packers who sputtered on offense for the entire second half of the season. The team who lost to every NFC North opponent at home. The team that limped into the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
On Sunday, the team showed a tremendous amount of pride and determination in Washington, traits that they seemed to be lacking in recent weeks.
This is not a breakdown of who they will be playing and how they will beat them. Obviously, beating Arizona and either Seattle or Carolina is no easy task. This is a breakdown of why this team has what it takes to reach and win the big game in San Francisco on February 7th.
We at TTSO have often joined the chorus against Packers defensive coordinator, Dom Capers. It seems at times the game has passed him by and that he doesn’t know how to put the talent on the field into the position to win. Lately, however, there is very little negative to say about this unit. They allowed a few big yardage plays on Sunday. Jordan Reed had a big game, but otherwise, their performance was fantastic.
The Green Bay defense finished the regular season in the middle of the pack at fifteenth in terms of yardage. They were in the top third, twelfth in scoring defense, yielding only 20.2 points per game. In a year where the offense was firing on all cylinders, this would be clearly enough to have the Packers in Super Bowl contention. What’s more remarkable is that the Packers lost three games in which they held their opponents to 20 or fewer points.
What is exciting about this defense is their ability to come up big when it matters, keeping the Packers in the games in which the offense is struggling.
This defense has been clutch for much of the year. There’s definitely room for improvement, but they’ve kept the team alive in games where the offense couldn’t get anything done. On Sunday, they kept the game close early until the offense found their way.
The goal line stand and a missed extra point kept the deficit at 11-0 instead of 16-0. Okay, maybe the defense can’t take too much credit for a missed extra point, but let’s give it to them anyway. The play of the defense in those clutch situations undoubtedly had an impact on the offense’s mindset and confidence.
What really stood out on Sunday was the play of the rookies. Jake Ryan had a big missed tackle early on, but looked disruptive the rest of the game. He’s carving out a nice role in this defense. Also performing well were all three rookie defensive backs: Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Ladarius Gunter, all of which became essental pieces of the defense with Sam Shields absent.
Without Shields these past few weeks, Randall and Rollins have stepped up their game in a major way. This week, Gunter joined them when he had to step in for an injured Randall. The way these three played on Sunday gave no indication that they were all rookies playing in their first playoff game.
After an ugly first quarter, the offense was almost unstoppable for the rest of the game. They were able to string together some completions and get back into the no huddle offense that is so hard to stop. In several games this season, the offense hasn’t been able to move the ball until the fourth quarter, when they had to ditch the gameplan and try to mount a comeback. They were able to mount those comebacks, including the game in Detroit that ended in the Hail Mary winner, because they went no huddle.
So why haven’t the Packers been doing this for weeks? The two major factors that allowed them to go no huddle and move the ball the way they did were: fewer drops and mistimed routes, and better protection from the offensive line. These factors haven’t been there recently, so the option wasn’t available.
The ability to pick up the pace unleashed the reigning MVP, Aaron Rodgers. He was given more time to find a receiver and make the throws he needed to. James Jones, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, whom we spoke about on the Pack to the Future podcast last week, caught almost everything thrown their way and picked up solid yards after their catches.
Aaron Rodgers was even caught smiling several times throughout this game. Can anyone remember the last time that happened? My guess is the week 13 game in Detroit, the aforementioned Hail Mary game.
In addition to a positive influence on the Packer offense, the no huddle also demoralized the Washington defense. They simply had no answer for it. They weren’t able to make their substitutions fast enough, resulting in two penalties for having twelve men on the field. They also didn’t have the time to line their defense up the way they wanted to, meaning they weren’t able to set up the one-on-ones they wanted.
If the Packers are able to keep opposing defenses on their heels by running their fast-paced offense again, there’s no reason to think they can’t string together a few wins in a row, much like they did earlier in the season when they went 6-0.
There’s definitely something to be said for teams that peak at the right time. The Packers peaked at the right time in 2010 and won the Super Bowl. The Giants did the same thing in 2008 and 2012. The Ravens did it in 2013. The list goes on. Teams who were not the best in the league that year, but managed to win the Super Bowl anyway.
On Sunday, the Packers put together their best overall performance since they beat the Vikings in Minnesota in week 11; maybe even further back than that. The offense was back to its usual self, playing about as well as an offense without its best receiver can be expected to play. And, as mentioned above, the defense has been building some momentum of their own, seemingly getting better each week (with the exception of their lackluster performance in Arizona).
What could help swing the momentum even further is the return of a couple key players. Sam Shields has missed the last few games while going through the concussion protocol, but is expected to return soon. And, perhaps even more importantly, left tackle David Bakhtiari is scheduled to return as early as Saturday.
There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe JC Tretter’s impact on this team. He put in yet another fantastic shift while playing out of position at left tackle in Bakhtiari’s absence. But, if the starter is ready to go when the Packers travel to Arizona on Saturday, it could provide a major boost to an offense that seemed to have found itself again.
This is not a prediction or bold statement that the Packers will go all the way. There’s still a tremendous hill to climb. But what the Packers showed on Sunday was that they are more than capable of making a deep playoff run this year. They made some major adjustments on offense and were finally able to help out a defense that has carried this team all year.
To beat Arizona on Saturday, they will have to build off of this win. Their performance in Washington was good enough to beat Washington, but the Cardinals are a much better team. They’re confident, talented and well-coached. So are the Packers, and they seem to be putting it all together at the right time.