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What We Learned: Week 15, at Bears

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Although the Chicago Bears’ roster is not nearly as strong as the Packers’, it was no surprise that the game was decided in the final minute based on the heated rivalry. The Bears gave a worthy effort and the Packers did everything they could to blow a 17-point lead, but in the end two of the Packers’ premier players-Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson-were the difference after they hooked up on a 60-yard bomb to set up a chip-shot field goal for Mason Crosby on the game’s final play.

The real prize was that the Packers were able to continue their quest for 10 straight wins on the road to the Super Bowl, but they get bonus points for drawing even in the all-time series with the Bears for the first time since 1933.

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What We Learned: Aaron Rodgers will decide how far this team goes.

The running game was great with the continued development of Ty Montgomery. Jared Cook is getting more involved. Jordy Nelson finally got behind the last level of the defense for a deep pass. Julius Peppers is returning to his strip-sack ways. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is starting to consistently find himself near the ball.

All of the above are important developments for a Packers team that will need to maximize its potential in order to reach Super Bowl LI. But none of them will mean a thing unless Aaron Rodgers continues to amaze with his play at the most important position in sports. This team has one thing that can elevate it to the elite of the NFL, into a real contender for post-season glory, and that is Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers showed it against the Bears, saving the team when it looked like it would blow a 17-point lead to a 3-10 team.

Surely having read criticism in this column and elsewhere regarding his leadership, Rodgers has elevated the play of his young team and transformed them into a match-up that no one will want to face come playoff time. His on-field performance has been incredible, as he has avoided interceptions during the current 4-game win streak and is throwing with tremendous accuracy down field. His decision making has been impeccable, and he is building impressive chemistry with Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery. In short, Rodgers is playing like an MVP, like we all hoped he would coming into the year.

While his calf and hamstring injuries have certainly changed his game, that change might be working out for the better in that he is now forced to place more trust in his receivers, who are responding by making more big plays downfield than they have in years (Davante Adams’ struggles Sunday notwithstanding).  He will need to be able to make more plays with his feet against better defenses than the Bears, but some of his runs Sunday suggested he was holding back just a bit. If his health can improve, even if just slightly, he should be able to turn things loose a bit, which would help the offense truly hit its stride.

The Packers are rounding into form, just in time for the playoffs. In order to finish the job these next two weeks and beyond, players across the roster will need to elevate their games to the maximum extent. But no matter how well the rest of the team plays, the only way the Packers will reach the mountaintop is behind the play of their MVP.

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What We Think We Learned: The Packers have answered the questions surrounding the running back position.

Of all the positions on the Packers roster, running back is clearly among Ted Thompson’s least valued. Rodgers has never had a top player next to him in the backfield, even including Eddie Lacy. After keeping only two halfbacks on the opening day roster, a rash of injuries this year threw the position into crisis mode. Week by week that crisis turned into an opportunity for others, and now it looks like it might have been a blessing in disguise, as the Packers look as dangerous as they have in years at running back.

The improved running game should be credited in no small part to the offensive line, but now that Ty Montgomery has been installed as the feature back with Christine Michael as his backup, the rushing attack has really taken off. Montgomery is a true difference maker, as he possesses the strength to break tackles (12 against the Bears according to McCarthy) and quickness to turn the corner, which he did on his first TD and his long gain of 61 yards. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Montgomery is the patience he has shown as a runner, as he sifted through defenders behind the line on multiple occasions, then chose his spot at the right time and turned what might have been losses into long gains. He looks to be a natural at running back, a position change that has breathed new life into his career.

As Montgomery’s backup, Christine Michael did not do much besides his 42 yard TD in the 3rd quarter, but that play showed why he is a back worth giving carries to down the stretch. He always hits the hole with a violent burst, and on Sunday he showed he has the speed to finish the play once he got though the scrum. He has a pounding style and seeks to deliver the first blow, even at his limited size, a style which is well-suited to December football and should endear him to coaches and teammates.

It will be interesting to see how Thompson handles the position in the off-season, as both Michael and Lacy are free agents. Either way, Montgomery has to be a part of the solution moving forward.

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What We Hope Isn’t True: The up-and-down performances will continue for the young Packers cornerbacks.

2016 has been a bi-polar year for the Packers’ prized young cornerbacks. One week they look like cornerstones of the defense moving forward, the next they look like fringe roster players. One week they shut down a strong passing attack led by a seasoned Quarterback, the next they are torched by a backup throwing to mostly backups.

After looking like world-beaters last week against Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and co., the Packers’ trio of 2nd year Corners took a massive step back against a QB and a group of pass-catchers that you would more expect to find in the 3rd quarter of a pre-season game than a week 15 game with playoff implications (aside from Alshon Jeffrey, and even he was just returning from a PED suspension). Damarious Randall looked to have reverted back to his poor form from earlier in the season prior to his groin injury, while Gunter and Rollins were consistently beaten on quick tosses to the outside and shallow crosses/dig routes in the middle of the field.

While there is plenty of room to question the scheme, the young corners need to stop allowing so much space to Receivers prior to the snap; less-sophisticated offense like the Bears and backup QB Matt Barkley will take the easy conversions that defense allows all day, which he did to the tune of 362 passing yards. Randall being removed from the game in the 4th quarter, along with some post-game comments from McCarthy, would seem to imply that he was making mental errors as well.

As the Packers’ #1 Cornerback and the only player with enough speed and talent to neutralize top WRs, Randall will need to lock in for the remaining regular season and playoff games. Although they are playing much better football of late, this is still a flawed packers team. Moving forward, the Packers will have little room for error if they are to reach the ultimate prize, and one big play allowed because of a mental gaffe by a young CB might be one too many.hat he fame

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By Mark Darnieder

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