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What We Learned: Wildcard Round, vs. Giants

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7 down, 3 to go. In one of the most impressive home wins of the McCarthy era, the Packers overcame a sluggish start to post a dominant 38-13 victory over the Giants. The game was in many ways a microcosm of the Packers season thus far, as the offensive woes that lead to the 4-6 start reared their ugly heads early, only to be swept away in the final 35 minutes of the game by, among other things, the transcendent play of Aaron Rodgers.

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What We Learned: The Packers can still defend the run.

The Packers at one point looked like one of the best run-stopping units in the league, posting one of the lowest rushing yards allowed totals through 4 games in NFL history, only to fall back to Earth as the season wore on. The Packers finished the season a respectable 8th in yards and 14th in yards per carry allowed, but on Sunday they looked closer to the unit that started the season so hot than the slumping unit we have seen of late.

Some may argue that the Giants are hardly a stern test for a run defense; while that may be true, especially in comparison to the Packers’ next opponent, the Giants have at least a respectable Offensive Line and had been running the ball well towards the end of the season behind rookie Paul Perkins. The Packers responded to the challenge by playing the best run defense they have in weeks, allowing just 3.68 yards per carry to New York’s Running Backs.

Any good run defense requires strong play in the middle of the field, and that is exactly what the Packers got against the Giants. Mike Daniels did his thing against the Giants, as almost every time I locked in on him he was beating his man off the snap and, if not blowing the play up, at least forcing the runner to alter his route. With his lightning-quick get-off at the snap, hand-fighting skills, and nonstop motor, he really is a special player, and one the Packers will lean on against Dallas. The Packers also got solid play from the Inside Linebacker group, especially Jake Ryan, was around the ball all day.

Having been gashed for 191 yards on 33 carries in the first match-up with Dallas, the Packers will likely need to defend the run even better this week in order to have a shot at winning. But the performance against Dallas was a step in the right direction after some disappointing late-season performances defending the run.

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What We Hope We Learned: Aaron Rodgers is so great that it renders the many flaws of his team moot.

At this point, what more can you really say about Aaron Rodgers? You can look at the numbers (22 Touchdowns, 0 Interceptions during win streak, 125 QB rating in a 10 degree day versus a top 5 defense in the playoffs, etc.), but even statistics that look like a Madden season played on the ‘Easy’ difficulty level really don’t do Rodgers justice. Statistics don’t show the impact of his decision-making, the way he put the team on his shoulders following a disastrous start to the year, or the way he frustrates defenses with his super-human pocket-awareness.

Perhaps the only way to really measure Rodgers’ play is in the performance of the team, because at this point the fate of the entire organization is in his hands. Rather than create apprehension, this should give Packers fans all the confidence in the world, as Rodgers is playing at a level few, if any, quarterbacks in NFL history have sustained over a stretch this long. His play has made the Packers, a team with flaws up and down the roster, as tough an out as any as they enter the Divisional Playoff round.

Those flaws, deep as they may be, might not matter from here on out. The only question now might be whether Rodgers can sustain this level of play for three more games. If Rodgers’ decision-making remains flawless, his accuracy stays on point, his footwork in the pocket untouchable, and a team full of lesser players keeps riding the wave of Rodgers’ greatness to elevate their play, the Packers might just win the Super Bowl. If they do, every player and coach in the organization will have played a role, but none of them will be without a debt to Aaron Rodgers.

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What We Hope Isn’t True: A solid performance by the Green Bay Secondary will fail to translate to road games played in perfect conditions.

The Packers Secondary was far from perfect Sunday, and they are lucky their poor play did not put the team in an early double-digit hole (thanks Odell!). But for the final 3 quarters, the Packers played about as well on the back end as can reasonably be expected, given the limited personnel. Whether they can carry that play over to the climate-controlled Jerry World and beyond will remain to be seen.

Much more so than coverage skills or play-making ability, the knock on the Packers Cornerbacks is a lack of speed. #1 CB Ladarius Gunter ran a 4.69 40 after college. Micah Hyde’s lack of speed renders him most effective at Safety. And while speed is typically not Damarious Randall’s biggest problem, he has allowed a number of Receivers to get behind him in a season plagued by leg and groin injuries, which certainly have not aided his speed. Playing in frigid temperatures on a field that, while in great shape for natural grass, often gives opponents trouble with their footing, that lack of speed is minimized as much as possible.

Jan 8, 2017; Green Bay, WI, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Tavarres King (15) catches a touchdown pass against Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall (23) during the third quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Now faced with covering a healthy Dez Bryant, the shifty Cole Beasley, and the speedy Terrence Williams, the Packers Cornerbacks will have to hope that their improved play will translate to the turf of Cowboys Stadium. Hyde will need to continue to get by on grit and smarts without giving up many long gains, Gunter will need to be on his A-game against Dez, and the team will need the good Damarious Randall to show up.

The Packers figure to have their hands full with the Cowboys running game, and so will need to avoid giving up big plays in the passing game if the defense is to have a chance at holding up. After a step in the right direction against New York, the Packers’ young CBs will need to be on top of their game in what figures to be a pressure-packed environment.

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By Mark Darnieder

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