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Pete Dougherty column: Chiefs loss confirms Jennings' importance to offense

Dec. 20, 2011
 

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The Green Bay Packers might have not just one indispensable player on their talent-heavy offense, but two.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers undisputedly is the first. Adding Greg Jennings to that list now looks plausible, or at least only a slight exaggeration.

One game doesn’t tell all, but the Packers’ performance at Kansas City on Sunday suggests they’d have a much, much tougher time and perhaps even be a home underdog if they didn’t have Jennings in an NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers or New Orleans Saints.

Fortunately for them, they expect their best receiver back by the playoffs. But it’s further evidence of just how important an individual or two can be to a given team.

First, let’s pay heed to the risk of overreaction and the folly of making absolute judgments based on one game.

For starters, history proves the difficulties of going unbeaten in an NFL regular season. The only teams to do so in the post-merger NFL are the 2007 New England Patriots and 1972 Miami Dolphins. That’s two unbeatens in 41 regular seasons. Vince Lombardi is a synonym for coaching greatness, and even he lost at least once in every season he coached in the NFL. So chances are, even a team for the ages can succumb at least once, and usually a couple times, during the NFL’s fourth-month pre-playoffs gauntlet.

Also, last year’s Packers showed that it can take a few weeks to adjust to losing a key playmaker. In 2010, it was tight end Jermichael Finley — he of three-drop infamy in last Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs — who went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first series in Week 5 at Washington. The Packers ended up scoring only 13 points in that game against a team that finished with a 6-10 record and tied for No. 21 in points allowed. The following week, the Packers scored only 20 points in a loss to Miami, and two weeks later scored only nine in a win at the New York Jets.

Yet by the end of the season, with Jennings in the primary playmaking role, the Packers had grown into one of the league’s top offenses. They had the talent and coaching to find a way.

Likewise, just because Jennings didn’t play last week, the Packers weren’t foreordained to lose. Let’s not forget they have probably the best talent base in the NFL. They won’t have Jennings the next two weeks, either — he’s expected back from a knee injury for their playoff opener in the divisional round — yet they’re 12– to 13-point favorites, depending on the oddsmaker, to defeat the reeling Chicago Bears on Sunday. If not for questions about how long they’ll play key starters the following week, they’d be big favorites to defeat the Detroit Lions at home in the regular-season finale as well.

Still, judging by last Sunday, it looks like the Packers’ odds of defeating their best competition in the NFC, namely the Saints or 49ers, decline substantially without Jennings. They still could beat either, which almost surely isn’t the case without Rodgers. But they have to be especially relieved after last week to know Jennings will be back for the postseason, barring a change in his prognosis.

Watching San Francisco on Monday night against Pittsburgh, one thing jumped off the screen: The 49ers play defense. There’s nothing fluky about their No. 1 ranking in points allowed and No. 5 ranking in yards allowed.

It seems obvious that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shouldn’t have played on his badly sprained ankle — he was a sitting duck for the pass rush and couldn’t step into his throws, which affected him on occasion and turned him into a turnover machine. But the 49ers were without their best defensive player, middle linebacker Patrick Willis, who missed his second straight game because of a hamstring injury. And even without Willis, it was an eye-opener to see how fast the 49ers play and how hard they tackle. They have talent on that side of the ball.

Their quarterback, Alex Smith, still has accuracy issues, but at least he takes care of the ball (five interceptions on the season), and with running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree, they have viable talent on offense despite their passer’s limitations. This will be a difficult team for the Packers to beat at Lambeau in January with Jennings, let alone without him.

New Orleans, on the other hand, has comparable talent to the Packers in the passing game from quarterback down, and they’re a little more gifted at running back with first-round draft pick Mark Ingram, dynamic little Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. The Packers probably can’t survive a shootout with the Saints without Jennings.

Just a week ago, there was reason to wonder if the Jennings loss was substantial but not back-breaking. The Packers still had a second major receiving talent in Finley, plus the ever-improving Jordy Nelson and a potential playmaker in rookie Randall Cobb. But with a week to prepare for the Chiefs, Finley failed to rise to the moment and Nelson didn’t catch a pass until desperation time late in the fourth quarter. Cobb looked like their most dangerous receiver but for some reason played less than two-thirds of the offensive snaps.

It’s safe to assume playoff opponents will watch that game tape and emphasize press coverage as much as the Chiefs did. Jennings is the Packers’ best receiver at beating the bump at the line and making a play. When coverages roll to him, that helps everyone else.

So yes, it was a given the Packers would lose some of their offensive juice with Jennings out. He’s a Pro Bowl-type player. But would the difference be that great? Well, it’s a lot harder now to think they could win a Super Bowl without him.

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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