Much to a fan's delight, Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones sticks out his tongue out as he sits in the stands after a Lambeau Leap that followed his 28-yard touchdown catch during the second quarter of Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Four weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers were dumbfounded by their 2-3 record and pedestrian offense after a bad loss to the underdog Indianapolis Colts.
But in a month’s time, the Packers have won four straight games and go into their bye week with a four-game winning streak after dispatching the Arizona Cardinals 31-17 at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
This last month reminded defensive lineman Ryan Pickett of the 2009 season, when the Packers dropped to 4-4 with an embarrassing loss at previously winless Tampa Bay. That young Packers team then went on a five-game winning streak and won seven of eight games in the second half of the season to get into the playoffs for the first time with Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback.
“I love where we are,” Pickett said. “We’re behind two games (of first place in the NFC North Division), but we’re getting better. We keep winning, everything will take care of itself.
“Just like then, we used (the bad loss) for better. We took off after that. Same thing with Indy, we used it as a platform.”
At 6-3, the Packers remain 1˝ games behind the Chicago Bears, who annihilated Tennessee 51-20 on Sunday. The Packers hold the tiebreaker edge because they won their first meeting with the Bears, 23-10 at home in Week 2. The 5-4 Minnesota Vikings fell a game behind the Packers after losing 30-20 at Seattle on Sunday.
After Sunday's win, the Packers’ locker room was as animated as it could be after a midseason game, for a few reasons: The four-game winning streak; the feeling the offense is coming around after putting up 31 points and 384 yards against a defense that came into the game ranked No. 4 in the NFL in points allowed and No. 6 in yards allowed; and the reward of a full week off for the win before their bye.
Coach Mike McCarthy told the players this week that if they lost, they’d have to work Monday and probably another day this week. Instead, they earned the week off.
“I like where we are, 6-3,” center Jeff Saturday said. “Have the bye week to rest it up. But make no mistake, the crux of what we’re going to do is what we’ve got in front of us. We’ve got (five games in) the division. You can’t look back and go we’re happy with 6-3. We have the most important games — division games count double. As a group we know that. We get a week to clear our heads and get back to the grind.”
The Packers won handily enough even though Rodgers didn’t have a particularly good game, at least throwing the ball. His 96.9 rating included his first sub-.500 completion game of the season (14-for-30) and a relatively modest 218 yards passing, his second-lowest total of the season.
But Rodgers changed the game early because of his scrambling. Arizona appeared prepared to sit back in two-deep coverage and blitz only strategically, as had the teams that have defended the Packers best this season.
But on the second series, Rodgers had three scrambles for 36 yards, including straight up the heart of the field for a 25-yard gain on the third play of the possession, and again up the middle for 9 yards that converted a third-and-8 for a first-and-goal at the 9. Both came against standard four-man rushes.
That changed the Cardinals’ game plan. They started blitzing more against a quarterback who usually is at his best when blitzed (121.1 passer rating against the blitz this season), and he made the Cardinals pay with two touchdown passes while facing extra rushers.
The first was in the middle of the second quarter, when Randall Cobb had one-on-one coverage on a fade route because of a five-man blitz. Rodgers hit him in stride over cornerback William Gay with a 21-yard touchdown that put the Packers ahead 14-7.
Then later in the quarter, Rodgers beat an all-out seven-man rush by hitting James Jones with a 28-yard fade route for a touchdown. Jones went over cornerback Jamell Fleming’s back in one-on-one coverage for the difficult catch that put the Packers ahead 21-7.
“Rodgers definitely is a dual threat,” Saturday said. “He’s got great mobility, he knows how to find a first down. He can create big plays with his legs. Then you try to come get him, and he throws it over you.”
Then as the game wore on, the Packers started running well with their halfbacks for one of the only times this year, even though they lost starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a hip injury early in the second quarter. With left guard T.J. Lang replacing Bulaga and backup lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith replacing Lang at left guard, halfbacks James Starks (17 rushes for 61 yards) and Alex Green (11 for 53) banged out 114 yards on 28 carries combined.
That in turn set up the touchdown that gave the Packers breathing room late in the third quarter. With the Cardinals’ safeties occupied by go routes on the outside, tight end Tom Crabtree ran past inside linebacker Paris Lenon, who was cheating up for the run, and was wide open down the middle seam for an 72-yard catch-and-run that put the Packers ahead 31-17 on the last play of the third quarter.
“(Lenon) stopped his feet at one point and stepped up, then tried to get back on me,” Crabtree said. “But it was a little too late for him.”
The Packers’ defense accomplished its mission by making sure Arizona’s elite playmaker, receiver Larry Fitzgerald, didn’t dominate. Cornerback Tramon Williams matched up with Fitzgerald most of the day and with constant help from safeties Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings, kept Fitzgerald from going off. Fitzgerald had an impressive 31-yard touchdown catch when he was mismatched against linebacker Dezman Moses and then beat tackle attempts by Williams and Jennings for the score, but his other five receptions were for only 43 yards.
“There were a lot of plays we had regular coverage on him, but the safety did an excellent job of breaking (that way),” Williams said. “Obviously we know that’s the guy they want to get it to, so the safety had a tendency to lean that way.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @petedougherty.