Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27) looks to run in the first quarter against the Cleveland Browns during Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers on Sunday were missing one of their primary playmakers in Randall Cobb, another starting receiver in James Jones and their best defensive player, Clay Matthews.
It didn’t matter a bit.
The Packers still had their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who with the help of a rejuvenated run game had no trouble getting the ball to his remaining receivers and putting up four touchdowns against a respected defense in a 31-13 win over the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns, on the other hand, had no running game, and more importantly a quarterback, Brandon Weeden, who was a liability. From the start, it was clear Rodgers could function just fine despite being short-handed, whereas Weeden was overmatched against a stout Packers defense.
“The receivers will tell you the same thing, it doesn’t matter who we’ve got on the outside, if they do their job, Aaron is going to get them the ball,” guard T.J. Lang said. “He’s so consistent and so accurate, he makes those receivers right a lot of the time. Obviously when you’re missing a couple guys there’s some worries that go through your mind, but once you get on the field, you just have to trust those guys that are replacing the injured guys to do their job.”
The win is the Packers’ third straight and improves their record to 4-2, which puts them a half-game ahead of Detroit (4-3) and Chicago (4-3) in the NFC North Division. In a major development Sunday, the Bears’ loss to Washington might have included a potentially fatal blow to their 2013 playoff prospects when quarterback Jay Cutler sustained a groin injury that could sideline him for an extended period.
For the second straight week, though, the Packers’ win also came at a potentially high cost. Tight end Jermichael Finley, whose already-important role in the offense had become even bigger with the loss of Cobb for two months, was taken off the field on a stretcher in the fourth quarter with a neck injury.
The Packers were relieved to find out a few minutes later that Finley had feeling in all his extremeties. But coach Mike McCarthy offered no postgame update, so even if the prospects for Finley’s long-term health looked promising, the Packers nevertheless could be without another key weapon next week at Minnesota, and perhaps beyond.
“It is (a concern),” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “But we still have (No.) 12 behind center. And (receiver Jarrett) Boykin had a really good game. We have other guys that are going to step up. We’ve got reinforcements.
“(Backup tight end Brandon) Bostick is probably one that’s going to step up, some other guys, (Andrew) Quarless. We’ve got some guys. Obviously, we depend on Finley a lot, he’s definitely a game-changer. But we have some guys that are going to step up that people don’t know about yet.”
Though the Packers didn’t make this game a blowout until the final 5 minutes, they dominated both sides of the ball and led comfortably throughout. They outgained the Browns 357 yards to 216 yards, and the respective passer ratings (Rodgers’ 117.8, Weeden’s 48.6) reflected the huge disparity in the quality of quarterback play.
Rodgers completed 25 of 36 passes and didn’t appear at all bothered by the deceptively swirling winds at Lambeau — he didn’t throw an interception, and several of his 11 incompletions (he was 25-for-36) came on throwaways. He was sacked only once.
Weeden, on the other hand, was horribly scattershot early and missed badly high and/or wide on five of his first six attempts. His seventh, a fourth-down throw off his back foot, was intercepted by cornerback Davon House. The Packers also sacked Weeden three times.
“I don’t know what that was, (Weeden) was throwin ’em way out of bounds,” Williams said. “He started off a little sluggish, but in the second half he tried to get his team back in the game.”
With Cobb and Jones out, Finley took on a bigger role as a quasi-receiver and often lined up in the slot. Before his fourth-quarter injury, he had five catches for 72 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown on the game’s first possession when he showed his strength and athleticism by breaking tackles by linebacker Craig Robertson, safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Buster Skrine on his way to the end zone.
But the Browns were able to limit receiver Jordy Nelson’s impact (five catches for 72 yards) by covering him all game with their best cornerback, Joe Haden. That turned Boykin, a 2012 undrafted rookie, into a prime target, and Boykin delivered with eight receptions for 103 yards and a 20-yard touchdown.
Boykin has pedestrian straight-line speed for a receiver, but he’s a big target (6-2, 218 pounds) and a power runner after the catch.
“Seems like he’s got a bright future for us,” Rodgers said.
The Packers also continued to show an effective running game that will be critical for weathering this stretch without Cobb for at least another seven games, and possibly Finley and Jones for a game or more.
Halfback Eddie Lacy’s numbers weren’t impressive — 82 yards on 22 carries, a 3.7-yard average — but he consistently knocked out respectable gains. And it was a rare sight in the McCarthy era to watch a Packers running back do what Lacy did on the team’s second possession, when he covered the final 27 yards on four straight carries for the touchdown that put the Packers ahead 14-0.
“You look at the identity we’ve created so far and it’s just kind of grind ’em out and do what you have to do to win,” Lang said. “It’s different from past years where we were an explosive offense and getting 80-yard gains. You have to take what the defense gives you.
“This year with the rejuvenated run game, it opens up things with the play-action passes. You look at our last three wins, they’ve all been tough, heavyweight fights. You play 60 minutes, grind it out, do what you’ve got to do.”