Imperfect Packers back in driver's seat
Week 13 could not have gone much better for the Green Bay Packers.
Days after Green Bay’s remarkable 27-23 comeback victory over Detroit, the Seattle Seahawks trounced the Minnesota Vikings 38-7 and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert ended Chicago’s hopes of a late-season rally with a 44-yard touchdown run to force overtime and a 71-yard game-winning TD pass to seal the 26-20 victory.
Suddenly, the Packers (8-4) are back in control of the NFC North. Their 30-13 win over Minnesota two weeks ago gives them the tiebreaker advantage over the Vikings (8-4), who will have to try to bounce back from their 31-point home defeat on the road Thursday night against the 10-2 Arizona Cardinals.
In theory, it looks promising for the Packers to regain their early-season momentum with a favorable Sunday matchup with the Dallas Cowboys, who are again without quarterback Tony Romo (broken collarbone) and operating on a short week coming off Monday’s night’s game against Washington.
They will follow Sunday’s game against Dallas with back-to-back road games against Oakland (5-7) and Arizona. Green Bay’s midseason slide means it no longer can claim possession of the top seed in the NFC, but it still has an outside shot at the No. 2 seed depending on how things play out for the Cardinals.
With four games left on the schedule, here’s a look at where the Packers stand entering the final quarter of the regular season:
A reason for hope
One 61-yard Hail Mary doesn’t change the fact the Packers’ offense has been discombobulated for most of the season, with Aaron Rodgers on pace for his lowest completion percentage (61.0) in his eight years as the team’s starting quarterback. That’s a product of Rodgers not being as pinpoint precise as in recent years and receivers struggling to win their one-on-one matchups against press coverage.
However, there seemed to be a renewed sense of urgency for the offense in the win over the Lions that hadn’t been there in recent weeks, beginning with second-year tight end Richard Rodgers. Rodgers’ game-winning catch has been the topic on everyone’s tongue, but his performance before the dramatic finish Thursday night was perhaps even more promising for the offense.
Rodgers caught all eight passes that were thrown in his direction for a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown. It was the most production the Packers have received from the tight end position since Jermichael Finley sustained a career-ending neck injury in October 2013. Comparatively, Rodgers had 21 catches for 138 yards and three touchdowns in the previous six games combined before breaking out against Detroit.
The Packers’ offense is at its best when Aaron Rodgers has a big-bodied weapon in the middle of the field. Richard Rodgers has natural limitations, but was a difference-maker against the Lions. With the run game again in flux after Eddie Lacy’s missed curfew, the key to opening up the Packers’ offense during the final stretch of the season may be increased production from the tight ends.
In their defense
The defense hasn’t been perfect, but the Packers’ season would look drastically different if it weren't for the improvements Dom Capers’ unit has made over recent years. The Packers took some pretty good shots from San Diego (548 total yards), Denver (500) and Carolina (427) in midseason, which raised some concern the defense may not be able to hold up in the long run.
Those performances have put the Packers in the middle of the pack in most significant statistical categories: 19th in total yards (356.8 yards per game), 20th in passing defense (245.0 ypg) and 20th against the run (111.8 ypg). If you dig a little deeper, you probably find a truer reflection of how the Packers have performed this season in allowing the sixth-fewest points (19.8 per game) and posting the 10th-best opposing passer rating (84.2).
All-pro linebacker Clay Matthews doesn’t have a sack in his last seven games, but has made an impact inside. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels is playing at a Pro Bowl level with 41 tackles, four sacks, 44 pressures and 24 stops, according to Pro Football Focus. First-round pick Damarious Randall also has made an immediate contribution, helping rebuild the depth at cornerback after the loss of Tramon Williams and Davon House to free agency.
The Packers have a realistic shot at riding a three-game winning streak into their Dec. 27 showdown with the Cardinals and the defense will need all the confidence it can muster to stop an Arizona offense that leads the NFL with 31.8 points and 419.5 yards per game.
Mike McCarthy isn’t taking back play-calling duties. Not this season, anyway. The Packers’ 10th-year coach suggested last week that he probably needs to be less vocal after spending the past three weeks in game-planning meetings with associate head coach Tom Clements, who took over the play-calling role this season.
McCarthy made the change in February in order to oversee the entire operation. While it has translated to substantial improvement on special teams, the Packers have dropped from sixth to 22nd in total offense and are on pace to score 100 fewer points (385.6) than when they led NFL with 486 points a year ago.
The Packers made one small midseason adjustment in moving quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt from the coaches box to the sideline, but that move was done only to free Clements of having to break down pictures with the quarterbacks between series. McCarthy appeared to be closer than usual to Clements on the sidelines Thursday night, but maintained Clements is still calling the plays.
“No, I need to shut up more, frankly,” said McCarthy when asked if they’ve passed the point of making a change with the play-calling operation. “I think the most important thing is, and I don’t know how other people do it, but the network, the communication network when you’re calling plays, if you’re calling plays you need the information before the series and timely information within the series. So that’s something that we’re all conscientious of, and it’s just to make sure we’re trying to give Tom the support that he needs there.”
Taking a breather
Jordy Nelson’s season-ending knee injury in Pittsburgh set the tone for a banged-up season for the Packers, who were coming off perhaps their healthiest campaign under McCarthy in 2014.
Their injury report has run 16 deep at times this season and McCarthy acknowledged the training room was full after Thursday’s win over the Lions. No position has been more stressed recently than the offensive line.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga (ankle/knee) and right guard T.J. Lang (shoulder) didn’t play against Detroit, and center Corey Linsley exited and didn’t return after aggravating a sprained ankle in the second quarter. His replacement, JC Tretter, was playing through his own ankle injury that he developed in practice last Wednesday and left tackle David Bakhtiari left for one play with a knee injury.
The long weekend should have given the team a chance to heal up, though it remains to be seen when rookie receiver Ty Montgomery will return to the lineup. He has missed the past six games with a high-ankle sprain that he aggravated in practice two weeks ago.