Packers notes: Bracing for 'challenges' of playoff race
MINNEAPOLIS – The Green Bay Packers have plenty of reasons to be thankful for their hot start to the 2017 season — especially in the wake of Sunday's injury fest.
By beginning the year 4-1, the Packers entered Week 6 as the frontrunners in the NFC North. They were the best team in the division and one of the two best teams in the conference along with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Now, after losing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone, the Packers will take every win they can get if they hope to reach the playoffs yet again.
"I understand with (Rodgers) it may look easier," defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said, "but when you’re in the NFL you’re going to have challenges. Now you’ve got another challenge and it’s time to man up."
Jean Francois said everything the Packers hope to achieve is still in front of them, even if Rodgers is unable to return this season. The former San Francisco 49er cited the 2012 season as proof — a year in which the 49ers’ starting quarterback, Alex Smith, was replaced by Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers reached the Super Bowl anyway.
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"You’ve got to know how to bounce back, you’ve got to know how to fight through things," Jean Francois said. "I know we took a few blows and injuries but I’ve been in situations like this where I lost one quarterback and I had another quarterback step in and the next thing I know I’m in the Super Bowl.
"We’ve got to know how to bounce back. We’ve got to know how to work with what we have and master what we have and not worry about, ‘Well when is this guy going to come back? When is this guy back?’ Because if we’re doing that, just go ahead and count all them losses until that week, and then you can say, ‘All right, now we’re going to be better.’ But with the pieces we have, we’re going to have to win with them."
The Vikings vaulted into first place in the division with Sunday's victory. They have the same 4-2 record as the Packers, but the first tiebreaker in division standings is head-to-head results. The Detroit Lions are 3-3 and the Chicago Bears are 2-4.
Defensive focus: For as long as Rodgers is out, the Packers’ defense knows it will be counted on even more to make big plays, especially turnovers.
“Now people are going to say that our defense is going to have to put points up,” Jean Francois said. “Now we just have to go out there and continue what we have been doing. We have to over-emphasize what we are doing so we can stop them, and put the offense in a better position.”
The Packers scored only10 points Sunday, coming from a touchdown and field goal, but their defense set up both. The defense’s biggest play came early in the second quarter when outside linebacker Clay Matthews scooped Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon’s fumble and returned it 63 yards.
Matthews’ fumble return gave the Packers possession inside the red zone. They scored three plays later when quarterback Brett Hundley found receiver Davante Adams open.
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“I think it was a red-zone read on their part that fell inside the tackle,” Matthews said, “and fortunately I saw the ball bouncing around. So I got my hands on it, and started to head up the sideline. I gave our offense great field position in doing so, and they turned it into seven points, and that’s obviously what we strive for on defense.”
The Packers were playing against a third-string quarterback in Case Keenum, who was without top receiver Stefon Diggs. The challenge next week when New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees comes to town will be much stiffer.
“Drew Brees is an All-Pro and probably will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Jean Francois said. “We have to go in there and stop him. We can’t let that offense start generating.”
Marked man: Davante Adams unofficially took over the mantle of No. 1 receiver this week when the Vikings made the decision to put Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes on him the entire game.
Rhodes had been matching up on the opponents’ best receiver all year, so when he lined up over Adams instead of Jordy Nelson it signaled a slight changing of the guard.
Adams and Rhodes battled. Adams caught five passes for 54 yards and a touchdown, but it took 10 targeted throws to get him there.
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“It was fun,” Adams said. “I have a lot of respect for that man and I would say he has the same for me. In other words, we have mutual respect for each other. Even though we go at it a lot in a professional matter, we still have fun and respect the game as well.”
Good hands team: Vikings safety Harrison Smith was a one-man wrecking crew, finishing with five tackles, 1½ sacks, an interception, two passes broken up and a quarterback knockdown.
Nothing he did was more spectacular than the ball he picked off from Hundley in the fourth quarter.
Hundley was looking for Nelson crossing the field but through a little bit behind him. Smith, trailing the play, dove with one hand out and tipped the ball to himself for the interception.
Somehow, he got both arms under the ball after tipping it.
“They get paid, too,” Hundley said. “He’s a good player. There were some tipped balls and stuff like that. They didn’t fall our way today. It’s the game of football.”