Packers Insider: Thumbs up to Brett Hundley, down to pass rush
THE BIG PICTURE
In what Packers fans are hoping was Brett Hundley’s final start this season, the third-year quarterback delivered in the clutch for the second straight week and guided Green Bay to a 27-21 overtime victory at Cleveland. In avoiding the embarrassment of being upset by the winless Browns, the Packers (7-6) remained in contention for a postseason berth ahead of the anticipated return of Aaron Rodgers (if he’s medically cleared) for next Sunday’s must-win game at Carolina. The Panthers (9-4), who beat Minnesota on Sunday, are one of several teams the Packers must overcome to earn one of the two NFC wild-card playoff berths in the season’s final three weeks.
SILVERSTEIN: McCarthy's surprises help Packers prevail
Things looked bleak for the Packers when they botched a fourth-and-1 from the Browns' 10 on their first drive of the second half, and Cleveland promptly marched 88 yards for a touchdown to boost its lead to 21-7. But then the Packers’ short-passing game began to click. A 13-play, 75-yard, no-huddle drive produced a TD that made it 21-14. With 5:30 left in regulation, coach Mike McCarthy gambled by punting rather than going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Green Bay 45. The Packers’ defense held, and Trevor Davis set up the game-tying touchdown by returning a punt 65 yards to the Cleveland 25. In overtime, Clay Matthews pressured Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer into making a horrible throw that was intercepted by safety Josh Jones, leading to Hundley’s game-winning, 25-yard TD pass to Davante Adams.
If this indeed turns out to be Hundley’s final start of the season, it will be remembered for his poise in overcoming a shaky start and producing like a veteran when the game and the Packers’ season were on the line. Frequently inaccurate on longer passes in the first half, Hundley clicked consistently on short perimeter tosses to Adams, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and running back Jamaal Williams while evading a blitz-happy Browns defense. He gained 31 yards on seven runs (including a 7-yard draw that carried to the 1 and set up his game-tying TD pass to Adams with 17 seconds left in regulation) and took only one sack. His three touchdown passes curiously give him eight on the road and none at Lambeau Field this season. Hundley completed 35 of 46 attempts for 265 yards, no interceptions and a passer rating of 111.2.
The Packers’ pass rush came to life against a banged-up Buccaneers offensive line, but without Nick Perry (inactive with shoulder and foot injuries) it again went AWOL on Sunday, allowing Kizer seemingly limitless time to search for open receivers. Finally, in overtime, Matthews applied the heat that forced the game-changing turnover from the rookie QB. But the lack of consistent pressure could prove fatal in the Packers’ final three games against Carolina’s Cam Newton, Minnesota’s Case Keenum and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.
BOX SCORE: Packers 27, Browns 21 (OT)
MONDAY CHAT: Ryan Wood at 1 p.m.
RANT AND RAVES
RANT: The Packers appeared ready to roll with their thunder-and-lightning combination of Williams and Aaron Jones after they teamed up to torpedo Tampa Bay. But neither found much running room against a Browns defense designed to make Hundley throw. The Packers’ longest run in the first half came when safety Jermaine Whitehead dashed for seven yards and a first down on a fake punt. Williams hammered away at the Browns’ defense, carrying 15 times for 49 yards while Jones lost two yards on his four carries. But if Rodgers returns as expected, the Packers’ rookie running backs figure to benefit as much as anyone from a more pass-oriented attack.
RAVE: McCarthy again acknowledged last week the Packers needed to get the ball into the hands of their play-making receivers. Cobb, who wasn’t even targeted against Tampa Bay, was particularly busy early and finished with eight catches for 39 yards. Adams made a game-high 10 catches (on 14 targets) for 84 yards and two TDs, including some nifty runs after the catch. Nelson and Geronimo Allison each contributed four catches and Williams caught seven, most notably a 30-yard touchdown reception on the game’s first drive when he lined up wide outside like a receiver and was completely overlooked by the Browns defense.
RAVE: The Packers’ secondary was in dire straits with rookie cornerback Kevin King (shoulder surgery) ruled out for the season and Davon House somehow playing despite being listed as doubtful with a shoulder injury of his own (he left the game after suffering a fourth-quarter back injury). That left safeties playing cornerback and left Damarius Randall to primarily match up against talented Browns receiver Josh Gordon. Things looked ugly at the start, with Gordon and rookie Corey Coleman getting open against a soft zone and each scoring a touchdown. But after a couple of big catches early, Gordon wound up with only three for 69 yards. Kizer cooled off as the stakes got higher, finishing 20-for-28 for 214 yards, 3 TDs, 2 interceptions and a passer rating 99.4.
RAVE: So that’s why the Packers kept sticking with Davis as their punt returner! After a season’s worth of questionable judgments — including Sunday when he allowed a punt to land and roll all the way down to the Packers’ 3 — the second-year speed burner made up for it with the 65-yard return in OT and put Green Bay in position to win. Special teams also provided Whitehead’s first down on a fake punt and a strong day from Justin Vogel (four punts for a 47.8-yard average and a long of 55).
BITS AND PIECES
» The Packers boosted their all-time record to 7-4 in Cleveland.
» Gordon's TD catch in the first quarter was his first since Week 15 of the 2013 season against the Chicago Bears, or 1,456 days, according to ESPN.
» The Packers’ inactives were Perry, running back Devante Mays, cornerback Demetri Goodson, offensive linemen Ulrick John and Adam Pankey, wide receiver Michael Clark and outside linebacker Chris Odom.