DETROIT – If Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur and/or quarterback Aaron Rodgers set out to show everyone a blueprint for how the team might lose a home playoff game in two weeks, they put it straight through the uprights.
They were truer with their intentions than kicker Mason Crosby’s 33-yard field goal that lifted the Packers past the Detroit Lions, 23-20, at Ford Field on Sunday afternoon.
The victory came despite either one of the worst game plans ever conceived for a much-needed victory over a three-win team or one of the worst examples of a quarterback trying to prove he could throw as many touchdown passes in a game as LSU’s Joe Burrow.
Playing against a feisty Lions team with a lot of players on injured reserve (17) and nothing to lose, the Packers came out throwing and didn’t stop until Rodgers had attempted 55 passes, six short of his all-time high set against the Lions on Nov. 15, 2015 in Green Bay.
It was the second year in a row he attempted at least 50 against them.
Just a week ago, the Packers had supposedly learned their lesson in a division-clinching victory over the Minnesota Vikings, trying to throw the ball against their soft zone only to realize in the second half they could wear them down with running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.
But here they were again, coming out throwing like this was the NCAA national semifinals.
The NFL’s official play-by-play makes subjective decisions on whether a pass is “short” or “deep.” But for argument’s sake, let’s say they’re close in their assessment. A total of 25 of Rodgers’ 55 throws were listed as “deep,” which based on the passes he completed probably are defined as 17 or more yards down the field.
Of those 25, Rodgers completed six (24%) for 134 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He only completed 49% of his passes overall for 323 yards, finishing with a passer rating of 72.0.
Asked what the obsession was with throwing deep, LaFleur said, “Well, we thought we had some opportunities to make some plays down the field and sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
Asked whether it was Rodgers who was engineering the slant toward all the deep throws, LaFleur looked uncomfortable answering, but admitted that Rodgers has the freedom to fire the ball down the field if that’s the best option.
“We wanted to try to stress them down the field,” he said. “And when we had the looks, you know, he takes the chance. And we know this, that the further you throw the ball down the field, the odds are the completion percentage goes down.
“But that’s just the way we felt we needed to attack these guys today.”
It seemed like a recipe for trouble given how many bad things have happened to the Packers inside this building – none of which LaFleur witnessed in person. Based on the way the defense has been playing, all the offense needed to do was put 21 points on the board and their playoff bye would be secured.
Imagine if this had been a game against the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks or Vikings, whose pass rushes love it when opponents give them 55 opportunities to sack the quarterback. It’s going to be tough to run the ball against these teams, too, and that’s why it would have been beneficial for the Packers to stress it against the Lions.
Instead, it looked like they wanted all 21 points they’d need in the first quarter.
On the first play of the game, the Packers went to an empty backfield and Rodgers threw down the middle of the field. Tight end Jimmy Graham was open for a sizable gain but dropped the ball.
After a 2-yard run, Rodgers threw incomplete deep to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
It’s true the Packers were without running back Jamaal Williams and didn’t want to run Aaron Jones into the ground, but after one series in which they ran it four straight times with Jones for just 11 yards, they went back to chucking it.
“We wanted to stretch the field for sure,” Rodgers said. “Felt like especially on some third downs they (the Lions defensive backs) would be sitting at the sticks, so we wanted to take some shots early; had some opportunities.
“Missed obviously a few of them, didn’t come down with a couple of them as well. But that was the plan.”
It should have been abandoned when it became clear Rodgers was way off the mark. There were at least a half dozen throws that he threw behind, beyond or low of his target, and he spent almost the entire first half completing one and then missing the next three or four.
Rodgers couldn’t explain his misses other than saying a few were timing issues.
“Other than that, I can’t really tell you,” he said. “Just sometimes the ball is coming off really good. Today was one of those days, really too good at times where I felt good about a number of those throws and I’m missing by a yard, yard and a half, two yards. Just one of those days.”
Quarterbacks do have those kind of days and sometimes they need to throw themselves out of it, but Rodgers has been off for about a month. In the final four games of the season, he has completed 55.8% of his passes and thrown for four touchdowns with two interceptions.
His passer rating during that span is 76.8.
If the Packers are going to win in the playoffs, they’re going to have to play offense more like the way they did in the second half of the Vikings game and the third quarter Sunday. Rodgers let the offense work for him and used a combination of short passes and Jones runs to get the sticks moving.
The first drive went 38 yards before Rodgers got greedy again and threw incomplete deep to running Tyler Ervin streaking down the left side. Even a run short of the 7 yards needed for a first down would have helped Crosby out a little.
He ended up missing just wide to the left from 51 yards. A few yards shorter and it might have snuck through.
The second drive started at the 5-yard line and Rodgers was forced to dink and dunk it down the field. He completed passes of 10, 12, 18, 7, 7, 6 and 5 yards.
Then, after missing twice, he hit Adams on a beautiful post-corner route for a 20-yard touchdown. It was the kind of pass that seems to come off a series of shorter passes that attack the first-down marker.
“They were mixing up their coverages well and they played some two-man and some of those short passes aren’t going to work vs. that,” LaFleur argued when asked why more short throws weren’t employed. “So, you know, give them credit, too.”
Whatever the case, the game was won because the defense held, receiver Allen Lazard made a phenomenal move and catch for a 28-yard touchdown and Jones took a screen pass 31 yards to set up Crosby for the game-winner.
Jones carried 25 times for 100 yards and caught two passes for 43. If Williams had been healthy maybe LaFleur would have called more runs, but his presence wouldn’t have slowed down the obsession with throwing deep.
The Packers pride themselves in winning ugly, but winning smart wouldn’t be a bad idea either.