GLENDALE, Ariz. – So the Green Bay Packers ultimately weren’t the gasping, flailing team they appeared to be at the end of the regular season.
But their inspired performance Saturday night in their 26-20 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC divisional playoff game more than anything leaves you wondering: Where was this all season?
By late in the first quarter, after Randall Cobb had left the game for good because of a chest injury, the Packers were playing without their preferred top four receivers. Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery already were on injured reserve, and Davante Adams was inactive Saturday night because of a sprained knee sustained last week.
Yet, Aaron Rodgers and his offense managed to put up 386 yards, control the ball for 30 minutes and 14 seconds, and put up enough points (20) to take the NFC’s second-seeded Cardinals into overtime. And they did it with Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis, two second-year receivers who had trouble getting on the field even when the Packers’ offense was doing next to nothing for long stretches of in November and December, doing most of the damage.
Janis had the game of his fledgling career with a team high in receptions (seven) and receiving yards (145), including 101 yards on two catches in the final minute that sent the game into overtime. Those two plays alone showed the dimension of speed that this offense was lacking all season. And if the Packers had won this in overtime, his leaping 41-yard touchdown on another spectacular Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary throw on the final play of regulation would have been the stuff of Packers legend.
Abbrederis, though not as explosive as Janis, likewise came through. He had four catches and a 13.8-yard average on a night when the Cardinals’ top cornerback, Patrick Peterson, essentially took James Jones out of the game. Jones had no receptions on two targets.
Janis, though, has been one of the ongoing questions all season. He has the physical assets the Packers badly needed – he’s their biggest (6-feet-3) and fastest receive (4.42-second 40). With the Packers’ offense struggling much of the season – it finished tied for No. 25 in passing yards and No. 15 in scoring – it was hard to figure out why he didn’t at least get a shot to provide the field-stretching element this offense so desperately needed.
The Packers’ coaching staff and Rodgers obviously had big concerns about the quality of Janis’ route running in practice. We saw what must have one of the issues when Janis failed to run a sharp out on a third down from Arizona’s 10 that would have been a touchdown in the second quarter if he’d been where he was supposed to.
But we also saw something that had been missing much of this season: a receiver getting open and catching the ball. It’s hard not to think the Packers would have been better off playing Janis and Abbrederis more earlier in the season when Adams, Jones and an often double-teamed Cobb were having trouble getting separation from coverage.
Yeah, there might have been some mistakes along way, even costly ones. But there probably would have been more playmaking also. In this one game, both Janis and Abbrederis looked better and were open more than Adams had been in any game almost all season. It just goes to show what can happen in the NFL sometimes when a team is forced to play a player. Sometimes it’s an upgrade.
“Jeff Janis, he’s taken advantage of some opportunities,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s just a young man that needs to play. He’s got a lot of raw ability and made some huge, huge plays tonight.”
So now that their season is finished, the Packers have to feel at least a little better about their overall talent at receiver. Whether it’s enough to knock down the position from the high spot it held on their draft priority list going into the playoffs, we’ll see on that.
Either way, the Packers’ performance in their two playoff games showed they had enough talent to contend for the Super Bowl even after Nelson’s season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Arizona very well might be the best team in the league this season, and the Packers had a chance to beat the Cardinals on the road in a win-or-go-home game.
The responsibility for the offensive shortcomings for much of the season falls on the same shoulders that get the credit for creating what had been one of the league’s best offenses the last few years: McCarthy and his staff, and Rodgers.
McCarthy in fact should have played Janis more earlier in the year when the passing game failed to produce. Same for Abbrederis when he was healthy. Rodgers clearly has liked Abbrederis’ route running from the start, but he too should have been more willing to throw to Janis when he did play. Rodgers didn’t have much choice Saturday night, and Janis came through.
It’s probably hard for coaches and older quarterbacks to tolerate young receivers’ mistakes. But when the offense labored week after week from mid-October through December, was it really any worse to have couple poorly run routes when Janis at least had the speed and explosiveness to get open regularly?
The Packers deserve credit for recovering from what can only be characterized as a disappointing regular season and seemingly out of nowhere playing a high level of football when the money was on the table in the postseason. That’s no small trick and is testament to what it means to have a top quarterback and sound organization.
But they also left you wondering what might have been if they’d adapted sooner.
“We’ll think about things that were close in our grasp that we didn’t accomplish,” Rodgers said.
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