Dougherty: Packers spark Super Bowl flashback
I have to admit to a feeling of déjà vu while watching Aaron Rodgers shred the Minnesota Vikings last week.
It conjured up memories of another late-season Saturday game, the divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 15, 2011. On that night in the Georgia Dome, Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers annihilated the Atlanta Falcons, 48-21.
In both games, Rodgers seemed to move the ball up and down the field at will. He made plays with his arm, his feet and both. The Packers, fast ascending late in the year, seemed unstoppable.
Of course, after that game in Atlanta the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl. But it was in the Georgia Dome that they signaled just how good they were at the right time.
So, does Saturday against Minnesota suggest the same? Are the Packers on another Super Bowl track?
Well, deja vu or not, they’ll have to prove that on the field. A loss at Detroit on Sunday, and the Packers very well might not even make the playoffs.
But there really are some telling similarities between coach Mike McCarthy’s team this season and the one that won the title six years ago. There’s one crucial difference, too.
The similarities aren’t just superficial. Like in 2010, this year’s Packers had a bad run of injuries and are in danger of missing the playoffs going into the season’s last game. Just like 2010, this team has peaked at the end of the year after the offense finally found a viable running back. And as in 2010, Rodgers is closing the season as maybe the best player in football.
But the single biggest difference from 2010 is just as real. Those Super Bowl champion Packers were a good defensive team. This year’s Packers? Nope. We'll get to that later.
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As for the déjà vu, you can start with injuries.
The 2010 Packers finished the season with 15 players on injured reserve. That included maybe their most talented pass catcher (Jermichael Finley), their best running back (Ryan Grant) and their starting right tackle (Mark Tauscher).
This year’s Packers have only five players on IR, but that number doesn’t tell their injury story. It’s more about quality. To begin with, two of those out for the season, running back Eddie Lacy and cornerback Sam Shields, were among their most important players.
Then there were the less severe injuries to key players and positions. For a long stretch of the season the Packers’ best defensive player, Clay Matthews, was either sidelined or diminished by hamstring and shoulder injuries. And for much of October and November, they didn’t have their top three cornerbacks, because along with Shields, their first two picks from last year’s draft, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, were out with groin injuries.
So as in ’10, McCarthy and his coaching staff have had to adapt to big personnel losses. And as in ’10, they did enough that their team is finding itself at season’s end.
McCarthy also found badly needed help at running back late in both years. In ’10, it was James Starks, who returned from a season-long hamstring injury to provide the viable run threat in the playoffs that the Packers had lacked all year. He wasn’t a great player, but I doubt they get to and win the Super Bowl without him.
This season, it was McCarthy moving Ty Montgomery from receiver to the backfield. Who knew that along with creating matchup headaches in the passing game, Mongtomery was a real running back, too? As he has blossomed, Rodgers has, too.
But even with those similarities, there’s also a big difference between 2010 and now, on the other side of the ball.
In ’10, the Packers’ defense could win a game. It had three difference makers in Matthews, Charles Woodson and Nick Collins. Nose tackle B.j. Raji was borderline, too.
The numbers back up how solid coordinator Dom Capers’ defense was. It led the NFL in defensive passer rating (67.2) and ranked in the top five in points (second) and yards (fifth) as well. Those numbers don’t lie.
This year’s Packers don’t have the difference makers or bona fides.
Mike Daniels has been their one playmaker week in and week out. Against Minnesota last week, Matthews showed he’s still a difference maker when healthy enough, though he’s often not healthy enough. And we’ll see whether 36-year-old Julius Peppers has enough in the tank to change a game with the season on the line. The Packers rested him early in hopes it would pay off now.
The Packers' defensive passer rating (95.9), which Capers considers the single most important defensive stat, is No. 26 in the league. They’re tied for No. 22 in scoring defense and are No. 20 in yards allowed.
Those numbers don’t lie, either. There's plenty of reason to question whether these Packers can get a stop against a good team when they need one.
So does that preclude the Packers from going on a run like they did in 2010? Again, no.
Not that they’re the NFC favorite – that has to be Dallas, which has more offensive talent across the board than any team in the league.
But Rodgers is playing at his MVP best. And with the dual-threat dimension Montgomery brings, this offense might be even more dangerous than the one that won the Super Bowl six years ago.
Thinking back to 2010, even at this point I had no inkling of what was to come. Atlanta was still three weeks away.
And the Packers’ season could end in a flash in Detroit on Sunday. Hot teams still can lose.
But there are ingredients for the Packers to go on a run. We’ve seen this before.