Dougherty: Packers still potent without Nelson
GREEN BAY - Doubt anybody saw this coming, the Green Bay Packers’ 25-point win over one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Most impressive was that they blew out the New York Giants basically without Jordy Nelson, whose rib injury will be big news this week. Does he have any chance to play Sunday at Dallas after being carted to the locker room in obvious distress, both physical and emotional, in the second quarter Sunday?
There’s no way to know right now — coach Mike McCarthy had no update after the game and likely will be coy all week unless Nelson obviously has zero chance of playing, which has to be a possibility.
So the question then is, can the Packers beat the NFC’s top-seeded team, Dallas, if he can’t play? Nelson, after all, has been a huge part of the Packers’ late-season run. The Packers have been lining him up here, there and everywhere in recent weeks, and his 44 receptions in the final six regular-season games tied for the NFL lead over that time.
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My first thought when they took him to the locker room was that if they beat the Giants, their season probably would end in Dallas without Nelson. But as Sunday’s game wore on, there’s reason to think that might not be the case, as costly as losing Nelson would be.
What stood out as much as anything Sunday was that the Packers compensated for his loss much better than the Giants did for the loss of one of their three excellent cornerbacks, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who left the game in the first quarter with a bruised thigh and as far as I could tell played only one play thereafter, on kickoff coverage.
The obvious reason the Packers weathered Nelson’s absence better was that they had Randall Cobb to take over as their roving receiver who might line up outside, in the slot, or even nearer the tackles, depending on the play call. Cobb, back after missing two games because of an ankle injury, had a huge day (five receptions for 116 yards and three touchdowns), including the game-changing Hail Mary touchdown on the final play of the first half.
The Giants had no defensive equivalent to replace Rodgers-Cromartie. The Packers took full advantage and put up 38 points against the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense.
If I had to choose between Nelson and Cobb, I’d go with Nelson because he’s so much bigger (6-3 to 5-10). But with the right players around him, Cobb showed he can produce in a big way.
“It would be a huge loss for us obviously,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the possibility of playing without Nelson. “But Geronimo (Allison) has been playing a lot for us and he’s been playing effectively. Randall being back healthy — you know I said this week in my press conference we’re better with 18 on the field. And he showed it tonight, made a ton of plays for us. He was excellent. And having him out there is going to help.”
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But there’s another player who could end up being a life saver for the Packers, and that’s tight end Jared Cook. He didn’t play when the Packers faced the Cowboys in October, and in fact missed six games (high ankle sprain) during the Packers’ early season struggles.
But to some degree, the Packers’ offensive resurgence also coincides with his return — he came back a week before the Packers started their current seven-game winning streak. Cobb needs somebody who can clear the middle of the field for him, and Cook has the size and speed that do that. He had five receptions Sunday and is a guy defenses have to honor.
“Jared’s been a big part of our success just being out there,” Rodgers said.
Of course, the great equalizer can be Rodgers. He started this game poorly, much like he did last week at Detroit, but when he got going later in the second quarter, it was game over. At the level he’s played the last seven weeks, the Packers can beat anybody.
His four touchdown passes Sunday up his total to 19 without an interception during the winning streak. His 125.2 rating Sunday was the third-highest game in that stretch.
And you can pretty much assume anyone the Packers play from here on out will try to defend him like the Giants did. They rushed to contain him in the pocket more than sack him in an attempt to keep him from getting outside the pocket for back-breaking plays. They counted on their excellent cover men to then make the difference.
It worked for about 1½ quarters. After four possessions the Packers were outgained 194 yards to seven. Rodgers missed a couple open throws from the pocket and held the ball too long on several others. It looked like the second half of last season and the first six games or so of this year, when the Packers’ offense as often as not was in a malaise.
But then everything turned late in the first half. He put up 14 points in the final four minutes, including the Hail Mary, and the rest of the game looked like the guy who’s been maybe the league’s best player for going on two months now.
So now it’s on to Dallas for the divisional round of the playoffs. Maybe the Cowboys’ run game, with MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott and the league’s best offensive line, will simply be more than the Packers’ defense can handle. It was the first time the teams met. And Dallas will have receiver Dez Bryant, who missed the first meeting. This is a very talented team.
But with the way Rodgers is playing, and with a healthy Jared Cook, don’t dismiss the Packers’ chances, even if Nelson can’t play.
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