After losing four straight winnable games, and giving up at least 30 points in each game along the way, the Packers’ season was hanging in the balance. At 4-6 in a very competitive NFC wildcard race, playoff hopes continue to fade with every Sunday loss. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, not qualifying for the playoffs would be a certifiable disaster if it comes to that. And yet, Aaron Rodgers, the on-field leader, and Mike McCarthy, the off-field leader, didn’t panic. In fact, Rodgers and McCarthy felt pretty confident about the Packers ability to still “run the table” and win out for the rest of the season, bold words from a team on the heels of its biggest losing streak in eight seasons.
I guess they were right. Playing under the lights in primetime at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Green Bay put together easily the team’s best four-quarter performance of the season, coming away with a resounding 27-13 victory. Rodgers led touchdown drives on the team’s first two possessions of the game, and though the score remained close, Green Bay controlled the tempo and feel of the game the rest of the way. In short, Rodgers played like vintage Rodgers, the pass rush came to life, and, finally, no glaring special teams mistakes were committed. Green Bay hasn’t played this well in all three phases of the game in recent memory.
Though the win wasn’t truly dominant, winning in all three phases of the game on the road is a tough ask in the NFL. The Eagles are a solid, well-coached team that win with old-school football, typically trying to control games by running the ball, playing stout defense and minimizing mistakes. Doug Pederson is a first-year head coach, yet the Eagles entered the game tied for ninth in turnover differential (+3) and ranking first in special teams DVOA and defensive DVOA, an all-encompassing metric that goes beyond yards and points to appropriately encapsulate effectiveness. Green Bay, meanwhile, ranked tied for 23rd in turnover differential (-5), and came in 18th in defensive DVOA and 27th special teams DVOA. Additionally, the Eagles entered the game 4-0 at home on the season, with three of those wins coming against the playoff hopeful Steelers, Vikings and Falcons. With both teams’ season hanging in the balance, the Packers showed up to play and beat the Eagles at their own game.
McCarthy called a great game, Rodgers executed it
Mike McCarthy has taken a lot of flack in recent weeks for his week-to-week stubbornness and inability to fire his team up on the sideline. And probably deservedly so. But man, he and his staff put together a nice game plan last night and Rodgers executed it to perfection. The Eagles rank second in the league in time of possession (barely trailing the Cowboys), and it’s a big part of the team’s formula for success. Carson Wentz will likely be a very good professional quarterback one day, but Doug Pederson has clearly tried to control games by running the football. It keeps his defense fresh, minimizes possessions for the other team and allows his offensive line to get into a groove. Sometimes if you can’t beat ’em, you join ’em.
And that’s exactly what Mike McCarthy did, though with a keenly adapted approach that better fits his team’s roster. McCarthy got Rodgers into a rhythm early with short, chain-moving passes on quick three- and five-step drops. Not only does Rodgers get comfortable with his receivers by doing this, it tires the defense out and lets Rodgers work his magic in no-huddle situations. McCarthy knew he had to keep his defense off the field, and a quick-hitting passing attack was the perfect way to do it. As a result, Green Bay won the time of possession battle (35:23 > 24:37), capped off by a 17-play, eight-minute field goal drive that effectively sealed the win. Not including drives ending with a kneel down, five of Green Bay’s six drives had at least nine plays run, a stark contrast to the many three-and-outs from the Washington loss. The Packers managed a field goal on the other drive.
Not coincidentally, with the Packers best game of the season came Rodgers best game as well. The two-time MVP looked like his vintage self, completing precision passes with pristine timing, extending plays in the pocket, and converting third downs with his legs. He finished with a crisp 30-39 passing for 313 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was his highest completion percent of the season, along with his third best yards per attempt and passer rating. This is one of the best throws you’ll see all season.
Rodgers became the first quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the Eagles this season, and now leads the league in touchdown passes since week 7 with 17. Crucially, he was nearly perfect on third down, going 9-10 for 94 yards, converting two on the ground, and leading the Packers to a 10-14 mark on the night. All the talk about Rodgers being washed up seems pretty silly right about now.
Davante Adams is good. Really good.
Boy does Davante Adams look good. Before the year there were rumblings that the Packers should move on, as people prematurely labeled Adams a bust after an injury-marred sophomore season. That feels like a distant memory as Adams now looks like the Packers best receiver. Absurdly efficient, Adams finished last night with five catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns on only six targets. He’s displaying all the qualities of an elite receiver: crisp route running, pristine hands and the ability to win the ball in the air. Adams can now win on short, intermediate and deep routes, and is becoming a serious threat with the ball in his hands.
Hate to say it, but I told you so.
With Clay Matthews battling a hamstring injury, the pass rush had waned in recent weeks. The group put together a great second half performance last night, constantly putting Carson Wentz under pressure and disrupting his progressions.
Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers each had a sack, showing how dominant this group can be when firing on all cylinders. The front seven simply has to play this well considering the injury-depleted secondary, though to be fair that group played better as well. Still, it wasn’t all roses, as Perry was flagged for a neutral zone infraction twice and Peppers committed a crucial facemask on third down. Remove the penalties, and this front seven will keep Green Bay in tough games.
Kick Return Coverage
Green Bay came in ranked dead last in the league on kickoff coverage, giving up an average of 28.7 yards per return. You can bet that was an emphasis in practice this week, as the Packers coverage team held the Eagles to 16.3 yards per kickoff, a number that would rank first in the league. Pretty impressive considering the Eagles have the highest rated special teams unit in the league. It might seem mundane, but plays like this have rippling effects across the team. These kickoff stops put Carson Wentz in bad field position, which makes things easier on the defense and can force offenses to try and overachieve. Mason Crosby was perfect on his two field goals and three extra points to cap it off.
The win is reason for optimism, but it’s important to keep expectations in check. This team still has big holes that need to be fixed, and there are still a lot of injuries woven into the fabric of the roster. The running game continues to struggle, open-field tackling needs vast improvement, and the secondary is still quite burnable. But last night was a reminder of how good this team can be. When Rodgers plays like he did, the front seven puts pressure on the quarterback and McCarthy calls a sound gameplan, this team can hang with the best. They’ll have to do just that when the Seahawks come to town in two weeks.
Finally, fans will get to see the long-awaited Rodgers vs. Brock Osweiler quarterback duel when the Packers host the Texans at noon this coming Sunday. Until then, just try to R-E-L-A-X.
Photo courtesy of the Boston Herald.