The only pretty aspect of the Packers 21-13 home victory over the Houston Texans was the cascade of powdery snow pirouetting down from the sky and blanketing the numbers of Lambeau Field. Other than that, it was an ugly, hard-fought Packers win, something that doesn’t necessarily characterize the team’s season to this point.
After struggling to move the ball amid snowy conditions for much of the game, Rodgers led two beautiful, clock-crunching touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to give the Packers a 21-7 lead. Houston countered with a Brock Osweiler to DeAndre Hopkins 44-yard touchdown to make it a one-possession game with two minutes left. But with the game on the line, Davante Adams, a player berated for poor hands for much of his career, perfectly scooped up the onside kick to seal the victory.
Green Bay had one less first down, nine fewer total yards, and lost the time of possession battle (31:31 – 28:29), but that hardly paints the entire picture. The Packers led for the vast majority of the game, save for the nine-minute second half window when the game was tied 7-7. Even when the game was tied, it felt like the Packers were in control, a feeling that hasn’t come easy for much of the season. With that said, the Packers struggled to move the chains on third down and take advantage of opportunities until the get-right fourth quarter.
Early in the first quarter, Green Bay had a chance to take a quick lead after LaDarius Gunter forced Texans tight end Ryan Griffin to fumble while trying to extend a catch-and-run for a first down. But the Packers failed to capitalize. Starting the drive at the Houston 24 yard line, Rodgers marched down to third-and-one at the two before fumbling the exchange with center Corey Linsley. The ball was kicked around in the scrum and eventually landed on by Texans outside linebacker/pass rusher Whitney Mercillus. It wasn’t a crushing blow by any means, but with Mike McCarthy’s main focus on winning the turnover battle, it was a tough way to start the day. We’ll never truly know what play was called (though it looked like strong-side off-tackle run), but Green Bay may have had a better stranglehold on the game from there, especially at home against an inexperienced quarterback.
Jordy’s Big Day
Nobody stood out more than Jordy Nelson yesterday, who finished with a crisp 8-118-1 receiving line while battling snowy footballs and one of the better cornerback groups in the NFL. It’s clear from watching that Jordy isn’t the same explosive player he was in 2014. He no longer beats defenses over the top with this speed, and that deep Jordy-Rodgers connection has been the spark missing from this offense for much of the year. But he still finds ways to get the job done, just like elite players are wont to do. Jordy wins with crisp routes, pristine hands, and a seasoned mind meld with his quarterback that few tandems can match.
In last week’s recap I discussed how Davante Adams is beginning to win on short, intermediate and deep routes, the mark of a truly elite receiver. It’s reasonable to think he’s learned that from Jordy, who does it as well as anyone in the game. In the first half, Jordy started the game out with several 7-9 yard catches on first down, settling into a rhythm with Rodgers and setting up easier down-and-distances. Then he caught another seven-yarder on second down to put the Packers in the red zone, setting up the first touchdown of the game. Then, with the game tied 7-7 to start the fourth quarter, this 32-yard beauty happened. This for a guy playing in the snow for the first team since his ACL repair, which had to be in the back of his mind.
In typical Jordy fashion, he capped the game off with two beautiful sideline catches of 20 or more yards, helping Green Bay on its way to the final game-sealing touchdown. In atypical Jordy fashion, he celebrated after his touchdown and both catches with emphatic signals he’d moved the chains. Even in the heart of the Frozen Tundra, a fired-up Jordy can still get hot.
Back-to-back game-clinching drives by Rodgers
Rodgers has now thrown for a league-leading 19 touchdowns since week 7 (and one rushing score), good for an average of 2.7 passing touchdowns per game (2.85 with the rushing score). For reference Tom Brady – the leading MVP candidate in many minds – has thrown for 2.16 touchdowns per game over the same span. In fact, if the Packers somehow make the playoffs, Rodgers (gasp!) deserves to be back in the MVP conversation considering the injury-depleted roster around him.
Rodgers numbers don’t jump off the page (20-30, 209 yards, 2 touchdowns; 3 carries, 16 yards; 108.9 passer rating), but it was an efficient performance nonetheless and he executed when it mattered most. Clearly hobbled by his hamstring and the snowy turf, Rodgers didn’t try to extend too many plays or run outside the pocket unless absolutely necessary. When he did, good things continued to happen.
The game was knotted at seven apiece when Rodgers decided to take over. He led a 12-play, 98-yard touchdown drive to take back the lead, constantly peppering his receivers with short and intermediate targets and wearing down the defense. Then after a tough stop by the defense, Rodgers got the ball back with 8:52 left on his own 11 yard line. Similar to last week’s clincher against Philadelphia, #12 led an eight-play, five-minute touchdown drive to help seal the game. Though Green Bay struggled to run the ball on third down, Rodgers remained crisp, converting a crucial third down on both aforementioned touchdown drives.
Rodgers now has 14 straight home wins in December, second to only Tom Brady’s streak of 19 home wins from 2002-2012.
Another strong week for offensive line, special teams; Another poor Starks running performance
This is how the Packers have found ways to win over the years: solid offensive line play, minimizing mistakes and solid special teams. Crosby hit all of his extra points, no small feat in the snowy weather (Houston’s kicker Nick Novak missed one), and kickoff coverage again had a solid week. Cobb even chipped in with punt returns of 21 and 23 yards, respectively. Rodgers had another game with a clean pocket, averaging a lengthy 3.53 seconds per dropback (his season average is 2.93) while only getting sacked once. The running game struggled again in the first half, but started to find more of a groove late in the game as the Texans defense wore down and McCarthy finally gave someone other than James Starks some carries out of the backfield. It’s become apparent at age 30 coming off a mid-season meniscus trim, Starks has lost a step. Never a workhorse back to begin with, Starks has struggled to hit holes and go north-south quickly, continually getting bottled up on short yardage third down situations.
After failing to convert on second-and-one, then on third-and-one from the Texans 44, McCarthy stunningly ADAPTED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GAME and started Christine Michael on the next series. Michael ran for seven yards on his first carry, and while he also couldn’t convert on third-and-one, he responded with a five-yard fourth-down conversion on the next play. There’s no question Starks has a better grasp of the offense, has earned Rodgers’ trust and is an asset in the passing game. But it’s also apparent that Michael is a much better between-the-tackles runner, showing better burst and the ability to fight for extra yards. His numbers don’t look great at the end of the day (9 carries for 19 yards), but some of that is the result of salting the clock away while the Texans knew run plays were coming.
It’s telling that McCarthy gave Michael the last few carries to kill the clock and seal the victory. Starks had four carries, and only one went for positive yards, while seven out of nine did for Michael. Even more interesting, Starks didn’t touch the ball after gaining zero yards on the first play of the second half, while Michael had four second half touches and Ty Montgomery had six touches. Montgomery (6 carries, 40 yards; 2 catches, 16 yards) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski (3 carries, 14 yards, 1 touchdown) were actually the most successful out of the backfield. As Rodgers continues to recover from his hamstring injury, Green Bay will need to rely on an actual running game as opposed to Rodgers manufacturing one with his legs. Look for a full-blown four-back committee from here on out, with Michael, Starks and Montgomery each getting roughly 7-12 touches per game.
Peppers continues historic career
Green Bay only recorded two sacks on the day, but one will have a place in the record books. Always level-headed and reserved, Peppers offers veteran leadership with his steady play and constant presence in enemy backfields. With the clock ticking down in the second quarter, Houston had the ball at its own 41 yard line with one timeout left, threatening for a possible field goal try. Osweiler stepped up in the pocket only to be met by Peppers, who took him down for sack number 142.5, moving him ahead of Michael Strahan for sole possession of fifth place on the all-time sack leaderboard. He is now eight sacks away from Chris Doleman in fourth.
The season could very well be decided next Sunday when the Packers host the Seahawks in Lambeau at 3:25 pm (CST). Win, and Green Bay might just have enough momentum to win the division and sneak into the playoffs. Lose, and the remaining two games might not matter for a seven-loss team. Good thing Green Bay hasn’t had any problems putting Seattle away over the years.