Mark it down now, if the Packers win against Detroit next week, Aaron Rodgers will win the NFL MVP.
Not Tom Brady. Not Matt Ryan. Not Matthew Stafford. It’ll be Aaron Rodgers.
Five weeks ago this team sat a measly 4-6, fresh off its worst string of defensive performances in team history, and seemingly without an elite quarterback at the helm of the offense. Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson were both on the hot seat, Rodgers’ leadership was severely in question, and the defense was widely considered a bottom-five unit in the league.
Fast forward five weeks and a lot has changed. Despite the team’s record and string of performances, Rodgers famously thought the team could “run the table” and still make the playoffs. Similar to the “R-E-L-A-X” quote of 2014, “run the table” is now becoming the prophetic, season-defining quote of this tumultuous yet exciting 2016. Teams were looking forward to playing this barely there secondary and having a chance to beat down on a Rodgers led team. Now? Nobody wants to face Green Bay in January and Rodgers is a deserving MVP candidate, a notion I brought up three weeks ago after the Texans win.
There was simply nothing Rodgers couldn’t do on Saturday, despite playing against an elite pass defense – the same one that had held him to 213 yards, one touchdown and an interception in the Vikings week 2 victory of the Packers. Rodgers admitted he was playing in a “different head space… at a heightened awareness and focus” in the win, and the results showed. He finished the game passing 28 of 38 for 347 yards and four touchdowns, adding 13 yards and a rushing touchdown to boot. From the opening drive he was in vintage form, zipping laser throws into tight windows, extending plays with his legs, and converting third downs whenever the Vikings seemed close to swinging momentum.
This all came against Mike Zimmer’s defense, which has notoriously forced Rodgers to struggle over the years. Per ESPN, here were Rodgers numbers against a Zimmer-led defense prior to 2016:
I have a feeling those numbers are going to improve just a hair. For the first time in the Zimmer Era, Rodgers finally won the chess match, throwing for 300+ yards for the first time ever against the coach.
The final score reads 38-25, though even that score belies how dominant Green Bay looked on Saturday. Even with Rodgers having his way with the Vikings defense and barely giving his defense time to rest, the unit on the other side of the ball held Minnesota to three points in the first quarter and zero in the third, giving up almost half of the opposing points in fourth quarter garbage time. Sam Bradford’s numbers will look great on paper (34/50, 382 yards, 3 touchdowns), but he was his usual check-down specialist self for most of the game and had his stats padded by Green Bay’s late game prevent defense. Outside of one misjudged deep ball by Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix that went for a 71-yard Adam Thielen touchdown, the defense held steady and got stops when it mattered most.
Jordy Nelson is elite
Although nobody really watches the Pro Bowl (you don’t, admit it), Jordy is easily one of this season’s biggest snubs. Through 15 games, Jordy finds himself near the top of just about every major statistical category. He’s now sixth in receiving yards, sixth in receptions, seventh in catches of 20+ yards, and most importantly, he leads the league with 14 touchdowns. You haven’t forgot that he’s 31 and coming off an ACL tear, right?
Jordy put it all on display on Saturday, reminding everyone why he and Rodgers have a legitimate claim for the top throwing/receiving duo in the league. He constantly found soft stops in the intermediate zone of the defense, finishing with a pristine line of nine catches, 154 yards and two touchdowns. His first score was a 21-yard catch-and-run on third-and-four in which he juked a defender and ran into the end zone. The second was a classic broken play; he saw Rodgers rolling right and used turned around to get open and make a perfect sliding catch on his knees. With Rob Gronkowski sidelined, Jordy has a legitimate claim for the best touchdown catcher in the league. Out of his nine receptions, eight resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.
With the two scores, Jordy and Rodgers surpassed Brett Favre and Antonio Freeman for the most combined touchdowns in Packer history with 59. His 14 scores makes him the first player in Packer history with three seasons of 13+ touchdown catches (2011, 2014, 2016). He’s also now third in Packers history 63 career touchdowns. His health and continued success will be vital to Green Bay’s playoff hopes, should they make it.
Welcome back, Clay Matthews
Matthews only had three total tackles (one solo, two assisted) on Saturday, but that didn’t stop him from wreaking havoc all over the field. He first showed up on the Vikings first red zone appearance, when Green Bay still clung to a 7-0 first quarter lead. Minnesota ran a sideline flat route to Cordarrelle Patterson on third-and-four (like the Packers often do with Randall Cobb, who was inactive due to an ankle injury), and Matthews athletically batted the ball at the line of scrimmage to hold them to a field goal.
On Minnesota’s next series, he forced an incompletion in coverage on second down, then helped make a tackle on third down short of the sticks to force yet another field goal. His biggest play of the day was crucial. After storming out to a 21-6 lead, Bradford and Thielen connected on the aforementioned deep ball to close the gap to a one-possession game. Rodgers was sacked twice on the next series and Green Bay had to punt back to the Vikings and give them good field position. A few plays later, and Bradford had the ball second-and-one at the Green Bay 41, legitimately threatening to make it a close game heading into half time.
Bradford faked a shotgun handoff and dropped back, only to be whomped on his blindside by Matthews for a sack. The ball popped loose, and Mike Daniels expertly fell on the ball to recover the fumble. Rodgers ran it in five plays later to extend the lead to 28-13, and Green Bay never looked back.
Run offense still must improve
Aside from the deep play given up to Thielen, the only other negative takeaway from Saturday’s win was the running offense. Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael combined to run for 27 yards on 13 carries, good for an atrocious 2.1 yards per carry. Those numbers are pretty putrid, but even harder to digest coming off the team’s best rushing performance of the season last week in Chicago.
On the flip side, Minnesota’s defense is one of the best in the NFL, and its core of rangy, athletic linebackers are capable of stopping runs all over the field. But there’s no room for excuses in January, and this unit will need to run the ball more efficiently to help take the pressure of Rodgers and give the defense longer spells on the sideline. Detroit’s run defense has been much over the second half of the season and will provide a nice test with DeAndre Levy back in the fold.
The season comes to a head on Sunday night at Ford Field in Detroit. It’s a true winner-take-all affair in which the victor will take the crown of the NFC North, no matter the outcome of tonight’s Lions vs. Cowboys game. The entire season has built to this moment. Are you ready Packers fans?