Packers Nearing Perfection as Playoffs Arrive
All Green Bay Packers’ fans remember where they were on November 8th at about 3:20 CST. Their favorite team had just been embarrassed by not only the ugliest team in the league, but the ugliest team wearing the ugliest jerseys in the league as the Buccaneers defeated the Packers 38-28. Rookie Josh Freeman managed the game well in his first start as a pro, Aaron Rodgers wound up throwing for nearly half of his total interceptions in the game (three), and the defense allowed an 11-point 4th quarter lead slip away.
The loss put the Packers at 4-4 and seriously put into question head coach Mike McCarthy’s future with the team. A stagnant and predictable offense, a vanilla defense that brought back shades of 2008, and a special teams unit that could not have stopped Ted Thompson if he was returning kicks all needed to be blamed on someone, and McCarthy looked like the guy.
The next week against the Cowboys, the offense was clicking, the defense was bringing pressure from every which way, and the special teams unit played as well as they had all season. Seven weeks later, the Packers sit at 11-5, winners of 7 of 8 (with a last second touchdown counting for the only loss) and primed for a deep playoff run in the suddenly wide open NFC.
Every team destined for greatness seems to have a turning point in their season, and there’s no question the loss against Tampa Bay was it for the Packers. Whether it was being able to forget about the stress of competing for the NFC North as the Vikings went to 7-1, or just gaining a sense of urgency with a playoff spot in doubt, the Packers have been the NFC’s hottest team since the Tampa Bay game and are playing near perfect football as the second season begins.
Good teams have star players who make plays to keep their teams in ballgames and are responsible for the team winning one or two games every year. Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson qualify as the Packers’ “star players” and games the Chicago home opener and the win against Dallas can be chalked up as games the Packers would not have won without Rodgers and Woodson.
However, teams that close in on perfection toward the end of the season do the little things correctly and have players that fly under the radar while performing at a high level. Offensively, Jermichael Finley has moved from back-up tight end to a threat that can stretch the field and change games, Brandon Jackson has finally become a spell back with Ahman Green to make the running attack legitimate, and the offensive line has fought its way back to average, a place they were far from in Tampa Bay.
On special teams, newcomer Derrick Martin and Spencer “duct tape” Havner have made excellent contributions to a team that desperately needed them. Mason Crosby has made his last three kicks, including a 52-yarder against Seattle, and coverage has been much better as of late.
The biggest story for the Packers doing the “little things” has been on defense, where injuries and lack of depth have meant players like Brad Jones and Tramon Williams have needed to step up, and they have. When Al Harris and Aaron Kampman went down, it could have spelled doom for a defense that had players griping, coaches being criticized, and the aforementioned injuries.
Instead, Jones and Williams took on starting roles and have molded to the 3-4 defense. In return, Jarrett Bush has moved to the nickel spot and, despite letting up a few big plays, has played fairly well. Rookie Clay Matthews has blown up and is a front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year, while B.J. Raji has been versatile on the line and given the Packers everything they have needed.
Filling holes on both sides of the ball have the Packers hitting their stride at the perfect time, putting their offense and defense in positions to succeed. Despite being known for their passing game, the Packers finished fifth in the NFC in rushing yards on the sixth most carries, tying them for fourth best in the conference in yards per carry.
The passing attack has been one of the best in NFC the whole year, and Rodgers has more weapons than any other team in the NFC, Eagles included. With four wideouts capable of playing at a high level, one of the up-and-coming tight ends in the league, and a run game that has been more than serviceable, the offense is at a spot where they can compete in a shootout with the deep ball threat, or a defensive struggle with runs and short, quick passes.
The run defense finished first in the NFL in yards allowed, which is a great combo considering Charles Woodson is in the backfield taking care of passes. There are no real glaring holes that the Packers have outside of a nickel position, where Jarrett Bush has been improving. If they can continue to get pressure on the quarterback and stuff the run, the pass defense will not take a huge hit.
It doesn’t matter that the Cardinals only played their starters two series or that the Packers played theirs into the third quarter. In football, momentum is everything and the Packers have plenty of it heading into their re-match next week. It seems as though the Packers have fixed everything they needed to fix entering next week’s game. The same can not be said for every NFC Playoff team, which bodes very well for the Green and Gold.