Three weeks ago, it seemed as if the funeral for the Packers’ 2016 season had aired on national television. Washington’s 42–24 throttling of Green Bay was the Packers’ fourth loss in as many weeks, and their fourth straight game of allowing at least 30 points. Sitting at 4–6, Green Bay’s run of seven consecutive playoff berths appeared to be ending, and with that, the future of a painstakingly consistent franchise looked murky for the first time in head coach Mike McCarthy’s decade-plus tenure.
Well, after Week 14, it may be time to tell everyone who leapt off the Green Bay bandwagon — which I’m assuming is just a giant snowmobile — that there’s reason to hop back on. The Packers’ 38–10 thrashing of the Seahawks at Lambeau Field on Sunday was the most complete game that Green Bay has played all season. With the 9–4 Lions piling up how-the-hell wins every week and conceding no ground in the NFC North standings, the 7–6 Packers have no choice but to win out and hope that Detroit’s brutal slate down the stretch (trips to face the Giants and Cowboys) results in at least one loss, setting up a winner-take-all match between Green Bay and Detroit in Week 17 at Ford Field. A win like Sunday’s, though, against a contender in a conference that feels more winnable by the week, raises the question of whether the Packers would be a Super Bowl threat if they manage to become kings of the North.
As things typically do up there on the frozen tundra, Green Bay’s hopes begin and end with its fire-breathing quarterback. Aaron Rodgers has been dealing with a hamstring issue since a 27–13 win in Philadelphia two weeks ago, and he hobbled around the field after hurting his calf Sunday. He was eventually pulled for backup Brett Hundley early in the fourth quarter, but that left plenty of time for him to go all dracarys on a Seattle secondary missing star safety Earl Thomas.
Rodgers’s second throw of the game, a flip of the wrist while moving to his right and not even thinking about setting his feet, went for a 66-yard score to wide receiver Davante Adams. The two-time MVP completed 12 of his first 13 attempts for 202 yards with a pair of touchdowns, making a handful of the ridiculous passes we’ve come to expect.
The Seahawks clearly missed Thomas, who was sidelined for just the second start of his seven-year career after breaking his tibia in last week’s win over the Panthers, but the Packers offense — despite its early-season woes — doesn’t require a faulty defense to thrive. Green Bay came into Week 14 ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, fifth in yards per drive, and sixth in points per drive. McCarthy’s team may not be the planet-exploding force it has been in years past, yet it’s still a group to be feared when everything clicks. Adams’s emergence as the Packers’ most dangerous receiving option on the heels of his abysmal 2015 campaign has been downright shocking, and with a near shutout of the Seattle front seven (one sack, just three quarterback hits), Green Bay’s offensive line continues to show why it’s one of the best pass-protecting groups in football.
If Rodgers is close to fully healthy, this group is going to be formidable. Of course, the issue during Green Bay’s November swoon came on the other side of the ball. For nearly a month, opposing QBs had their way with an inexperienced Packers secondary. Green Bay has been without cornerback Sam Shields since he went out with a concussion in Week 1, and that’s left three second-year cover guys to see a heavy diet of snaps: Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, and former undrafted free agent Ladarius Gunter.
Randall had two of Green Bay’s five interceptions of Russell Wilson, but that performance isn’t representative of his entire fall. Overall, it’s been a trying second season for the Packers’ 2015 first-round pick. Randall has ceded snaps to Gunter as the season has worn on, and there’s a chance that a rotation featuring Randall as the third corner (and less of Micah Hyde) is the formula Green Bay’s defensive backfield has been searching for all season. A stretch in which the team has faced the Eagles’ Carson Wentz, the Texans’ Brock Osweiler, and a maddeningly inconsistent Seahawks offense in succession may not be the best way to test that theory, but at least the Packers are no longer getting roasted on a weekly basis.
The competition won’t get better any time soon. Over the next two weeks, the team will travel to Chicago to play Matt Barkley and the Bears before hosting Sam Bradford and Minnesota in Week 16. It won’t be until the regular-season finale in Detroit that the Packers will have to deal with an above-average passing game. The Lions, who are riding a five-game winning streak, seem hell-bent on never losing again, but it’s difficult not to consider Detroit’s record fool’s gold, even with Matthew Stafford acting like a sorcerer. All but one of Detroit’s games this season have been decided by one score, and the team is 8–4 in those contests. During the Packers’ three-game winning streak, Green Bay has outscored its opponents by a total of 50 points. Detroit has a plus-45 point differential in its nine wins combined.
The Lions have conjured up plenty of late-game magic this fall, but it’s easy to see how a fan base familiar with heartbreak could fear for the worst with the dream-crushing Packers coming to town in Week 17. And if Green Bay gets into the playoffs, it will instantly become a team that no one wants to see. The Giants’ win over Dallas exposed the Cowboys as mere mortals for the second consecutive week; the Packers have the firepower to potentially give them a run. Green Bay already boasts wins over both the Giants and the Seahawks — although a January trip to Seattle would present a very different test than the one the Packers faced on Sunday.
There’s a chance that all of this excitement is for naught, and that the Packers’ secondary will ultimately bring about their demise. With Green Bay’s offense looking more dangerous by the day, though, the rest of the NFC should probably be concerned.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. I will never understand the Giants. A week after getting beat up by the Steelers, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense stifled the Cowboys in a 10–7 upset win. Even without injured defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants managed to pressure Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott on nearly half of his dropbacks, and what’s more impressive is that they didn’t need an overwhelming pass rush to stamp out the Cowboys’ passing game.
The secondary was brilliant all night, especially cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who blanked Dez Bryant until the 2:25 mark in the fourth quarter. When Bryant did make his first catch, Jenkins was there to knock the ball loose, forcing a fumble that all but sealed New York’s victory. With Jenkins, 2016 first-rounder Eli Apple, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie manning the cornerback spots, and with Landon Collins putting together an All-Pro season at safety, the ceiling for this Giants pass defense is as high as any group in the NFC. If undrafted rookie Romeo Okwara (one sack, three quarterback hits) can offset the loss of Pierre-Paul, New York has all the pieces it needs to emerge as an unwelcome sight come January.
What stood out most about the Giants defense Sunday night — aside from its suffocating coverage — was how well it tackled. The Cowboys completed four third-down passes that didn’t get them past the marker, and that was the direct result of some excellent open-field sticks by Collins, Jenkins, and others. From top to bottom, this is a stout, well-prepared group, and that’s a testament to both Spagnuolo and the front office. In one year, the Giants defense has transformed from a horrifying mess (30th in DVOA, 30th in plays per drive) to a unit capable of pivotal, prime-time performances.
2. After another no-show from his defense, Rex Ryan may be nearing the end in Buffalo. During his two seasons as the Bills head coach, Ryan’s team has been the opposite of what most people expected. Rex’s best days with the Jets were fueled by an excellent defense, and when he took over a Buffalo roster that finished second in defensive DVOA and led the league with 54 sacks, doom felt imminent for QBs in the AFC East.
Instead, New Era Field has been downright welcoming to opposing passers. Ryan has done a great job of manufacturing pressure this season (Buffalo came into the week leading the NFL in adjusted sack rate), but that’s where the Bills’ defensive strengths end. The Steelers offensive line hammered the Buffalo front seven in a 27–20 win, piling up 240 yards on the ground.
After the game, Ryan was asked about reports that he may be fired as early as this week. He was vehement that this was the first he’d ever heard of them. If those reports prove to be accurate, it sounds like quarterback Tyrod Taylor could be on his way out of town, too. Taylor’s five-year, $90 million extension includes only $2.9 million in guarantees beyond this season; a $15 million option bonus and more than $15 million in salary would become fully guaranteed on March 11. The Bills can start fresh at quarterback next season (with Cardale Jones or another option) with almost no penalty, and by all accounts it sounds like they will.
3. Le’Veon Bell is still ridiculous. Bell’s 298 yards from scrimmage against Buffalo — 38 carries for 236 yards; four catches for another 62 — is tied for the third-highest mark among running backs since the merger. It was also a reminder that for all the fascination with Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson, Bell probably remains the best back in football.
He shredded the Bills in every way imaginable Sunday and, in doing so, showed that the Steelers offense can be plenty intimidating even when Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game falter. Pittsburgh’s offensive line hasn’t had much trouble in pass protection in recent years (thanks in part to Roethlisberger’s grasp of coordinator Todd Haley’s offense), but its manhandling of the Bills hit another gear. Left guard B.J. Finney disposing of Marcell Dareus on Bell’s second touchdown was a thing of beauty; it was also the norm for Pittsburgh’s big guys, a group that included fullback Roosevelt Nix doing some bruising work.
4. The Titans and Texans both won in Week 14 — and kept pace in the AFC South — due to their great play up front. Given what Houston has been getting out of Brock Osweiler (who threw another brutal interception on Sunday), it’s worth wondering how the Texans are still in the playoff hunt. The answer is plays like this:
Even without J.J. Watt, Houston still has plenty of talent on defense, and Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus had field days against a Colts offensive line that was struggling before losing right guard Jack Mewhort early in the third quarter of a 22–17 loss.
Meanwhile, in a 13–10 win over Denver, Tennessee’s pass rushers enjoyed similar success. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan finished with a sack and two quarterback hits apiece in what turned into a race between the Titans’ front seven getting to Trevor Siemian and the Broncos QB unloading passes to Demaryius Thomas. Most conversations about what makes Tennessee a playoff threat have revolved around Marcus Mariota and the ground game, but the play of Orakpo and Morgan has been excellent all season. The two have combined for 19 sacks and are the only pair of teammates with at least nine each. With those two and interior terror Jurrell Casey, this group can pose problems for almost any offensive line.
5. The Seahawks offense can’t afford to struggle like it did Sunday, especially when the defense is without Earl Thomas. Seattle’s Russell Wilson has had his share of brilliant moments playing (often hobbled) behind a patchwork line, but his five-interception outing in Green Bay might have been the worst game of his career. Wilson made a series of baffling decisions and missed open receivers on several occasions, including a would-be touchdown to Jimmy Graham in the first quarter.
With nothing but NFC West opponents remaining on their schedule, the Seahawks have a solid chance to win out and earn a first-round bye. Given their recent road struggles, having the chance to host a postseason game in front of the 12th Man seems paramount. At CenturyLink Field, Seattle has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 56.8 percent of their passes at 6.2 yards per attempt. On the road, those numbers jump to 66.4 percent and 7.9 yards per attempt. At home, the Seahawks’ pass defense is virtually equal to the Broncos; anywhere else, it’s in step with this season’s Panthers.
6. The Eagles’ long-snapping search delighted me way more than it should have. No one appreciates a long snapper until he’s gone. After Jon Dorenbos, who’d tied a club-record by starting 162 straight games, exited Sunday with a wrist injury, the Eagles were left scouring their depth chart for a replacement. Tight end Brent Celek got the nod for a 50-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter; he promptly skipped his snap to punter Donnie Jones, who was then eaten by Washington’s Josh Norman and Ziggy Hood before he could get the ball down. When Celek got hurt later in the 27–22 loss, Philly was sent scrambling again, and for a brief moment it looked like head coach Doug Pederson might be willing to hold open auditions.
It turns out that linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who was shown snapping to Jones on the sideline, was doing that just for the hell of it. Backup tight end Trey Burton was always the Eagles’ no. 3 option, and when his number was called, he managed to float a ball back to Jones on a 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
A lot of people asked me on Twitter why a center wouldn’t be the natural choice as a team’s backup long center; as much as I’d love to delve into long-snapping nerdery, that’s a dangerous seal to break. The short version is that long snapping and shotgun snapping aren’t as similar as they seem. More than mobility, the hip flexibility required for each job is very different.
7. The Falcons are continuing to win with speed. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel’s 64-yard touchdown in a 42–14 rout of the Rams was just his latest game-breaking play of the season, and his ability to take the top off a defense is only one way that Atlanta’s roster can blow by opponents. Edge rusher Vic Beasley, now tied for the league lead in sacks (13.5) with Von Miller, is playing like a man on fire. Between Beasley’s ascension and the standout play of linebacker Deion Jones, who had a pick-six against Los Angeles, the Falcons defense has added a new dimension.
8. The Melvin Gordon and Joey Bosa injuries are further proof that this Chargers season is a cruel joke. San Diego’s list of injured players, which includes Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Jason Verrett, among others, was already the stuff of a black comedy. But what happened to Gordon and Bosa in a 28–16 loss to the Panthers may be the sickest twist yet.
After struggling mightily as a rookie and undergoing microfracture surgery, Gordon has been excellent in his second season. The running back has shown power and authority that were absent in 2015, and that made the sight of him leaving Sunday on a cart — due to an injury sustained diving for a fumble, no less — all the more depressing. Then, one quarter later, first-round pick Bosa had to leave after hurting himself while sacking Cam Newton. I don’t even know what to say anymore.
9. Ryan Tannehill’s injury may take Miami from an unlikely 10-win team to a group that’s forced to watch the playoffs at home. The Dolphins’ 26–23 victory over the Cardinals brought their record to 8–5, and the circumstances that would produce a postseason berth seemed to be coming together: The Broncos are reeling; Miami owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers; and the Dolphins’ remaining schedule includes matchups with the Jets and Bills. That thinking changes with the reports that Tannehill likely tore his ACL and could miss the rest of the season. Matt Moore — who went 3-of-5 for 47 yards after Tannehill departed Sunday’s game — is a good contingency plan as far as backup QBs go, but Miami’s chances to be a playoff sleeper are significantly diminished without Tannehill.
10. The Lions’ dink-and-dunk approach clouds just how absurd Matthew Stafford’s arm still is. Only Alex Smith and Sam Bradford are averaging fewer air yards per attempt than Stafford among qualified QBs, but that has nothing to do with the latter’s ability to uncork beautiful throws down the field.
This pass to Marvin Jones to set up the Lions touchdown before the half in their 20–17 win over the Bears is the sort of Danger: High Explosives toss that only a handful of guys in the league can make. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s short-passing scheme has helped improve Stafford’s decision-making, but every once in a while, his tantalizing arm strength gets a chance to shine.
11. Today in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Tyron Smith makes Eli Apple a projectile.
After watching Smith shoot Apple into space, I looked up Apple’s combine measurements. I assumed that the first-round cornerback couldn’t be that much bigger than I am. Otherwise, the carnage on display here would make no sense.
Apple is 6-foot-1 and 199 pounds. After the nachos I ate in bed Sunday, I’m checking in at about 5-foot-11 and 178. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch this on a loop while clutching my knees in a dark room.