For the first quarter of Sunday’s wild-card matchup against the Giants at Lambeau Field, it looked as if the unrecognizable, early-season version of the Packers had returned at a moment that could cost the team its Super Bowl hopes. At one point early in the second quarter, Green Bay had totaled minus-8 yards of offense, Aaron Rodgers had been sacked three times, and the rhythm that had defined Green Bay’s six-game winning streak had all but disappeared.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers were allowing the New York receivers to move around the secondary with a lack of resistance that bordered on comical. Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, and Sterling Shepard each broke free at least once during the Giants’ opening two drives; all that kept them out of the end zone was a combination of off-target tosses from Eli Manning and their own faulty hands. Through the first 25 minutes of action, Green Bay played like the team that fell to 4–6 in November after being throttled by Washington in prime time. Then Rodgers and the offense flipped the switch.
Rodgers pinpointed a throw at the 3:45 mark of the second quarter, after a short punt gave the Packers possession at the Giants’ 38-yard line, as the moment he settled in. Upon fielding a shotgun snap, Rodgers uncorked a ball down the right sideline for wideout Davante Adams, who caught it in stride before getting dragged down inside the 10. “That got me going, and it was his first catch of the game, so it him going, too,” Rodgers said afterward.
Two plays later, Rodgers bobbed and weaved his way around the backfield for a full nine seconds before tossing a 5-yard dart to Adams in the corner of the end zone. Just like that, despite the Packers’ slow start, they were ahead 7–6; the Giants’ inability to finish off drives had kept Green Bay close, and it felt as if the opportunity for Manning and Co. was already slipping away.
If that swing was disheartening for New York, what happened next was downright devastating. After another Giants punt, the Packers went back to work from their own 20-yard line with less than two minutes left in the half. Behind a combination of short passes and Ty Montgomery runs, they moved the ball across midfield with less than a minute to play and then benefited from a moment of good fortune that will likely soon be forgotten: Tight end Jared Cook dropped a pass over the middle with six seconds remaining; a completion would have certainly ended the half.
So Green Bay had the ball on the New York 42-yard line with a chance for one final heave to the end zone. For most teams, the odds of that scenario producing a score are nearly nonexistent. By now, though, Green Bay expects plays like this to work.
“I think we’re starting to believe every single time that ball goes up there, we’ve got a chance,” Rodgers said. “I can throw it pretty good, but it’s got to happen on the other end as well.”
For the third time in just over a calendar year, the Packers came down with a backbreaking, Hail Mary touchdown, this time to Randall Cobb, who snuck behind the Giants secondary and corralled a pass that looked routine more than it did fluky.
“It looks like, as is the case many times in these situations, there’s a little bit of a misjudging of the football by the middle of the pack there,” Rodgers said, before explaining that the high arc of his Hail Mary throws is intentional, and in this case helped ensure that he kept the ball from flying out the back of the end zone.
From that point on, Rodgers took a flamethrower to what had become the league’s best defense by season’s end. He finished 25-of-40 for 362 yards with four scores in Green Bay’s eventual 38–13 rout; it was the first time this season the Giants, who had allowed just 17.8 points per game, even surrendered three touchdown passes. Cobb made five catches for 116 yards and three scores in his first game with more than three targets since the Packers’ 27–13 win over Philadelphia in Week 12.
Green Bay’s offense is at its most dangerous when Rodgers is able to hit in-rhythm throws within the desired timing of a play’s design, such as his ball to Adams in the first half or his 30-yard strike to Cobb that extended the lead to 21–13 with 2:53 to go in the third quarter. On the latter play, Cobb was working against Giants backup slot corner Trevin Wade, who replaced the injured Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and earned plenty of attention from the Packers whenever he was on the field.
Cobb had missed the previous two games with an ankle injury and was thrust into a major role after Green Bay’s receiving corps suffered a potentially brutal blow early in the second quarter. On an incomplete first-and-10 throw down the left sideline, Jordy Nelson took a punishing hit from Giants cornerback Leon Hall, causing a rib injury that kept him out for the rest of the game. Nelson’s status for next Sunday’s showdown at Dallas is in question; if he’s inactive, expect the Packers to move Cobb and Adams all around their formations and to try to exploit 6-foot-5 tight end Cook in space, as the offense did more than once against New York.
Green Bay would need that type of creativity and problem-solving without Nelson, who hauled in a league-leading 14 touchdown catches this season, and whose absence would only add to the growing list of concerns about this roster. Running back Montgomery and linebacker Blake Martinez also went down with injuries against the Giants (Montgomery returned to the game late in the fourth quarter), and the secondary remains suspect. How would a defense that closed out the regular season ranked 20th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA fare against NFC offenses that finished first (Atlanta) and third (Dallas), respectively, in the same metric?
The Giants didn’t have the firepower to take advantage of Damarious Randall and LaDarius Gunter on the back end, but every team Green Bay could face from now until the Super Bowl has more than enough. At this point, though, Rodgers is playing at such a ridiculously high level that those concerns could become irrelevant. Facing the premier defense in the playoff field, this offense had its way for an entire half. Rodgers has become such a world-altering force since the loss to Washington that whatever faults the Packers have do seem to matter a little less. Green Bay has found what it needs to win, to the point that successful Hail Marys feel like a given.
A few minutes after Rodgers said his halftime heave felt like it was meant to be, he was asked whether that feeling extends to this season, and the incredible run the Packers have been on since late November. “Yeah …” he said, with a knowing smile. “I do.”
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. This is the Jadeveon Clowney we’ve been waiting for. The no. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft turned in the best season of his career in 2016, collecting six sacks and serving as a constant menace to opposing running games. In Saturday’s 27–14 wild-card win over Oakland, he might have had his best performance to date.
After fighting off a cut block by left tackle Menelik Watson (who was filling in for the injured Donald Penn) to deflect a pass on the Raiders’ first drive, Clowney went a step further a few minutes later. He identified a screen pass to Latavius Murray, halted his pass rush, and then redirected his path to get his right hand on the ball, tip it, and pull it in for an interception.
No one has ever doubted that Clowney (when healthy) possesses physical gifts that rival anyone’s; the more encouraging part of his dominant outing against the Raiders was that it was a byproduct of sound football (his fending off Watson belongs on an instructional video) and keen diagnosis of play design and situation. The Texans have their work cut out for them against New England in the divisional round, but even a loss shouldn’t take away from Houston’s defensive optimism entering next fall. The thought of Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and J.J. Watt playing together in the 2017 season gets more enjoyable every week.
2. Brock Osweiler had some shockingly decent moments on Saturday. It’s telling that the takeaway from Osweiler’s 14-of-25, 168-yard showing is positive, but he made a few throws against Oakland that haven’t been part of the Texans offense this season. All fall, he had a tendency to look for his tight ends over the middle of the field instead of pushing the ball outside the numbers to DeAndre Hopkins. In trying to piece together how the receiver disappeared from both the NFL RedZone channel and fantasy football championships nationwide, that’s a solid explanation.
That was the trend again early on Saturday, before Osweiler unloaded a 38-yard strike to Hopkins in the second quarter, who casually hauled it in while dragging his toe inbounds — a reminder that few players in the league can match his flair for sideline acrobatics. The Texans would prefer not to keep a $19 million quarterback on the bench next season; with that in mind, seeing Osweiler generate the occasional big play is a welcome sign.
3. Texans left tackle Duane Brown holding his own against Khalil Mack was a fitting entry in what’s become an impressive season. Injuries have haunted Brown over the past few years (he missed two games with a hand injury in the 2015 campaign before tearing his quadriceps in the regular-season finale, forcing him to miss the first four games of 2016), but it hasn’t been very long since Brown was considered to be one of the best left tackles in football.
He played like it Saturday, preventing Mack from recording any sacks or quarterback hits. The Texans gave Brown some extra help over the course of the game, but he regularly stonewalled Mack while left on an island. At age 31, Brown has no guaranteed money remaining on his deal beyond this season, and would make $9.7 million from the Texans in 2017 if the team chooses to retain him. Houston will have a decision to make, but Brown’s performance this week — and over the second half of the season — was an indication that he still has plenty to offer.
4. Whitney Mercilus had a monster day while being deployed in a variety of ways. The Texans’ underrated pass rusher registered two sacks against the Raiders, showing what kind of presence he can be off the edge, yet Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel wasn’t content to simply use the 26-year-old in a conventional manner.
More than once, the 265-pound Mercilus lined up as inside linebacker and was free to shoot running lanes as Oakland tried to run the ball laterally outside the tackles. It speaks to both Crennel’s imagination and Mercilus’s skill set that the Texans would put him in those spots during what weren’t clearly defined passing scenarios. Of course, there’s a reason Mercilus was named a second-team All-Pro despite finishing with only 7.5 sacks this season. He can impact the game in a number of different capacities.
5. The Steelers’ approach on Sunday was emblematic of what their offense has become. Last season, Pittsburgh reached rare air with its aggressiveness on offense. Even when running back Le’Veon Bell was in the fold, the Steelers showed a willingness to chuck the ball down the field that became a defining trait of their attack.
By the end of the 2016 regular season, though, that facet of Pittsburgh’s scheme had been all but phased out. Ever since receiver Sammie Coates enlisted in the witness protection program earlier this fall, the Steelers have been unable to find much success exploiting teams with long passes. So, rather than worry about correcting that against the Dolphins, Pittsburgh decided to hammer away at Miami with its arsenal of potent weapons. The result was a hot start that sparked a 30–12 rout.
Bell was downright unstoppable, carrying 29 times for 167 yards with two touchdowns. Pittsburgh wasn’t afraid to put the game on his shoulders, at one point mounting a drive that consisted of 10 Bell runs and zero passes.
The Steelers’ passing game was secondary, and even its modest box score numbers were misleading; of Ben Roethlisberger’s 197 yards, 112 came on short throws to Antonio Brown that the star wideout took the distance.
Given Roethlisberger’s uneven play this season, it made sense that the offense would put the game in the hands of Bell and Brown while limiting its quarterback, especially against an inferior opponent. We’ll see if that strategy can work against teams like Kansas City or New England. If Sunday was any indication, though, there are worse plans than one that features those two going to work with the ball in their hands.
6. The Packers offensive line faces a pass-protection job unlike any other. The stat sheet says Green Bay’s group front had a rough outing on Sunday against the Giants: five sacks, including four in the first half. But even Rodgers would note that those all can’t be attributed to the line. Rodgers’s tendency to hang onto the ball means that his line has to do more extended work than just about any other, and that brings the unique challenge of slowing down pass rushers who aren’t headed to one designated spot.
At times, Rodgers’s knack for bouncing around the backfield can make life easier for his line; speed-demon defensive ends sometimes have to slow down to either keep Rodgers in the pocket or redirect their path to him. Regardless, Green Bay’s linemen face a task not many of their peers have to worry about (at least not to this extent), and they have it down cold.
7. For all the nautical-themed concerns sure to arise this week, the Giants receiving corps won’t be able to do much if it gets that version of Eli moving forward. Beckham’s drop on the Giants’ opening possession Sunday was a blown opportunity, but Manning was consistently inaccurate to cap what’s been a forgettable campaign. New York’s offensive issues go beyond Manning’s failures, but without much of a ground game (Paul Perkins had 30 yards on 10 carries against Green Bay), the quarterback was asked to carry much of the load this season. He wasn’t able to deliver.
8. The Seahawks have desperately needed a running game, and Thomas Rawls might have come to the rescue in the nick of time. Save for one big game against the Panthers in Week 13, Rawls (who missed seven games this fall with a fibula injury) had struggled to get much going as part of Seattle’s rotating cast of backs. That wasn’t the case in the Seahawks’ 26–6 win over the Lions on Saturday, as Rawls rumbled for 161 yards on 27 carries — by far his heaviest workload and best output of the season.
The hand-wringing over Seattle’s inability to protect Russell Wilson has been a constant throughout the 2016 campaign, but more worrisome has been the team’s lack of a presence on the ground. Even when the offense has struggled to keep Wilson upright in recent years, it has never seen the running game suffer. The Seahawks finished 23rd in rushing DVOA in 2016, their first finish outside the top 10 since Wilson arrived in 2012.
The game against Detroit may not be the best barometer for whether this type of production is sustainable, but the good news for Seattle is that it gets another enticing matchup this weekend: Atlanta’s defense ranks 29th in run defense DVOA.
9. The Seahawks can be dangerous if they keep getting this type of production from their playmakers. Doug Baldwin (11 catches on 12 freaking targets for 104 yards and a touchdown) continues his steady march as one of the game’s most reliable pass catchers, but he wasn’t alone in sparking Seattle’s passing game against the Lions. Paul Richardson (who had just 21 catches on the entire season) made three of the most ridiculous grabs you’ll ever see. With Wilson under center, the Seahawks offense is always going to have potential to put up points in a hurry. That potential could become reality if the team is able to get contributions from unexpected places.
10. Seattle left tackle George Fant had a rough outing against a Detroit pass rush that struggled for the majority of the season. Against Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, he could quickly become a problem.
The Lions’ Ziggy Ansah matched his 2016 season sack total (2) against the Seahawks on Saturday; if Beasley does that (he had 15.5), I’m going to go out on a limb and say Seattle’s in trouble. Beasley is getting to quarterbacks as well as any pass rusher in the league right now. Facing a left tackle still trying to find his footing, he has a chance to take over next week’s game.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Paul Richardson bends space and time.