The story was set up perfectly. The last undefeated team in football made the mistake of leaving the best quarterback in the sport nearly two whole minutes to get just three points. Rodgers, who had already orchestrated two mesmerizing comeback victories this season in far more difficult scenarios, seemed poised to add another to his collection and reestablish the Packers as one of the premier teams in the NFC.
Rodgers never got the chance. Ty Montgomery fumbled the kick return, giving the ball to the Rams, who promptly ran out the clock and deprived the Packers QB of the chance to puncture L.A.’s undefeated record. Yet despite the 29–27 loss to the Rams, Green Bay succeeded at inserting itself into the NFC playoff conversation with its most impressive performance of the season as it showed it can hang with any team.
Coming out of last week’s bye, the Packers were the largest underdogs that they had ever been in a game started by Rodgers, at 8.5 points, yet nobody would have bet against them winning outright had Montgomery controlled the return and gotten the offense the ball. But unlike past impressive Green Bay performances, this was not football’s version of a one-man show. Head coach Mike McCarthy finally decided to give running back Aaron Jones lead rushing duties after burying him behind Montgomery and Jamaal Williams for much of the past month. Jones received 12 of the 19 Packers carries, and he rewarded McCarthy with 86 yards (7.2 yards per carry) and a touchdown as Green Bay running backs had their third-best rushing performance of the season with 106 yards.
Perhaps even more crucially, the defense might be hitting its stride. After allowing 33 points to C.J. Beathard and the 49ers two weeks ago, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s squad held the no. 2 scoring team in football to just one touchdown in the first half of Sunday’s game. Clay Matthews, who has made headlines all year for sacks that were called penalties, pressured Jared Goff consistently on Sunday, and rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander played like a veteran. While the Packers allowed 21 points in the second half, their situational defense was far better against the NFC’s best offense than it had been against lesser opponents such as San Francisco and Detroit.
Of course, the Packers showed plenty of warts in the loss. Green Bay had questionable clock management late, including a sequence in which the team used a timeout while facing a third-and-6 from its own 25-yard line while up one with just under six minutes to play. Rodgers took a 10-yard sack after the timeout, and then rookie punter J.K. Scott punted just 25 yards, giving the Rams the ball 40 yards from the end zone and setting up their game-winning field goal. When Green Bay needed to block Aaron Donald, the line often failed, letting Donald collect a pair of drive-ending sacks on third down and giving up a safety when Donald and the Rams’ defensive line beat the Packers’ blockers. (The two points would be the final margin in the loss.)
Yet even among those downers are silver linings. There is little shame that the Packers failed to block the reigning Defensive Player of the Year or that they failed to shut down one of the best offenses in recent history. We’ve already learned this season (and the past few years) that any time the Packers can keep a game within striking distance for Rodgers, it’s foolish to bet against them. They proved on Sunday that they can keep it close with the best teams. Montgomery messed up the part where they actually give the ball to the offense, but the rest of the NFC should still be fearful of a Packers team that can keep games close. When Rodgers does get the chance to win the game, the story will likely have a different ending.