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The Packers Looked Like Frauds Last Year. In 2020, They Look Like Contenders.

Green Bay’s 13-3 record in 2019 likely belied the team’s true ability. After a 3-0 start, including Sunday’s win over the Saints, however, Aaron Rodgers and Co. are as good as anyone else this season.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last season, the Packers overachieved. Though Green Bay went 13-3 and claimed a first-round bye, they had an incredible 8-1 record in games decided by eight points or fewer and a point differential (plus-63) that suggested the talent of a 10-6 or even 9-7 squad. They ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric, DVOA. Sure enough, when the Packers met the 49ers in the NFC championship game, the luck ran out. Green Bay got blown out, and the mathematical order of the universe was restored.

This season, the Packers are 3-0—and there’s nothing lucky about it. Green Bay beat the Saints, 37-30, on Sunday Night Football, moving into a commanding position in the NFC North (speaking of overachievers, the 3-0 Bears are due to fall off their pedestal any week now), and potentially the conference as a whole. Through three games, the Packers have a point differential of plus-37, which puts them on pace for 11.2 wins. That’s the third-best mark (among teams that have played three games) in the league, and unlike the 49ers and Colts above them, the Packers haven’t had the luxury of playing the Jets. This year, Green Bay looks like one of the best teams in the NFL.

The difference starts on offense. The team entered Week 3 with the most efficient offense in the league by DVOA, and with a cool 37 points—and seven of their nine non-kneel-down drives ending in some type of score—they’ll likely remain at or near the top of that leaderboard after this week. In fact, the 2020 Packers are one of the highest-scoring offenses ever through three games:

In year two under head coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers and Co. are humming—even in games like Sunday’s, when they were without superstar wideout Davante Adams in a matchup against a top defense. Maybe all Rodgers needs is Allen Lazard, who was able to create separation on a couple of crucial deep balls. Here he is blowing by 2019 Pro Bowl corner Marshon Lattimore in the second quarter:

Lazard had another huge haul to begin the second half, though his inability to punch this reception into the end zone takes some of the juice out of this particular highlight (running back Aaron Jones scored four plays later on fourth down):

Per Next Gen Stats, the Packers used play-action on 52 percent of their dropbacks in this game, which is the highest rate for Rodgers in at least the past five seasons. On those dropbacks, he was 13-of-17 for 160 yards and three touchdowns.

The switch from Mike McCarthy to LaFleur has meant an adjustment for Rodgers. In McCarthy’s final season in Green Bay in 2018, the Packers were in shotgun in 71 percent of their plays—not just passes, all plays—and used play-action on just 20.1 percent of Rodgers’s dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus (30th of 37 qualified passers that season). But last season he used play-action on 28.1 percent of dropbacks, which ranked 17th of 37. Sunday night showed just how devastating the Packers can be when they marry the run and the pass.

Rodgers repeatedly credited LaFleur’s play-calling in his postgame presser. “I’ll finish with this one more time: I think the flow of the calls have been really important for our success,” Rodgers said just before signing off. “I can’t underscore that enough.”

While the Packers—and the team’s offense in particular—deserve the lion’s share of the credit, the team did benefit from some luck. The Saints beat themselves a bit in the fourth quarter. First, with more than 12 minutes remaining and the game tied at 27, New Orleans brought in Taysom Hill for one of their typical gadget plays. The versatile quarterback ran a read option with running back Latavius Murray, but took too long with the football at the mesh point, failed to properly secure it as he pulled it back from Murray, and fumbled when he was hit by linebacker Za’Darius Smith. Smith recovered the football and the Packers offense turned a short field into three points.

On the next possession, Drew Brees threw three short passes, completing two of them for a total of just 5 yards, continuing a worrying trend of the future Hall of Fame passer declining to push the ball downfield. The Saints punted, and never really had a chance after that. Rodgers marched back down the field (aided by his signature hard-count-turned-offsides trick on a play where the Saints also committed pass interference) and scored a touchdown just before the two-minute warning to stretch the lead to 10 and put the game out of reach.

There was a lot written last year about how the Packers didn’t look as good as their record suggested, and that Rodgers didn’t look as good as his reputation. The Packers may have even seen it, too—they did draft Utah State QB Jordan Love in the first round of the draft, signaling that they are already looking to a post-Rodgers future. But this season, all of those narratives have flipped upside down. Green Bay and Rodgers are as good as ever—and the rest of the league is on notice.