Monday, December 29, 2014

Packers Repeat As NFC North Champs, Beat Lions 30-20

It probably happens to me once a year, but this game kept me up last night and I couldn't sleep. It was totally irrational but that's what Packer fandom does to me. I wasn't nearly as nervous during the game; even QB Aaron Rodgers's calf injury didn't phase me (I expected he'd return). That probably came from the fact that the Packers have looked like the best team in football this season in Lambeau.

This wasn't Rodgers's best game statistically (his two demolitions of the Bears were better) but overall this was his best one. It did remind me of last season when he came back from injury in the final week to lead them to a victory. This season, his calf injury wasn't as significant as a broken collarbone, but he was nearly flawless against a great Lion defense. I don't know what thoughts go through the mind of MVP voters, and I have a lot of respect for DE J.J. Watt, but this sure looked like an MVP performance.
I liked that the offense came out running. Maybe the Lions were expecting their top ranked run defense would hold up fine and they focused on stopping them through the air. Unfortunately the Packers didn't gain anything from it. Once they got to the goal line, they tried two short passes before getting stuffed on 4th down at the two yard line. On the next drive, RB Eddie Lacy fumbled the ball in Lion territory. No matter the opponent, they'll have to bring that same running game in the playoffs.

Before the game, I was complaining that the Packers don't have a good No. 3 option for Aaron Rodgers. WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb deliver almost every game, but WR Davante Adams has been playing like a rookie (misreading routes, dropped passes) in between flashes of what he can become. WR Jarrett Boykin has received some playing time in recent games, but Rodgers doesn't seem to look for him. Against the Lions, only Nelson, Cobb, TE Richard Rodgers and Lacy caught passes (TE Andrew Quarless had a couple targets, no receptions). They called for more running plays (36 run to 26 pass) with only 23 pass attempts, which explains some of the reason why no one else was involved in the passing game. But I don't think it's a problem. If the Lions had used double-teams to take Nelson out of the game, as has happened at times this season, Rodgers would look for his other receivers.

The defense played well (they held the Lions to 4.7 yards per play and 4 for 11 on 3rd down) but they couldn't stop the Lions in the red zone (3 trips for 3 touchdowns) and they had problems stopping RB Joique Bell from running off left tackle. They seemed to rotate more players in and out on defense than they had in any game this season. But they also had a strong pass rush from nearly everyone in the front seven and the secondary was tight in coverage, missing out on a couple of interceptions. Megatron had two touchdown receptions but they did a very good job of limiting him to 39 yards on 11 targets. Many players made individual plays but no one player really dominated. It was a team defense effort.

The only player I'd unfortunately have to single out is inside LB Brad Jones. He's rarely played this season but he keeps getting another chance because they don't have a lot of options inside. In this game, he had a 15 yard penalty for hitting Matthew Stafford in the head that extended one drive. Sam Barrington played well inside and Clay Matthews played there some again (there's no point in going back to A.J. Hawk for any long stretch) but otherwise they don't have any other answers at this time.

The special teams had an up and down game (a punt return TD from Micah Hyde and a blocked FG attempt) and came into the game ranked No. 23 overall by Football Outsiders. The Packers left RB DeJuan Harris inactive and let Cobb return kickoffs (none returned on the game) but that had no effect. It's the seventh kick that's been blocked this season and hopefully this is the last time it's a problem. The special teams can't be a problem in the postseason.

With Rodgers coming off an injured calf, the first round bye is a big deal for the Packers this year. The Lions now travel to Dallas, and if they can pull off they upset, they'll return to Green Bay in two weeks. I'm finding myself taking this division championship for granted, which I shouldn't because it is a big deal to establish and keep this culture of winning. It's been a great regular season.

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