The Packers In Control
The Packers have put together a few solid weeks of football, and now find themselves firmly in the driver’s seat of the NFC North, and even better, in the wild card hunt. They are still not assured a playoff berth, and in fact still have little margin for error, but they are now the odds on favorite to win the division. They put themselves in this position in an unconventional manner, using the explosive running of Ty Montgomery and later, Christine Michael, to beat the Bears into submission. Unfortunately an off day from the defense still leaves a few troubling questions unanswered.
What Happened on Defense?
Most of the Packer defense no-showed for most of the day, and if not for the play of a daring, but careless Matt Barkley the Packers may very well have lost. Bears punter Pat O’Donnell punted only twice, on the Bears’ first two possessions of the game. Every subsequent Bear drive ended either with a turnover, or points for Chicago as the defense was unable to stop Jordan Howard or Alshon Jeffery, but was able to take the ball away. There is nothing wrong with forcing turnovers, and the strip-sack of Barkley by Julius Peppers to start the second half was a thing of beauty, but several Bear turnovers were simply examples of a team shooting itself in the foot. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should be praised for tracking down a few errant throws, but it is the quality of those throws that caused the turnovers, not any spectacular foresight by Clinton-Dix.
Clay Matthews and the generally amazing Mike Daniels essentially disappeared in this game, and as a result, the average-at-best Bear offense was able to move freely. It is possible that this was just a let-down after a fantastic effort against Seattle, but there was one big issue that has me worried more than anything else.
Damarious Randall Struggles
Randall is a bit of a gambler, and that has worked well since his return from injury, however in this game he was often completely out of position. For instance, on this Josh Bellamy touchdown, Randall gave himself no chance at all.
Bellamy isn’t particularly noteworthy as a talent, but there is no reason to give any NFL receiver this much cushion this close to the goal line, especially in a clear one-on-one situation. The field is compressed and there is no deep area to defend. Once Bellamy had the ball, the battle is essentially over. The Bears ran this play on 2nd and 2, and even an absolutely perfect tackle by Randall still conceded the first down. A perfect tackle is also the only thing that would have prevented a touchdown, and with open field and a full head of steam, Bellamy was able to embarrass the late-reacting corner with a powerful stiff arm.
It appeared as if there was some confusion in the play call, and Dom Capers should take some blame for playing defensive backs too deep in general, but Randall was exposed several times in this game. Remember, Randall was the biggest reason that Stefon Diggs had a monster game for the Vikings in Week 1, and while the Vikings look like a complete disaster, Randall’s struggles are something to be worried about for the rematch next week.
Ty Montgomery is here to stay
I’ve been singing the praises of Montgomery all season, but never in my wildest dreams did I think he could be this effective as a runner (while only producing one yard as a receiver). Montgomery’s 162 yards on just 16 carries is the single biggest reason the Packers looked as good as they did on offense. Montgomery showed elite running back skills on almost every play, breaking tackles, reading his blocks, exploding through holes, and accelerating at the 2nd level. He has even improved on his already good pass protection, and has gone from unusual wide receiver to potential superstar 5-tool running back in the span of just a few weeks.
Montgomery covered for a lackluster effort from the receivers. While we will all remember the bomb to Jordy that sealed the deal, Nelson, and Jared Cook were the only receivers to have even average days. Davante Adams had one of his worst games of the season, and left a few important touchdowns out on the field, while Randall Cobb was almost a complete no-show. Cobb is battling an ankle injury, but Cobb always seems to be battling some injury, and his highs when healthy simply are not high enough anymore. Montgomery has actually gained more yards than Cobb on the season, which seems almost impossible, and I’m starting to wonder if too many big hits on the diminutive slot receiver have taken their toll. Cobb has not only failed to bounce back to his 2014 form, he has disappeared entirely on more than one occasion. His contract makes him expendable after the 2017 season, and given the trajectory of his career, his size, and the punishment he has taken, I wouldn’t be surprised if next season is his last. Cobb has feasted on the Bears in the past, and this performance was extremely disappointing.
Davante’s Bad Day
This was, on the surface, a return to the old, bad Davante Adams, but at this point I’m willing to give Adams the benefit of the doubt. On his first big drop he clearly lost the ball in the sun, and that play, plus the cold weather, seemed to rattle him. Adams has worked hard to improve his game over the past year, and while these mental lapses used to characterize his performance on a weekly basis, they basically disappeared for much of this season. Everyone has an off day, and I expect Adams to rebound, I just hope the cold weather was only a minor part of the problem.
The Sinking Ship that is the Vikings
Minnesota dropped an embarrassing game to the Colts on Sunday 34-6, and in doing so they were eliminated from contention. They have a very small chance to win the wild card, but both FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders have them under 3%. Once opponents realized that Sam Bradford wasn’t mobile enough to escape the significant pressure allowed by the league’s worst offensive line, the Vikings became supremely easy to defend, and if their defense doesn’t provide some offense, they simply are not a very good team.
Adrian Peterson returned from IR in this game and looked just as washed up as he did at the beginning of the season as the lackluster Colt defense kept him bottled up on all but one of his carries. On that carry, a 13-yard run deep in Colt territory, Peterson coughed up the football, turning a likely Viking touchdown into a turnover. The Colts would take that turnover and drive 91 yards, turning what could have been a 17-7 game into a 24-0 blowout. I will never get tired of Adrian Peterson fumbles ending the Vikings’ seasons.
Minnesota’s defense can still be a force, especially against the pass, but they entered the game against the Colts as merely an average run defense and Frank Gore and Robert Turbin found success all day. In their first meeting, Aaron Rodgers turned the ball over 3 times and the Vikings only managed a narrow victory. Eddie Lacy was actually quite effective in his 12 carries, racking up 50 yards. If the Packers were only bringing a hobbled James Starks or Christine Michael into this game I could see them having some trouble, but with Montgomery, they are clear favorites.
Packer Playoff Pals
Cowboys - v. Detroit
Bears - v. Washington
Saints - v. Bucs
Cardinals - @ Seahawks
Panthers - v. Falcons
If the Packers can beat the Vikings and the Cowboys can beat the Lions, as they should, the Packers can enter week 17 as the division leader. And, as crazy as it would have sounded a few weeks ago, the Packers can actually secure a playoff spot next week with losses by Washington and the Bucs. They currently sit as the last team in on the strength of schedule tiebreaker, though that particular tiebreaker is more subject to fluctuation than most, and it would be very nice to see the Saints take out the Bucs completely. The Packers are now 2 games behind the Giants for the first wild card slot, but any scenario that involves the Packers winning two games also has them winning the division. As a result, we no longer care about the Giants losing. In fact, they face Washington in the final week of the season and the Packers may still need a victory out of New York should they stumble down the stretch.
Getting greedier, it is still possible for the Packers to climb in the playoff standings. They are within striking distance of Seattle and Atlanta, and while they are unlikely to catch Seattle (who face the execrable San Francisco 49ers in the final week) Atlanta has a few tough games and could finish as low as 9-7. The 3-seed is not out of the question, while the 2-seed is still mathematically possible. Next week could should be a fun one.