Just How Good Are the Packers?
Way back in Week 2 the Packers suffered their first loss to the Vikings in a game that saw Stefon Diggs account for over 200 yards of offense in a narrow 17-14 Viking victory. In this most recent game Adam Thielen basically replicated (and I would argue eclipsed) Diggs’ earlier effort, but Thielen was really all they had as the Viking defense collapsed under the pressure of facing a locked in Aaron Rodgers, and the Packer defense turned it on to force 4 turnovers. One of the most important recent developments for the Packers is Jordy Nelson’s complete recovery from his ACL tear. It isn’t unusual for players recovering from a torn ACL to require 2 years to fully recover and Nelson is entering that territory with impressive results. In weeks 1-11 he caught 55% of targeted passes for 12.5 yards per reception. In his last 5 he has pulled in 76% of his targets for almost 14 yards per reception, and that number would be much higher without his efficient but contained 6 catch, 41 yard, 2 touchdown effort against Seattle. Nelson’s return to a top-5 NFL receiver in addition to Davante Adams’ marked improvement and Ty Montgomery’s transfer to running back have the offense looking much like it did in 2010, but the defense continues to be an issue.
The Packer secondary continues to make good receivers look great almost every week, and while the pass rush can get home with some frequency, and while they have created turnovers during their winning streak, they still give up a ton of yards. If the turnovers dry up, so do the hopes of a solid Packer defensive outing. They are, like all NFC contenders, a flawed, vulnerable team, but there is a good argument that they are the least flawed of the bunch. Everyone has an issue, but looking at the playoff contenders there are basically two types of teams. They are:
Defensive Juggernauts With Terrible Offenses
Seattle - 18th in offense, 4th in defense.
New York - 21st in offense, 2nd in defense.
The Packers are undefeated against this group, and if they can get ahead against Seattle or New York there is little chance that either will be able to come back. I think at this point Green Bay knows how to handle Seattle as long as they avoid the fluky nonsense of the “Fail Mary” or the Bostick play. Green Bay has drastically outplayed the Seahawks in the Russell Wilson/Pete Carroll era and I would fully expect them to do so again, even in Seattle. New York is more worrisome. The Packers own a win over the Giants, but at the time the entire Giant secondary was hurt. When healthy they have been as good as any secondary outside of Denver, and while they are coming off an unimpressive loss to the Eagles they have held the Cowboys and Lions to single digits in recent weeks. There is a chance they may have Jason Pierre-Paul back for the first round (sports hernia) and while Eli Manning is looking more and more like soon-to-retire Peyton every day, Odell Beckham remains a huge threat should he face the Green Bay secondary again.
The Eagles and Vikings are similar to these two and the Packers recently handled both without issue. It’s possible that outscoring bad offenses is what this particular team is built for. I’m wary of the Giants, and losing to them again in the playoffs would be devastating, but if the Packers have a type, this is it, and they are likely to face New York in the first round should they qualify for the post season.
Offensive Juggernauts With Terrible Defenses
Dallas - 2nd offensively, 18th defensively.
Atlanta - 1st offensively, 27th defensively.
Green Bay - 6th offensively, 19th defensively.
Washington - 4th offensively, 25th defensively.
The Packer defense ranks as highly as it does due to their early season dominance against the run, but as that has leveled off over time, the secondary has continued to be consistently terrible. Atlanta, Washington, and the Packers are all extremely similar, featuring dominant passing attacks and very good run games, but the Cowboys are a bit different, and the most worrisome in terms of matchup. The Cowboy passing game feeds off of a spectacular offensive line, and the dominant running of Ezekiel Elliott, and because of their atypical balance, they are the team most able to exploit opponent weaknesses. None of these four teams is bad in the run game. But the Cowboys are simply outstanding at opening up holes, and providing Prescott with time to throw. Atlanta and Washington have brutally terrible run defenses and the Cowboys can hit them hard in those areas.
The Cowboys are also the team I fear the most from a Packer perspective. They already own an impressive win over the Packers in which their offensive line won almost every battle, and Cole Beasley embarrassed the secondary. There is a good reason they have the best record in the conference. Atlanta and Washington also have wins over Green Bay, but it’s easier to see the current Packers winning a shootout over either one. Dallas has weaknesses, especially against the passing game, but their offensive balance gives them a unique weapon among contenders, and while the 18th ranked defense isn’t great, given the competition it is respectable.
Of course, to face any of these teams the Packers will need either a New York win over Washington, or a win over...
Detroit, 17th offensively, 32nd defensively.
If not for the existence of the putrid AFC South, more people would be talking about just how bad the Lions actually are. Instead their record for comebacks and clutch-ness draw headlines while national media ignore that for all of those comebacks to happen, they had to be trailing late, every single time. On a play-by-play basis the Lions are one of the worst teams in football, especially against the pass. If cornerback Darius Slay can’t go again, the Packers should have no trouble dominating through the air once again, and while it is unlikely, a playoff rematch would be very welcome, as Detroit is simply not very good, and their weaknesses stand out against the likes of Aaron Rodgers.
The Lions can put up some points, and they have made their season a success by beating people they have no business beating. It is entirely possible they continue their run and pull off an upset, but they face a big problem against the truly good teams which was put on full display in their most recent loss to the Cowboys. Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has kept them in games by playing an extremely conservative offense with Matthew Stafford, composed mainly of screens, bombs, and running plays. Dallas took away Detroit’s main deep threat, holding the fading Marvin Jones to just 1 catch on 6 targets. Detroit kept it close for awhile, but their last-ranked defense could not stop the Dallas, especially in the second half, and once Detroit was down, they had to take risks on offense. Matthew Stafford taking risks on offense simply isn’t a viable strategy, and they ended up getting blown out as a result. Against any good offense, including the Packers, the pattern is likely to repeat.
Randall Cobb has had an extremely down year and missed Sunday’s game with an injury. In his stead, Geronimo Allison played very well catching 4 of 7 targets for 66 yards while helping to draw coverage away from the outside guys. Cobb has been a problem for some time now, and it was very encouraging to see the rookie step up and produce.
Ty Montgomery’s Secret Value
Montgomery did not have an outstanding game, but just as Allison’s presence opened up other players, Montgomery has continually forced teams who would rather play man coverage into playing zone. In man, it’s relatively simple to get Montgomery singled up on a linebacker out of the backfield, or, failing that, to force a team into nickel or dime and beat them up on the ground. When Aaron Rodgers struggled earlier this year it was partially because the receivers could not beat man coverage one-on-one. Part of their turnaround is simply players getting better, but part of it is Montgomery’s presence forcing more zone coverages than defensive coordinators would like.
The Packers-Lions game was flexed into the Sunday Night spot, which means that both teams will know just how meaningful the game actually is in advance. Should the Packers win the game and the division they likely get the 4-seed, and would likely face the Giants at Lambeau. Should Washington lose earlier in the day the Packers could clinch the wild card in advance, and a loss to the Lions would make them the 6-seed. That would put them either in Seattle, if both the Seahawks and Atlanta win, or in Atlanta, should the Saints upset the Falcons and Seattle defeat the pathetic 49ers. Given the weather, the talented pass defense of the Giants, and the severe home field advantage in Seattle, I would almost prefer that nice, cozy dome down in Georgia. Getting a home game is always nice, but in a compressed NFL with no truly dominant teams, matchups matter most, and in some cases the worse seed could benefit the Packers.