Sunday Preview: Is the Packers’ Offense Enough for January?

Also, the Chiefs need to jump on Houston early, the NFL makes more baffling officiating decisions, and two playoff teams manage to hang on to top assistant coaches (so far). Plus, musical guest: Rush!
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1. The storyline all summer was the marriage between Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur. And it didn’t go away after the slow start for the offense. Or the midseason slump. Or the late-season struggles. As the Packers prepare for their first January game the question remains: Will the offense do enough?

Let’s step back and consider what’s actually wrong with the Green Bay offense the last two years. It probably wasn’t Mike McCarthy; as Kalyn Kahler’s piece pointed out 14 months ago, McCarthy ran an offense that Rodgers was most comfortable in. That means static before the snap and heavy on iso-routes so that Rodgers can do his work at the line and on second-reaction. Matt LaFleur brought, in theory, a more highly schemed system, but Rodgers still looks much more comfortable when they use a variation of the old offense.

Of course, the issue with the old offense is that it requires veteran receivers who have great chemistry with the quarterback. It worked when guys like Jordy Nelson and James Jones were there and in their primes. It doesn’t work with Davante Adams and a bunch of young dudes who aren’t talented enough to make up for their lack of reliability. A successful offense depends on the marriage between quarterback and coach/system. It doesn't seem like Rodgers has had a match in a while.

As far as this season went, the Packers put up 42 on Oakland on the Raiders’ “Night of 1,000 Blown Coverages.” They put up 34 in Dallas when the Cowboys refused to tackle Aaron Jones. They rolled up big yardage numbers against the Eagles’ practice-squad secondary on a Thursday night, and against the Lions' league-worst defense. That’s about it.

As bad as the Seahawks are defensively (and make no mistake, they are bad, what saved them were 32 takeaways, many of which were of the fluke variety), why would there be any expectation that the Packers offense is going to get right this week?

What Green Bay can get going on Sunday is the run game, against a Seahawks defense that struggles against the run (though the return of Jadeveon Clowney helps). The problem is, that makes it exactly the kind of game the Seahawks want: Fewer possessions, keep it within one score for Russell Wilson when the fourth quarter comes around.

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2. We saw it last week: If the Texans are able to hang around, Deshaun Watson can put them on his back and will them to a victory. So will the Chiefs let them hang around on Sunday?

This will be Kansas City’s eighth game with their offense fully intact this season (QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek Hill, LT Eric Fisher and RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif all missed multiple games this season). In the previous seven games, the Chiefs are 7-0 with an average margin of victory of 16 points. Only twice did teams come within a touchdown of beating them (at Chargers and at Patriots, both games they led by double-digits in the second half). And over the three home games with the full lineup, they outscored opponents by a total of 61 points.

It’s no secret that the Texans defense is bad. When they met in October, Mahomes was basically playing on one leg because of an ankle injury, and Hill only played about half the game’s snaps as he returned from a shoulder injury. With the bye week to prepare, the Chiefs could be able to do what the Bills should have done a week ago: Put up a huge number and obliterate any chance that a handful of Watson Superman plays will beat them.

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3. They say culprits always return to the scene of the crime. (At least they always do in my new drama, Robot Hospital, about a team of firefighters who investigate maritime crimes during their free time in a town that has a hospital run by robots, which is just waiting to be picked up if there are any network execs reading this.)

In that spirit, the NFL has assigned Shawn Hochuli to officiate Texans at Chiefs for the second time this season. You might remember Hochuli from one of the most mind-bending officiating moments from a season full of them. During the October matchup, Mahomes threw his first interception of the season on a play on which Lonnie Johnson tackled Travis Kelce—the only question was whether it was holding or pass interference (it was definitely holding, but the infraction last throughout the play and could be construed as pass interference). The officials conferenced, got some kind of communication from . . . someone (the league swears it wasn’t Park Avenue), and, incredibly, the flag was picked up.

Ultimately, Hochuli put out a crowd pleaser for fans of absurdist fiction everywhere, going full Joseph Heller with his explanation, which was essentially: The ball was uncatchable because of the penalty, but we couldn’t call the penalty because the ball was uncatchable.*

You might find it strange that, with four games to choose from, Hochuli would be sent back to the same building to officiate the same two teams featured in that public embarrassment (or that the aforementioned public embarrassment wouldn’t have disqualified him from working any postseason game). But this is the same league that just declined to fine a defender for a headshot on a quarterback that went uncalled during an onslaught of league-sponsored campaigns about head safety, yet did fine an offensive lineman for a non-penalty that drew a phantom flag the same weekend. Rest assured that the folks at Park Avenue do have a sense of humor. (Just like the upcoming premiere of Robot Hospital, a heart-warming series about a social media entrepreneur and single dad who takes online college courses with his twin daughters after it’s revealed he was one credit short of graduating, in a town that has a hospital run by robots.)

* — Hochuli’s unintelligible on-field explanation that day was: “After discussion, the contact that was potentially a hold was while the ball was in the air. It is not pass interference because it was not on the receiver that caught the ball.” It was so factually inaccurate that it was fair to wonder to what game he was referring.

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4. The real winners of conference semifinals weekend were the Chiefs and 49ers, for somehow managing to retain the two best head-coaching candidates of the cycle (and also the teams with more points than their opponents).

It is pretty wild that neither Robert Saleh nor Eric Bieniemy have seemed to get legitimate consideration for any of the five openings. Saleh not only would have brought his twist on the classic Seahawks Cover-3—a scheme easy enough to be picked up quickly but complicated enough to have staying power—but there’s a good chance he would have plucked an offensive assistant off Kyle Shanahan’s staff to bring with him. In Bieniemy’s case, I know Matt Nagy’s tire fire of a second season in Chicago didn’t do the current Chiefs OC any favors, but my goodness, that Andy Reid coaching tree has yielded a lot more really good (John Harbaugh, Doug Pederson, Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott) than bad.

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5. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Rush!

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