By Getting ‘Little Bit Better,’ Packers Have Shot at Super Bowl
GREEN BAY, Wis. – At 8-2 and coming off their bye, the Green Bay Packers’ game at San Francisco on Nov. 24 was a chance to cement their status as legit championship contenders.
Instead, the Packers were beaten in every way imaginable. Physically, schematically and mentally, it was a colossal mismatch that matched the 37-8 final score. Offensively, the Packers couldn’t run the football, couldn’t get open and couldn’t protect the quarterback. Defensively, they allowed 5.1 yards per carry, a 145.8 passer rating and six plays of 22-plus yards. On special teams, the average exchange of punts resulted in an 11.5-yard swing of field position.
A few days later, with Green Bay turning the page to the upcoming game against the New York Giants, quarterback Aaron Rodgers spoke optimistically. Before that game at San Francisco, Rodgers said the Packers would have to win there once to get to the Super Bowl. Now, it was evident they’d have to win the return trip – and the team was capable of doing just that, despite what had transpired a few days earlier.
“We’re right in the mix where we want to be, playing meaningful games in December,” Rodgers said before the Giants game. “But I think we’ve got to play a little bit better moving forward if we want to get to where we want to go. This team has obviously a lot of goals. It starts with the North and everything kind of opens up from there. The key is for us, we just have to stay healthy, but we have to play a little bit better in all three phases. Offensively, I’ve got to take the lead and get hot in December here and we’ve got to start finding ways to get the ball to our guys all the time, and then the defense has to do their part and special teams has to play well. If we do those things, I like the talent of our football team, I like the spirit and chemistry, and I think we’ve got a chance to be in the mix.”
Six consecutive wins later, the Packers are one of four teams left standing and have their return trip to San Francisco.
And they’ve done it in the most unbelievable of fashions. Rodgers willed an injury-riddled team to the 2016 NFC Championship Game with his run-the-table stretch of 21 touchdowns and one interception during an eight-game winning streak. In winning eight of nine to get to the NFC Championship in 2014, Rodgers threw 22 touchdowns and two interceptions.
That was surface-of-the-sun hot. The Rodgers of 2019 never quite got past simmer. During Run the Table 2.0, Rodgers was 29th in completion percentage (57.1), 27th in yards per attempt (6.2) and 23rd in passer rating (85.4). He threw eight touchdowns vs. two interceptions.
There were signs of getting hot in the divisional-round win over Seattle on Sunday. There was nothing legendary about Rodgers’ performance – 16-of-27 passing for 243 yards – but he was mistake-free, accurate and clutch on a frosty evening – just what the Packers needed to win 28-23.
“My job is different year to year,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “It’s about being efficient and taking care o the football and making the right checks. Those are so important for us, getting in the right plays. I think there’s been times where I’ve felt super-locked-in in games and maybe not as locked in based on the week of preparation. The last six weeks, I’ve felt really locked in on the preparation and I think that’s helped us on offense really be on the same page.”
Just as was the case on defense, that game against San Francisco was the turning point of the season, the players say. On defense, Green Bay ranked second in the league in points allowed during the final five regular-season games. The improvement was harder to pinpoint on offense beyond a couple of strong quarters against the Giants and Redskins and second-half rallies against Minnesota and Detroit. The game against Seattle, with Rodgers in control and the Packers turning in their best third-down performance of the season, was a big step in the right direction headed into a showdown against a defense that crushed Green Bay in November and Minnesota on Saturday.
Will improved communication on defense and subtle improvements on offense be enough to get to the first Super Bowl since 2010? Or was San Francisco’s 29-point victory emblematic of one team simply being better than the other?
A truly hot Rodgers could make all the difference.
“I feel good about the stretch we’ve been on,” Rodgers said. “A big key to these six weeks were the confidence we gained kind of those first two games after that loss and then winning those three division games. I just think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves in the process, of how we go about our week. I’m not going to get into significant detail on that, but I feel like the process so four Monday to Saturday improved during that time. And as a direct correlation, I feel like the mental mistakes decreased. What that allowed us to do is play a little quicker, a little faster, and we just had less busts. I feel like we just had too many over the first 10 or 11 games. I don’t know if it’s simplifying things in the install or the weekly practice, but I feel like there was a concerted effort to really get on the same page. Because of that, we’ve had, even though it wasn’t the prettiest of six wins, our mental focus has been a lot better those six weeks.”