Since Brett Hundley took over at quarterback eight weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers have lost pretty, won ugly and been shutout at home. They’ve been soundly defeated, and fans were despondent. They’ve been narrowly victorious, and it didn’t feel triumphant. On Sunday in Cleveland, against a winless, hapless but highly motivated opponent, Green Bay beat the Browns and, frankly, it was fun.
Hundley had the best performance of his much-maligned season – and of his NFL career – in Green Bay’s unattractive-yet-exhilarating 27-21 overtime win over Cleveland, which concluded with Davante Adams spinning away and sprinting into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown, then continuing on to run right into the tunnel to the team’s locker room. The Packers – playing a Browns team that fired its general manager just days before and likely viewed Sunday’s game as its last, best opportunity for a victory – rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime and ultimately prevail.
For the first time in two months, it was the passing offense that paved the way to success, which was not only dramatic and exciting, but also kept the Packers’ flickering playoff hopes alive for one more week – a vital result as they await the anticipated return of Aaron Rodgers.
Hundley and his receivers used a short-passing attack, with screens, slants and outs supplanting a run game that was mostly stifled by the Browns’ stout rushing defense. It was the second-most points the Packers have scored since Rodgers went down in Week 6, and, despite the unpleasant aesthetics of the proceedings, Sunday’s game felt somewhat familiar – the offense bailing out the defense, thanks to good quarterback play that was even better in the clutch.
"It gives us a lot of confidence going forward," Hundley said. "This team has a lot of fight, I’ll tell you that. We’re not out of this thing. We have a lot of fight in us. These two last games, we fought back. When we needed to execute, we executed. When our backs were against the wall, we came out swinging. We’ve done it for the last two weeks; came up short [against] the Steelers. This team has a lot of fight and it’s not over yet."
That a noon game against the league’s worst team ended up being an overtime nail-biter for the second straight week – after defeating Tampa Bay, the Packers have now won two in a row for the first time since Oct. 8 – doesn’t detract from Sunday’s significance: Green Bay is still in the postseason hunt, and it has the two-time Most Valuable Player (probably) coming back.
So, yes, we can malign the porous secondary, injury-plagued to the point of being incompetent; that’s nothing new. We can criticize the pass rush, nonexistent one week after looking unstoppable. We can renew the Twitter campaign to #FireDomCapers, following a defensive display that made the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense and its lowest-rated passer look capable. We can wonder what happened to the previously productive rookie running-back tandem. All of that is fair, and we’ve seen it all before.
But none of it matters. Rodgers is coming back. He of "R-E-L-A-X" and "run the table" and the best quarterbacking stretch in league history late last season, when the Packers won out to make the playoffs. Green Bay is 7-6, and its postseason odds are still extremely slim. But there’s hope, and the games still matter, and there’s still a chance. Rodgers is coming back; who needs healthy cornerbacks?
As mentioned before, Hundley had his best game, completing 35 of 46 passes for 265 yards (5.8 yards per attempt) with three touchdowns and zero turnovers for a 111.2 rating. He took only one sack, mostly evaded pressure and ran seven times for 31 yards. Though he was inaccurate on long passes, overthrowing receivers on multiple occasions, he managed the game well and was effective.
But the star of this game was Adams, now indisputably the Packers’ No. 1 wide receiver, who had a season-high 10 catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. On the game-winning score – a risky, but well-executed inside screen, on which wideouts Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb blocked for Adams – he broke one tackle, spun away from another Browns defender and zoomed through the end zone and into the tunnel, as his exuberant teammates ran after him. It was a cool moment for a player whose numbers have fallen with Hundley at quarterback, but who made the crucial winning plays on Sunday.
Dom Capers was back to looking like a defensive coordinator whom the league has bypassed. The Packers were without five cornerbacks – and they lost veteran Davon House during the game, as well – but they had their top cover man healthy and available, all of their above-average safeties and most of their starting front seven.
Still, Josh Gordon, the Browns’ only offensive player a defense has to game-plan for, torched them right out of the gate, catching two passes for 56 yards and a touchdown on Cleveland’s opening drive. Middling running back Isaiah Crowell rushed 19 times for a season-high 121 yards, gaining 6.4 yards per carry, nearly three more than his season average. And Kizer, the owner of a league-low 58.1 passer rating, was able to complete 20 of 28 attempts for 214 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 99.4 mark. Capers’ defense got a couple takeaways, but overall was outplayed.
Having a subpar quarterback in Hundley, a couple of late-round rookies in the backfield, a defense that doesn’t seem to be on the same page and the expectations, scrutiny and pressure of being the head coach of a team was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender but is at risk of missing the playoffs – it complicates the evaluation of McCarthy’s job performance.
The well-scripted, short-pass-heavy first series that resulted in a touchdown? Good. Going away from that offensive approach for basically the entire second and third quarters? Not good. Going back to that game plan late and seeing a positive outcome? Good. Using a timeout, once again, near the end of the first half with the opponent driving? Not good. The decision-making and playcalling in the fourth quarter and overtime, which simplified the playbook for Hundley, got the ball into his playmakers’ hands, was cautious but not conservative and, in the end, resulted in winning a must-win game? Good. Five heads.
"We love Aaron Rodgers, but I will not answer any questions about him today. This is about winning the game, and he’s still in the medical situation and as soon as we have the information we’ll try to get it to you." – Mike McCarthy
Hundley showed growth, Adams was excellent, the Packers got a road win and … who are we kidding? The most encouraging thing to come out of this game – despite how well he played – was the expectation that Hundley won’t be playing quarterback anymore, because that position will once again, mercifully and masterfully, be filled by No. 12.
After missing two months with a broken collarbone suffered against the Vikings, Rodgers was activated from injured reserve on Dec. 2, returned to practice last week and should be medically cleared to play this week. Last week, teammates almost couldn’t find adjectives effusive enough to describe how he looked throwing the ball around. Let’s also give a shout-out here to return man Trevor Davis, whose decision-making had been blasted before but whose 65-yard return in the fourth quarter gave the Packers great field position to tie the game in regulation.
Football is really fun in that we never really know anything, and what we think we know changes constantly, and so we never really know what we think we know. Take, for example, Hundley, who was good two weeks ago, atrocious last week and perfectly adequate on Sunday. Or, more relevantly, take the Packers defense. For most of the season, we thought that it wasn’t very good. Then, last week, with seven sacks and a defensive touchdown, we thought, hey, maybe the defense is turning a corner.
But, in Cleveland, Capers’ defense reverted back, getting almost no pass rush – to be fair, Clay Matthews’ pressure and hit on Kizer led to Josh Jones’ interception in overtime that gave Green Bay’s offense the ball – and allowing 345 yards and 6.1 yards per play. A better opponent would have made the Packers pay. Most concerning was the back injury to House, which appeared serious and had him carted off the field; Green Bay already has four cornerbacks on injured reserve and could be without six this week.
The Packers are now 7-6, in third place in the NFC North division behind the Vikings and Lions, and ninth in the conference playoff standings. Next week, they will travel to Carolina – presumably with Rodgers at quarterback – to face the Panthers; then, Green Bay is home to host Minnesota, before finishing the regular season on the road in Detroit.
Every game remaining is against a team ahead of them in the playoff race; every game is must-win.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.