The rambling, non-recap Packers game review: Wild Card round vs. Giants
The main story of the Packers' 38-13 blowout win over the Giants in the NFC Wild Card Round marquee matchup at Lambeau Field on Sunday was, simply and incontrovertibly, the brilliant play of Aaron Rodgers, as it almost always is around here. But before we get to that, and we will soon enough, let's briefly look back and remember the spectrum of emotions experienced throughout the game and how steadily but dramatically Green Bay's outlook changed as it went on. Because, really, it felt like a microcosm of the team's tumultuous but ultimately triumphant season.
The first quarter was ugly and uninspired, that familiar old slow start from earlier in the year, as the Packers gained a net total of 24 yards and punted on all three possessions, with Rodgers completing just 3 of 8 passes and being sacked three times. The Giants led, 3-0, and the home squad's vaunted, recent momentum looked to have stalled out.
The second quarter began the same way, with Green Bay punting on its next two drives and going down 6-0. The last playoff team to punt on its first five possessions was the 2010 Chicago Bears, whom the Packers beat en route to the Super Bowl. Then top wide receiver Jordy Nelson was hit hard trying to make a catch and had to leave the game with a painful-looking rib injury. Things were bleak.
But the Packers' fortunes started to turn with a good defensive series, followed by an awful Giants punt that gave Rodgers the ball at New York's 38-yard line. He hit Davante Adams down the right sideline with a perfect pass for 31 yards, the first real sign of offensive life, and a couple plays later the two players connected again for a 5-yard touchdown after Rodgers had danced around in the pocket for nine seconds, magically evading pressure. Then, after forcing another punt late in the quarter, Rodgers guided Green Bay to the Giants' 42 and, on the final play of the first half, hurled a skyscraping Hail Mary that was, incredibly, caught in the end zone by Randall Cobb. It was the Packers' third Hail Mary touchdown in the past 13 months, and they went into the locker room with the lead, 14-6, despite seemingly not deserving it.
During halftime, ESPN writer Dan Graziano reported that he asked tight end Jared Cook what it was like in the locker room after the Hail Mary had injected life into the Packers' offense. According to Graziano, Cook replied, "You know what it's like when you look a man in the eye and he's ready to go kill?" So, um, that was the mood, and it showed in the second half.
Not immediately, though. The beginning of the third quarter did not confirm that feeling. On their first series, the Packers … punted again. On their second, they were unable to convert on third-and-1 and then fourth-and-1, with head coach Mike McCarthy's questionable play-calling punished by an immediate 41-yard Giants touchdown strike that brought New York to within 14-13. Eyebrows raised and palms became sweaty all across Packer Nation.
It was at that point that Rodgers took over. On the next drive, the two-time MVP completed three straight quick-strike rhythm passes – to Cook for 13 yards, to Adams for 20 and to Cobb for 30 for a touchdown – that appeared to reveal to the Packers how to attack the NFL's second-ranked scoring defense. They scored on their final three possessions, one field goal and two touchdowns, including another to Cobb, while the defense harassed the Giants into two punts and a pair of turnovers. The fourth-quarter strip-sack of Eli Manning and fumble recovery, both by Clay Matthews, felt like the victory clincher.
But we've now comprehensively buried the lead. Aaron Rodgers won this game for the Packers. There was help from his receivers and defense, and plenty of incompetence by the Giants – Odell Beckham's drops, Bobby Rainey fielding a kick at his own 3-yard line, Paul Perkins obliviously not trying to pick up the fumble Matthews finally recovered – but this was "run-the-table" Rodgers doing his thing.
In 15-degree temperatures and against a New York defense tied for the fourth-most interceptions in the league, Rodgers was superb. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 362 yards (9.1 average) with four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 125.2 passer rating. No one had thrown even three passing scores against the Giants this season; Rodgers became the only player in franchise history with multiple four-touchdown playoff performances in his career.
The fourth-seeded Packers now move on to the Divisional Round of the playoffs, where they'll face the NFC's top-seeded team, the Dallas Cowboys, who beat Green Bay in Week 6 and have defeated them in four of seven postseason matchups. (Listen to OnMilwaukee staff writers Jimmy Carlton and Matt Mueller discuss the Packers' win, preview the Dallas game and discuss broadcasters Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in The Postgame Tailgate podcast here.)
So how did we get to this point, with the Packers winning their seventh straight game to advance in the playoffs? Here's everything you need to know, or just forgot, or missed because after that fifth straight punt you were, like, I'm done with them – plus all kinds of other wacky whatnots, from Green Bay's Wild Card Round win over the Giants.
Rodgers and Cobb. This section has been the quarterback's domain for the better part of the past two months, and he was again superlative. But he had help from Cobb, a good friend and trusted receiver who battled injuries this year – missing the previous two games – after struggling last season in an expanded role, causing some to question his importance in the Packers' offense.
After the game, Rodgers said, "We're better with No. 18 on the field."
It started with the Hail Mary – Rodgers is now 3 of 5 on such passes over the last two seasons, including playoffs, while the rest of the NFL is 6 of 32 – wherein the savvy Cobb got behind the Giants' defense and, with the help of "just a little" push, made the big catch. It was Rodgers' third completion of a pass thrown 40 yards beyond the line of scrimmage over the last two postseasons, compared to one by the rest of the league, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Rodgers now has six games with at least three touchdown passes in the playoffs for his career; the only quarterbacks with more are Joe Montana (nine) and Tom Brady (eight), while Brett Favre and Peyton Manning also have six.
For Cobb, the game must have felt redemptive. After finishing the season with 60 catches for 610 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games – all of which were his lowest marks since 2013 – and missing the final two contests with an ankle injury, Cobb was questionable coming into Sunday's matchup. Well, good thing he played.
The sixth-year receiver had five catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns – his three scores were the most by a Packer in a playoff game since Sterling Sharpe in 1994 – stepping up in a major way after Nelson went out. It was Cobb's best production since September of 2015; coincidentally, his only other 100-yard game this season came in the Packers' Week 5 win over the Giants. If Nelson can't play against the Cowboys, Cobb will be crucially important again.
While they eventually settled in – and also were helped by Rodgers going to a rhythmic, quick-throw approach – the Packers' offensive linemen didn't have their best game. The line allowed five sacks, including four in the sloppy first half, and even though Rodgers would take responsibility afterward for holding the ball too long, a few of the hits were on the protection.
The offensive line has been an area of strength and steadiness all season – this is the first year Rodgers has had both of his starting tackles play every game, and left tackle David Bakhtiari was named a second-team All-Pro – but its pass blocking was below its usual standard and the run blocking opened up nothing (3.0-yard rushing average).
The Giants have a strong defensive front, but Dallas' 13th-ranked pass rush is even better. Given the second half and the final score, it's hard to nit-pick anything Green Bay did, but against the conference's best team the line will have to play better, in order to help one of the game's best quarterbacks succeed.
With apologies and hat tips to linebackers Jake Ryan (a team-high 12 tackles and three passes defensed) and Julius Peppers (three tackles, two passes defensed, one sack), we're going with cornerback Damarious Randall here.
After not being able to finish last week's win at Detroit due to injury, there was some concern about whether Randall would even play against the Giants. But with an already decimated secondary, Randall started Sunday and, after a shaky first half, soon became the defensive difference-maker he suggested he could be last year.
The second-year corner had five solo tackles – a welcome sight given the position's shaky tackling this season – and three pass breakups, as well as a fourth-quarter interception, which he returned 78 yards, that sealed the victory. He looked a little bit lost early on, but eventually found good position and helped to keep the Giants' other receivers from doing enough damage to beat the Packers.
Honorable mention goes to second-year cornerback LaDarius Gunter, who – with plenty of double-team help – limited Beckham to only four catches for 28 yards and, ultimately, a punched hole in the wall at Lambeau. It was surely a confidence-booster for a bedraggled cornerback group.
(Mike McCarthy isn't renowned for his play-calling, having fired and then rehired himself for that role last year, but he does try his best. Here we rate his coaching performance, on a score from one to 10 McCarthy heads.)
In the third quarter, McCarthy did one of the things that pretty much everyone who watches Packers games groans about when he does. On third-and-1, he ran the classic fullback dive, sending Aaron Ripkowski once more into the breach, and naturally it was for no gain; on the subsequent fourth-and-1, he tried wide receiver-turned-running back Ty Montgomery on virtually the same play, also for no gain, and it was a turnover on downs.
It's the kind of decision that makes you scratch your head – if you know you're going to go for it on fourth-and-1 and use that play, why burn the same one on third down? Why not try a play-action long pass there? Why not try anything besides the decade-old fullback dive? – and was all too common at times earlier this season. The Packers are 2 of 5 this season on fourth-and-1, with all 5 plays being runs; Montgomery is 0 of 2 on those rushes.
Also, if we're judging McCarthy on the Packers' early possessions – NFL teams typically script their first few drives – they were banal and completely ineffective. That said, Green Bay scored 38 points and McCarthy did allow Rodgers to get into his groove in the second half; his sensibly aggressive play-calling in the fourth quarter did not result in an overly conservative late meltdown, as in previous postseasons. Four McCarthy heads.
Run the table continues!
"Gunt's the man. His film study, the way he competes. That's a bad boy right there. He doesn't get enough credit for the stuff he does. He did match (number) 13 today and he deserves the credit that he went out there and balled out." – Micah Hyde on Gunter covering Beckham
We could say a lot of things here – that the Packers beat a great defense; that they shut down perhaps the NFL's best receiver, despite their depleted secondary; that Rodgers and the passing offense continued to be hot; that the special teams units decidedly won every matchup, etc. – but, broadly, that they faced playoff adversity and prevailed is encouraging.
After six straight victories to close the regular season, Green Bay ostensibly had all the momentum, but that's more a fabricated storyline than a proven, tangible asset. After all, according to ESPN Stats & Info, in the last decade, 13 teams entered the postseason on a streak of six-plus wins; only seven won their first playoff game, just three reached the Super Bowl and none won the title. Simply by winning and advancing, the Packers gained the confidence of knowing their late-season surge was legitimate and they might truly be peaking at the most important time.
It's hard to find something here. We've mentioned McCarthy's play-calling decisions and the slow start in this space before, and those are certainly causes for concern. But what's more troubling, particularly for this offense that's been the NFL's best over the past two months, is the potential loss of Nelson.
Even though Green Bay clearly did its best work after the ninth-year receiver left the game with the rib injury, it's an entirely different reality to start without your best pass-catcher – and have the defense game-plan for that. Last year, with Nelson out, the Packers' offense was a shell of itself, and it only hit its stride in 2016 when he and Rodgers finally renewed their connective chemistry in November.
We saw last year that Cobb is not a No. 1 wide receiver; Adams, for all his improvement, is largely still a feast-or-famine playmaker, capable of game breaks and dropped passes; Cook, Montgomery and Geronimo Allison are all auxiliary options. Jeff Janis is not Jordy Nelson, and if Nelson's out, a decent group of receivers must take on a larger responsibility.
The Packers will travel to Dallas, where they won Super Bowl XLV against Pittsburgh, to take on the Cowboys on Sunday inside AT&T Stadium at 3:40 p.m. CT (FOX). Green Bay lost to Dallas, 30-16, in Week 6, two weeks before their midseason, four-game losing streak. Two years ago, with perhaps some help from the Dez Bryant disallowed touchdown, the Packers beat the Cowboys in the Divisional Round at Lambeau Field.
Same round, different venue, very different opponent, with Dallas led by dynamic offensive rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, plus an improved defense. Rodgers said Sunday that the Green Bay has to "start faster" against the Cowboys. Do the Packers have another win in them in this improbable season? Will they continue running the table against one of their most bitter rivals? We shall see.
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