So, yeah, we should probably all chip in on a gift basket for Justin Tucker. In many ways, Tucker's 61-yard field goal to beat Detroit was a lot like the position the Packers now find themselves in - unlikely. Left for dead just a few weeks ago, the Packers are back in the driver's seat for a playoff berth thanks to a couple key losses and their own holy-hell-how-did-that-even-happen? comeback versus Dallas.
It's a position that also highlights just how good we Packers fans have had it. Where lots of teams are playing meaningless football by Week 10, this recent stretch of games with seemingly no playoff shot or late-season implications almost seemed foreign to watch. Not to say I'd given up hope, but things looked pretty bleak there for a while.
To keep hope alive though, the Packers will need to overcome the Steelers this Sunday at Lambeau. The Steelers have struggled this season and they're far from the team the Packers faced in the Super Bowl three years ago, but still. They're a proud team that still has the parts to make even the best teams sweat. If the Packers do manage to win however, things get really interesting. They'll still need to beat the Bears to get in, but make no mistake - the last thing the rest of the NFC wants is a Packers team on a roll and Aaron Rodgers with flames in his eyes. We love to talk about teams getting hot ‘at the right time' and if the last two weeks are the start of something, the Packers - a team that's been off the radar for most the season - could be one of the most dangerous teams heading into January. But first, they'll need to get past the Steelers and Mike Tomlin's foot. Here are five things to watch this Sunday:
The Flynn/Boykin connection
My favorite play of last Sunday's game (aside from the beauty/hilarity of Raji lining up at fullback) came in the 3rd quarter when Matt Flynn hit Boykin on a picture-perfect back-shoulder throw. It didn't seem like that big of a play because it occurred right in the middle of a bunch of other big plays, but it showed just how good the chemistry between Flynn and Boykin has become. You'd understand if either player, in the midst of an epic comeback, would get a bit overzealous in that situation, but both executed the play with impeccable timing and execution. It also highlighted just how important your backup quarterback is. Flynn's not going to make that throw nearly as often as Rodgers but the important thing is, he can make that throw. You expect your backup to move the chains while limiting turnovers, but if they can occasionally make an elite-level throw, that's what separates Matt Flynn from say, Curtis Painter. With Jarrett Boykin, Flynn has a target he clearly feels comfortable with, which hopefully will result in more of those kinds of throws.
The Packers secondary
The Packers pass rush has basically been non-existent lately and now with the loss of Johnny Jolly, things aren't likely to improve. What compounds this problem is the days of watching Ben Roethlisberger take a sack after holding onto the ball for two straight minutes appear to be over. Amazingly, Todd Haley can be thanked for that. Switching to a more no-huddle offense midway through the season, the Steelers have averaged 28 points per game over the last seven while Roethlisberger has taken just five sacks in the last five games. That means the Packers' secondary will have to be tight in their coverage. And while it's easy to remember the late game heroics of Sam Shields and Tramon Williams against Dallas, the fact is that the pass defense was getting shredded most of that game. The Steelers don't have anyone like Dez Bryant, but with Roethlisberger's newfound protection and speedy receivers in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, they can certainly move the ball through the air.
Flynn's blitz recognition
The Steelers defense isn't the vaunted unit it used to be, but Dick LeBeau can still draw up a defensive game plan with the best of them. It'll be Matt Flynn going up against that defense this Sunday. While Flynn played out of his mind against Dallas, that same level of play can't be expected against the Steelers. For one, Dallas is Dallas and that means if there was an opportunity for Matt Flynn to throw for All The Touchdowns against any team, they were it. But more importantly, the Steelers are just better. And if LeBeau decides to get a little crazy with some of the blitz packages they run, Matt Flynn could come back down to earth in a hurry. Of course, one way Flynn can help his cause is to get better at his blitz recognition. Like Rodgers, he's extremely cautious when it comes to throwing picks or turning the ball over. That's all well and fine. The difference however (or one of them) is that unlike Rodgers, Flynn seems to have tunnel vision when sitting in the pocket. Again, we're talking about starter versus backup here, so there's going to be a drop off, but if Flynn wants to keep the Packers in playoff contention, he'll have to improve his pocket presence.
Clash of the titans
Who would have thought that a game played between two teams defined by their star quarterbacks would likely come down to which rookie running back plays better? We all know about Eddie Lacy, but in the last month or so, Le'Veon Bell has established himself as an equally formidable back. He's 6'1, 244 lbs. and runs a lot like Lacy - with power and deceptive agility. He also has great ball security as he proved by holding onto the ball when HE WAS HALF DEAD. For the Packers and Steelers, it's quite the paradigm shift. While neither team is what you'd call a ‘ground and pound' offense, the addition of a big, bruising back has given each a dynamic they haven't had in nearly a decade. While the Steelers benefit from having a healthy starting quarterback, it's been Bell who's been the catalyst to their recent offensive resurgence. If Lacy can find a way to out-duel the Steelers rookie, it could be the difference between the Packers playing for a playoff spot next week.
Come on down, Josh Boyd
The loss of Johnny Jolly for this week (at least) certainly stings but if there's any silver lining, it's getting to see more of Josh Boyd. Inactive for 7 of the first 9 weeks of the season, Boyd looked like he might be a one-and-done kind of player you never hear from again. If his play last week is any indication, Boyd plans on sticking around for a while. And from the amount of snaps he's playing, it appears the coaches expect the same. In just the last three weeks, Boyd went from playing 11 snaps to 13, to more than doubling the two combined with 32 against Dallas when Jolly went out.
There's good reason for him to be out there, too. Boyd might not be the second coming of JJ Watt, but he flashed impressive athleticism last week in shuffling out to the edge and dropping DeMarco Murray for a three-yard loss. Like Sean Richardson at safety, seeing what Boyd can do will only help the Packers, both in the short term and in planning for next year. Ryan Pickett's not getting any younger (and neither is Jolly) and B.J. Raji may very well be playing somewhere else. If Boyd can do more of what he did last week, some of those losses might not matter.