If Sunday's 33-28 road win over the Bears taught us anything, it's that there is no bigger advantage in sports than having an elite quarterback at the helm. Aaron Rodgers made his much-anticipated return to the field, and made the plays that helped the Packers clinch the NFC North title, and a playoff berth for the fifth consecutive season.
After a two month stretch of misery, the Packers find themselves with a "puncher's chance" at another improbable playoff run. Let's hope the defense can find a little postseason magic along the way.
Now, to the grades!
Anyone who was expecting Rodgers to play at an All-Pro level in his first game back in over two months was probably disappointed on Sunday. I hope most fans were able to temper their expectations heading into the game and appreciate all the little things Rodgers did.
Those things include his one-handed catch of an unexpected snap by Evan Dietrich-Smith, his instructing of Jarrett Boykin to run to the end zone on the fumble-rooski play, his countless pre-play audibles at the line of scrimmage, and his elusiveness in the pocket that allowed him to dodge Julius Peppers and launch the game-winning pass to a wide open Randall Cobb.
Rodgers went 25 for 39 for 318 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He said before the game that his arm felt "almost too strong" and that showed in some passes that sailed too high, and a few that were a little behind the intended target.
Running Backs: A
James Starks ran for 88 yards on 11 carries, while Eddie Lacy finished with 66 yards on 21 carries and one touchdown. John Kuhn's one-yard carry on fourth-and-one on the final drive kept the Packers' season alive. Kuhn also deserves some credit for the incredible cut block he put on Julius Peppers to allow Rodgers enough time to find a wide open Randall Cobb for the game-winning score.
With Lacy coming up gimpy after quite a few carries, Starks was a welcomed change-of-pace back with lively legs. If the Packers can use Starks on stretch plays, and use his speed to the outside while using Lacy between the tackles, this offense will be difficult to scheme against.
Wide Receivers: A
We all knew having Rodgers back would mean more targets and potential big plays from the wideout position. Jordy Nelson took full advantage, recording a career-high 16 targets, with 10 receptions for 161 yards. He could have had two more receptions, but Rodgers threw behind him and high on a crossing route that turned into an interception, and his one-handed attempt in the back of the end zone fell incomplete.
Randall Cobb wasted no time showing why he's such a valuable part of the offense. Cobb finished with two receptions for 55 yards and two touchdowns. He only played 36 snaps, but when he is in the slot, and Nelson is on the outside, this offense is hard to stop.
James Jones recorded six receptions for 41 yards, while Jarrett Boykin added two receptions for 8 yards. The majority of Jones' receptions were of the quick screen or hitch variety, and Jones showed great strength by straight-arming his defender and picking up extra yardage on most catches. Boykin saw his snap count drop in favor of Cobb, but was the only player with enough awareness to at least pick up the ball on the Rodgers strip-sack. Boykin was also solid in his run blocking assignments.
Tight Ends: B+
Andrew Quarless finished with two receptions for 31 yards, and should have had another for 15 yards. His 22-yard reception over safety Chris Conte might have been the catch of the game. Quarless was a productive run blocker as well, and was able to knock Peppers off course a few times on chip blocks.
Ryan Taylor saw limited action in 13 snaps, while Jake Stoneburner didn't even make an appearance on special teams.
Offensive Line: B
The interior lineman (EDS, Lang, Sitton) kept the pocket clean in front of Rodgers, and allowed him to move away from pressure in most instances. David Bakhtiari had another battle with Julius Peppers, who recorded the strip-sack on Rodgers that turned into a fumble recovery touchdown for the Pack. Rodgers did hold on to the ball a little too long on that play, so Bakhtiari can't be the only one at fault.
McCarthy called a lot of power run plays on Sunday, with either Lang or Sitton pulling on the play. It was effective enough against a lousy Bears run defense, but there were too many plays were the line just wasn't able to create much movement off the ball. Protecting Rodgers is always the top priority, but establishing a consistent push forward should be a close second.
Defensive Line: C+
B.J. Raji was more active than he has been since the early part of the season. He was able to get off blocks, and finished with two tackles. Ryan Pickett recorded three tackles, but struggled to get much pressure over rookie Kyle Long.
Josh Boyd only played nine snaps due to formation changes against the Bears run-heavy offense, but he was able to blow up a counter play to Forte that resulted in negative yardage. Mike Daniels only recorded one pressure and added one tackle, while Datone Jones only played five snaps.
Mike Neal led the team in tackles with six, while Jamari Lattimore added four. Neal was stout in run support, but only registered one pressure against the Bears backup tackle Eben Britton after Jordan Mills went down with an ankle injury.
Andy Mulumba finished with three tackles, including a sack, but wasn't able to fend off blocks in the run game in most instances. Nick Perry finished with one tackle, and was ineffective getting off blocks. His blown coverage on a Matt Forte check-down pass was only outdone by his pathetic attempt at an arm tackle after the catch. He was benched after that play and did not return for rest of the game. He clearly isn't right physically and the team should consider putting him on IR.
Jamari Lattimore finished with four tackles, while A.J. Hawk finished with only two. Lattimore looked a step slow on some of his assignments in pass coverage, and didn't flow to the ball as quickly as he had in previous action. Hawk was tormented by Bears center Roberto Garza for most of the afternoon, and he was essential a non-factor.
Take away an incredible catch by Brandon Marshall for a five-yard touchdown, and Tramon Williams had an excellent game. He finished with six tackles, many of which were in the open field on big, physical wideouts. He also added a forced fumble for good measure. Sam Shields was equally impressive besides the 37-yard reception he gave up to Marshall on a double move. Shields finished with two tackles.
Micah Hyde played 47 snaps out of the nickel back position and recorded one tackle, and an important third-down pass break up that caused a Bears punt. Jarrett Bush added a third-down pass break-up in only 11 snaps, while Davon House almost gave up a touchdown in his limited action, but Morgan Burnett made an end zone deflection to bail him out.
Other than the aforementioned touchdown-saving deflection, Burnett didn't do much. He only finished with two tackles, and was completely out of position on Alshon Jefferies 67-yard touchdown reception. Shields was a step behind Jeffery on the play, but it appeared he was expecting safety help over the top, and Burnett was nowhere to be found.
M.D. Jennings, who received 32 snaps over Sean Richardson's 18, finished with six tackles. Richardson finished with two.
Mason Crosby connected on field goals from 33 and 27 yards out to finish 33 for 37 (89.2%) in the regular season. After finishing at 63.6% last season, it's remarkable to see the type of turnaround he is capable of when he performs with confidence. In a season where points have come at a premium at times, Crosby deserves some credit from being consistent.
The ginger wolverine only punted twice, but averaged 40 yards per attempt.
The two long returns by Devin Hester can be blamed on House losing containment in his lane and letting Hester get outside. Jennings and Bush were also culprits in the 39-yard kick return, while Mulumba, Nate Palmer, and Brett Goode are equally responsible for losing contain on the 49-yard punt return.
The Packers now turn their attention to the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has beaten them three times in a row. The Packers have home-field advantage, and the weather will likely force the game into a run-heavy battle. The Packer defense will have to find a way to shut down the 49er rush attack like it did in Week 1, or Kaepernick could have another field day.
The Packers have enough offensive weapons to win any shootout, but it will take a few big plays by the much maligned defense in order for the Green and Gold to advance to the next round.
Josh VanDyke covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. He is also currently a sports writer for MLive.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JVanDyke24
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