In my 25 years on this earth, there have been three Packers games that ended in a truly shocked the conscience. The first was the Super Bowl XXXII, a game whose matchup seemed as one-sided as possible but ultimately ended in deflating fashion. Then there was the "Fourth-And-26" game whose details do not need to be recounted here. The final game was Sunday's 23-point come from behind win on the road against the Cowboys.
Given the magnitude of the win, there are far more than five takeaways to be had. For purposes of brevity, however, I will limit it to just these five.
It's officially time to worry about Clay Matthews
Following the Eagles game, we discussed Clay Matthews' struggles returning from a broken thumb. The club around his right arm inhibited his ability to get around tackles or wrap up the ball carrier. Little did we know that over a month later, Matthews would still have trouble getting off blocks and making plays.
Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith threw a near perfect game against Matthews yesterday. More impressively, Dallas didn't even send Smith any assistance. On 32 of Matthews 26 non-stunt rushes, Smith was the only blocker Matthews had to deal with. Yet Matthews couldn't exploit the one-on-one matchup, finding his swim move and bull rush equally ineffective against against the Cowboys' left tackle. Instead, the former All-Pro was locked up for all but a few snaps. When Matthews would occasionally get free, it was usually because Tony Romo had scrambled to the opposite side of the field.
The one notable exception came late in the fourth quarter when Matthews was left unaccounted for on a blitz. The result should have been a sack of Romo inside the Dallas 30 yard line. Instead, Matthews whiffed, allowing Romo to locate a receiver and make a throw. While Green Bay was fortunate that Sam Shields intercepted Romo's pass, it doesn't negate the fact that Matthews is still unable to wrap up so far removed from his thumb injury.
While Smith is one of the league's better linemen, there's no way to get around Matthews' disappointing performance. When you're one of the highest paid defenders in the league and are taken out of the game completely by a single blocker, you haven't done your job. Now, we're not at the point where Matthews should be viewed as a potential liability in future seasons, but for the rest of 2013 it's probably safe to assume that his contributions will be minimal and infrequent.
The MVP for Packers vs. Cowboys was Dallas offensive coordinator Bill Callahan
There's a lot of reason the Packers shouldn't have won Sunday's game: Dallas (as currently constituted) possesses superior talent, the Packers have historically struggled to beat the Cowboys on the road, and Green Bay had yet to find its footing without Aaron Rodgers. On paper, that's a recipe for a loss and a virtual elimination from postseason contention.
However, one man for Dallas snatched defeat from the jaws of victory: offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.
Not unique to Sunday's game, Callahan has refused to stick with the ground game regardless of how effective running back DeMarco Murray has played. On a day when Murray rushed for 134 yards, only 40 came in the second half when the Cowboys should have been running down the clock. Making matters worse, the Packers were yielding an abysmal 7.4 yards per carry. Any play caller worth his salt would have continued to pound the ball, but instead Callahan decided to keep passing and give Green Bay a chance. Pundits will blame Tony Romo for his two fourth-quarter interceptions, but the lion's share of the blame should fall on the man calling the plays.
The Packers will lose a significant defensive contributor this offseason
The most discussed and debated pending free agent on Green Bay's defense has been B.J. Raji, who may or may not have a standing $8 million per year offer from the Packers. A former top-10 pick and key contributor on the 2010 championship team, Raji will command considerable attention from teams should he make it to free agency. However, his future might be tied to Sam Shields and Mike Daniels.
Shields is playing out the one-year tender offer he signed this offseason. The Packers attempted to sign him to a long-term deal prior to the start of the season, but Shields and his agent Drew Rosenhaus decided to wait for unrestricted free agency before signing a new contract. It appears their patience was well worth it. Shields is having another tremendous season as Green Bay's top corner. His interception of Romo late in Sunday's game not only gave the Packers a chance to win in Dallas, but it also kept Green Bay's playoff hopes alive. Ted Thompson will be doing everything he can after the season to make room for Shields' upcoming extension, perhaps at the expense of Raji.
Another upcoming contract negotiation could too push a Raji extension out of the picture. Mike Daniels continues to establish himself as the Packers' best pass rusher on the defensive line. In his second season, Daniels has amassed 6.5 sacks and is starting to look like the 3-4 version of Bengals superstar Geno Atkins. A new contract for Daniels is at least another season away due to a provision in the collective bargaining agreement, but that only stands to make his extension bigger if he continues to perform at such a high level. It will be difficult for the Packers to find the cap room for both Daniels next contract and a big extension for Raji.
Accordingly, the Packers will essentially be making a decision on all three players in the upcoming months. If they decide to extend Shields and save room for Daniels' next deal, they'll likely wave goodbye to their once Pro Bowl nose tackle. However, if they don't believe they can survive without an able-bodied big man like Raji in the middle of their defense, Shields or Daniels could be leaving town. This is true even if Thompson decides to part ways with some expensive veterans like Tramon Williams or A.J. Hawk. No matter how it plays out, the Packers defense will look considerably different in 2014 and 2015.
If Aaron Rodgers doesn't return this week, he's probably not coming back until next season
Miraculously, the Packers have managed to stay in the playoff hunt while missing their superstar quarterback for six weeks. Many, myself included, didn't believe that we would still be talking about the division race if Aaron Rodgers missed more than three or four games. The combination of the Lions' futility and the Bears' injury woes has kept this race close. While Green Bay still needs a little outside help to take the division, the return of Aaron Rodgers should help them take care of things on their end.
That is, if Rodgers is indeed returning.
If there was any doubt that the Packers are one of the league's most conservative teams in regards to injuries, that was put to rest the past few weeks when Aaron Rodgers practiced but was ultimately prevented from suiting up on game day. There's no question that it's the correct approach, as Rodgers' health is integral to Green Bay's championship chances over the next seven years. That said, if this year is going to be a playoff year, Rodgers needs to be healthy enough to play this week.
On the surface, the Packers' upcoming opponent isn't the most imposing. The 6-8 Steelers have alternated between mediocre and terrible this season, and their only road wins came against the Jets and Browns. This is a great opportunity to get Rodgers re-acclimated to live football. As great as Rodgers is, no quarterback can miss an extended period of time and immediately return to form upon their first game back. The Steelers game offers Green Bay the opportunity to ease Rodgers back into the flow without having too much concern about the outcome of the game. This becomes all the more important for week 17 when the Packers take on the Bears at Soldier Field in a must win situation.
Randall Cobb could be returning this week as well
In the wake of Aaron Rodgers' fractured collarbone, wide receiver Randal Cobb has been almost forgotten. For those who've forgotten, Cobb was breaking out in a big way this season. At the time of his injury, he was on pace for 93 receptions and 1210 receiving yards with around 250 rushing yards to boot. Unfortunately, a hit to the leg from Ravens safety Matt Elam sent Cobb to the injured reserve. The Packers decided to use their IR return designation on Cobb, opening up the possibility for a late season return.
It appears that Cobb's return could happen in time for this weekend's game against Pittsburgh.
While still officially on the IR, Cobb was cleared last week to run and spent much of the pregame period in Dallas running routes and catching passes from Scott Tolzien. Several reports confirmed that Cobb looked as though he was running full speed and could return soon.
While several Packers have stepped up in Cobb's absence -- Jarrett Boykin chief among them -- Cobb offers something that no other receiver on Green Bay's roster can. He creates mismatches for any defense with his speed and quickness while giving Rodgers (or whoever the quarterback will be) a reliable bail out option on passing plays. Cobb's return would also open things up for Jordy Nelson and James Jones, each of which has received considerably more defensive attention since Cobb went down.
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