The play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers can make the difference between a decent Green Bay Packers season and a great one. When he performed at an MVP level during the first six weeks of 2015, the team did not drop a single game. When his efficiency nosedived and took the offense along with it, the team went 6-4 from November through the end of the season. So when the two-time MVP continued his slump into 2016, it should surprise no one that the Packers struggled as well.
While the field-tilting version of Rodgers has made appearances for quarters over the last calendar year, he finally re-emerged for a full game on Sunday against the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons. Rodgers' ball placement, an issue for him for most of the year so far, appeared in top form as did his decision-making. Though his final numbers don't quite match those from Week 3's win over the Detroit Lions, the quality of opponent and the game's Atlanta location made this an overall more impressive showing.
Some may criticize Rodgers for the unsuccessful final drive, but doing so ignores several important factors. With 32 seconds to work with and ultimately one timeout -- Jordy Nelson's injury triggered an automatic clock stoppage charged to the Packers -- the odds appeared stacked in the Falcons favor.
Furthermore, had Green Bay's defense not given up a touchdown on the previous drive, the previous possession would have qualified as a game-winning drive, and an impressive one at that. On that series, Rodgers completed five of his six passes for 42 yards and a touchdown and accounted for another 26 yards on the ground. The quarterback also ran in the two-point conversion to put the Packers up by six.
Regardless of the futile "clutch" debate, Rodgers looked the part of a world destroyer in a way he hasn't in over a calendar year while playing a quality opponent on the road. The Packers possess a Super Bowl ceiling with that quarterback. They have the look of a first-round exit -- if even that -- without him.
The defense folded under the weight of injuries, but there were positives
After the Packers announced that Clay Matthews would join the team's top three cornerbacks on the sidelines for Sunday's game, no one could have realistically expected a shutdown performance from the defense. As expected, the unit struggled to the tune of 33 points 367 yards from scrimmage.
That said, not every part of the defense failed to perform its job. LaDarius Gunter, the second-year corner who drew the unenviable task of covering All-Pro Julio Jones for most of the game, gave his best performance to date. Despite a considerable speed disadvantage, Gunter rarely allowed the receiver to get too far behind him and managed to stick to his hip on most plays. In the end, Jones registered just three catches for 29 yards, his lowest output of the season.
Undoubtedly, the wideout's early lower body injury likely contributed to the quiet day. But even a wounded Jones outclasses nearly every other weapon in the league, and Gunter held him in check.
Packers well positioned in NFC
Even with a loss to a significant conference opponent, the Packers still find themselves in a decent position in regards to the playoffs. Losses by the Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions as well as Washington's tie kept the Packers in the driver's seat for a wild-card spot.
The Packers' remaining schedule also compares favorably to any other team in the league. Their next two contests come against weak AFC South opponents giving the team added margin for error while their injured roster recuperates. Matchups with Washington and Philadelphia could present challenges, but less so than Green Bay just faced in Atlanta. The final five weeks include three unimposing opponents (the Houston Texans, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions) and the two most difficult games take place at Lambeau Field.
Obviously, the Packers have to at least take care of business in the games they should win, never a guarantee in the NFL. However, that schedule sets them up for double-digit victories, a record that results in a playoff berth 87 percent of the time or more.