Bob Fitch on patience in football
Sunday’s Green Bay Packers tilt against the Dallas Cowboys was a rollercoaster, and a microcosm of the season in general. It was stressful. Watching the game with a wife who didn’t know what football was five years ago, I heard the following remarks several times each: “What is happening?”, “Wow, a run that actually worked!”, and “Why did you let him catch it? Come on, stop him!” My response to everything? Have a little patience.
It’s not easy, I’ll admit, to have patience with a defensive coordinator that leaves LaDarius Gunter on an island against a top-5 wide receiver. It’s not easy to have patience with an offense that relies on its quarterback to constantly extend the play and make other-wordly throws. It was also tough to have patience with Mason Crosby in 2012, and it was tough to have patience with a team that sat at 4-6 and was looking at missing the postseason for the first time since 2008.
But just as Crosby rebounded after 2012, the Packers reeled off 6 straight wins to finish the 2016 regular season and make the postseason, and Aaron Rodgers makes miraculous throws at the end of games, patience pays off. I’ve never been one for prophetic phrases, but #RUNTHETABLE
Jon Meerdink on Lane Taylor
There was one small but telling detail from Sunday’s heroic throw from Aaron Rodgers to Jared Cook: the man handpicked to be Rodgers’ bodyguard on the throw. That man was Lane Taylor. The extent to which Rodgers drew up the play can be debated, but we know he told the offensive line that he was headed left, and that meant Taylor would have to be right there with him.
It’s quite a change for a player suddenly thrust into the spotlight after Josh Sitton’s abrupt release, but Taylor has handled everything the Packers have thrown his way. In the preseason, beat writer Bob McGinn openly questioned whether Taylor would even make the roster, saying after a rough outing against the Raiders that the battle for the final offensive line roster spot would come down to a competition between Taylor, Josh Walker, and Don Barclay.
Jonathan Barnett on Second Chances
Part of the Packers’ current run has been the ability of the Packers to prepare. Everyone in this league makes adjustments. The Packers have been criticized for their seeming refusal to adjust to things in-game. I have thoughts on this, but this is not the focus of this segment. In the current eight game winning streak, the Packers played five against teams they are meeting for the second time. In fact, those would be the last five games played. In a weird fluke, Weeks Two through Seven scheduled the same five teams as the Packers last five games leading up to the NFC Title Game. The team in Week Eight? Atlanta.
The first time around, the Packers went 3-2 the first time against these teams, losing to Dallas and Minnesota earlier in the season. In those games, Rodgers completed 63.1% of his passes for 259.4 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. That would be good for a 91.1 passer rating. In the second go through against these teams he completed 66.5% of his passes for 323.2 yards per game with 14 touchdowns to just one pick. That is a 114.9 rating. The defensive numbers have skewed upward, but mostly due to the increased passing other teams have employed in an attempt to keep pace.
So last time Rodgers and this offense faced Atlanta, in Atlanta, Rodgers was great. 28 of 38 for 246 yards and four touchdowns. If McCarthy and Rodgers can make improvements and find new ways to attack Atlanta, they might be able to turn up the pressure enough to advance to the Super Bowl.
Evan “Tex” Western on Rodgers’ hot start and RB matchups
The Atlanta Falcons scare me in a way that the Dallas Cowboys did not a week ago. Yes, Ezekiel Elliott led the world in rushing, but I felt confident that Dallas wouldn’t have the type of quick-strike, big-play potential that would allow them to keep up with the Packers if Aaron Rodgers started the game hot. Matt Ryan and this Falcons offense is one of the few that is capable of keeping pace with Rodgers at his best.
As for Rodgers last week, he didn’t just start out hot – he was surface-of-the-sun hot. The Packers scored touchdowns on four of their first six drives running from the start of the game through the first drive of the second half. Through that span, he was 21 of 30 for 266 yards and two scores. That first drive of the second half was masterful – on the six-play, seventy five-yard drive, Rodgers completed six passes for 75 yards and the touchdown (that’s everything on that series, in case you were counting).
This week, Rodgers gets to face a Falcons pass defense that’s ranked 19th in DVOA against the pass – one spot lower than the Cowboys. However, I expect the Packers’ running backs to feature much more prominently in the gameplan this Sunday than they did in Dallas. Atlanta’s run defense is 29th, compared to Dallas’ 8th-place ranking, which in and of itself should allow Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski to take more pressure off Rodgers. However, Atlanta also ranks 26th in the league in DVOA against running backs in the passing game, an area where those players are well-equipped to do some damage.
Like they did in Week 8, I expect this to be a back-and-forth game with both offenses having their way with the opposing defenses. The keys will come down to whether one of those units can come up with red zone stops and force field goals or can pressure the quarterback into poor decisions.
Paul Noonan on the referee assignments for the NFC Championship
Bill Vinovich will be the crew chief for the NFC championship game, and honestly, I have no complaints. Vinovich is one of the most respected officials in the game, having called the NFC Championship last season and the Super Bowl in the 2014 season. He is a hands-off official who averaged 2 fewer penalty calls for game than the average crew this past season, a trend that is consistent over his career. Vinovich called two Falcon games this season. A Christmas Eve game against Carolina was uneventful, but an earlier Falcon game against the Chargers was extremely eventful on the officiating front, especially for Vinovich.
In that game (in Atlanta), the Chargers enjoyed a huge imbalance in calls as Atlanta was flagged 9 times for 70 yards while San Diego was flagged just 3 times for 14 yards. In the second half, while San Diego was trying to rally from a huge deficit, they were flagged only once for a false start. My intention is not to say that Vinovich was not fair in his calls, as I have no idea whether or not the calls in this game were justified, but they were about as lopsided as you will see, and the officiating definitely played a part in keeping San Diego competitive and ultimately allowing them to win in overtime. Josh Lambo’s game winning field goal in overtime was set up by a defensive holding call on the previous (non-kneel down) play. At least once this season, Vinovich and crew did not do the Falcons any favors.
Mike Vieth on the Packers’ lackluster secondary
Even though it was great to see the Packers jump out to such a great start against the Cowboys, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to hold up. The reason: the cornerbacks. I said it during my picks last week; our corners are not very good and are overmatched in every game. It’s not saying they won’t be good but they are just too young and raw to expect them to hold up against Dez Bryant, Julio Jones (this week), Antonio Brown (possibly) and Tom Brady, who makes any receiver look amazing.
With this in mind, I hope the Packers address this need quickly and aggressively in the off-season and I don’t mean by signing undrafted rookies. The Packers have five undrafted corners on the roster (including IR) out of eight players. They found a diamond in the rough with undrafted Sam Shields. However, cornerback has become too vital a position in the NFL today to rely on undrafted rookies. Randall will be a solid corner but all the rest are going to take too long to develop and be liabilities against the better receivers in the game. Let’s hope the Green Bay front office can shore up the cornerback position so that we can relax a little more when the Packers get out to a big lead.
Ben Foldy on the symbiosis of TyMo and Jared Cook in the offense
Rewatching the coach’s film the other night, I honed in on how Cook and Montgomery opened the door for one another’s success. The play preceding Montgomery’s first touchdown was a short pass to Cook on first and goal from the 3, successfully defended by Cowboys FS Byron Jones playing man coverage. The next play, Montgomery lined up wide to start the set before motioning into the backfield. While Sean Lee followed Montgomery, the formation left Dallas with a four man front and two inside LBs, but both safeties spread wider, with Jones outside in case Cook ran another route. Montgomery bounces inside after Lee fills his first read, and SS Barry Church almost blows up the play but his pre-snap positioning forced him to come at an angle that leaves him unable to stop Montgomery’s forward momentum. On Cook’s 3rd quarter touchdown, he lines up across from Dallas safety JJ Wilcox with the Packers showing run with Ripkowski and Montgomery in the backfield. Cook blocks Wilcox off the snap before breaking off as the play action to Montgomery causes Wilcox to bite. Before he can recover, Cook has three or four steps on him for an uncontested catch in the end zone.
It’s not only in the red zone. Starting a drive from the 20 at 13:01 in the 2nd quarter, Montgomery began in the backfield before motioning outside the numbers and taking Pro Bowler Sean Lee along with him. Cook runs a quick out route faced only with a wrong-footed Orlando Scandrick playing zone and the Packers get an easy 6 yards to set up a manageable 2nd and 4. Similarly, the Packers crucial first possession in the 4th quarter began with a play action at 11:35 where a play action handoff to Montgomery draws both Lee and Scandrick to the left while Rodgers rolls right and Cook runs a seam to pick up an easy twenty.
It’s little surprise that this team’s offense turned around with the emergence of both these players. Opposing teams are being forced to gamble on stopping Montgomery or stopping Cook, and if they pick wrong then they’re vulnerable to an Aaron Rodgers playing at his most ruthlessly efficient. Given the Atlanta’s defense bottom-10 rankings against both TE and RB, Sunday is shaping up for Cook and Montgomery to be two of Green Bay’s most potent weapons in the widely-anticipated shootout.