Even after losing to the worst team in football and getting their coach fired, the Green Bay Packers were supposed to beat the Falcons. The oddsmakers in the desert agreed, which hardly makes Green Bay’s 34-20 win a surprise in terms of the outcome. But how they did it, putting up 34 straight and throttling a talented Atlanta team, likely shocked most of Cheesehead Nation.
This was the team we expected to see. Aaron Rodgers regained some of his lost accuracy, the offense hummed on third down (7/13) and didn’t bog down in the red zone (1/1). A revamped secondary did an excellent job against Matt Ryan’s high-powered offense with myriad weapons, and Joe Philbin’s team got the first truly complete win of the year.
But, as the saying goes, even a dead cat will bounce if you drop it from high enough. Gruesome metaphors aside, it’s not uncommon for teams to come back and win after firing a coach. Rodgers said the team bought into Philbin’s message immediately, a potential indictment of Mike McCarthy but also an indication of the ferocity with which this team craved a new voice.
Philbin made sure Aaron Jones got his touches after a slow start, as Jones put up 106 yards and a touchdown on 20 touches. The passing game found its rhythm with more short passes and underneath looks and Philbin prioritized personnel multiplicity, constantly changing formation and player groupings. Rodgers regained some of his lost accuracy and the offensive line got its act together in the second half despite all the injuries. Surely Randall Cobb’s return buoyed this offense, not just with his touchdown catch, but in providing Rodgers another receiver he trusts to be in the right spots consistently.
If there’s reason to believe Sunday’s model could be sustainable though, it’s on defense, where a short-handed secondary held the Falcons under 150 yards until deep into the third quarter. The two late touchdowns were aesthetic only, with the game very much in garbage time. Jaire Alexander’s day would have looked much better had the officials correctly ruled the first two Julio Jones catches, but he made up for it with impact plays as a tackler and blitzer. Clay Matthews had his best day as a Packer in a long time and Bashaud Breeland looks like a player Green Bay should try to keep this offseason.
Holding the Falcons to seven points during meaningful run of play didn’t have anything to do with Mike McCarthy not being the head coach. Atlanta self-destructed with some penalties, but part of that was because they struggled to block the Packers front. The defense playing like this truly does suggest a pathway forward for this team to make significant improvement, whether this year or beyond.
What happened Sunday validates Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst. This is the team Green Bay should have been from and we saw hints of it in Week 1 when Rodgers was actually on the field. In light of what the Bears defense did to Jared Goff and the Rams Sunday night, the Rodgers comeback looks even more miraculous in hindsight.
More to the point, there was nothing truly flukey about what the Packers did to the Falcons. There were no trick plays or ultra-lucky breaks. The Atlanta fumble in the red zone was lucky, but it was late in the third quarter with Green Bay still up 20. The schematic tweaks Philbin made worked and, more importantly, the team bought into them. Success begets success when it comes to confidence in a scheme, meaning this team should feel even better about the plan heading into a tough matchup with the Bears on Sunday.
The last time the Packers faced the Bears, Aaron Rodgers went full Avengers and ripped Chicago’s heart out at Lambeau Field. Under the departed Mike McCarthy, Green Bay had won eight straight at Soldier Field. Even with Brett Hundley, the Packers found enough plays to win against Vic Fangio’s defense.
But this version of the Bears defense has grown since Week 1. They’re on a record pace for turnovers and interceptions. They create pressure from every angle, disguise coverages extremely well, and create big plays as well as any defense since that Broncos Super Bowl team. It won’t take long to find out if the Packers offense found something sustainable. They play the best defense in football in six days.
If the Packers really are closer to the team we saw Sunday, we’ll find out this weekend. Mike Pettine’s defense should once again be able to find ways to fluster Mitch Trubisky and should be much better prepared for his ability to make plays with his feet. That would have been true no matter who was the head coach and Pettine has shown the ability to game plan for these big games.
The true test will come for Rodgers and the offense. No doubt Fangio will be ready with some wrinkles after stymieing the Packers in the first half of that Week 1 game even before Rodgers got hurt. Bryan Bulaga and Lane Taylor need to get back on the field to give Green Bay any chance, but even then Chicago’s ferocious defense will test any progress that has allegedly been made.
Beating a talented team like Atlanta, in particular shutting down that offense for most of the game, isn’t nothing. But we won’t know until this weekend if the Packers’ improvement is actually something.