On Sunday in Arlington, AT&T held a trial for the Green Bay Packers’ plan, putting to the test the very core identity and philosophy of the team. Green Bay paid Aaron Rodgers a historic contract to play well no matter who is at wide receiver. Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst hired Matt LaFleur to ease the burden on the quarterback and his receivers, replacing a Super Bowl-winning coach. And Gutekunst handed out massive pay days to guys like Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos to help this team win games on days when the offense can’t catch a rhythm. Gutekunst also passed on Derwin James to add a first round pick, winding up with Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage.
At the end of the first quarter, the Packers won opening arguments in convincing fashion, leading 14-0 thanks to some Rodgers magic, a key Za’Darius Smith third-down sack, and a Jaire Alexander interception. Aaron Jones, who tied a Packers record with four touchdowns on the day, punched in a pair of scores, making it 42-3 this season Green Bay has outscored its opponents in the first quarter. Green Bay led 31-3 at one point and held on late to win 34-24 in a game the Packers hope offers a harbinger of success to come.
Starting fast hasn’t been a problem for the Packers this season. Maintaining their edge, keeping their foot on the proverbial pedal, and pushing out leads kept teams like the Eagles and Vikings in games they had no business being in. Another 1st-and-goal went begging for the Packers late in the first half, forced to settle for a field goal that pushed the lead to 17-0.
The last time a defense shut the Cowboys out in the first half in Dallas was the Chargers back in 2017. When the Cowboys finally lit their side of the scoreboard, they were down 24-0 with under six minutes to go in the third quarter. After beating up on the dregs of the NFL through three weeks, with wins over Washington, the Giants, and Dolphins, new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore looked like the genius offensive playcaller teams hoped they’d hired when they chopped off a branch from the Sean McVay tree. Reality set it last week when the new-look Cowboys offense couldn’t run against a Saints’ front that had been one of the worst in the league in run defense efficiency.
If Sunday was a referendum on the Packers structural integrity, they aced it, while Dallas showed plenty of cracks in the hull. Dak Prescott, awaiting a monster payday of his own, threw three interceptions and his 463 yards mostly came trying to play catchup. Ezekiel Elliott managed just 62 yards on the ground, coming off a holdout and a top-of-market contract of his own. Jones, finding the end zone a team-record four times en route to arguably his finest all-around game as a pro, offered a fitting troll of the Cowboys as a fifth-round pick, punctuating the point about how replaceable running backs can be in the NFL.
Dallas used a top-5 pick on one, then gave him a quarterback-sized contract. The Packers found a lead back capable of doing it all in the fifth round. Another win for the process.
While the Cowboys offense found success moving the ball, they couldn’t finish drives thanks to an opportunistic defense led by a swarming front and a ball-hawking secondary. The aforementioned Smiths combined for three sacks to go with myriad momentous plays on third down and one to force the Cowboys to kick a field goal rather than attempt to go on fourth-and-goal. Through five weeks, the impact of Preston and Za’Darius, who have taken to holding joint interviews in the locker room, cannot be denied.
These are the moments they’re being paid to step into the spotlight, and they grabbed the mic before dropping it.
Rodgers hardly put on his Superman cape as he had to last week against the Eagles, but the two-time MVP hit nine different Packers receivers and pulled out some vintage sorcery with a ridiculous off balance throw to Robert Tonyan up the sideline for a 23-yard gain. Without Davante Adams, the offense lacked pop and Marquez Valdes-Scantling still can’t get on the same page with his quarterback consistently, but Rodgers did enough to matriculate his team down the field and into scoring position, where they actually flourished rather than floundered. Green Bay went 4/5 scoring touchdowns in the red zone after failings at the goal line cost them the Eagles game in Week 4.
Credit Matt LaFleur with the paradigm shift such that we can call it that after one game. The first-year head coach trusted his run game, an extension of his insistence from Day 1 this offense have balance, and Jones paid out dividends on that trust. Jones put up over 100 yards on the ground for the first time this season, led the team in receiving with seven catches for 75 yards, and put up 182 total yards of offense.
A quarterback who handles big moments down key weapons with aplomb. A coach who trusts his philosophy and successfully implements it on the field. Free-agent defenders causing havoc in opposing backfields. Young, ball-hawking secondary players making splash plays. This was the team the Packers hoped they’d be, the formula they wanted to use. Injuries forced them to prove in a tough spot on the road against one of the best teams in the NFC. They rose to the challenge, meeting it with ferocity and verve. If that’s who this team is, their identity, then they showed Sunday they might just be the team to beat in the NFC.
In Green Bay, that’s the baseline expectation, the projected path of every season that starts at 1265 Lombardi Ave. This year, the Packers have the means to get there and they foundational pieces showed why on Sunday.