Two and a half quarters after the last time the Green Bay Packers got punched in the mouth by a team who out-coached and out-played them, Aaron Jones and an opportunistic defense staked their team to a 31-3 lead on the road in Dallas. After a lethargic, borderline embarrassing loss to a puzzling Chargers team, Matt LaFleur faced a second such challenge. Even on an unseasonably cold day in November at Lambeau Field, could his team bring their own heat, play with juice and the kind of verve that led them on a 4-0 jaunt through their scheduele without Davante Adams? Would the stars shine for the Packers a week after no-showing in Southern California?
Three quarters into the game following their latest loss, the Packers led 24-10, and they held off the Panthers’ late challenge 24-16 with a stop as time expired. After coming up small against the Chargers, the marquee names for the Packers came through in the clutch to lift the Packers to 8-2 on the season the same day the Saints fell at home to the 1-7 Falcons in a pivotal game for playoff positioning.
“That’s the one thing I really love about this football team is we found different ways to get it done,” Matt LaFleur said after the game, noting they won without a huge game from the quarterback.
Green Bay’s offense managed just 50 yards last week against the Chargers in one of the most anemic first-half performances of Aaron Rodgers’ career. Despite a bizarre first-half ending that including a walk-off goal line stand by the Panthers, the Packers put up 197 yards and more points (14) than in four quarters against the Chargers (11) thanks to those aforementioned stars.
Jimmy Graham came alive with 59 yards on a pair catches and a touchdown called back when replayed showed he failed to get his second foot in bounds on a touchdown the Packers ultimately failed to get at the end of the half. Aaron Jones then passed Christian McCaffrey as the league’s rushing and total touchdown leader, a title McCaffrey later regained. His first was Jones’ first in four games, but he out-paced the MVP candidate McCaffrey on the not-so-frozen tundra. Jones finished with 93 yards on just 13 carries and teamed up with Jamaal Williams to hang 156 yards on the worst run defense in football.
“I think that was the key tonight, Matt [LaFleur] really repeating a number of calls, similar formation, similar run call,” Rodgers said after the game.
“I think we had a good red zone plan giving the ball to Jones and he made us right.”
With a full week of healthy practice coming off a turf toe injury, Davante Adams put up 118 yards on seven catches. And Rodgers made the plays he had to, escaping from the clutches of Panthers defenders to find his receivers on the run. While he didn’t find the end zone, he generated a handful of big plays to move the Packers into scoring position. He hardly showed his vintage Rodgers form, underthrowing at least three deep balls and demonstrating inconsistent accuracy, but he was the reason his team converted 4/9 on third down and averaged 6.7 yards per play.
“I feel like we left a lot out there point wise,” Rodgers said, noting he missed a couple deep shots that could have added to the Packers’ cushion.
In a change from what we’ve seen the last six weeks, Green Bay’s defensive playmakers showed up in clutch spots, creating turnovers and manufacturing stops. A Kyle Allen fumble gifted the Packers their 15th turnover of the year to match their entire output for the 2018 season. A Preston Smith sack in the first half snuffed out a promising Panthers drive and set a career-high in sacks with nine on the season, and he’d later add a 10th. His “brother” added a trio of quarterback hits and constantly disrupted the backfield in Kyle Allen’s face. Preston’s tackle, along with the much-maligned Kyler Fackrell, kept Christian McCaffrey out of the end zone on the game-winning play.
“There were moments where we were giving up some big plays,” Matt LaFleur said after the game.
“There was a lot of bend within our defense, but I thought we stiffened up in the red zone and make some plays.”
To wit, the Packers held the Panthers to just 2/4 in the red zone including the clinching possession.
For all the talk this week about slowing down McCaffrey, childhood Packer fan Kyle Allen gave the Packers the most problems, evading would-be sackers in the pocket and finding receivers down the field. Allen, whose father’s family is from the Milwaukee area and was apparently in the stands in green and gold, set a career high in passing yards with 307, but his red zone interception to Tramon Williams scuttled a promising drive and his first-half fumble gave the Packers the ball back at midfield.
Allen’s poise in the pocket subverted the success of a hellish Packers pass rush. Rarely did the first-year starter make a throw from a clean pocket, yet made difficult throws when his team needed them. McCaffrey finished with 108 yards on 20 carries, but he never felt like the biggest threat to the Packers, particularly in the second half when Mike Pettine consistently put a safety on him in coverage.
These types of close-game wins eluded the Packers last season precisely because their best players didn’t play well enough in have-to-have-it moments. This season, not only are those players finding ways to close games, Green Bay has more of them to make an impact. The Smith Bros. dominated the line of scrimmage even on drives where the Panthers moved the ball, combining for 7 quarterback hits.
The Packers run game with Jones got whatever it wanted, putting up a gaudy six yards per carry on 27 rushes with three Jones scores. Rodgers took his praise for the run game a step further after the game.
“Christian is a very talented player and he’s been mentioned in the MVP ... maybe it’s time to start talking about Aaron Jones.”
This was the version of the Packers we saw winning games without Davante Adams, only this time he was on the field to help spring a victory. Get Adams his touches, run the ball effectively, let Green Bay’s quarterback hunters hunt, and create some luck with turnovers and negative plays. That’s the formula they’ve ridden to eight wins, and it’s one that can work moving forward.
On the other hand, Matt LaFleur’s team will have to play better to beat the 49ers in two weeks, or go on the road and beat the Saints assuming they have to do that. Banking these wins go a long way in making sure that doesn’t happen. Sunday’s victory was more of the same for the Packers: a win that belies myriad small failures and correctable mistakes. It’s been the team’s MO all season. Though they’ve shown little indication of being able to ameliorate those issues, if they can, they’ll be awfully tough to beat, especially if the road to the NFC runs through Lambeau.
“The reality is we’re sitting in a pretty decent spot but you can’t take that for granted,” said LaFleur.
“As soon as you get comfortable, you’re going to get beat.”
With the Saints loss to a hapless Falcons team, and a face-off with the 49ers looming off a bye, Green Bay is in control of its chances to make that happen. Leaning on its stars, particularly now that they have them on both sides of the ball, provides a formula to get them there.