Few fanbases take a Patriots Super Bowl win more personally than Cheesehead Nation. They look at what Tom Brady does and (rightly) believe, ‘Our quarterback can do that. And look at all the things our guy can do that Brady can’t. Why do they win all the time? Why is Brady the GOAT? It should be Rodgers.’
Sunday provided the explanation, one that Green Bay Packers fans ultimately didn’t need at this point because they already know: defense still matters in the playoffs and the Packers have let their quarterback down over and over in the postseason. Since 2009, the Packers have given up 40+ in the playoffs three times and allowed 37 in another contest. They’ve lost four times on the final play, and three contests in overtime.
In other words, the Packers’ seven playoff losses under Rodgers fall into one of two categories: the defense got absolutely thrashed (‘09, ‘11, ‘12, ‘16) or gave up the game-winning score after Rodgers tied the game (‘13, ‘14, ‘15). The only playoff loss ending with the Packers having a chance to drive for the game-winning score was the 2009 game that ended on a fumble-return touchdown (and a non-called penalty every bit as egregious as the missed pass interference in the Saints-Rams game).
Brady and the Patriots maintained a dynastic stranglehold on the league because their defense, particularly in the playoffs, comes through. They have the best coach in NFL history to thank for that, as their actual squad doesn’t have considerable blue chip talent. Yet in the Brady/Belichick era, the average points required to win a playoff game has been 21.62. For the Packers under Rodgers, it’s 25.2.
If that difference doesn’t seem huge, remember the Patriots won three Super Bowls and lost another by three-point margins. The Packers lost to the 49ers by three at home and beat the Cowboys by three on the road in the playoffs. Three points in a playoff game means everything.
And the Patriots haven’t even had the kind ultra-elite defenses a team like the Seahawks boasted over the last five years. In the playoffs under Russell Wilson, Seattle’s average required points to win in the playoffs sits at just 20, a number Rodgers and company have never failed to meet in the postseason. Imagine being able to win a playoff game with 13 points, or 17, or 22, or 26.
This is hardly new ground. ‘Defense wins championships’ has been a truism in the NFL for as long as football has been played. The confluence of one embarrassingly bungled draft (2015), Ted Thompson’s unwillingness to enter free agency, and Mike McCarthy’s reluctance to move on from Dom Capers precluded this team’s ability to build a championship level defense with any kind of consistency, watching the talents of players like Damarious Randall, Casey Hayward, and Micah Hyde wasted. It wasn’t that Thompson drafted bad players, though his inability to ever truly find a suitable running mate for Clay Matthews stands out. It was that he only drafted players. Dom Capers required veterans to run his system and never managed to adapt or evolve it, hamstringing this team.
Green Bay has since turned over the front office and defensive coordinator position, installing general manager Brian Gutekunst, who has already shown a willingness to fortify the team in free agency as well as an aptitude for draft maneuverings. Though Mike Pettine’s defense didn’t make enormous statistical strides, that fell more on the football gods and bad injury luck than anything Pettine did. His adaptive, aggressive, disguising defense gave plenty of good offenses problems.
Ultimately, a team like the Rams, stymied early by Pettine’s looks, went to matchups to win and the Packers didn’t have enough players — or in this case the right players — to make the adjustments.
Though it’s important for the Packers not to forget their identity as an offensive team, the biggest talent deficiencies — the holes most likely to prevent Green Bay from championship contention — fall on defense. Edge rusher, athleticism at linebacker, and playmaking at safety stand out. As injuries tore through this secondary, the Packers didn’t have the cornerback depth to adjust either, making the returns of Bashaud Breeland on a new contract and Kevin King from injury all the more important this offseason.
If the Packers want to compete with the Saints, Rams, Patriots, and other top teams in the league, the defense can’t continue to let them down in the playoffs. Tom Brady is great, just like Rodgers is great, but his defense comes through far more often than the ones in Green Bay. For the frustratingly low ring count on Rodgers’ hand to change, so too must the defensive performance. Green Bay believes it found the right coach to change that. This offseason must further that mission to improve the talent to give not only Rodgers, but more specifically Mike Pettine, the best opportunity to succeed.