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Packers corral Derrick Henry, pound Titans to earn 40-14 signature win

Style points don’t earn playoff berths. Matt LaFleur’s team could have come out lethargic in a game that didn’t mean much in the NFC playoff race. Instead, they jumped out to an early lead and kept the foot on the gas to serve notice the Packers are Super Bowl threats.

Tennessee Titans v Green Bay Packers
A.J. Dillon did his best Derrick Henry impressions against the Titans on Sunday night in an impressive Packers win.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

After the referees failed to properly spot the ball to open the game, not much went wrong for the Green Bay Packers on a snowy night at Lambeau Field. The Packers scored on their first three possessions, jumping out to a 19-0 lead, while Darnell Savage and the Green Bay defense shut down the Titans for most of the first half and the run game served the Titans some of their own December medicine in a 40-14 demolition. In a game they didn’t have to win, the Packers dominated, proving their mettle as Super Bowl contenders.

On a windy night with snow blanketing the turf, the odds of offensive stagnation, the kind of lull that has plagued the Packers at times, appeared shorter. Derrick Henry, the kind of pulverizing back who could thrive in the Arctic Circle among polar bears (nevermind football players) would take the lunch money of the Green Bay defense. He was, after all, the bully on the block this time of year.

Luckily, the Packers have their own bullies, including the current frontrunner for MVP Aaron Rodgers. By the time Rodgers made his first mistake of the night, an interception across the middle to Malcolm Butler in the fourth quarter, he had has many touchdowns (4) as incompletions and his MVP resume remained intact. He lamented a sluggish second-half against the Panthers after the game, insisting they wouldn’t beat anything in the playoffs the way they played.

They’ll beat just about anyone the way they played against the Titans.

The Packers opened the game with methodical precision, an 8-play drive with perfect balance between run and pass, ending with a Davante Adams touchdown. The chilly, wet conditions offered no more resistance than the leaky Titans defense and Rodgers found his top target three times for 20 yards including the touchdown. A week after the Carolina Panthers beguiled the Packers with unique coverages and hybrid fronts, the Titans played more traditional defense to no greater avail against the dynamic Rodgers-led attack.

Adams whipped whoever tried to cover him, made a handful of spectacular catches, and finished with 142 yards on 11 grabs. His dominance buttressed the ground game the Titans were supposed to use to keep Rodgers off the field. A.J. Dillon used his first real chance at playing time to do his best Henry impression, bowling over defenders when he wasn’t running away from them and hanging 124 yards on the hapless Tennessee defense. Aaron Jones added another 94 and the Packers did to Tennessee what Cheeseheads feared Henry would do to their defense.

Defensively, the Packers front assaulted Ryan Tannehill in ways the Titans could not muster on the other side of the ball against Rodgers. Pressure from Darnell Savage on a slot blitz forced the first Titans punt of the game, a harbinger of things to come from Savage. He found a way to be near the ball on seemingly every play in the first half, including a momentous interception on 3rd-and-3 with the Packers already leading 12-0.

Given the Titans’ propensity to attack the middle of the field, especially in the short and intermediate ranges, the Packers ability to play single-high safety looks with Savage as the robber would be essential to both slowing down Henry and closing down passing lanes for Tannehill. The second-year safety, whose improved play buoyed this defense over the last two months, nearly grabbed two other passes in the first half, just missing with his outstretched finger tips.

Mike Pettine blitzed with a willingness we haven’t seen for most of the season, sending linebackers and defensive backs on run blitzes, knowing Tennessee could want to attack on early downs when the Packers would be in heavier personnel. The added pressure knocked Tannehill from the pocket enough to keep the passing game from creating explosive plays.

The box score won’t fully reflect how often the Packers pushed the pocket or forced an early throw, but the 10 passes defensed is a start. Green Bay’s defensive backs blanketed the Titans receivers, holding A.J. Brown and Corey Davis to a combined 43 yards on four catches, all coming from Brown. Davis took the collar.

In the first half, Pettine’s defense held Derrick Henry to a measly 35 yards on 11 carries. If the Titans were going to get a snowglobe win, it wouldn’t be because King Henry said, “Off with their heads.”

Limit big plays in the passing game and don’t let Henry dominate the game. This approach may seem easy in theory, but against the No. 1 offense by scoring and EPA/play, it’s only that. Executing, particularly for a maligned defense that has played inconsistent football this season, would be the tallest task they faced all season, and not just because Henry stands 6-foot-3.

With Savage patrolling the middle of the field, Jaire Alexander locking down his side of the field, and the pass rush wearing blaze orange for quarterback hunting season, the Packers defense flew around against the Titans, the kind of verve imbued into this team since that Week 8 stinker vs. the Vikings. Pettine installed Savage as the robber, the studs upfront started winning 1-on-1 battles, and the Green Bay defense has been 7th in EPA/play, including 11th against the run.

Beating up on some mediocre-to-bad offenses wouldn’t earn any stickers. Shutting down the Titans, holding them to just 260 yards and 14 points, will do more than that; it’ll earn a win and the evidence of a defense capable of being a legitimate boon to this team in a potential Super Bowl chase.

When the Titans made their run, the Packers answered in kind, not only countering the Tennessee scoring but doing it on the ground. A 59-yard Aaron Jones run that should have been ruled out ended in Adams’ 8-yard touchdown, his third of the night, to push the Packers’ lead back to 26-14. After another near-interception from Savage, Dillon broke a 30-yard run, shaking off arm tackles on fourth down, putting Green Bay back up three scores at 33-14.

To clinch the No. 1 seed, the Packers didn’t need to impress anyone against the Titans, other than perhaps themselves. Beat the Bears in Week 17 and the NFC would roll through Green Bay. With the Seahawks win over the Rams, LaFleur’s team knew when they took the field Sunday night they couldn’t clinch, rendering this game a measuring stick, and only if the Packers decided it would be.

For a team that has lost games in the LaFleur era because of a dearth of energy, intensity, or both, opening the game with the coach’s trademark “all gas, no brake” mentality and keeping the foot on the floor sends a message to the players on the team, as well as the rest of the conference. This is a Super Bowl-caliber team, capable of executing defensive game plans against explosive offenses and scoring even in sub-optimal weather conditions.

A year after having to answer for being a “bad” 13-3 team, there can be no doubt about this Packers team in 2020. They handled the Saints without Davante Adams and trucked the Titans when Tennessee had a chance to clinch the division with a win, all in a game that didn’t materially impact the Packers season. The ghosts of the NFC Championship Game and playoff failures of the past won’t be wiped away with this win, but the victory points to a team capable of offering some level of atonement for them, a team capable of the ultimate glory.

Now, there can be no doubt, if the road to that glory goes through Lambeau, the Packers are well positioned to turn their 2020 signature catch phrase into something a little more literal.

“I love gold.”