The Green Bay Packers can breathe a little easier this holiday season after holding on to defeat Baltimore and earn another NFC North crown last week. But taking their foot off the pedal is not an option if the Packers are to reach their goal of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Today’s musings, ahead of a rare Saturday game, discuss how this week’s matchup with Cleveland is still a season-defining game. After faltering down the stretch last Sunday, one of the ways the Packers can improve quickly and secure a needed victory is by limiting explosive plays from tight ends as the postseason fast approaches.
Green Bay’s road to the Super Bowl may hinge on stopping tight ends
One of the lasting images from last year’s NFC title game for this writer is Rob Gronkowski slowly rumbling for 29 yards after a short completion. The Packers have really struggled to shut down tight ends in recent years, and Gronkowski’s ill-timed splash play and Cameron Brate’s touchdown assisted in Tampa Bay’s winning effort. For the Packers to finally advance to the Super Bowl this season, it might come down to the team’s ability to slow big plays from opposing tight ends.
For the most part, the Packers have been able to contain the tight end position under Joe Barry. However, elite tight ends, while never easy for any team to completely shut down, have still found plenty of success against Green Bay and been targeted frequently. Six tight ends have tallied at least five catches and 51 receiving yards against the Packers this season, including TJ Hockenson, George Kittle, Ricky Seals-Jones, Travis Kelce, Gerald Everett, and Mark Andrews. Four of the six are widely regarded as top-five receiving tight ends in the NFL and last week’s matchup against Baltimore exposed Darnell Savage and the Packers’ slot corners in coverage against Andrews. Whether by scheme or individual effort, the Packers cannot afford the tight end to disrupt the gameplan as the playoffs near. Green Bay faces a very real possibility of a reunion with Kittle and San Francisco, Gronkowski and Tampa Bay, and Zach Ertz and Arizona.
To be fair, the Packers had contained tight ends since Week 10 until Andrews’ outburst last weekend in Week 15, but the level of talent was significantly lower. Green Bay has an opportunity to prove they can right the ship immediately this week against Austin Hooper.
Hopefully, the Packers cancelled out their 2015 Seattle vibes in last week’s game
It all began with Aaron Rodgers’ misfire to Allen Lazard in the corner of the end zone that would have put the game out of reach with 9:26 to play in the contest. As the Packers have done many times in the past decade, they struggled to get that final touchdown drive to cement the win, settling for just a field goal. From that point on, the fourth quarter became much like the Seattle NFC Championship Game fiasco.
The Packers’ defense, in soft coverage, allowed the Ravens to march down the field with 12 plays in under five minutes and eventually score a touchdown after converting a fourth-and-six chance. The lead was cut to seven points. Getting the ball back, the Packers’ offense took a mere two minutes off the clock, running three out-of-sync plays and punting the ball back to Baltimore - a shanked punt. Like clockwork, Green Bay’s defense allowed Tyler Huntley to dink-and-dunk and run over them for a pivotal touchdown with under a minute remaining. Only this time, the Packers made the crucial two-point stop and recovered the ensuing onside kick.
Games and moments like these have typically been reserved for Packers playoff games. They were fortunate to escape last weekend, and hopefully the near-collapse is this year’s version of the Packers’ annual learning lesson and bad-juju-releasing game.
The matchup with the Browns may still determine the Packers’ postseason hopes
Prior to this season, this author wrote about the Packers-Browns game as one that may define Green Bay’s playoff chances. While the Packers have already clinched a playoff berth, their seeding will heavily depend on winning this contest. Below was a snippet of that article and how the Packers could potentially overlook the Browns heading into a final stretch of divisional opponents.
If the divisional games were not enough of a distraction to this game on the schedule, the holiday could provide another. The Packers own a 1-1 record on Christmas Day, playing both games against Chicago in 2005 and 2011. Usually, the Packers might have an advantage in the cold of December at home, but they will be taking the field against a Browns team from the Midwest and fresh off a playoff run last season. There is some grit to this Cleveland team that saw an improved season from Baker Mayfield a year ago, built a powerful defensive line that now includes Jadeveon Clowney, and boasts one of the league’s top rushing attacks for a sloppy field. Cleveland has formed itself into one of the AFC North’s top teams with a renewed sense of confidence and will be looking for a second straight trip to the postseason. This is a dangerous game for Green Bay if it overlooks the Browns while looking ahead to Minnesota and Detroit, and one it cannot afford to let slip away.
While the Packers are now looking ahead to the top seed, the Browns have a renewed sense of optimism of not only making the playoffs, but winning their division. While the chips would have to fall correctly, Green Bay’s win over a Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore last week opened the door for the entire AFC North to come away with a divisional title, including the Browns. Cleveland itself might need to win its final three games to reach that goal and, like Green Bay, will face two chief rivals after this week’s game. The Packers’ injured offensive line also will be given a test against Cleveland’s front-seven, even though they performed admirably again last week. It will be much easier for the Packers to look past the Browns at home than for the Browns to look past Green Bay with their season on the line.
It will be a short week for Cleveland, playing just last Monday night, but they will be looking for a holiday miracle all the same. This will still be a defining week for the Packers.