The NFL's most hyped and significant regular season game is over. In a battle of the league's titans, the Green Bay Packers emerged victorious over New England, silencing whatever remaining contingent of critics the team had for at least another week.
Barring an injury or unforeseen loss to a weak team, the Packers will enter the playoffs as the title favorite for the firs time since their 15-1 campaign in 2011. The difference, however, is this version of the team possesses far better balance on offense and has a defense capable of stopping playoff-quality opponents. The win also shifts public perception of a number of embattled players and coaches on Green Bay.
Though for many the game boils down to Aaron Rodgers outdueling his Patriots counterpart, his brilliance is just one of the many important developments from Sunday's game.
Dom Capers paints his 2014 masterpiece
Dom Capers has called several great games for the Packers in 2014. Certainly, his defense looked impressive when it held the Philadelphia Eagles to just 20 points two weeks ago. The unit had similarly strong showings against NFC North opponents. Yet, considering the opponent and circumstance, no defensive performance this year ranks higher than Capers' job against the Patriots.
Since becoming healthy around Week 5, no non-quarterback has been more consistently unstoppable than Rob Gronkowski. The massive tight end has simply toyed with teams, catching 65 passes for 910 yards and nine touchdowns. Against a defense already predisposed to giving up big plays to over the middle, Gronk possessed the ability to shift the game in New England's advantage.
But though he played well -- seven catches for 98 yards -- the Packers defense neutralized him when it counted. Inside the 20, Capers made sure to keep Tom Brady's passing windows to Gronkowski as small as possible, allowing only one end zone target to him during the game. In effect, the Patriots' top target was removed from the game when their offense needed him most, a fact that played a major role in limiting New England to just 21 points.
Because of Green Bay's impressive effort, the Patriots were held to under 27 points for the first time since their Week 4 loss to Kansas City. Sunday's game also pushed the Packers two ahead of New England in total points scored this season (380). They now trail only the Indianapolis Colts for most in 2014.
Davante Adams saves his best for one of the league's top secondaries
Before the season began, one of the Packers' most important unanswered questions was whether they had a viable third receiver on the roster to take pressure off of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Jarrett Boykin earned the first opportunity to become that player, though drops quickly ended his run. Meanwhile, the more talented Davante Adams struggled to earn Rodgers' trust early on, catching just 10 passes through the team's first five games.
But the light turned on for Adams against the Miami Dolphins, a game remembered as much for his involvement in the fake spike play than the actual game-winning touchdown. Adams has become a more regular part of the offense with Rodgers looking his way in several big situations.
Still, Adams had yet to produce his "breakout" game, a performance signaling to the rest of the league that the young receiver had arrived as a field tilting option in the Packers offense. That came game finally came Sunday against the Patriots defense, a unit featuring one of the league's very best secondaries.
New England's plan defensively was to take away Nelson and Cobb and leave the rest of Green Bay's receivers single covered. The approach works so long as none of the other pass catchers gets behind their coverage. Adams did that twice in the first quarter alone, producing receptions of 33 and 45 yards that set up Green Bay scores. No defensive back the Patriots put on the rookie could stick with him, allowing Adams to catch six passes for 121 yards.
Adams isn't a finished product (as demonstrated by his dropped touchdown in the second half), but he's far more polished than any of Green Bay's other receivers were at the same point in their careers. With 417 receiving yards and three touchdowns already, Adams has outperformed the rookie seasons for Nelson (33 catches, 366 yards, two touchdowns) and Cobb (25 catches, 375 yards, 3 touchdowns). For a player that doesn't turn 22 until Christmas Eve, Adams' production underscores just how high the receivers' ceiling might be.
Aaron Rodgers separates in MVP race
Not only did the Packers' win over New England cement their place as the title favorite, but it also pushed Rodgers another step ahead of the field for league MVP. In a game filled with great performances, none shined brighter than Rodgers'. The superstar quarterback completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns, adding a key 17-yard scramble for a first down early in the first quarter.
Though head-to-head performance between MVP candidates shouldn't be the deciding factor in an MVP race, the fact that Rodgers outplayed Brady, generally perceived as the other frontrunner for the award, in a game Green Bay won will alone win over a certain segment of voters. Given that Rodgers was already the likely leader in that race, it seems almost inevitable that a second MVP trophy is in his near future.
Assuming Rodgers doesn't do something to blow his chances over the final four weeks of the season, he'll become just the third active player to win multiple MVPs, and the first player to do so in Green Bay since his predecessor Brett Favre.