Vikings vs. Packers was a game of firsts. It marked the first time points were scored in an overtime that ended in a tie. It also included the first instance of both teams scoring after regulation. Yet, what ultimately matters is that rather than a win or a loss the Packers have a tie attached to their record now, and there are plenty of reasons for it.
Pump the brakes on Flynnsanity
Judging from social media, Matt Flynn's performance against the Vikings has created the expectation that the Packers' offense may soon resemble the Aaron Rodgers-led unit from earlier this season. While Flynn's play stood out following several three-and-outs under Scott Tolzien, the sample size is too small to assure that Flynn can carry this team until Rodgers returns. Not until Flynn adds a few more games can any reasonable judgment be rendered.
To be sure, Flynn put together a nice performance. He completed 21 of his 36 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, the offense moved more efficiently both through the air and on the ground with him under center. However, while Flynn's play represents a marked improvement over Tolzien (7/17, 98 yards, no touchdowns), that may not be enough.
Two of the hallmarks of the Packers aerial attack are efficiency (8.84 yards per pass attempt before Rodgers' injury) and lack of mistakes (only six turnovers). Tolzien has exhibited ability to do both, but not at the same time. Similarly, Flynn played mistake-free football but wasn't able to produce efficiently (only 6.1 yards per pass attempt). Against a team like Minnesota, the Packers can get away with that level of play. The same cannot be said when Green Bay plays stronger opponents. Unfortunately for the Packers, Detroit is just such an opponent. Flynn doesn't have to be Aaron Rodgers, but he'll need to be better for his team to have more than a puncher's chance against the Lions.
Josh Sitton is quietly having his best year as a pro
When most people think about Josh Sitton's 2013 season, they likely remember the multiple holding penalties he was flagged with week 1 in San Francisco. That game was perhaps Sitton's worst as a professional, costing the Packers many valuable yards and contributing to the loss that day. While that game certainly wasn't one for Sitton to be proud of, his play since then is worthy of considerable praise.
It's clear after 12 weeks that Sitton has fully acclimated to playing on the left side of the offense line. With that hefty task complete, Sitton now regularly opens up big holes for his running backs. On several occasions yesterday, Eddie Lacy would run direction at Sitton's back knowing that the space would be cleared by the time he arrived.
A typical example is Lacy's 10-yard run with 5:46 left in the first quarter. The Packers line up in the shotgun with John Kuhn designated to block off tackle. Shortly after the snap, Lacy notices that Minnesota has brought an extra man (Andrew Sendejo) into the gap forcing him to redirect. Without hesitation, he turns directly towards Sitton who has already locked up Kevin Williams and opened up a new hole for Lacy to run through. That's what Sitton provides the Packers: reliability.
It's no coincidence that David Bakhtiari, who's having a solid year himself, has managed to start the every game of his rookie year without major incident. Sitton's consistently great play has allowed Bakhtiari to learn on the fly without the Packers experiencing many sour moments from their young left tackle. Sitton just makes everyone around him better. While it'll likely go unnoticed around the league, Sitton has put together perhaps his best season as a pro.
Clay Matthews is rounding into form
In his first game back from a broken thumb, Clay Matthews was a shell of his former self. The All-Pro linebacker was virtually absent from the stat sheet and just as invisible on tape. For a player that relies so much on his hands, it was no surprise that playing without one sank his production.
While he hasn't regained full use of his right hand, Matthews seems to be more or less the player the Packers gave a 6-year, $69.77 million contract to back in April.
In his past two games, Matthews has more than twice the quarterback hits than any other player on Green Bay's roster. For his efforts, Matthews has recorded three sacks (though at least one of those could be categorized a coverage sack) and came close on three more. His play has invigorated a defense that, while still nowhere near championship caliber, is once again capable of providing big stops late in games.
Just as importantly, Matthews' improved performance has raised the level of play from others on the defense. Mike Neal, who himself was nearly invisible on tape while both Matthews and Nick Perry were out, provided plenty of big plays Sunday. After a few down games, Mike Daniels returned to form with his best game in weeks. It's as clear as ever that Matthews is to the defense what Rodgers is to the offense.
Eddie Lacy still needs a workload reduction
Mike McCarthy called 28 designed runs on Sunday. Nearly 90% of them went to one player. That's too large a burden even for the league's most durable running backs. For the Packers and Eddie Lacy, it's a death wish.
As has been documented many times on this site, Lacy isn't a player the Packers can depend on to remain healthy. His history is littered with health issues in high school, at Alabama, and during the preseason this year.
It's understandable why McCarthy keeps running Lacy out there. For a team that's often struggled to reach just 3.5 yards per carry, Lacy's production (25 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown) can be too tantalizing to resist. However, at this usage rate, Lacy is bound to break down just as the Packers need him most. With James Starks fully recovered from a knee injury suffered earlier in the year, it makes no sense for the Packers to force feed their budding star rusher.
The Packers caught a big break from Detroit and Chicago
Less than a week ago, we discussed how difficult the path to the playoffs will be for Green Bay. That's still true today, but the Packers caught a break from their divisional rivals.
The Lions and Bears, each favored in their week 12 matchups, managed to drop their games and allow Green Bay to move within a half game of the NFC North lead. Had Detroit and Chicago just taken care of business, the Packers' tie with Minnesota would have given each a game and a half lead in the division. With week 13 games against the still Rodgers-less Packers and the hapless Vikings, the Bears and Lions stood to extend those leads to two and a half, effectively ending the Packers' playoff hopes.
It won't be easy for Green Bay, who probably needs an unlikely win on Thanksgiving to stay above water. However, if they can deliver, the Packers would place themselves no worse than a half game out of a playoff spot with Rodgers' return just on the horizon. At that point, the Packers would be in position to reclaim order in the NFC North. A tall order certainly, but a little more foreseeable than a week ago.