'Tis The Season To Take Rather Than Give

The Packers have surged into playoff contention behind a stretch in which they've had 12 takeaways and one giveaway in the last five-and-a-half games. It starts with Aaron Rodgers but the trend runs much, much deeper. We tell you why it's happened and what it means.

A certain jolly, white-bearded man from the North Pole might cringe, but it really is better to receive than to give.

It's little wonder why the Green Bay Packers have surged into the thick of the playoff race, with the final quarter of the season kicking off on Sunday at the Detroit Lions. The Packers have won the turnover battle in five of the last six games, winning all five in which they came out on top of the giveaway-takeaway ledger.

Offensively, Aaron Rodgers has been the overwhelming difference-maker. Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception in his last 177 attempts, a streak starting with the second half of the Week 7 game against Minnesota.

With Rodgers completing passes only to the guys with the "G" on their helmets, the offense hasn't been in the giving spirit. Their only turnover during that stretch was Rodgers' critical fumble at the goal line in the 20-17 loss at Atlanta. With no turnovers against the Jets in Week 8, Cowboys in Week 9, Vikings in Week 11 and 49ers in Week 13, Green Bay improved to 20-3 under coach Mike McCarthy in games in which they don't have a giveaway.

Moreover, in their last 50 turnover-free games, the Packers are a resounding 46-4.

"Stats don't lie," receiver Greg Jennings said. "We've had one turnover in the last five games or so. Obviously, if we don't give the opposing offense an opportunity to put our defense in bad situations and bad field positions, then we enhance our opportunities and our chances on winning the ballgame. If we can do our part as far as not turning the ball over or putting our defense in bad positions, then we can be successful."

Rodgers has emerged as an MVP candidate as the Packers have emerged as contenders. Starting with the Dallas game, he leads the NFL with a passer rating of 131.3 on the strength of 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in those four games. It's a far cry from the first six-and-a-half games of the season, when Rodgers' nine interceptions were two more than his full-season total from 2009.

"If we can take care of the football and just be efficient on offense, we have a good chance of winning," quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said. "If you don't give the other team the football when they shouldn't have it, it's helpful."

It goes beyond Rodgers, though. A year after running back Ryan Grant went the entire season without losing a fumble on a running play, Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn have kept that run of excellence alive. Jackson (136 carries) and Kuhn (68) carries have combined for 204 of the running backs' 249 rushing attempts. None of the running backs have lost a fumble, though Jackson and Kuhn have coughed it up once apiece. In fact, the Packers haven't lost a fumble in the last seven games, with the last being Donald Lee's first-drive fumble at Washington. Plus, the receiving corps has overcome an early-season case of the drops. The wide receivers haven't dropped a pass since Week 9, with dropped passes frequently bouncing into a defender's hands.

"I think it's hopefully a reflection of the fundamentals, the emphasis that we place on that at all times," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "The quarterback has a lot to do with that. He hasn't thrown the ball where they have more guys than we do. He's certainly got confidence in his arm to fit a ball into a tight window, but he hasn't been overly aggressive when it's not there. I think that's a big part of it. Guys have caught the ball well. We haven't had a lot of dropped passes. Our running backs have held onto the football. That's the top priority for them."

Woodson strips Gerhart at Minnesota.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
While the Packers rank fifth in giveaways with 14 (including two on special teams), the defense checks in ninth with 22 takeaways, giving the team a sixth-ranked turnover ratio of plus-8.

Compared to last year, when the Packers picked off a league-high 30 passes, this year seems almost like a disappointment. But their 16 interceptions are the fifth-most in the NFL. Those 16 have been spread among 10 defenders. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme has helped, since the defensive backs generally are playing in zones and can keep their eyes on the quarterback rather than on their receiver. That allows proven ballhawks like Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Nick Collins to see the ball and go get it.

"I think first you always have to give credit to the players," said McCarthy, whose teams are 35-6 when they win the turnover battle compared to 6-18 when they lose it. "The players make the plays. But I think you can enhance any individual player's abilities with the way you train, and I think we do a very good job of that here, with our emphasis on ball security and different types of drills we do every single day that we practice. The emphasis is there, we support the emphasis with time commitment in our practice structure, and then we have some very talented defensive perimeter players that do a great job of getting their hands on the ball."

It might seem absurd to think the Packers are training turnovers differently or better than the rest of the league, but it's hard to dispute the numbers. During McCarthy's tenure, the Packers' plus-43 turnover ratio trails only the Chargers, who are plus-44. Every day at practice, whether it's an organized team activity in May or a final Friday tune-up during the regular season, inside linebackers coach Winston Moss runs a period dedicated to turnovers.

"I think that's been an emphasis," Moss said. "Since I've been here in '06, I've done the presentation in the team meeting and the drills on the field. Coach McCarthy makes that an emphasis, not only with what I do with the presentation and the drill standpoint, but that's also emphasized with the offensive group, with Coach Philbin leading the way and obviously the guys that touch the ball the most – the quarterbacks and the running backs and so forth and the receivers get their share. Everybody has a hand in it.

"On the defensive side of the ball, that's been an emphasis, too. We have players that have a mentality of taking the ball away, led by Charles Woodson, since I've been here. We've made it an emphasis on defense to take the ball away and we've had great success with it. Everybody's had a hand in it. I've had my part in it, as well, and I take a lot of pride in it. Coach asked me to do it since '06 and I have a lot of pride in that and with that responsibility."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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