But Greg Jennings is the Green Bay Packers' most valuable player.
No Ryan Grant after barely one quarter of this season. No Jermichael Finley after four games and one play. Donald Driver was slowed (or out) for more than a month with an injured thigh. Without those weapons, the Packers' high-octane offense sputtered as if someone had thrown water in the gas tank.
And then, Rodgers got reacquainted with Jennings.
In the first five games of the season, Jennings had 14 catches for 183 yards (13.1 average) and three touchdowns. In the last seven games, with the offense adjusting to life without the tight end they had schemed and plotted around all offseason, Jennings has 43 catches for 761 yards (17.7 average) and eight touchdowns.
Entering Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, no receiver in the league can match Jennings' production in terms of receptions and yards during this hot stretch, and his 11 touchdowns for the season are one off of his career high.
"Probably a little bit more eye-balling from the head guy over there, 12, trying to get me the ball a little more," Jennings said on Wednesday, alluding to Rodgers. "When guys go down, you have to increase your play and that's pretty much what we've been trying to do."
Already considered one of the league's top threats, Jennings has exploded in the Packers' time of need. He ranks third in the NFL in touchdown receptions and sixth in receiving yards. His 16.6 yards per reception ranks 11th, and his 336 yards after the catch ranks seventh among wide receivers.
And while guys like Terrell Owens and Randy Moss have gotten all the ink for years about being elite big-play threats, it's Jennings who has earned that mantle. Since the start of the 2007 season, Jennings' 26 receptions of 40-plus yards lead the league (Owens is next with 22). This year, Jennings is tied for fourth with five gains of 40-plus yards. That includes a 57-yard touchdown and a 48-yarder that set up his own touchdown last week against San Francisco.
It's impressive stuff from a guy who's not that big (5-foot-11) and isn't known to have elite speed.
Greg Jennings, going deep.
Jeffrey Phelps/AP Images
"That was a huge wake-up call for me," Jennings said.
It hasn't happened since. Along with that wake-up call, Jennings is as fundamentally polished as any receiver in the league. On Jennings' touchdown last week – coming on a free play with the 49ers offside -- Rodgers' ball was good but not great, and the cornerback was in position to make a play on the ball as it dropped over Jennings' shoulder. But, using what receivers coach Jimmy Robinson calls "late hands," Jennings didn't make his play for the ball until the last possible moment.
"The guy was there, but he doesn't know that the ball is dropping," Jennings explained. "But if you're running with your hands out, then he's just going to swipe at your hands."
After the Week 5 game at Washington, Jennings – in his own, smiling way – wondered why he wasn't being given more opportunities to make plays. At that point, he had caught 14 of the 31 passes officially thrown his way (45.2 percent). In the last seven games, he's caught 43 of the 60 passes officially thrown his way (71.7 percent).
"It comes down to winning your one-on-one matchups and making plays and making the best of your opportunities," Jennings said. "When the ball is up in the air, go and get it. Obviously, I've been trying to do that and we all strive to do that, each and every time we get an opportunity."
No place like dome
Packers coach Mike McCarthy's regular-season dome record is 10-4, with the .714 winning percentage topping the league charts during his four-plus seasons. The offense has averaged 30.4 points per game indoors compared to 24.1 outdoors, the defense has forced 29 turnovers and scored six touchdowns, and the team has a turnover ratio of plus-11.
In nine career indoor starts, Rodgers' passer rating of 109.4 is significantly higher than his league-record overall rating of 98.0. In those starts, he's thrown for 2,599 yards with 18 touchdowns, four interceptions and 66.9 percent accuracy. He's topped 300 yards four times.
Asked if he prefers playing inside, Rodgers tried to take the high road as the face of a franchise that prides itself on its play in the December chill.
"I can't honestly say that, can I?" he said with a smile. "I'm in Green Bay. I love playing outdoors. This is home. But I do enjoy the conditions, they're very favorable to throw the football inside. But I think I've done a pretty good job throwing the ball outside, too."
The wild card
Why are the Packers 8-4 rather than, say, 10-2?
Look no further than their performance against two of the game's top kick returners. In Week 3, Chicago's Devin Hester brought back a punt for a touchdown. In Week 12, Atlanta's Eric Weems set up the Falcons for the winning field goal with a long kickoff return.
This week, the Packers face the best kick returner in the league.
Detroit's Stefan Logan is the only player in the league who ranks in the top five on both kickoff returns and punt returns. Logan is No. 1 in the NFL in kickoff returns (28.8-yard average, 105-yard touchdown, 36-of-43 returns going for at least 20 runs) and No. 4 in punt returns (12.4-yard average, three returns of 20-plus yards).
In the Week 4 game, Logan averaged 24.5 yards on four kickoff returns and 15 yards on his only punt return
"We've used him on offense a little bit. We've used him as a cover guy," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters in Detroit this week. "He's been outstanding as a return guy. He's been pretty sure with his hands and he's a guy that can get what's there but he can also make a big play. So he's been a really good acquisition for us. We knew about him from playing him last year when he was with Pittsburgh. That was a good opportunity for us to add a very good football player. He's having an outstanding year. He's worthy, when it comes time, he's worthy of Pro Bowl consideration."
Best is back
The Best rookie back.
Mike Roemer/AP Images
"He's at a better position now than he's been since the third week of the season," Schwartz told Packers beat reporters in a conference call. "He struggled with some turf toe, which is a very difficult thing for a running back – particularly a speed running back. Jahvid relies on speed, he relies on moves. He's not a 240-pound power back. He's an elusive, speed guy, and that affect his ability to do both. He was better last week than he was in the previous 10 weeks or whatever it was. Hopefully, we can get him to turn the corner."
The 5-foot-10, 199-pound back from Cal is exactly what the Packers' offense has needed for a long, long time. Not only does he lead the team in rushing (modest 447 yards, 3.3 average) but he's third on the team in receptions (50) and fourth in receiving yards (407). His 514 yards after the catch rank second in the NFL. His explosiveness is amplified on the Ford Field rug.
"He's still not 100 percent but he made a couple plays that sparked us last week," Schwartz said. "Jahvid gives you the ability to call a conservative call but still make a big play, and that's what happened (at the end of the first half against Chicago). It was just an inside running play, he bounced to the outside and went about 40 yards. Next thing you know, we're in business and we throw a pass to Calvin Johnson and we score in two plays at the end of the first half. He's got that kind of ability for us and can catch the football, run out of the backfield. Very important part of what we want to do offensively."
Speaking of rookie runners …
By now, you might have heard that sixth-round pick James Starks rushed 18 times for 73 yards last week. That the passing game has been as effective as it has this season without defenses having to use manpower to stop the run is a testament to Rodgers and his receivers.
"We're having to find ways to be effective and move the ball against a lot of two-high safety,' Rodgers said. "But we've done a good job with that. I think hopefully with James kind of coming on here, he can be a guy who can add some energy to our run game."
While McCarthy has made it clear that Starks hasn't supplanted Jackson as the featured runner, Jennings said the receiving corps is cautiously optimistic that Starks might be the answer.
"Definitely anytime you get a new face and a big, physical guy and he's falling forward and he's getting those hard earned yards, it puts a smile on your face," Jennings said. "It definitely does, especially when the weather's starting to turn. Obviously, he's going to be crucial to our success and (instrumental) to our success. If we can establish a running game, it opens things up for the passing game and vice-versa. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does again this week."
-- If defense wins championships, then this bodes well: The Packers not only lead the league in points allowed (15.2 per game) but have been fantastic against opposing quarterbacks, with 11 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a top-ranked passer rating of 69.6.
-- The Packers are 13-6 in December and January regular-season games under McCarthy, with that .684 winning percentage ranking fourth in the league.
-- On Friday, we outlined the Packers' turnover story. Here are two more nuggets: This is the first time in franchise history in which the Packers have only one giveaway over the last five games. For the season, the Packers have scored 12 touchdowns off of takeaways while yielding just one after a giveaway.
-- Rodgers is the only quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to have four consecutive games of passer ratings of 110-plus in back-to-back seasons. During this stretch, his cumulative rating is 131.3, with 1,232 yards, 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and 73.8 percent accuracy.
-- The red zone weighs heavily in Green Bay's favor this week. The Packers rank fifth in the NFL in red zone efficiency, with touchdowns on 61.5 percent of their treks inside the 20-yard line. Rodgers has 15 touchdown passes and one interception in the red zone. By contrast, the Lions' defense has allowed touchdowns on a 27th-ranked 63.2 percent of opponent red zone possessions.
-- Remember when the Packers' offense was one of the worst in the NFL on third down? Not anymore. The Packers have surged to sixth in the league by moving the chains on 42.7 percent of their third downs. In its last four games, Green Bay has converted 55.4 percent of the time.
-- What a difference a week makes. After a short-yardage debacle against Atlanta, the Packers converted four third-and-1s on running plays against San Francisco. For the season, the Packers have converted third-and-1s with running plays 51.5 percent of the time. That doesn't sound like a good percentage, but surprisingly it ranks ninth in the NFL.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.