Record this quarter:
4-0 (9-3 overall, first in the NFC North, tied for first in the NFC)
Stock up: Adams
Pretty easy one here after a big game, right? But the truth is Davante Adams has been building toward having a game like he did on Sunday. Head coach Mike McCarthy even alluded to that on Monday at his press conference. Adams’ performance against the Patriots was a matter of talent meeting opportunity. And when New England schemed to take away Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in the passing game, Adams responded with six catches for a career-high 121 yards. With 34 catches on the season, Adams is the No. 3 receiver on the team, a spot that was a question mark with the departure of James Jones and Jermichael Finley’s injury situation. But Adams (44 snaps per game) has separated from holdover Jarrett Boykin (21 snaps per game in his nine games) and training camp standout Jeff Janis (five snaps per game in his three games) as a regular in the Packers’ three-wide receiver sets.
Stock down: Starks
The Packers had a good mix going last season with Eddie Lacy and James Starks as a one-two punch in the backfield. But as this season has gone along, the backfield has become decidedly more Lacy-centered. Though he made a clutch 28-yard catch against the Patriots, Starks on the ground looks like he has regressed, not quite firing through the holes like he did a year ago on his way to a career-best 5.5 yards per carry (on 89 carries). This season, he is averaging just 3.6 per carry (on 59 carries). Over the last four games, he has 15 carries for just 17 yards, though many of those carries came in mop-up duty in blowout wins against the Bears and Eagles.
Buy: Matthews at inside linebacker
Whether or not Clay Matthews is 100 percent sold on playing inside does little to diminish the impact he has made at a position where the Packers need it. Since first taking snaps at inside linebacker against the Bears on Nov. 9, Matthews has given opposing offenses challenges. In the first three games after the switch, Matthews returned to outside linebacker in obvious passing situations. Against New England, he played outside linebacker in the base defense but inside linebacker in the nickel and dime packages. In the last four games alone, he nearly equaled his tackle and sack totals over the first half of the season. Give defensive coordinator Dom Capers credit for realizing at the bye week that the Packers needed more at inside linebacker and could use their depth on the outside to not miss a beat. As long as the Packers continue to get Matthews his pass rush opportunities, he can be one of the league’s most dynamic forces on defense.
Is A.J. Hawk playing hurt? If not, then he certainly looks like he has lost a step. Never one of the fastest or most athletic linebackers in the league, anyway, he always made up for his shortcomings with smarts and availability. But that might not be good enough anymore for an evolving Packers defense. Hawk played a season-low 27 snaps against the Patriots, giving way to Sam Barrington, who started in his place and logged a season-high 49 snaps. A week earlier at Minnesota, Hawk was replaced as the dime linebacker by Brad Jones. In his ninth season with the Packers, the 30-year-old Hawk has one more year remaining on his contract. That year would count $5.1 million against the salary cap ($1.6 million in dead money if released).
Buy: Home-field advantage
There seems to be some magic happening at Lambeau Field this season. With a win against AFC powerhouse New England on Sunday and four other blowout wins, the Packers appear poised for just their second unbeaten home regular season in nine seasons under McCarthy. In six home games, they have scored 40.8 points per game with an average margin of victory of over 23 points per game. Not even the brilliant 2011 regular season can match those marks. Said guard Josh Sitton, “I think there’s a different feel, a different energy this year at home. The crowd seems to be more energetic and we’ve been feeding off of it, and you can feel the difference at home, for sure.”
For as efficient as the Packers’ offense has been lately, the team hardly needs a punter this season. In fact, in two games – at Chicago and at New Orleans – that would have been the case with Tim Masthay not registering a single punt. Masthay has punted just nine times in the last four games, the lowest total of any quarter in his career, and is tied for the third-fewest punts in the league for the third quarter of the season. The lack of work might be affecting Masthay, too. His 37.9-yard net average and 40.9-yard gross average over the last four games are 24th and 29th, respectively, in the league.
Player of the Quarter: Rodgers
Mentally, Aaron Rodgers might be at the peak of his career. Sunday’s performance against the Patriots was a great example, winning the ultimate chess match against New England coach Bill Belichick. Rodgers’ play over the third quarter of the season has put him as the front-runner in the MVP conversation. From a six-touchdown first half against the Bears to a 1-yard touchdown pass that flew some 40 yards in the air at Minnesota to a 368-yard passing day in a showdown with Tom Brady, Rodgers has separated himself coming down the stretch. Over the past four games, he has thrown 13 touchdowns against no interceptions. His 128.1 passer rating over that span is 14.2 points better than his next closest competitor (Tony Romo).
Play of the Quarter:
Brady looked like he was about to do it again. Driving the Patriots into position for the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter, the stage was set for another game-winning drive. But a “Mike sandwich” put an end to any comeback. Trailing 26-21 with 3:25 remaining and facing a third-and-9, Brady was pressured in the pocket off the right edge from Mike Neal and from the right defensive tackle spot from Mike Daniels. Ducking initially to avoid the rush from Neal, Brady never had time to slide in the pocket. When Daniels arrived, Neal converged with his teammate to stand up Brady before slamming him into the turf at the 30-yard line. The Patriots were forced to kick a 47-yard field goal, which Stephen Gostkowski missed battling a tricky south end zone wind. The Packers’ offense took over and was able to secure a first down to run out the clock for the victory.
The Packers are in prime position to pounce on the No. 1 seed in the NFC or at least earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. But with four games left and the NFC race tight at the top (three teams are 9-3 and three are 8-4), not even a playoff berth is a given. Therefore, there is little time for celebration. The Packers will be prohibitive favorites this Monday night against Atlanta and at Tampa Bay (Dec. 21), but have a tough road test against the 7-5 Bills (Dec. 14) before closing with a showdown at Lambeau Field against division foe Detroit (8-4). With the way the Bills play on defense and considering the environment, the guess here is that an upset could be in the works. But against the other three opponents, the Packers should take care of business leading to a 3-1 final quarter of the season and a 12-4 overall record.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com