Before we ring in the new year, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Here’s to good health
Every year, Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin tallies up the number of games lost due to injury by the 32 teams’ starters. From 2006 through 2013, the first eight seasons of Mike McCarthy’s tenure as coach, the Packers sustained the fourth-most injuries in the league. That includes the sixth-most injuries in 2013 and the most in 2012 and 2010.
It’s been a different story this year. While projected starters B.J. Raji and J.C. Tretter sustained season-ending injuries in the preseason, the Packers enjoyed good health this season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, while nursing an injured calf at the end of the season, hasn’t missed a game. The starting offensive line has started 15 of 16 games together. Receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and running back Eddie Lacy have started every game. Defensive leaders Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Daniels, Morgan Burnett and Tramon Williams combined to miss just one game (by Burnett).
In the days leading up to the showdown vs. New England, Patriots coach Bill Belichick did everything but send bouquets of flowers to McCarthy and Rodgers. And after Green Bay’s statement-making 26-21 victory at Lambeau Field on Nov. 30, Belichick — notorious for his brief and half-hearted exchanges with the opposition following a loss — sought out McCarthy and Rodgers.
“I’ll just say this: He was very gracious. That’s about as far as I’ll go,” McCarthy said about that postgame conversation. “He has set the standard for an NFL head coach, definitely in my time in this league. It’s awesome to go out and compete against his team. No one does it better than what he’s done.”
Green Bay won behind Rodgers’ 368 passing yards, Lacy’s 98 rushing yards and a pivotal fourth-quarter sack by Daniels and Mike Neal.
On July 26, Nelson inked a four-year, $39 million contract extension. The deal will keep Nelson in Green Bay through the 2018 season. Just like the extension he agreed to in 2011, Nelson immediately made the contract seem like a huge bargain for the team. He caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. Only five receivers in NFL history have had a season with at least that production in all three categories. For his efforts, he was selected to his first Pro Bowl.
“Probably had one of the quieter 1,500-yard seasons that the league has seen,” Rodgers said. “Finished with almost 100 catches, 1,500 yards and a bunch of touchdowns. He’s a guy you can really count on to bring it every single week. He goes up against top corners and makes a lot of plays. He’s incredibly intelligent. He just does it all. He blocks for his teammates, he’s a great leader for us. I said it this last week, I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the league. There’s a lot of great receivers in this league, but he’s the guy I want lining up for me.”
With Cobb, they formed a dynamic receiving duo. Nelson and Cobb (91 receptions, 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns) became just the fifth receiver duo in NFL history to both catch at least 12 touchdown passes. Only Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders finished with more combined catches and yards than Green Bay’s receiving tandem, though Nelson and Cobb finished first in touchdowns.
The Packers were 1-2 and had played only one good half of football. Against the powerhouse defenses fielded by Seattle and Detroit, Rodgers and Co. managed all of 23 points. In the Detroit game, the Lions’ defense scored more points (nine) than the Packers’ supposedly high-powered offense (seven). Then Rodgers famously told Packers fans to “R-E-L-A-X” on his weekly radio show with ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde.
“There's high expectations here for us every year,” he told reporters at his locker the next day. “But we've underachieved on offense so you understand it. But I think it's just a reminder that it's a long season and all of our goals are in front of us and within reach. We just have to play better. We have to peak at the right time. For whatever reason, other than maybe in '11, we haven't started fast in many seasons. We usually kind of find our stride around this time, Game 5, Game 6, and go on a good run.”
Green Bay followed the leader’s lead by reeling off four consecutive victories in which it outscored its opponents 145-68.
For the Packers, Lambeau Field became the ultimate playground. For opponents, it became a house of horrors.
The Packers went 8-0 at Lambeau Field. The knockouts usually came early. In the final seven home games, the Packers outscored their foes 93-7 in the first quarter and 189-30 in the first half. For the season, Green Bay scored 318 points — third-most in NFL history. Had Rodgers not spent so much time on the sideline with a baseball cap on, the Saints’ record of 329 points might have fallen.
“There’s something to say about the Lambeau advantage,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “There’s something on that field that gets all of us to play really good.”
Rodgers, of course, was instrumental in the dominance. He threw 25 touchdown passes and no interceptions at home this season. In the process, he extended his NFL-record streaks to 418 passes at home without an interception and 36 touchdown passes since his last home interception. His last interception thrown at Lambeau? Dec. 2, 2012, vs. Minnesota.
The Packers wouldn’t have won the division if not for a superb rookie draft class.
First-round safety HaHa Clinton-Dix and fifth-round center Corey Linsley emerged as starters, and second-round receiver Davante Adams and third-round tight end Richard Rodgers added some balance to the receiving game.
From Day 1, Clinton-Dix provided a dramatic upgrade over M.D. Jennings, plus he raised the level of play of fellow safety Morgan Burnett. And Linsley was a savior replacing projected starter J.C. Tretter, who went down in the third preseason game. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s position rankings, Linsley was the NFL’s fifth-best center. The man he replaced, Tampa Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith, wound up 14th.
In a rush
Through four games, Lacy had rushed for only 161 yards and averaged just 3.04 yards per carry. In the last 12 games, he rushed for 978 yards and 5.07 yards per carry. Against Detroit on Sunday, Lacy rushed for 100 yards against a defense that wound up ninth in NFL history in rushing yards per game.
“We knew we were going to have to stay balanced and run the ball effectively at them and not get one-dimensional and rely on the passing game too much,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “We feel like we’ve been improving week after week in the run game. We don’t really care about what other teams are ranked against the run. That’s something that we’re doing well right now. It’s going to be a big key to our success as we start our playoff run.”
In the first four games, the Packers couldn’t even break 80 rushing yards. In the last eight games, they’ve rushed for at least 110. It’s that balance that gives the Packers a shot to beat whoever comes to Lambeau Field next week and earn an upset win at Seattle in a potential NFC Championship Game a week later.
Dash of Peppers
The Packers woke up their fan base from their usual winter slumber by signing Peppers on March 15, two days after he had been released by the rival Bears. Peppers hasn’t always been great but he’s made a number of impact plays. In making a surprisingly easy transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, Peppers recorded seven sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Those nine turnover plays trailed only MVP candidate J.J. Watt (10).
“Julius Peppers, as much as any player I’ve been around, Julius Peppers can do about whatever he wants to do, play any position he would like to play,” said Bucs coach Lovie Smith, who coached Peppers for three seasons in Chicago. “He was just a blessing to be around in my time at my last job. Doesn’t surprise me at all what he’s done. He’s as fast as any defensive back around and has great size and as good of athletic ability as anyone around. As you can see, I’m pretty high on Julius Peppers. He’s been a great addition to the Packers this year.”
It's an addition that gives the Packers a shot at the championship.
"When I first got to this team, saw the personnel, saw the coaches and more importantly saw the chemistry of these guys – saw how people worked around here – I always had a special feeling about this team," Peppers said. "So, you know, we’re in a good position where the goal is – the ultimate goal, we know – is to win the championship. We’ve gotten ourselves in a pretty good position where, if we go out and take care of our business and finish things off right, we can do what we want to do."
The addition of Peppers was a big reason why the Packers were able to move Matthews into a part-time role at inside linebacker at the bye.
What a difference that made.
In the last eight games of the regular season, the Packers allowed 691 rushing yards (86.4 per game) or 3.6 yards per carry. Compare that to the first eight games, when Green Bay allowed 1,228 rushing yards (a league-worst 153.5 per game) or 4.78 per carry.
And in fewer pass-rushing opportunities, Matthews recorded 8.5 of his 11 sacks. As a result, Green Bay went from 23.9 points per game to 19.6. Other than the Atlanta game, with a second-half meltdown that McCarthy called a “blip” on the radar, the Packers didn’t allow more than 21 points during the second half of the season.
“Ultimately, yeah, it does present problems for offenses when they have to figure out where the playmakers are out on the field,” he said. “You know, I think I’m just making the most out of my opportunities. Wherever they line me up — be it rushing the passer, lining up in the inside, covering man to man — I expect to win.”
Rodgers’ “Willis Reed” moment
Linebacker A.J. Hawk compared it to Willis Reed limping out of the locker room to propel the Knicks past the Lakers for the 1970 NBA Championship. No. 3 quarterback Scott Tolzien recalled a flu-stricken Michael Jordan leading the Bulls to an NBA Championship at Utah in 1997.
When Rodgers went down late in the first half against Detroit, the season looked over. Certainly, with Flynn, they couldn’t hold off the Lions in the second half.
“My initial thought was I popped my Achilles,” Rodgers said on his radio show on Tuesday. “That’s why I kind of stayed down. It was a very painful sensation. By the time I rolled over, I was grabbing for my leg. I saw (Dr. Pat McKenzie) coming out. Once he felt my Achilles, I could tell there wasn’t anything down there that low that was dangerous. Your biggest fear, especially after watching Jermichael (Finley) and Terrence (Murphy) and Nick (Collins) over the years, is you want to be able to walk off that field and then not be carted off or carried off. So, my next thought was, ‘Get me up, get me up. Let me get off the field.’
“Was definitely in some discomfort. With just a couple of minutes left in the half, he asked if I wanted to go in the locker room, and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go in there and let’s check it out.’ So, we went into the locker room on the cart. I flipped the game on and was laying there with some heat on my calf and waited for Doc to come in . We talked for a little bit and taped it up and was able to go back out and just get through it.”
After a three-and-out possession directed by Flynn to start the second half and with the punt unit lining up the kick the ball, Rodgers limped out of the locker room. Lambeau Field erupted in cheers. Rodgers warmed up on the side as the Lions drove to the game-tying touchdown. Rodgers then sauntered into the huddle and, as if by script, led the Packers to the go-ahead touchdown. Rodgers went 11-of-13 for 129 yards, with one touchdown pass and one touchdown run, after the injury.
“I grew up watching Jordan. I mean, I used to watch every single Bulls game,” Tolzien said. “And it reminded me of the ‘Flu Game,’ when Jordan was in The Finals against the Jazz. I mean, me and Matt (Flynn) were both surprised when we heard the roar of the crowd and they were punting the ball. I didn’t know what they were cheering about, what was going on. He was pretty much playing with one leg. He willed it. He willed this entire team. I don’t know. It’s impressive, and I don’t think anyone else can do what he did today.”
Nothing will ever compare to Brett Favre’s performance at Oakland the day after his father died, but it was great theater as Rodgers led the Packers to victory, the NFC North title and a coveted first-round bye.
“That’s what leaders do when you need them – they rise to the occasion,” Peppers said.
“Aaron Rodgers, I don’t know what to say about him,” McCarthy said. “It was clearly an MVP performance — another MVP performance — by Aaron Rodgers.”
Added Lang: “He’s just a tough son of a bitch. To see him limping off the field and then to come back in the second half and just play lights out was pretty damn impressive. So, anytime you get your leader back, your captain back, obviously it’s a big boost for the team. It was impressive to see him come back out there.”email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.