Record This Quarter:
3-1 (12-4 overall, NFC North Division Champions, No. 2 seed for NFC playoffs)
Stock Up: Scoring Defense
Not counting the second half against the Atlanta Falcons on Dec.8, the Packers’ defense is playing as good as any headed into the playoffs. Until last Sunday’s second-quarter touchdown drive by the Detroit Lions, the Packers’ defense played 27 straight drives without surrendering a touchdown. It gave up just five field goals during that span. Sure, the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lions fall well short of potential playoff opponents Dallas and Seattle on offense, but signs are at least pointing in the right direction. After allowing 44 points over the last three games, the Packers finished tied for 13th in the league by giving up 21.8 points per game over the regular season.
Stock Down: No. 3 Wide Receiver
The Packers are fortunate to have a productive one-two combo at wide receiver in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, because the No. 3 spot has gone missing in action in December. Rookie Davante Adams was on the rise after a big performance against the New England Patriots on Nov. 30 but, since then, his decline has been sharp. With just four catches for 29 yards in 12 targets, his 33 percent catch rate was the worst in the league over the past four weeks for all receivers with at least as many targets. Jarrett Boykin has not been much of an upgrade, either, in limited time as the No. 3. An Aaron Rodgers pass at Buffalo deflected off Boykin’s hands for an interception. Combined, Adams and Boykin have three drops over the last month in 14 total targets.
Buy: Offensive Line
Grit seems to be the word of the season for the Packers. Is there any offensive line as gritty as the Packers’ line? It all starts with availability. The original starting five — David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey Linsley, T.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga — has started all but one game together. Bulaga missed a Week 2 game against the New York Jets with a sprained MCL but returned a week later. He also overcame a concussion at Buffalo on Dec. 14 to finish out the season playing in 15 games after missing all of 2013. With Sitton (toe) and Lang (ankle) fighting through early-season injuries to be up each game day, and with the steady play of Bakhtiari and Linsley, the Packers have had one of Mike McCarthy’s best groups up front. Last Sunday, the offensive line completed a strong final month by taking it to the Lions on the ground. The Packers gained 152 yards on 38 runs when the Lions had previously allowed a league-low 63.8 yards per game. And based on Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency metric (which combines the number of sacks, hits and hurries relative to pass blocking snaps), a strong finish put the Packers’ offensive line at second best in the league behind only the Denver Broncos.
Sell: Goal-Line Offense
In games against the Falcons and Bills, Lacy had three 1-yard touchdowns. Since then, the Packers’ offense has had some troubles from the 1-yard line. Of its last 11 plays run from the 1, only two have been successful. Twice in the past two weeks, the Packers have turned the ball over on downs at the 1. From their jumbo formations bringing in extra linemen to their spread-receiver sets, not much has worked lately. Perhaps Rodgers sensed this Sunday, when, even with a bad calf, he called his own number on a 1-yard sneak that was reviewed but eventually upheld for a touchdown.
Cobb picked a good year to have his best season. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, in 2014 he posted career highs in catches (91), receiving yards (1,287) and touchdowns (12). His presence in the backfield – either as a running back or in motion – has created favorable matchups for the offense. He has also contributed on punts and kickoffs with 15 combined returns. It’s from the slot where he has been the most productive, however, with 75 catches. He killed the Lions last Sunday on crossing routes and finished the final four games ranked fifth in the league with 26 catches and second in YAC per reception at 8.0 (according to Pro Football Focus data compiled on the 33 receivers who played at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps).
Sell: Kick Return Unit
If the NFL is trying to take the kick return out of the game with its rules, it has succeeded with the Packers. At 19.1 yards per return (second-worst in the league) on 29 returns (sixth-fewest in the league) the Packers’ kick return unit has hardly given the offense any advantage. Regular returnrt DuJuan Harris was inactive for the first time all season against the Lions. His long return of 41 yards is the third-shortest in the league among those returners with at least 22 attempts.
Player Of The Quarter: Burnett
Both by the eyeball test and by statistics, the last four-game stretch was the best of Morgan Burnett’s career. Pro Football Focus grades him out as the No. 1 safety in the league over that span, and his effort in run defense has been the major reason why. With rookie sidekick HaHa Clinton-Dix becoming more comfortable in the Packers’ defense, Burnett has been a force near the line of scrimmage. He led the Packers with 36 tackles against only two missed tackles over the final quarter. He also tallied two tackles for losses and was a part of two turnover plays including his first interception since the 2012 season. Opponents have thrown at him 12 times for only five catches and 45 yards. Perhaps not coincidentally, Burnett was voted as one of the two playoff captains on defense for the Packers.
Play Of The Quarter: Hyde’s TD vs. Lions
Big special teams plays have a way of swinging momentum. Such was the case in the NFC North championship game, when Micah Hyde’s second return touchdown of the season, a 55-yarder, erased a Lions’ goal line stand just a series before. For Hyde, the middle of the field opened quickly and he took advantage. The play was so well blocked that he really only had to make one man, fullback Jed Collins, miss and when he veered to the left sideline he beat a host of other would-be tacklers to the end zone to give the Packers a 7-0 lead. The punt return touchdown was the third of Hyde’s two-year career with the Packers, tying him for the franchise record.
Forecast For The Playoffs
With Rodgers at the helm, a playoff berth is almost a given. Thus, what the Packers do in the postseason will define them. Getting a first-round bye and at least one home game is critical, though no guarantee of success. The last two times the Packers have had a bye (2011, 2007), they failed to reach the Super Bowl. This might be the Packers’ best shot to get to a Super Bowl since 2011, but it looks like they might have to beat a strong Dallas team and Seattle on the road to do it. If the Packers can somehow avoid playing at Seattle, a shot at the Super Bowl looks good. If not, the Packers might be playing a peaking Seahawks team at the wrong time again — just like in the season opener.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com