Stock Up: Getting off the field
The Packers’ defense always preaches about “getting off the field,” or in other words, limiting third-down conversions. At home against the Dallas Cowboys (Dec. 13), defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ unit allowed just one conversion in 11 third-down attempts. Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings were just 2-of-11. A strong finish to the season bumped the Packers up to ninth in the league in third-down efficiency on defense (35.9 percent). Throw in fourth-down plays, and the Packers allowed just 15 first downs in 56 attempts (26.8 percent) over the final four regular-season games.
Stock Down: Don Barclay
One of Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s favorite players is never short on effort. But coming off a 2014 season-ending knee injury, Barclay struggled in 2015 as the Packers’ main backup at tackle. His performance at Arizona (Dec. 27) was so alarming that the Packers elected to start guard Josh Sitton at left tackle in the regular-season finale. Barclay, making his first career start at left tackle in a tough environment, had his hands full with 35-year-old Dwight Freeney, who had three sacks. For the game, Barclay was responsible for four sacks, four hurries and three penalties. Barclay is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent following the season.
Buy: Mike Pennel
Pennel, an undrafted free agent in his second season, has earned his way into the Packers’ base defense up front. He played 88 snaps on defense over the last four games, the most of any quarter this season. Pennel’s goal-line tackle of the Cowboys’ Darren McFadden for a loss helped set up a red-zone interception by Sam Shields. He also forced a fumble at Arizona and recorded his first career sack there when he tossed aside guard Ted Larsen to get to Carson Palmer. With Letroy Guion and B.J. Raji headed for potential free agency, Pennel could be a long-term option for the Packers.
Sell: 2015 Aaron Rodgers
After a strong start to the season that had some comparing his skills to that of Michael Jordan’s, Rodgers for most of 2015 looked shockingly pedestrian. Sure, Jordy Nelson’s loss proved to be damaging to the offense, but Rodgers never could get into a rhythm with his receivers or play-callers, finishing 15th in the league in passer rating (92.7) among preferred starters. Tyrod Taylor, Alex Smith, Eli Manning and Josh McCown finished better. And down the stretch, Rodgers was uncharacteristically careless with the ball. He threw three interceptions in the end zone and fumbled four times (losing three) over the last three games. Three of the fumbles were returned for touchdowns.
Volume Up: John Kuhn snaps
One of the bigger personnel changes since McCarthy took back the play-calling duties has been playing time for Kuhn. The 10-year veteran fullback played no more than 26 snaps on offense in any one game until the final quarter of the season, when he averaged just over 41 snaps per game. The Packers — perhaps not by coincidence — ran for 230 yards against the Cowboys, their season high. Kuhn also ran over Oakland Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie on a 5-yard touchdown run and had catches of 14 and 13 yards to put the Packers in position to score in the red zone.
Volume Down: Third-down conversions
No surprise here. In what has become a season-long struggle to stay on the field, the Packers’ offense hit bottom by the end of the season. After going 7-of-14 against the Cowboys, it went into the tank with just 11 conversions in 45 tries over the last three games, the worst three-game stretch of the season. It was all capped off by a 2-of-15 performance in the season finale against the Vikings. The Packers often like to blame penalties or long down-and-distance for their inefficiency on third down, but last Sunday their average distance to gain for a first down was a reasonable 6.6 yards.
Player of the Quarter: Tim Masthay
It should speak volumes about this Packers season that a punter is given this honor, but Masthay finished strong and was more consistent over the last quarter than really anyone else. Despite a shanked punt Sunday night that drew some boos from the home crowd, Masthay teamed with his coverage unit — Jeff Janis, in particular — for some noteworthy games. The Cowboys’ diminutive Lucky Whitehead lost 6 yards on three punt returns, the Raiders’ Jeremy Ross lost 3 on two and the Cardinals’ dangerous Patrick Peterson managed just 9 yards on two returns. As a result of those stellar efforts, Masthay posted net averages of 44.7, 48.5 and 43.2 (and 44.3 to end the previous quarter) for the best stretch of his career. His 40.25 net punting average to end the season is the top mark in franchise history (since 1976). Masthay also converted a fourth-and-2 off a fake punt at Arizona with a 7-yard run, looking uncommonly calm in the process.
Play of the Quarter: Micah Hyde’s interception against the Vikings
With due respect to kicker Mason Crosby’s strip of Cordarelle Patterson on a long kick return, Hyde’s one-handed, back-handed snare of a Teddy Bridgewater pass was the highlight of the final quarter. The spectacular interception was set up by pressure from linebacker Mike Neal, who had Bridgewater by the right arm, his throwing arm. Targeting receiver Mike Wallace, Bridgewater threw left-handed. His pass fluttered about 9 yards before Hyde stabbed it with his right hand to give the Packers some much-needed momentum.
Forecast for the Playoffs:
Outside of maybe 2013, no qualifying team during the McCarthy era has ever looked less likely to make a run in the postseason. The Packers have lost two straight — including an NFC North title game at home –— and six of their last 10 game after starting 6-0. That prompted Josh Sitton to say Sunday night, “Was that this year?” Though the Packers play perhaps the worst team of the NFC qualifiers (the 9-7 Washington Redskins), there is little evidence to suggest the Packers are Super Bowl worthy. Therefore, the thinking here is that the Packers will be one and done this postseason.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org