In the final three games of the regular season, Randall Cobb had zero catches in one game and was inactive for the next two.
In the first two games of the postseason, Jordy Nelson barely played due to broken ribs.
It’s been Jared Cook to the rescue, and he has been instrumental in the Green Bay Packers advancing to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Atlanta. Over the last five games, Cook has picked up the slack with 24 receptions, 329 yards and one touchdown. He ranks fourth among all players with 11 receptions in the postseason. With receivers Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison all questionable due to injuries, the big tight end might have to pick up even more of the slack.
This is exactly what the Packers were hoping Cook would provide when they signed him following his release by the Rams. It took a while for potential to turn into production, though, as Cook missed most of the offseason and then a six-game stretch early in the season. When the Packers have needed him – and they might need him more than ever with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line – Cook has delivered.
“You knew at some point we were going to figure things out,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Obviously, not being out there to practice a lot, it doesn’t help, and then him being out for a number of weeks pushes that back a little bit. But I think you’re seeing that we’re on the same page, lately especially. He’s just a big target, he’s really intelligent. He understands where it needs to be and the timing. He’s made a lot of plays for us.”
Even when Cook hasn’t produced statistically, his presence has been evident. He returned to the lineup in the loss at Washington. The Packers lost that game but haven’t lost since. They have scored 30-plus points in each of their last six games.
“Create mismatches when needed, get open when needed, being there when 12 needs me or clearing it out for somebody else to get open, creating different triangles on different parts of the field just to kind of help 12 out,” Cook said of his role. “It’s been vice-versa. They’ve been doing the same thing for me. That’s the best part about being in a dynamic offense. You have different elements and different options and weapons to use at your disposal when needed.”
There should be opportunities against the Falcons’ defense. The Falcons allowed the seventh-most receptions, ninth-most yards and sixth-most touchdowns to tight ends this season.
-- Atlanta and Green Bay overcame below-average defenses by doing well on the turnover table. Thanks to a strong finish, the Packers were sixth at plus-8. Atlanta was a fourth-best plus-11. Both teams are plus-2 in the postseason.
The Falcons have two of the premier ball-strippers in the league with second-year linebacker Vic Beasley and rookie safety Keanu Neal. Beasley, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, tied for the lead with six forced fumbles. Neal tied for third with five. Their combined 11 forced fumbles are three more than the Packers forced during the regular season.
Offensively, Green Bay has been especially sure-handed with the football. Not only hasn’t it lost a fumble in its last six games, it’s only fumbled once during that span – a muffed punt by Micah Hyde against Minnesota in Week 16. The most noteworthy play of the streak was Rodgers’ nonfumble on unblocked safety Jeff Heath’s blind-side sack last week. Had Rodgers coughed it up, the Packers likely would not be playing on Sunday. After fumbling six times and throwing four interceptions in the first games, Rodgers has zero fumbles and one interception in the last six games.
“His grip strength has got to be fantastic,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “During the game, I said, ‘That’s amazing that the ball did not come out.’ It’s a real challenge, I can tell you that, just from having a chance to compete against Green Bay through the years. We know defensively there’s lots of things that they’re capable of doing. Both teams have done a really good job with the ball. I have a sense that this game will come down to that, as well.”
-- Neither team fields a good defense, and that’s especially true in the red zone, which only increases the odds of this being a shootout. Green Bay finished 28th in red-zone defense with a touchdown rate of 62.2 percent. That’s nothing compared to Atlanta. The Falcons were last at 72.7 percent. Not only was that the worst in the league this year, but it was the worst in the league since 2010.
Green Bay’s red-zone offense finished 10th with a touchdown rate of 60.6 percent. However, it’s scored touchdowns on 13-of-15 trips over the past four games. Rodgers led the NFL with 31 red-zone touchdowns. Amazingly, 31 of his 64 red-zone completions resulted in touchdowns.
“Just really execution,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Conceptually, it isn’t like we’ve done a whole lot. We look for them to potentially change up, too. You set a good plan and play fast. It’s a little tougher to do on the road. We’re running the ball better than we have been.”
Sticking with the situational numbers: Green Bay finished second on third down (46.7 percent) while Atlanta finished 26th on third-down defense (41.8 percent). On the other side of the coin, Atlanta ranked 11th on third-down offense (42.1 percent) while Green Bay wound up 24th on third-down defense (41.2 percent).
-- A key to Green Bay’s victory against Dallas was its fast start, with three consecutive touchdowns to open the game with a 21-3 lead. Green Bay wasn’t a great first-quarter team this season, with a meager plus-11 differential, but Rodgers was productive with a league-high 10 touchdown passes.
They’ll be challenged by the Falcons, who have been quick out of the gates for most of the season. Atlanta led the league with 69 points on its first possession and 139 points in the first quarter. That’s led to a first-quarter scoring differential of plus-71, which trails only New England (plus-98) and is twice as good as 29 of the other 30 teams.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.