Sunday School: What We Learned

The NFC North is a mess right now with three teams currently sporting identical 5-5 marks, but the Green Bay Packers stated a loud case as the class of the division in Week 11 at Lambeau Field. Here are five things we learned about the Pack after a surly 37-3 lashing of the rival Bears on Sunday.

1. The offensive line redeemed itself at least for one week
They heard the criticism – from the coaches, the fans, and the media. Even looks from teammates were easy to figure out. This starting five wasn't getting it done. Not even close. Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times over a two-game stretch – both losses – and knocked down a dozen more. If the teams' fortunes were going to change, it was going to start with this group.

If Chicago was the test, consider it aced. Along with paving the way for their best rushing performance of the season, left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard Daryn Colledge, center Scott Wells, right guard Jason Spitz and right tackle Mark Tauscher were a fortress around their quarterback. Not only was Rodgers not sacked, but he was barely touched. With time to throw and go through his progressions, Rodgers hit nine different receivers – including all three of the previously MIA tight ends – for 227 yards and two touchdowns in the 37-3 rout.


RB Ryan Grant
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

2. Notice has been served: Grant is officially back
During the second half of last season, Ryan Grant was the best back in football not named LaDainian Tomlinson. But a training camp holdout and ensuing big contract were followed by a hamstring injury and lackluster – to be kind – first half of the season. Suddenly, we began to wonder if a lot of those yards didn't come by default against defenses focused on stopping a red-hot Brett Favre and a receiving corps that was five strong.

But as Grant's hamstring improved, he began to put that conversation to rest. In the overtime loss to Tennessee, Grant ran for 86 carries on 20 carries. At Minnesota, he had 75 yards on 16 carries. On Sunday, he made said conversation seem downright silly. Grant had over 100 yards by halftime and finished with 145 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown against the Bears' fourth-ranked rush defense. He had 10 carries of six or more yards, and his 35-yard burst in the game's opening minutes was his longest run since a 57-yarder in Week 1.

3. The post-Barnett defense may be okay after all
When the Pack's starting middle linebacker tore his ACL in Minnesota, you figured the NFL's 28th-ranked run defense was about to spiral to the bottom of the standings. Nick Barnett was the defense's leading tackler, and though he wasn't having nearly the season he had a year ago, he was the unit's unquestioned emotional leader.

Instead, Green Bay's defense had its best showing of the season, giving up just 234 total yards and nine first downs. It was a combination of factors. Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders called an excellent game, going with mostly nickel coverage that put a cornerback, rather than a linebacker, on athletic Bears tight end Greg Olsen. Cornerback Al Harris continued to pitch a shutout, having gone three games since returning from a torn spleen without giving up a catch to an opposing wideout. And the linebacking adjustment that shifted weak-side `backer A.J. Hawk to the middle and put Brandon Chillar in the starting lineup at Hawk's former spot looks like a winner. Many thought Hawk would be better suited for the middle coming out of college, and he looked like a natural Sunday tying for the team lead with seven stops. But Chillar's presence may have been the bigger factor. Fast and rangy, Chillar is the team's best `backer in coverage and filled the holes in the run game with authority. As a result, the Bears managed just 83 yards rushing, with Matt Forte gaining only 64.


DE Jason Hunter
Mike Roemer/AP Images

4. Somehow, the Packers D will find the end zone
It's ridiculous to expect the Packers defense to score every week, but that's almost how it feels. Not since the days of Desmond Howard have Packers fans felt this excitement about reaching the end zone when a unit other than the offense is on the field.

Reserve defensive end Jason Hunter was an unlikely candidate for an unlikely trip to the end zone, scooping up Kyle Orton's bobbled snap on fourth-and-10 and rumbling 54-yards for a touchdown and a 34-3 lead. It was Green Bay's seventh return for a TD on defense this season, breaking the previous mark set in 1966.

5. Another NFC North crown is a definite possibility
They might have the same 5-5 record, but the Packers exposed their division rivals as pretenders, not contenders. The Bears are a modestly talented team, at best, regardless of who lines up at quarterback. Forte is a good young back but nothing Green Bay couldn't handle, Devin Hester seems to have lost his mojo as a return man, and Chicago's defense was overmatched.

At the Metrodome a week earlier, Green Bay was terrible in the trenches and still came within three feet of the right upright of winning the game. The week before that, they lost in overtime to a Titans team that's currently 10-0. The 2008 Packers are a very good football team. As good as last year? Clearly not. But if the running game is back on track, the offensive line can keep Rodgers clean, and the defense can keep getting their greedy little hands on the ball, this team will win another division title. They are a more balanced team than either Chicago or Minnesota. They just need to play up to their ability down the stretch.

W. Keith Roerdink is a Staff Writer for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


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