Christmas miracle: Packers upset Dolphins and (almost) retake control of playoff destiny
The Packers got everything they wanted for Christmas and now have a viable path to the playoffs.
Santa left some incredible presents under the tree for the Green Bay Packers this Christmas. Everything fell in their favor during Saturday's slate, giving the Packers a viable path to the postseason that many -- including one member of The Leap -- had written off weeks ago.
But for any of that to effectively matter, the Packers had to take care of business. They did just that on Sunday, dispatching the Miami Dolphins in a 26-20 upset. That game came with some negatives which today's edition of The Leap will dive into momentarily.
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Which was the most significant loss for the Packers on Sunday: Yosh Nijman, Keisean Nixon, or Christian Watson?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: The Packers felt the absence of all three players mentioned in the question, so reasonable arguments exist for each. Keisean Nixon again demonstrated his incredible value as a returner while Christian Watson made plays on key downs and would have helped in the red zone had he not left with a hip injury. Those losses mattered materially.
However, Yosh Nijman's void proved the hardest to fill, and not unsurprisingly. Outside of last's week's uncharacteristic performance, Nijman had proven himself a highly reliable pass protector who rarely makes huge mistakes. He played well prior to his shoulder injury against the Dolphins as well.
The delta between Nijman and his replacement, Royce Newman, couldn't have looked much larger. Newman drew multiple penalties in roughly half a game of work and blew his block on at least one critical short-yardage play that led to a fourth down. Those types of mistakes will typically doom a team in a tight contest.
The Packers survived a Newman for one week, but expecting him to start if Nijman can't suit up next week against the Minnesota Vikings looks dicey at best. Perhaps David Bakhtiari returns, freeing Zach Tom to slide over to right tackle if Nijman can't go.
Regardless, Nijman's value has become crystal clear, and his absence matters significantly.
Peter Bukowski: If you’d asked me this question before the game, I would have assumed the answer would be Nijman, but after watching the Packers offense struggle to create opportunities in the passing game, particularly in the red zone, without Watson, that’s my answer.
Royce Newman won’t win any beauty contests for the performance he put together on Sunday in Miami, but it wasn’t terrible. On the other hand, the Packers showed how limited they are outside of Watson with dynamic pass-catchers. Any Allen Lazard catch has to be contested or schemed up. Randall Cobb struggles against physical defensive backs and the officials let the Dolphins’ corners get away with just about whatever they wanted. And fellow rookie Romeo Doubs made a handful of nice plays but clearly lacks that game-breaking dynamism of his classmate.
Doubs still boasts plenty of potential and his fit next to Watson blends seamlessly. But Watson stirs the mojito and that was clear in Miami. Next week, the answer may well be Nijman against a Vikings pass rush that created plenty of problems for Rodgers in their first matchup, but Watson’s value to this passing game already appears paramount.
How much credit does Rich Bisaccia deserve for Keisean Nixon injecting life into the return game and to what degree have the Packers' special-teams problems been fixed?
JBH: Rich Bisaccia seemed chiefly responsible for Nixon landing in Green Bay this offseason. The two had worked together with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Bisaccia wanted some of "his guys" to fix the coverage units. In that sense, he deserves considerable credit for Nixon.
However, Bisaccia also watched Amari Rodgers flub punt return after punt return and didn't pull the trigger on the change for weeks. Even when Nixon saw some action on returns as an injury replacement, the Packers went back to Rodgers, staying with him until his release last month. Both quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur have opened opined that Nixon should have seen that work earlier than he did. That, for Bisaccia, proved to be a critical mistake.
With that in mind, I can't give Bisaccia the lion's share of the credit for Nixon's emergence. Good coaches identify their best players early, and the Packers' highly paid special-teams coordinator didn't.
As for how much improvement special teams have exhibited, it does seem clear that the units have improved. No one discusses the long-snapper or the punter's holds, both issues that surfaced frequently in 2021. Coverage remains a bit unpredictable, but that too looks better than it did during the preseason.
Accordingly, while the Packers still have plenty of room for improvement on special teams, the units no longer create disaster whenever they step onto the field. Given Green Bay's recent past, that seems like a win.
PB: There’s an irony in all of this: If Bisaccia decides in preseason Nixon is his returner, we might be talking about how the Packers’ special teams are all of a sudden a strength because the kicking game looks mostly solid and coverage has been good. If Amari Rodgers could catch, they might have erected a statue for Bisaccia by now.
Instead, fans are erect with the idea of Nixon becoming the next Desmond Howard, and he might well be the best kick returner the Packers have had in almost that long.
Here’s the way I’ll reframe this: I don’t blame Bisaccia or this coaching staff for not knowing Nixon could do this. Returns in practice are rarely, if ever, as useful to evaluation as game opportunities. Failing to identify his return ability doesn’t fall in the “unforgivable” category for that reason.
Sticking with Rodgers for as long as they did probably does. What’s more, special teams won’t be the reason the Packers lose games in 2022, or at least it hasn’t been, but only because the offense and/or defense have taken care of that. It’s hard to know just how much progress the team has actually made aside from finding a player who shows special ability as a returner.
With both of the Packers' 2022 first-round picks seeing extensive playing time of late, which one do see being more impactful on the rest of the season?
JBH: A pass-rushing defensive lineman can and should have more impact than an off-ball linebacker in most situations. That notion would favor Devonte Wyatt who has generated pressure when he has seen the field lately.
However, Quay Walker has cleaned up some (though not all) of the mistakes he made early in the season and has seen his role expanded to playing some snaps on the ball as well. That continued on Sunday, most notably when the Packers lined him opposite of Preston Smith on a critical second-and-7 during the fourth quarter. Walker's size and athleticism -- both atypical for an inside linebacker -- make him a viable edge defender in certain situations. With a unit playing without Rashan Gary, that flexibility matters.
If Walker can continue to work as a multi-positional defender down the stretch, he could exceed the value typically associated with off-ball linebackers. That, along with his larger role, makes him the choice for me.
PB: I loved what Joe Barry did (stop, and think about that one for a second) using Quay Walker as an edge defender playing a 6-1 defense to defend the Dolphins’ wide-zone, Shanahan-tree run game. After a handful of explosive runs, the Packers defense clamped down on the Miami rushing attack in the second half.
Still, Walker failed to make consistent, high-level impact even if there are some nice flashes. On the other hand, Wyatt created some splash plays in the backfield with a pressure and a TFL on the same drive at one point. He’s so much more disruptive than Dean Lowry who left the game with injury.
Given the discrepancy between Lowry and Wyatt, I contest Wyatt can be more impactful because he’s so clearly more talented than Lowry. Walker, on the other hand, faces his own level of competency to raise the bar and we haven’t quite seen enough from him for me to expect he’ll be significantly better than he’s been.
JBH: During the second quarter, the Packers defense appeared to fall on the wrong side of a turning point. Down a touchdown without much sustained success on offense, Green Bay botched a punt fake that set up the Dolphins just outside the red zone. Given the circumstances, it seemed like a touchdown for Miami would effectively end the game.
That moment indeed proved to be the turning point in the contest, counterintuitively one that favored the Packers defense. From that point on, they held the Dolphins to three points on the short field, forced and recovered a fumble, and intercepted two throws from Tua Tagovailoa. Miami would manage just two field-goal attempts the rest of the way. All of which helped Green Bay move ahead during the fourth quarter, a lead the team wouldn't relinquish for the rest of the game.
By any objective measure, the Packers have come up well short of expectations in 2022. They entered as bona fide Super Bowl front-runners and, by midseason, looked as likely to land a top-10 pick as a playoff berth.
But over the last two months, Green Bay has righted the ship to a significant degree. It almost certainly won't result in a Lombardi Trophy this season, but it provides valid reasons for optimism next year.
PB: Fifteen straight. It’s a remarkable feat. Matt LaFleur has never not won in the month of December as an NFL head coach. He’s now 15-0 and will end the season unblemished as the Packers next play the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 1.
Plenty can be said about Green Bay’s soft playoff record or their 13-win seasons, at least the 2019 season, but winning in December undercuts the notion the Packers can’t win in cold playoff conditions. They win in the snowy winter months plenty. If anything, it’s not a temperature issue, but rather a temperament problem.
Still, winning all those games and earning three first-round byes in three seasons speaks to LaFleur’s mettle as a coach and the culture he’s constructed. What’s more, two of those December wins this year came after double-digit deficits on the road. I’ve written many times this season the importance of LaFleur proving he hasn’t lost this locker room.