Packers crush Vikings in prime time to secure NFC's top playoff seed
Matt LaFleur moved ahead of George Seifert for most wins by a head coach over his first three seasons while Aaron Rodgers might have secured his fourth MVP award.
The Green Bay Packers clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed by crushing the Minnesota Vikings in prime time. The game also marked Matt LaFleur's 39th win with the team, moving him ahead of George Seifert for the most for a head coach over his first three seasons in NFL history. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers might have secured his fourth Most Valuable Player award.
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Once again, the Packers have 13 wins and a bye in the playoffs. Why might this postseason unfold differently than the past two?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: The 2020 Packers grade better overall than the 2021 iteration directly following the penultimate regular-season game. However, the former largely avoided major injuries until the final week, at which time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari suffered a season-ending ACL tear. That injury likely tilted the outcome of the NFC Championship Game given how effectively the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pressured Aaron Rodgers that night.
The current Packers have suffered injuries throughout the year, losing Za'Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander, Elgton Jenkins, and other starters for the majority of the season. Meanwhile, Bakhtiari has yet to make his return, further stressing the team's depth.
But this version of Green Bay hasn't wilted under those harsh conditions. Rather, reserves like Yosh Nijman and Rasul Douglas have stepped into prominent roles and their respective units have not missed a beat. This team's ability to not only survive those injuries but thrive despite them suggests a different outcome in the postseason.
"I think absolutely it does (feel different)," LaFleur said of this year's Packers during Sunday's postgame press conference. "I think this year's been met with certain unforeseen challenges. Certainly, we've had to weather our fair share of adversity in terms of the injuries we've obtained throughout the course of the season, some big-time guys that we're missing. But our guys have rallied around one another and found a way to continue to stack wins."
And the Packers might still regain some of their injured starters. Rodgers specifically mentioned Alexander, Bakhtiari, Smith, and rookie Josh Myers as return candidates following Sunday's win, and the postseason bye week Green Bay clinched provides additional time for all four to recover.
Between the Packers demonstrating the ability to overcome major injuries and the possibility of getting some of those field-tilters back in the fold, the team has to feel strongly about breaking through to the Super Bowl.
Peter Bukowski: Versatility. This team is more versatile than last year on offense and defense. Matt LaFleur introduced more gap scheme concepts into the run game for A.J. Dillon who also emerged as a pass-catching threat. Green Bay doesn’t just have man-beaters on third down or want to run 12 variations of Mesh.
Defensively, we saw this two-shell version of the Packers able to stop the run, holding noted Packers killer Dalvin Cook to 13 carries on 9 carries and no yards on three catches. And it’s not as if Sean Mannion can be the excuse; Green Bay played their usual two-high looks and didn’t load the box to stop Cook because they weren’t afraid of Mannion.
This defense can win with pass-rush, with turnovers — a key difference from last year when their ball-hawking skills were basically Darnell Savage and no one else — with scheme and execution. The tackling improved from a brief lull in December after showing themselves to be one of the best tackling teams in the league most of the season.
The Packers might not win the Super Bowl because they don’t play quite well enough but we’ve seen them play many styles and win.
What does a third consecutive 13-win season say about Packers head coach Matt LaFleur?
JBH: LaFleur's debut season with the Packers resulted in 13 regular-season wins, but the team never seemed to fully click at any point during the year. That breakthrough came in Year 2, thanks in part to the aforementioned good fortune of avoiding major injury or losing too many players to COVID.
But in 2021, LaFleur faced more challenges than at any point in his Green Bay tenure, yet the team still delivered the same outstanding results.
LaFleur's game-planning has taken centerstage this season, with the third-year head coach finding ways to scheme around his personnel deficiencies while highlighting the team's strengths. His coaching performance against the San Francisco 49ers probably rates as his best to date, perhaps rivaled only by Green Bay's pivotal victory over the Arizona Cardinals without any of its top three wideouts. The Packers don't secure the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed without those wins, and LaFleur helped deliver them.
For those reasons and more, LaFleur has a strong chance of winning NFL Coach of the Year honors. But whether or not he takes home the award, this season has changed the perception of LaFleur from the coach who wins because of Rodgers to the coach that, along with Rodgers, has revitalized the Packers.
PB: *Control A* *Control C* *Control P*.
Green Bay’s ability to play many styles, to adapt offensively, to find new ways to attack defenses, and to make incremental improvements defensively speak to LaFleur’s capabilities as a coach. For him to do it with all the injuries facing this team, to get a terrific rushing season behind an offensive line of backups, or to continue to produce high-quality offense without Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Big Bob Tonyan, or Randall Cobb for long stretches, speaks to his alacrity within his own scheme.
There’s also an easy counter to the, “But he had Rodgers,” part of this. No team in NFL history — like … ever with any quarterback — has ever won 13 games in three straight seasons and the Packers didn’t even need the extra game to do it. Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Patrick Mahomes, Brett Favre, and *checks notes* Aaron Rodgers under Mike McCarthy, never managed to do what the Packers have done. It has to be more than just the quarterback.
Not to mention Rodgers’ ascension back to the top of the QB pantheon in the league only came after he embraced the LaFleur style of offense and was more pronounced in 2021, leaning into getting the ball out quick and letting the offense do the work.
What we're seeing/hearing
JBH: While conventional wisdom suggests that the Packers would rest their starters in the season finale with the No. 1 seed secured, the team might have other ideas. LaFleur, Rodgers, and Davante Adams each said they expect the starters to play during next week's meaningless tilt with the Detroit Lions, at least for some period of time.
The wisdom of that decision will surely garner debate over the next few days. However, that the option has even garnered serious consideration suggests that Rodgers, who has battled a toe fracture for weeks, feels much better than in past weeks.
One cannot understate the significance of Rodgers returning to nearly full health. While he has remained mobile despite the injury, he has appeared to be in considerable pain at various points over two months.
After Sunday's game, Rodgers said he avoided a setback and feels like he might practice on multiple days this week, a major step in his recovery process. If he does so and avoids an aggravation during the season finale, he shouldn't have much holding him back come the postseason.
PB: Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur each intimated after the game starters would like to see at least some action against the Lions in a meaningless Week 18 matchup. The Packers had to win in Week 17 in 2019 to secure a first-round bye and needed 13 fourth-quarter points to beat David Blough. They dominated the Bears last season to clinch the No. 1 seed and in each case played well after the bye.
Fans will point out what happened in 2011 when the Packers rested Rodgers and a slew of starters in Week 17 against the Lions, though plenty of key players did go in that one, leading to the bizarre Divisional Round loss to the Giants that featured crazy drops, fumbles and a Hail Mary not thrown by Aaron Rodgers.
No one should believe in causality with these two, but LaFleur aptly points out not playing for three weeks would be a long time for any team, and when they’re trying to get Randall Cobb, Jaire Alexander, and maybe David Bakhtiari or Za’Darius Smith back, having some real practice time and a couple of game reps could be useful.
JBH: The quarterback-receiver tandem of Rodgers and Davante Adams quietly crept into historic territory over the course of the 2021 season. Following Sunday's win over the Vikings, the duo has combined for 76 touchdowns, good for seventh place all-time and one behind the No. 6 pairing, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Rodgers and Adams could tie or surpass that Pittsburgh Steelers combo next week depending on how much playing time LaFleur gives them.
All of which underscores how Adams has recontextualized the way we think of Rodgers' pass catchers. For years, the receiver most closely associated with Rodgers was Jordy Nelson, an all-time great Packers wideout but decidedly not a Hall of Famer. Seemingly every offseason, some national pundit would point out that the Packers haven't spent a first-round pick on a receiver since Javon Walker in 2002. Those narratives came to a boil back in the spring when Rodgers' disgruntlement with the franchise became public knowledge.
But Adams has quashed those notions. He has established himself as the NFL's premier receiver and, over the last two years, put himself in the Hall of Fame conversation.
With NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reporting Sunday morning that the Packers believe Rodgers will return to Green Bay in 2022 and Adams will likely receive the franchise tag, the tandem should continue to put up numbers. Even one more season of this caliber would launch them into the top five, potentially reaching Steve Young and Jerry Rice (92 touchdowns). For Rodgers and Adams — two players who grew up in northern California — that would likely hold special significance.
PB: January football is back and so is the pony package! Green Bay brought out multiple versions of 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end) featuring A.J. Dillon in the backfield with Aaron Jones. We saw the familiar RPO looks with Jones running the swing motion and Dillon getting inside handoffs. LaFleur found some wrinkles off that, even a few that weren’t RPO’s, but rather meant to look like them.
In cold weather games where the Packers want Dillon on the field for his bone-chilling power, using these two running back looks makes sense. Dillon proving himself as a pass catcher only adds versatility to those packages because Green Bay won’t only hand the ball to him in those looks.
Jones doesn’t profile as the cold-weather hammer Dillon does, but he’s still a chunk play waiting to happen with a pair of 25+ yard runs in the game and 76 yards on a scant 8 carries, a robust 9.5 yard per rush. With Dillon pounding defensive interiors (giggidy), Jones capable of breaking off chunk runs, and now each proving to be a pass-catching threat, the Packers’ versatility with their backs grows exponentially.
Expect LaFleur to keep having fun with those two.