Where I live in southeastern Wisconsin, the atmosphere is rife with despair as the Green Bay Packers head into the playoffs as a 5-seed following their blowing of the NFC North title last night at home to the Minnesota Vikings. No one can deny how poorly the 10-6 Packers have been playing for over two months, but it’s a serious mistake to casually dismiss this team.
I write from the perspective of a Redskins fan, who hosts Green Bay this coming Sunday in the wild-card round. Admittedly, when it comes to that game I’m following the adage of the great Joe Gibbs, which is always to elevate and praise your opponent. What kind of odds could one have gotten in August that not only would Washington and Green Bay meet in the playoffs, but the game would be a pick-‘em in Las Vegas and that it would be the Redskin quarterback that comes in on a roll?
But it’s that very fact that makes me nervous and should make the entire NFC still keep a wary eye on Green Bay. To the precise extent that the Packers problems are traceable to the play of Aaron Rodgers are the precise extent that they can hope for an immediate turnaround out of nowhere.
Green Bay’s defense is actually playing pretty well this season. They’re 12th in the league in points allowed, and were as high as fifth two weeks ago before 21 points allowed by the offense killed the ranking position. The offensive line has problems on the edge to be sure, but they have great players on the interior, with T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton at guard. The offensive line frankly was not a lot better—in fact was probably worse—during Rodgers’ MVP season of 2011.
The receivers are a problem as well, and the failure of the team to ever adequately replace Jordy Nelson—or at least minimize his loss—is a serious indictment of the coaching and organization, especially when compared to the Kansas City Chiefs losing Jamaal Charles midstream and still adjusting on the fly to win ten straight games.
But great quarterbacks can usually compensate—at least somewhat for the loss of one receiver. The simple fact is that Aaron Rodgers has not been himself this season and the decisive play last night illustrates that. A fourth-down throw into the end zone had an open receiver if Rodgers throws it outside. Instead, he threw a bad pass inside that was intercepted and clinched the game for Minnesota.
So my question, not only to fellow Redskins fans, but to fans of Carolina, Arizona, Seattle and anyone else is this—how confident are you that Rodgers will continue to struggle. Maybe it’s a bad year that takes the offseason to correct. But maybe all it takes is one good game. The Washington defense has played well this year, but they’re far from great and their biggest strength has been in quality tackling after the catch, as the complete lack of discipline from the Mike Shanahan years has become a thing of the past.
That means Rodgers will have a chance to get in a rhythm and complete some throws on Sunday in FedEx Field. What if that’s not only enough to win that game, but gets #12 feeling better and in a groove? We’ve seen stranger things happen in the playoffs. Joe Flacco got hot in 2012 and spent four weeks looking like Joe Montana. Eli Manning has built an entire career on two magical Januarys. Does anyone really believe Aaron Rodgers suddenly reversing field and doing the same is more improbable than that?
In their own, the Packers are more dangerous than the Patriots right now. Let me clarify that carefully—Green Bay is not better than New England. But I’ve watched the Patriots all year and the injuries on the offensive line and at the skill spots have finally overwhelmed Tom Brady and they just can’t move the ball consistently. The problem isn’t Brady—he’s hitting receivers like the open one Rodgers missed at the end of Sunday Night. Brady’s opportunities to make plays are reduced drastically, but he’s still made the ones that are on the table.
But that also means the players who are struggling aren’t likely to get better in the next week or two. As Rick Pitino said when he coached a bad Celtics team “Larry Bird is not walking through that door. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door.” Barring a massive return to health by at least three players, New England is what they are at this point in the year.
But that’s not the case with Green Bay. If you’re looking for a turnaround spot, there’s no safer bet than a proud athlete who’s playing poorly and needs to rescue himself and his team immediately. That’s Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this January. And those 35-1 odds that Vegas is giving on the Pack to win the Super Bowl look enticing.