I have probably been to Lambeau Field 20+ times, and Sunday was the best crowd I’ve ever seen there. I’m still riding a high from a game that for most of the first half felt like it could be careening toward another devastating early playoff exit for the Packers, but obviously you know things turned out differently. Some thoughts:
1) Aaron Rodgers at his best is better than everyone else I’ve ever seen at their best.
The last two seasons have been a profoundly strange experience with Aaron Rodgers. There was a full calendar year where he was just not himself. He was skittish in the pocket. He overthrew receivers who had a step on their defenders on deep routes, or missed open ones on crossing routes.
As you’re aware, the switch flipped back this season. There were gradual signs of offensive improvement in losses against Tennessee and Washington, then he made the “run the table” comment and yada yada yada he’s back and better than ever.
During the first quarter Sunday, we caught a glimpse of what Average Aaron looks like, and it was terrifying. He wasn’t stepping into passes, and there were several opportunities that would have required great throws but got missed. He twice took sacks that took the Packers out of field goal range. Before the Packers had their first score, they punted five times.
And then all of a sudden he was remarkable again. He hit Davante Adams for 31 yards down the right sideline, then squeezed in a touchdown through a football-sized window two plays later. After that, a hail mary, which has somehow become routine. In the second half he was downright surgical.
When he plays like he did after the first five drives, it’s hard to imagine the Packers could ever lose.
2) Packers weapons really stepped up with Jordy Nelson out
There are a lot of variables that caused the aforementioned Rodgers struggles, but the biggest one in my opinion was the loss of Jordy Nelson in 2015, and the time in 2016 it took him to fully regain his legs. Once Jordy was back, so were the Pack.
On Sunday, Jordy took a devastating shot to the ribs a few minutes into the second quarter, and missed the rest of the game. At the time, the offense had already been less than fluid, and this felt like a moment that would have dire consequences in the contest.
Instead, Davante Adams finished with 8 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown, Randall Cobb with with 5 catches for 116 yards and 3 TDs, and Jared Cook with 5 catches for 48 yards. Cook gives the Packers an element that they’ve lacked since Jermichael Finley; it’s lovely having him.
3) The game really could have shifted on that failed fourth-and-1, but didn’t.
On their second drive of the second half, the Packers had a 14-6 lead. They went for it on 4th-and-inches from inside their own territory, got stuffed, and gave up a touchdown to Tavarres King two plays later.
A lot of people on Twitter were aghast at Mike McCarthy’s decision to go for it there. I was not in that camp. I’m in favor of aggression and trying to take the game into your own hands. What I didn’t like was the fourth down play call. Previously on that drive, Christine Michael had run 4 times for 27 yards. Instead of continuing to feed him the rock, Aaron Ripkowski got a 3rd-and-1 carry, and the 4th-and-1 call went to Ty Montgomery.
I get that Christine Michael is new to the team and may not know all the blocking schemes, but that was a situation where I really would have stuck with the hot hand.
4) I can’t get enough of the Odell Beckham tears.
I wavered back and forth all week about whether I thought the Miami excursion was a good or bad thing for the Packers. At first I thought it was a great distraction. Then I loved the way Eli Manning and Ben McAdoo defused the situation, and felt like OBJ would use it as extra motivation.
Then he dropped somewhere between 3 and 5 balls and punched a hole in the wall. These were not insignificant drops either. They were ones that would have extended drives or scored touchdowns. Instead, after dominating for a quarter and a half, the Giants had just six points to show for it.
This was beginning to feel like the playoff game in early 2012 where the Giants let the Packers hang around despite severely outplaying them. Thankfully, this was not the case!
In and of itself, the boat trip didn’t affect Beckham’s performance. Even if you take out that hullaballoo, if he had the game he had yesterday he’d be getting severely scapegoated today. We went through this last year with Cam Newton. When you are an overt attention seeker, you have to back it up on the field week in and week out, or that attention-seeking will receive outsized blame. It will be interesting to see how he responds going forward.
5) How about that Packers D?
A hallmark of the Packers’ resurgence has been the defense returning to their bend-but-don’t-break, get timely sacks and turnovers, ways. Jake Ryan was everywhere making tackles. Clay Matthews forced two fumbles on one play, and the ageless Julius Peppers had residency in the Giants’ backfield. Ladarius Gunter and Odell Beckham joined forces to hold Beckham to 4 catches for 28 yards.
Aaron Rodgers rightfully gets a ton of credit for the Packers advancing, but the defense put up as great a performance as you ever could have hoped for them yesterday.
6) It wasn’t THAT cold.
A major storyline leading up and into the game was how damn frigid it was gonna be. The Ice Bowl, this was not. This was a typical Wisconsin day in January.
When it’s cold, you can always add more layers. This was nowhere near as bad as the game last Thanksgiving where Bart Starr and Brett Favre appeared on the field at halftime, and it was sleeting horizontally. That game was nominally warmer, but was a whole lot more miserable than Sunday.
I think that the threat of the cold weather — as well as past heartbreak inflicted by the Giants — kept a lot of people away. Tickets were still onsale through the Packers late in the week, and got down below $70 — face was like $118 — on the secondary market yesterday.
Another component of this formula is entitlement and complacency amongst Packers fans. When they’re in the playoffs eight straight years, there is some fatigue. However, this was an opportunity to watch Aaron Rodgers, a historically great talent performing at his peak, in the playoffs, and I’ll never turn that down at Lambeau.
Nevertheless, these factors which drove down ticket prices also manifested in a crowd that brought its A game on Sunday. The whole inner bowl stood the whole time the Packers were on defense — on typical occasions now, you’ll hear a lot of snide “DOWN IN FRONT’s.” This crowd was loud, and did not pack it in when the Packers were faltering early. Listening to postgame interviews on the radio on the way home, you could tell players appreciated it.
7) I ate lots of good stuff.
On Saturday night, I had a bacon butter cheeseburger at Kroll’s. It was delectable. However, it was not photogenic, so I won’t make you look at it. On Sunday, I joined Kyle Cousineau’s tailgate. Kyle has been nicknamed the “mayor of Green Bay” by ESPN Packers writer Jason Wilde, and he’s a sports media junkie who meets a lot of sports media members when they pass through town.
His friends and family cooked up beef stew, brats, and a bologna/bacon combo dish that was exquisite. His father also made Fireball pudding shots, and while you may reflexively think that sounds gross, they were actually really good.
On Saturday, there was a great meet-up amongst people from Packers Twitter at The Bar on Holmgren Way:
It was great to put faces to so many names — including Aaron Nagler, Corey Behnke, Wally Pingel, C.D. Angeli, and Jersey Al — whose Packers observations I’ve been reading for many years.
8) We’re onto Dallas.
The Cowboys have a much tougher offense to deal with than what we saw out of the Giants yesterday. Ezekiel Elliott is a monster, and the Packers are going to have to contain him — and the play action plays that the threat of him opens up — than they did the last time these two teams met.
But if the Aaron Rodgers of the last seven weeks shows up, I like Green Bay’s chances.