Dougherty: Packers can make sure that road to Super Bowl goes through Green Bay
The Green Bay Packers caught a big break Sunday.
Not so much the Marvin Jones incompletion that should have ruled a catch in the fourth quarter, and not so much the onside kick that was called out of bounds but could have gone either way inside two minutes. Though both of those were indeed breaks.
No, their big break came via the Philadelphia Eagles, the same team the Packers beat up on last week, who upset the Drew Brees-less New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Unexpectedly, the Packers find themselves in control of the race for the prized first seeding in the NFC playoffs.
With three games to play, the 10-3 Packers hold the top seeding because of their win head-to-head in Week 3 gives them the tie-breaker over the Saints (10-3). It’s now as simple as this: If the Packers beat Carolina and Tennessee at home in the next two games, then win at Chicago in the last game, they will be seeded No. 1 and gain the NFC’s lone playoff bye as well as home field for the playoffs.
“It’s important for sure to get that extra week of rest,” Aaron Rodgers said of the possibility of getting the top seeding. “The big thing though, and you guys know this, we’ve been in, I believe, four NFC championship games, all four on the road. So being able to have the whole thing come through Green Bay is something we’ve talked about for a long time we’ve wanted, never had. So that would definitely be in our favor with the weather we have in Green Bay, play at home, be on our schedule. That’s obviously in play. It was always in play but it’s definitely in play now.”
What Rodgers failed to mention is the Packers did have the top seeding once during his time as starter, in 2011, but that 15-1 team faded down the stretch and lost in a dud at Lambeau Field in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
The 2020 Packers are now in the best position they’ve had since then to get home-field advantage again. Though they’re not as explosive as in 2011, like that team they lead the NFL in scoring, and they will go as far as their offense takes them.
Their defense is doing enough to win, as it did Sunday against the Lions in giving up 293 yards and 24 points, which isn’t bad against quarterback Matthew Stafford. All it takes is a stop or two in the first half, and the Packers have a decent chance of taking control of any game.
There’s still not a lot of reason for LaFleur to trust his defense, though. The Lions got two scores in the fourth quarter when they needed them, and if officials hadn’t botched the replay on what was ruled Jones’ non-catch, there would have been about nine minutes left in the game, not 6½, with the Packers leading by only a touchdown.
Coach Matt LaFleur’s offense might have put the game away anyway, regardless of the time remaining. Besides having one of the best quarterback-receiver-running back trios in the league (Rodgers, Davante Adams and Aaron Jones), they also have an ascending tight end in Robert Tonyan (five catches for 36 yards and a touchdown), and young receivers in Marquez Valdes-Scanting (6 for 85 and a touchdown) and Allen Lazard (2 for 19) who, if nothing else, seem to be improving late in the year.
Either way, the Packers, with help from Minnesota losing at Tampa Bay on Sunday, clinched their seventh NFC North title in Rodgers’ 13 years as their quarterback. But the division crown has long been considered a given, and the Packers have to be aiming higher.
It looked like their best chance for the top seed was going to be next week, when New Orleans faces the best team in the league, the Kansas City Chiefs. But Philadelphia pulled off the upset, and the Packers now are in control.
They blew their best chance of getting back to the Super Bowl in the 2014 season with their infamous meltdown in the final five minutes at Seattle in the NFC championship game. They then were blown off the field in their two most recent trips to the conference title game (44-21 at Atlanta in the ’16 season, 37-20 at San Francisco last season).
No wonder they badly want the chance to play that game at Lambeau. A week’s rest and the prospect of warm-weather teams traveling to Wisconsin for a game in January have to look good to Rodgers and his teammates after those failures with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
“I’m really confident as a team obviously,” Adams said, “but we’ve been in a really good position, got to the NFC championship, I’ve been in that three times. You don’t really want to look up until you get all the way through it. I don’t like being negative, but just kind have that Kobe (Bryant) mind-set, we’re definitely not done, we’ve got a lot more work to put in to get where we want to be.”
Now it’s in their hands. A 3-0 finish, and the road to Tampa for the Super Bowl runs through Green Bay.