Dougherty: Packers show vulnerabilities but remain in driver's seat for NFC's top seed
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers aren’t exactly mowing them down in December.
Yes, they held their front-runner position in the chase for the coveted top seeding in the NFC’s playoffs with their fourth straight win Saturday night, 24-16 over the game Carolina Panthers.
And no, there aren’t style points in the NFL, so what matters most is that at 11-3 they need only win out to get the lone playoff bye in the NFC and home field for as long as they’re alive in the playoffs.
It’s also true they looked like a dominating team for the first 1½ quarters.
But it’s equally true that 1½ great quarters doesn’t come close to making a good game. And any NFL teams watching the game video from the past few weeks, including the three-point second half in this one, are not going to see much that will strike fear into them despite the Packers’ 11-3 record.
“It is frustrating,” Aaron Rodgers said of the Packers’ failure to put away a game they led 21-3, “but we’re 11-3, we won the game, that’s a good problem to have. We just know that type of football in the second half, not going to get it done in the playoffs. That’s where we’re going, that’s the trajectory we’re on, at least host a playoff game, win these next two and we’re going to be the one seed. Need to play better these next two weeks.”
The Packers are wins over Tennessee and Chicago away from locking up the NFC’s No. 1 seeding regardless of what anyone else does. They even could lose to Tennessee next week and still have a decent shot at the top seed, depending on what New Orleans (10-3), Seattle (9-4) and the Los Angeles Rams (9-4) do Sunday and in the final two weeks.
But droughts like the Packers went on in this game will get them knocked out of a playoff game regardless of whether it’s at Lambeau Field.
Coach Matt LaFleur’s team was in great position to blow this game open after linebacker Krys Barnes made the play of the day by punching the ball out of Teddy Bridgewater’s hands as the quarterback tried to go over the top on a sneak from the 1. It was essentially a 14-point swing, because it took a sure seven points away from Carolina, and Kevin King’s 48-yard return set up Green Bay on a short field for a touchdown of its own.
But then the Packers had a horrendous stretch of five possessions on which they had four straight three-and-outs and one first down total. They went from looking like the top scoring team in the league, which they are, to the lifeless offense that got Mike McCarthy fired two years ago.
“I’ve got to do better for our guys and give us more opportunities to go out there and put somebody away,” LaFleur said.
Credit Carolina for pressuring Rodgers with their good combo outside-inside rush of Brian Burns and No. 7 overall draft pick Derrick Brown. But the Packers also got away from running Aaron Jones (114 yards rushing in the first half, 145 for the game) and were unable to make Davante Adams a factor (seven catches but only 42 yards) with Carolina double-covering him all game.
“A couple good quarters and a couple stinkers,” Rodgers said. “That’s just not consistent, winning football.”
Said LaFleur: “I just think we’ve got to move (Adams) around. I don’t think we motioned probably as much as we have a lot of the season. We’ve got to find ways to get him the rock, he’s such a valuable part of obviously this football team. When he’s doing well, usually we’re doing well on offense.”
The Packers at least can feel good about one thing as they close in on the money portion of the season: the clutch kicking of 36-year-old Mason Crosby. In back-to-back weeks now, he has hit tough kicks in the final minutes that fended off a potential upset. Last week it was a 57-yarder indoors at Ford Field that gave the Packers a 10-point lead over Detroit with 3½ minutes to play. Saturday night it was a 51-yarder with 3:39 left that put them up 11.
“Obviously high,” Crosby said of his confidence level on tough clutch kicks. “We’ve had it in the last couple games and there’s been others throughout the season. I just feel really confident with the work I’m putting in in the week, and just my balance and execution on kicks during the games. Just trying not to make anything too complicated.”
In the bigger picture, the fact is the Packers have played only three teams that are .500 or better (New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis), and they lost two of them (beating only the Saints).
Tennessee (9-4) next week will be the fourth, and the Titans have a player who figures to be a big problem based on the how the Packers’ run defense has played the last two seasons: Derrick Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher. We’ll find out a lot about the 2020 Packers next Sunday.
LaFleur also finally might be forced to get second-round pick AJ Dillon on the field, depending on how bad backup running back Jamal Williams’ quad injury is. Williams left Saturday night’s game in the second quarter and never returned. General manager Brian Gutekunst drafted the 247-pound Dillon in the second round precisely for this time of year. As of now, the Packers don’t know if he gives them any advantage in winter games in Lambeau, but if Williams doesn’t play then this might be the week they find out.
The Packers don’t have to apologize for winning, and Carolina has been a highly competitive team no matter what the record (4-10) says. But LaFleur’s team is as well set up for a Super Bowl run as the Packers have been in a decade, and the time for peaking is almost at hand.
“As fun as the first couple quarters were,” Rodgers said, “it’s not going to be the easiest night of sleep thinking about the second half.”