Dougherty: Packers not flawless in Chicago but are set up perfectly for playoff run
The Green Bay Packers have waited nine years to be in this position.
More often than not over that time, they’ve been contenders to get to the Super Bowl, but now, for the first time since the 2011 season, the NFC road to Tampa runs through Lambeau Field.
The Packers’ much-tougher-than-the-score-suggests 35-16 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field clinched them the top seeding in the NFC. Their reward is a week off while everyone else battles through wild-card weekend, then the prospect of two home games, if they make it that far, with all the comforts (for themselves) and discomforts (for an opponent coming to Green Bay in January) that entails.
It guarantees nothing, of course — back in 2011 they were a prohibitive favorite with the home field at 15-1, but the New York Giants knocked them out of the playoffs in their first game. But this is what every team wants. They’re also playing good football — not great, but good enough to be the favorites ahead of the No. 2-seeded New Orleans Saints.
It probably also helps the Packers that they had to play to win in Week 17, rather than having the double-edged luxury of sitting key players if the No. 1 seeding had already been locked up. In ’11, Rodgers sat out the finale, so he had two games off before that divisional loss, not one. That might be the difference between being fresh and a little rusty.
“It’s nice to be able to go in playing,” Rodgers said after the game. “I think we need the bye, we need a couple guys to get healthy, we’re a little banged up. And obviously the weather is a big factor, a big helper for us in Green Bay. So I’m not worried about any rust or anything. We’ve been real solid all season in situational football and we were again today on third down and red zone, so I like our chances going forward.”
If the wild-card round goes according to teams’ records, the Tampa Bay Bucs will be coming to Lambeau in two weeks in what would be a very interesting divisional round game. But you never know what might happen next weekend.
Regardless, the biggest threat the Packers face for at least the next two weeks is COVID-19. They’ve avoided a major outbreak all season, but as we’ve seen the NFL is not going to postpone a game just because a team has lost a lot of players, even their best ones, to COVID protocols. That has to be coach Matt LaFleur’s biggest emphasis heading into the postseason with a Super Bowl there for the taking.
“We’re going to have to be disciplined in our approach and take it day by day,” LaFleur said, “not only from the football component but being responsible off the field as well, just with everything going on in the world. What we told our guys is we need everybody in that locker room to be their best, and the only way that can happen is if everybody is available.”
This game by all appearances clinched Rodgers his third MVP as well. With Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes getting the week off because the Chiefs have wrapped up the top seeding in the AFC, and Rodgers playing well (147.9 rating) in the last game before voting, odds look strongly in Rodgers’ favor to win his third MVP.
But he’s still working on winning his second Super Bowl, and this is about as good a chance as he’s going to get. To get to this spot, the Packers on Sunday took on a team playing for its playoff life – Chicago could have clinched a playoff spot with a win but got in the side door anyway when the Los Angeles Rams defeated Arizona – and the Bears played like it.
Their offense faces real limitations with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, but David Montgomery’s hard running and Trubisky working mainly off bootlegs kept the Bears’ offense on the field for most of the game (Chicago had the ball for 35½ minutes to the Packers’ 24½).
But the Packers’ improving defense was at least good enough to buck up in the red zone (three forced field goals and one fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter). That put the Packers in position to win how they’re likely going to win in close games in the playoffs: With Rodgers and the offense closing it out.
In this case, it was a 7½-minute drive in the fourth quarter with their two best playmakers, Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, accounting for 61 of the 76 yards. Jones’ four-yard touchdown run gave the Packers a 12-point lead with less than four minutes to play, and that in effect was the game.
There still are things to wonder about and question with the Packers, such as why AJ Dillon played only a handful of snaps and had one touch a week after he rushed for 124 yards. LaFleur very well might need his big, physical rookie running back to win a playoff game at Lambeau, so getting him a couple touches early might be the way to go, just to make sure he’s ready to go later.
Then there’s the taketh-and-giveth-away Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who caught a big 72-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter but then dropped an easy 53-yard bomb early in the third quarter that would have been a huge score. The Packers need Valdes-Scantling’s field-stretching speed, but these recurring drops have to be in his head by this point, and it’s hard to trust a guy when it’s a flip of the coin whether he’s going to catch the ball on a game-turning play.
Still, the Packers are where they’ve wanted to be for nearly a decade: Holding the first seeding for the playoffs. They get a week off and the advantage of making teams, likely warm-weather teams, come to Lambeau in January.
Then it’s on them to make it worth the effort.