Dougherty: How do the '22 Packers compare with '10 and '16? There are similarities, for sure
GREEN BAY − This is not the first time in the past 15 years the Green Bay Packers have made an improbable late run into or through the playoffs.
In 2010, they turned around a so-so season with a strong finish, then peaked in the playoffs and finished as well-deserved Super Bowl champs.
In 2016, they resurrected a bad season by winning out the final six weeks and then advancing to the NFC title game only to get blown out by the Atlanta Falcons.
This year’s Packers have a chance to join that list. If they defeat the Detroit Lions on Sunday, they’ll get into the playoffs as the lowest (No. 7) seed in the NFC and on a five-game winning streak after sitting at a going-nowhere 4-8 not long ago.
If you’re looking for similarities among these three Packers teams, there are some. There also are meaningful differences, as well as some qualities we won’t know about the ’22 Packers until they do or don’t do it on the field.
A common thread among all three is that one or two players emerged almost out of nowhere to make a big difference in the stretch drive. That helped all three pick up late momentum for a postseason run. The ’10 and ’16 Packers made good on that momentum, whereas the ’22 version, while starting to get the attention of its NFC peers, is not yet even in the playoffs, and still has a long way to go from its current self-belief to a deep postseason run.
“The game is about momentum. It always has been,” said an assistant coach in the league who has won one Super Bowl and participated in another. “… I don’t know if (the Packers) can make a big run, but when you get hot towards the end of the season, that’s a great time to be hot. A lot of times teams that are really good in the middle of the season taper off a little towards the end of the season. It’s hard to maintain that. But there’s nothing more powerful than believing. Nothing.”
Packers had players emerge midway through each season
The 2010 Packers won four of their last six games to squeak into the playoffs at 10-6. But Aaron Rodgers missed most of one of the two losses and all of the other because of a concussion, so that might have obscured how well they were playing when they hit the playoffs.
Sill, one big factor in their run to the title was an obscure player who had a lost regular season. Rookie running back James Starks, a seventh-round draft pick, had played in only three games all season because of a hamstring injury before becoming a surprise starter at running back in the wild-card round against Philadelphia.
The Packers offense had been up and down all season in large part because it had no run game to speak of, but in the playoffs, Starks provided a threat (81 rushes, 5.0 yards per carry) defenses had to honor, which helped Rodgers take the offense over the hump. Starks made a difference even though he wasn’t a difference maker.
And on defense, a niche player came out of nowhere to make a similar difference on that side of the ball as well. For the first half the season, the Packers’ struggled to stop the run, so they claimed 340-pound Howard Green on waivers in late October after the New York Jets dumped him because of weight issues. Green ended up being the missing piece for the Packers to control the line of scrimmage on early downs.
The turnaround in ’16 was primarily because Rodgers went on an epic run, though tight end Jared Cook’s return from injury not coincidentally lined up with that run. Cook was an afterthought for the first half of the year because of foot and ankle injuries. He returned from a six-game absence a week before the Packers’ started their six-game win streak to close the regular season.
Cook was a career underachiever with size and speed signed as a low-risk free agent that offseason. It turned out that when healthy his ability to stretch defenses from the tight end position was all Rodgers needed to go on the hot streak (114.3 rating, 24 touchdowns to two interceptions) that carried the Packers through the NFC title game.
Similarly, the Packers’ turnaround this season was triggered by two players who were non-factors the first half of the year.
Their dormant offense had little going for it until second-round draft pick Christian Watson finally got healthy in Week 10 after multiple injuries had limited him to only 121 snaps total in the nine previous games. He’s transformed their season by providing big plays and drawing defensive attention that has made his teammates better.
To wit: In the first nine games, the Packers averaged 17.1 points; in the seven games since Watson has been a full-time player (and this is minus their two defensive and special teams touchdowns in that span), they’re averaging 26.5 points. That’s the difference between ranking 27th and sixth in the league.
At about the same time Watson got healthy, Keisean Nixon started turning the Packers return game into a weapon. He took over primary kick- and punt-return duties by Week 10 and now leads the NFL in kickoff return yards (930) and yards per return (30) and has a touchdown. If he had enough punt returns to qualify, he’d lead the league in average yards (14.6) there, too.
“One or two players playing exceptionally well,” said the aforementioned coach, “all of a sudden the realization of the team is, ‘We can do this.’”
Season-ending injury to a star is one big difference this year
There are meaningful differences among these three Packers teams as well, so project how far this year’s Packers will or won’t go at your peril.
In 2010, they had one of the NFL’s best defenses – they ranked No. 2 in the league in scoring defense and No. 1 in defensive passer rating. They had several stars on that side of the ball: Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Nick Collins.
In 2016, on the other hand, their defense was undermanned and finished No. 21 in points allowed and No. 26 in defensive passer rating. Nothing illustrated the state of that side of the ball better than when undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter, he of the 4.69-second 40, was matched regularly with the game’s premier receiver, Julio Jones, in the NFC championship game.
The Packers defense this year has underachieved but sits between the two. It ranks No. 16 in points allowed and No. 14 in defensive passer rating heading into the regular-season finale.
On the one hand, there are recent signs that side of the ball is playing closer to its talent. During their four-game winning streak, the Packers have gone on a turnover binge (nine interceptions and three fumble recoveries) and allowed an average of only 17 points a game.
On the other hand, if these Packers are to do anything special, they’ll have to do it without their best defensive player, Rashan Gary, whose season ended in early November because of a torn ACL. While the 2010 Packers finished the season with a long list of players on injured reserve, they didn’t lose anyone remotely as important as Gary. Same for ’16.
Whether this year’s team can overcome Gary’s absence will depend on whether others raise their games. Some young player such as T.J. Slaton or Devonte Wyatt, or maybe even formerly benched veteran Darnell Savage, will have to emerge. Sometimes it happens, such as with Starks in ’10. More often it doesn’t and teams level off.
What we know for now is the Packers have gotten the rest of the NFL’s attention at season’s end. They’re a different and better team than they were less than two months ago.
Now we’ll see whether that’s enough to take them very far.