I believe the Packers are the NFC favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. 55-7 thrashing of the Titans aside, this team is trending and peaking just in time for the playoffs. It’s not just the 9-1 record over the past 10 games; it’s the following reasons why the Packers are morphing into a juggernaut.
I believe Rodgers is regaining his MVP form. Marred in a slump where he surpassed 250-yards only once in 6 games, Rodgers has turned it around the last two games. Against a Bears defense that has always slowed him, he was vintage Rodgers, throwing for just under 300 yards and 3 perfect TD strikes. And his completion to Cobb along the sidelines reminded me of the Falcons playoff game two years ago.
I believe Rodgers’ recent surge is due, in part, to the newfound run game. The Packers have rushed for more than 100-yards in each of their past 5 games. It has been any combo of running backs doing the work, including retirement home recallee Ryan Grant – who just amassed 80 yards and 2 Tds on 20 carries. Alex Green seems more patient and starting to get good chunks of yards per carry. And the rush attack has changed somewhat in the form of less zone stretches to more traps and pulling linemen. The result is a rushing attack that teams have to honor. At least a little.
I believe the offensive line has stabilized – relatively speaking – with the insertion of Don Barclay at RT and the health of T.J. Lang. Lang is not a RT. When forced to take over for Bulaga, the line had two weak links: Lang at RT and DES at LG. Barclay, though not perfect, is a grinder and fighter. He’s had a lot of success in the running game and hasn’t gotten Rodgers killed. Yes, Rodgers still takes a fair share of shots and sacks, but that also comes from Rodgers trying to extend plays. It is the catch-22 of Rodgers: he takes sacks, but also makes defenses pay by extending the plays.
I believe the WR corps is finally starting to show its teeth. Cobb has emerged as Percy Harvin 2.0, not Harvin-lite. He’s become the go-to target for Rodgers. Assuming he and Jordy are healthy in the playoffs, Rodgers will finally have his full weaponry at his disposal. To top it off, JMike has finally decided to play like the TE he’s supposed to be.
I believe the injuries have actually made this defense better and more prepared for the playoffs. There’s no doubt the loss of Bishop was a huge loss. But, the injuries to Clay, Woodson, Raji, Shields, Perry, and Wilson forced the younger players to step up and assume important roles. And that they did. The younger players have stepped up so well that it’s fair to wonder where Woodson will play, and even whether his return is all that crucial for the defense.
I believe Claymaker and Neal are quickly becoming a strong tandem, almost a Clay-Jenkins-lite. Neal has always flashed promise with his strength and speed, but he was never healthy. Finally, he’s been able to stay relatively healthy this year. And since Clay’s return, the duo have racked up 5.5 sacks, 7 tackles-for-losses, and numerous pressures these past two weeks.
I believe opposing QB’s will be seeing a lot of The Clayboy this postseason. He looks no worse for the wear following his injury.
I believe B.J. Raji is becoming a force in the middle, like he’s supposed to be. Raji may not have the gaudy stats at the end of each game. But he’s been making an impact in each of the last several games. Raji and Pickett are tough to run against in the middle. And Raji has started getting push up the middle on throwing downs.
I believe Casey Hayward is a star in the making. According to Pro Football Focus, Hayward is second in the league in overall man-to-man coverage and tops for passer rating. Hayward has not been flagged for a penalty or allowed a TD. And he has six picks and 10 passes defended. To top it off, he ranks ninth in run stop percentage among corners, having not missed a tackle. All this coming from a rookie that plays primarily in the slot, a position that requires much more on-field awareness, preparation, and skill. As Peter King stated, his play is Pro Bowl worthy, if not All-Pro worth.
I believe that Shields’ return has cemented the Packers secondary as one of the best in the league. Shields has been downright dominant since returning from injury, including drawing an incredible three offensive pass interference calls against Alshon Jeffrey two weeks ago. Shields strong play in 2010 was the catalyst for that defense becoming the juggernaut it was.
Special Teams –
I believe in Mason Crosb… ok, so I don’t believe in him. My green-and-gold kool-aid isn’t that strong (though its close).
I believe the Packers are getting healthy just at the right time. Throughout the season, the Packers were riddled with injuries, including to many key figures. Now, most of those players have returned or are set to return in time for the playoffs. Though the young players proved they belong, Jennings, Jordy, Clay, and Woodson will only improve an 11-4 team.
I believe this Packers team is battle-tested. Outside the Texans and Titans games, the Packers have had to battle for each victory. Faced with what seemed like insurmountable injuries, the Packers haven proven resilient as they inch towards a 2-seed. Such resiliency will bode well in the playoffs where every game is a battle. Unlike last year when the Packers simply didn’t know how to face adversity, this squad has faced it and thrived.
I believe that even still, the Packers will face a tough road to get to the Super Bowl. The NFC is simply stacked with both the 49ers and Seahawks playing at elite levels. But, unlike last year, this Packers team can win any style of game. It can grind out games, play stout defense, and not simply rely upon scoring a ton of points.
I believe this is a Super Bowl team. Do you?