The Green Bay Packers ran their unbeaten streak to 12 games this season and 18 overall as quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers on a game-winning drive during the final minute to help Green Bay secure a 38-35 win over the New York Giants Sunday from MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. Cross it off
What hasn’t Aaron Rodgers done in 2011? He can officially cross a game-winning drive off the list. After Eli Manning’s short touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks (and ensuing two-point conversion) tied the game at 35, Rodgers took over at his own 20-yard-line with 58 seconds left and one timeouts. Rodgers hasn’t been in that situation yet this season, but he was calm and razor sharp as he completed all four of his passes—including three of 18 yards or more—to set the Packers up for a 30-yard field goal try. Mason Crosby banged home the kick as the fourth quarter clock expired to push the Packers to 12-0.
In a season full of important drives, Rodgers’ last minute masterpiece was far-and-away the most impressive and important. If they hadn’t already, the engravers for the NFL MVP trophy can begin putting in Rodgers’ name with confidence.
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews did his best Charles Woodson impression in the first half on what turned out to be one of the game’s most important plays. While up just 10-7 to start the second quarter, you got the feeling that the Giants had a pretty good hold of the game’s first 15 minutes. Matthews’ impressive break on Manning’s pass to the flats gave him an easy pick-6, suddenly giving Green Bay a 14-10 lead.
Matthews was a force for most of Sunday’s game, recording a sack, forced fumble and two quarterback hits. By my count, Matthews also had four quarterback hurries. That’s the kind of production in the pass rush that we’ve come to expect from Matthews. His interception return for a touchdown was simply icing on the cake for what was a fantastic performance all-around.
3. Up-and-down up front
The Packers offensive line didn’t play their best game of 2011, but the unit held up as well as you could have asked for against a talented Giants’ front-four. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse had problems at times with Jason Pierre-Paul and Dave Tollefson beat him clean for a sack in the fourth quarter. The Packers gave the left tackle plenty of help throughout.
Where the Packers really struggled up front was in the run game. Josh Sitton’s absence was really felt when the Packers handed it off. With Evan Dietrich-Smith replacing Sitton, the Packers running backs carried the ball 24 times for just 57 yards. All four of the Packers running backs—Ryan Grant, James Starks, Brandon Saine and John Kuhn—had yards per carry averages under three. Running to the right side—the bread-and-butter for the Packers’ run game in 2011—didn’t produce the same effective results without Sitton.
But even with a makeshift offensive line, the Packers kept Rodgers mostly upright (two sacks) and not having an effective run game was again negated by another big day from the passing game. It wasn’t a flawless performance by any means by the offensive line, but they played well enough for the Packers to consistently move the football.
4. Hands down
By my count, the Packers dropped six passes on Sunday. Jermichael Finley had two, Greg Jennings one, Randall Cobb one, Tom Crabtree one and Saine one. The drops will be a disappointing mark on what was a productive day for the Packers’ passing game. Finley’s drops were the most disheartening, as both were on balls that an elite tight end should haul in each and every time. At this point, the drops have to be a mental issue for Finley. We’ve seen him make those same plays too many times in the past for it to be anything but.
However, the Packers receiving corps also made some eye-opening catches—especially near the sidelines—that helped make up for some of the drops. Jordy Nelson was an acrobat near the boundaries, and Donald Driver made two catches—one for a first down and the other for a fourth quarter touchdown—while straddling the sidelines like only the veteran can. Greg Jennings also had a controversial second half touchdown that will surely warrant further discussion, but this wasn’t a “Calvin Johnson rule” play. Because Jennings stayed on his feet, completing the process wasn’t in play. Referee Jeff Triplette concluded that Jennings had control of the ball with two feet down in the end zone, giving him the touchdown. The fact that Prince Amukamara knocked the ball out of Jennings’ hands after that became a moot point.
5. Why not?
A lot of the post-game talk in the Packers locker room centered around the possibility of 16-0, and you got a “why not?” sense from several players when answering questions on the topic. All things considered, “why not?” may be a question worth asking. While any NFL team can win on a given Sunday, the Packers should be strong favorites in all four of their remaining games. Two of the games should be near locks (Chicago, Kansas City) and the two others (Oakland, Detroit) feature teams that are currently struggling. Anyone that watched the Chiefs-Bears game on Sunday knows what I mean about near-locks. The Bears will also likely be without both their two best offensive players in Jay Cutler and Matt Forte on Christmas night. I get the Packers-Bears rivalry, but those are two huge losses to overcome.
The Raiders will come to Lambeau next week fresh off a 34-14 drubbing at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. The Week 17 game with the Lions might be the toughest test left, as the Packers will likely have home-field advantage wrapped up and Detroit will be scratching and clawing for a playoff spot. It’ll also be interesting to see how coach Mike McCarthy manages playing time for the key guys if the Packers have the No. 1 seed locked up. Either way, the Packers have given themselves the opportunity to finish the final quarter of the season and obtain just the second 16-0 regular season in NFL history. With 18 straight wins and those four teams remaining, “why not?”
Quick injury report: James Starks left on a cart with an ankle injury. Charles Woodson had his bell rung in the second half and left with a concussion. He’ll have to pass tests from an independent neurologist to get back to practice or play next week. Andrew Quarless suffered a horrific knee injury and will likely be done for the rest of the season…With two touchdown catches on Sunday, Donald Driver now has 57 in his NFL career and four this season. He still offers something to a Packers offense full of playmakers…A week after hauling in three passes for 94 yards and a score against the Lions, James Jones caught zero passes on zero targets…D.J. Smith made his first professional start for an injured Desmond Bishop and registered eight total tackles. Robert Francois, also making his first NFL start, had four, including one for a loss…The Packers defense again gave up 400 or more yards on Sunday as the Giants gained 447. New York’s No. 32 ranked rush offense had 100 yards on 20 carries…University of Wisconsin alum Travis Beckum caught just his second pass of the season, going 67 yards for the game’s first points. He beat Charlie Peprah on the play, who had another tough day in pass coverage…Mike Neal saw his most extensive action of the season but generated zero pass rush. He was a non-factor…The Packers ran 16 more plays than the Giants (77 to 61) and held the ball for 33:03 of the clock.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2