As promised, there was no letdown in Tampa. The Green Bay Packers got a 20-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and have clinched a playoff spot. As of right now, they’re the sixth seed in the NFC. But this Packers team is nowhere near content nor done yet. Success is a perennial thing in Green Bay and as much as the fans expect playoff football, the Packers know they have a lot more to gain before January begins.
Next week the Packers host the Detroit Lions with the winner claiming the NFC North division title and likely a first-round bye in the postseason. That sounds pretty good to any Packers player that you ask. They had a players-only meeting the night before the Tampa game to make sure everyone understands just what it is that they want to accomplish and that they’re all on the same page.
Let’s look at some takeaways from today’s game as well as the scenarios leading into the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers pulled his calf – Any time Rodgers sustains any type of injury, it’s a concern in Packers-land. But Rodgers even went so far as to say that while he expects to suit up and play against the Lions next week, “you never know”. Given that Rodgers sustained the leg injury very early in the Bucs game and finished the day, I’d be surprised if he isn’t starting next week. The Packers, and Rodgers, dodged a bullet when the quarterback was able to recover from the pulled hamstring suffered in late October against the New Orleans Saints. Still, we have to wonder how much the calf muscle will affect Rodgers’ ability to make all of his throws next week.
A win over the Lions isn’t a “must”, but it might as well be – For the millionth time, this isn’t 2010. Some of the lessons from that team can be applied here but this team has already secured a playoff spot and they’re veteran enough to handle a bye week. And they need one. This time of year, everyone is banged up and with QB1 now nursing a muscle pull, a week off would do wonders for the big games that would lie ahead. That’s not even mentioning that the Packers can stay at home and not have to worry about travel schedules and time changes. A win over Detroit all but secures at least the second seed and a week off. A loss means they limp into the playoffs and have to travel right away, likely to one of Dallas or Atlanta. Again, not 2010 so you can toss out all of the tape of that playoff win over the Falcons. Trust that the coaching staff has already begun preparing for Detroit and probably has been for a few weeks now. These Lions aren’t what we’re used to in years past and if this year’s team is the most legitimate threat to end “the streak” than any other since the last Lions team that came into Wisconsin and won a game. These aren’t the same Lions guided by our favorite roody-poo-candy-ass Jim Schwartz. This is going to be a battle and a low-scoring one at that. The Packers have been good at home this season. That won’t matter one bit once the ball is kicked off. The Lions are playing well on the road and aren’t phased by weather. They’re also not scoring a ton of points so the Packers won’t likely have to get into a shootout to win. If Green Bay can take care of the ball, they have a good chance to claim another division title. The Lions will have a lot to say about it first, though.
The defense is playing as well as they have all season – While it may be true that the NFL is no longer a “defense wins championships” league, a solid defense is essential to a deep playoff run. The Packers have now gone two full games without giving up an offensive touchdown. That’s an impressive feat but in December, it’s a good way to set the tone for the second season. Sure it was against two hapless offenses, but they’re still NFL offenses and both had weapons the Packers had to account for. Buffalo Bills receiver Sammy Watkins was an after-thought last week. This week, Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans were moved to the back pages. A lot of that credit has to go to the pass rush, which was especially stifling today against Bucs quarterback Josh McCown. Julius Peppers came alive with two sacks on the day. The Bucs offensive line is one of the worst in the league, but that doesn’t mean this performance doesn’t resonate some confidence among the Packers defenders.
The run game will work – Play calling and predictability aside, the Packers have proven they can run on good defenses. I’m not saying the Bucs were a good run defense, because they’re not. But the ground production against the Bills and the way the Packers offensive line is playing, as a whole, is a pawsitive as they will now face nothing but elite defenses for the remainder of their schedule. The individual linemen aren’t great by themselves, but they play well as a unit. Left guard Josh Sitton is still the team’s best and rookie center Corey Linsley has been all that the Packers and their fans could have hoped for this season. As long as this group can stay healthy, they can create some production and also keep Rodgers upright in pass protection. After being hit a few times early against Tampa, Rodgers was relatively unscathed the rest of the day and had ample time to throw. That said, the one gripe I have are the running backs dancing in the backfield. Eddie Lacy and James Starks both gained some good yardage and have become weapons in the short passing game, but both are still guilty of failing to get north-south and see what is in front of them. The toss play and the sweep haven’t worked all season and isn’t likely to start now. Hopefully the Packers can keep with that’s working and junk what clearly is not. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy likes to keep defenses off balance by mixing in some runs when in pass formation or when a pass is most likely, but these better defenses aren’t likely to be fooled all day, or at all.
Believe in this coaching staff – Speaking of McCarthy and play calling, this staff and this team have been here before. It doesn’t always equate to wins and just because the Packers might get knocked out of the postseason to a good team, it doesn’t mean they had a bad game plan or the calls were largely wrong. Two decades of really good football have made it difficult for Packers fans to watch their team get thumped and sent home. Get used to it. The Packers aren’t winning it all every season and the cliche is still alive and well: it’s very tough to win playoff games.
Playoff scenarios – At this moment, the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks have yet to do battle but many have already penciled Seattle in for the win and they would jump to the NFC’s one seed. Arizona is running with Ryan Lindley, their third-string quarterback and Seattle’s defense is playing at a 2013 level. If Arizona can pull off the impossible, they would secure the number one seed and it would make things very interesting for the other NFC playoff teams. I so heavily doubt that happens that I’m not even getting into that unless it happens.
The Cowboys have clinched the NFC East with a convincing win over the Indianapolis Colts and the Falcons are in the driver’s seat for the NFC South title (someone has to be!) after a big win over the Saints in New Orleans. The Saints are now officially eliminated from contention so there will be no trip back to New Orleans for the Packers.
What seems very likely for the Packers is this: If they beat the Lions, they’re likely the two seed and would only have to travel to Seattle in the NFC Championship, should they reach that round. In that scenario, the Cowboys and Falcons would be division winners and the third and fourth seed, respectively. The Cardinals and Lions would be the wild card teams. The highest seed coming out of the wild card round would travel to Green Bay and face the Packers in the divisional round.
If Detroit wins the division, they would get the second seed and the Packers are likely the sixth seed. They would then likely head to Dallas, which was a house of horrors for the Packers teams in the 1990’s. Should the Packers get past the Cowboys, they would then travel to Seattle in the divisional round. This scenario should be giving everyone a headache.
We’ll know what everyone’s fate is in less than a week.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: