The Green Bay Packers are division champions for the fourth-straight season after a 30-20 beat down of the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Green Bay finished 8-0 at home this season and did so for the second time in the last four seasons. The Packers ended the 2014 regular season with a mark of 12-4 and have the second seed heading into the postseason.
While the Packers are celebrating another victory Monday, other teams and personnel around the league are not so fortunate. Staying in the NFC north, the Chicago Bears let go of head coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery. Emery gambled big on signing Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to a lucrative extension last offseason and watched the team’s 2014 season quickly go up in flames. Cutler and Trestman weren’t in sync and Trestman appeared to have lost the locker room early on. Cutler was benched in week 16 and returned this past week only due to an injury to Jimmy Clausen. The Lions still made the postseason, despite the loss to the Packers, but dropped to the sixth seed and will have to travel their way through the playoffs.
It starts with a visit to Dallas to take on the Cowboys. Dallas is playing some hot football right now and is a tough match up for any team but things only got worse for the Lions on Monday. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, arguably the Lions’ best defender, was suspended for the wild card game due to his intentionally stepping on Aaron Rodgers’ leg after a play late in Sunday’s game. It was an incredibly selfish and meatheaded thing for Suh to do and is the second straight week a Lions player has been suspended for the same action. Center Dominic Raiola missed the game at Lambeau for having stepped on a Chicago Bears player the week prior. After much praise had been heaped on Lions head coach Jim Caldwell for seemingly reeling in this Lions team and changing the culture that has befuddled the organization in the past, it appears that the same ol’ Lions are back just in time for the most important part of the season. Jimmy boy got a little testy with the media when questioned about whether he thought Suh’s actions were intentional or not. He said he was briefed on it by his staff in the booth and it did not appear to be intentional. End of discussion. He got even more testy when a reporter asked him why he didn’t bring more pressure against a visibly hobbled Rodgers in the second half. He essentially deemed the reporter ignorant of how an NFL team schemes for their opponent and said that unless someone is in the meeting room, they have no right to question him. James, they’re reporters, that’s their job! Are YOU so ignorant with rage from the loss that you forgot that?
As for the Minnesota Vikings, they ended the season on a winning note and appear to have their head coach and quarterback situations in line for a while. Mike Zimmer had many good things to say about his team and where they might be headed next season. Most of the attention, however, will fall on that running back guy and whether or not the Vikings keep him around.
Back to the Packers, they did what they had to do against the Lions and will get at least one home playoff game this season in the divisional round. With the match ups and seeds set, the Packers will host one of either the Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers or Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, January 11th. The Seattle Seahawks are the NFC’s top seed and will have home field throughout the playoffs. Should both the Packers and Seahwaks advance to the conference championship, they would travel to Seattle and CenturyLink Field, where the two teams met in the NFL’s season opener on September 4th.
We can’t overlook what the Packers did on Sunday against the Lions. The defense stifled the Lions offense, minus a portion of the second quarter and after Rodgers left with a calf injury. Detroit had just 313 total yards of offense and only 200 yards passing. The Lions gained 111 yards rushing. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford’s quarterback rating was just 89.2. While the Lions are a much different team on the road than they are at home, the Packers made them earn most of their yards and points. Were it not for the same old Packers special teams showing up, the game would have been put away sooner. Back to that in a minute. This Packers defense has elevated its play over the last two months and is right about where they want to be heading into the most important games of this promising season. They forced 27 takeaways this season enroute to a +14 differential, thanks to Rodgers and some great ball handling by the offense.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers should get credit for the job he has done with this group. The additions of free agents Julius Peppers and Letroy Guion proved very beneficial and the move of the year was bringing Clay Matthews inside at times to help shore up the run defense and create more pressure on the pocket. Safety Morgan Burnett finally did what we all hoped he would and elevated his game. He won’t ever be Nick Collins, but we might at least pause a second before pining for old #36. Cornerback Tramon Williams is still an important part of this secondary and came up with the onside kick to effectively end the game. The pieces are there and the playmakers exist. A potential showdown with the Seahawks on the road would likely be the stiffest type of test this defense can get. They would likely need to be near perfect in order to emerge with a trip to Glendale, Arizona, but with this group, there’s at least a fighting chance.
He doesn’t play defense, but this team rallies around #12 and always has. Last season, when Rodgers came back in week 17 against the Bears, the team put together a strong overall effort to get the win on the road and steal the division title. When Rodgers re-emerged in the third quarter, the entire team seemed re-energized. When asked about his thoughts on Rodgers, defensive lineman Mike Daniels said “if there’s a word higher than respect for respect, that’s what I have for Aaron, man”. That’s just the defensive side of the ball. Imagine what he does to an offense that all but turns the lights out and goes home for the winter when he’s not there. Last season, the Packers got by with Matt Flynn and Eddie Lacy while Rodgers’ collarbone injury healed. For seven minutes yesterday, it was not the 2013 version of “without Aaron”. Flynn completed just one pass for six yards and was sacked on third down. That’s when Rodgers emerged from the underneath the green light of the team’s tunnel and back to the sideline where he tapped Flynn on the shoulder and said “I’ve got this”. After his last two games against the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he wasn’t “his usual self” (which I remind you, at least 27 other teams would still take over their current guy), the talk of Rodgers winning another MVP award seemed to wane. Remember, it’s most valuable player. Not most dazzling. Not most athletic. Not even best player. Most. Valuable. Rodgers, after yesterday’s performance, certainly will receive some votes for the league’s top honor.
The Packers ran for over 100 yards, just the second time this season the Lions have allowed that after averaging 63 yards per game all season. Eddie Lacy had exactly 100 yards on the day and was visibly upset when he lost a fumble, just his second on the season. So upset, in fact, that someone had to go get him on the other side of the sideline to go back into the game. Lacy’s competitive spirit is going to be a huge plus for this Packers team in the tournament. James Starks filled in nicely in relief and even better, is still healthy in week 17! The Packers offensive line is playing well together. They may not all be the best individual linemen, but together, they’re performing as well as most any other in the game. Rodgers wasn’t sacked all day long and with his limited mobility, a lot of that credit has to go to the line and the backs in pass protection. I wondered why fullback John Kuhn made the Pro Bowl last week. After watching yesterday’s game back, I now understand why. Jordy Nelson set the Packers team record for receiving yards in a season. Both he and Randall Cobb had at least 12 touchdowns each. Imagine how incredibly potent this offense would be every week if they were getting anything resembling consistent from Davante Adams, Jarrett Boykin or a tight end.
Back to special teams. Another blocked kick. Seven on the season. It’s difficult to kick at Lambeau in December, I get that. Mason Crosby tends to like to “drive” the ball on longer kicks in the cold. But seven blocked kicks?! What’s more concerning about it is that the Packers have already re-inserted several starting linemen into their field goal unit. Once a flaw is on film for the rest of the world to see, other teams are going to scheme around it and by the looks of things over the last half of this season, they are. An extra point here, a field goal there. Now those gaffes are going to start costing this team games. Playoff games. Imagine the Packers are in Seattle with a chance to win late and a game-winning 20-yard field goal, a sure thing for Crosby, is blocked and it’s the Seahawks, not the Packers, going to Arizona. If you’re breaking out in hives just thinking about it, you’re not alone. Then there’s the catch-22 of having Crosby work on his kicking motion, which is working from an accuracy standpoint, in the hopes that he can get the ball over the defense but possibly at the expense of accuracy. Despite what we all think about special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, that thought has surely entered his head as well. If not on its own, likely through the suggestion of head coach Mike McCarthy. The addition of Ron Zook to the special teams coaching staff was a clear signal that the Packers wanted more out of their special teams this year. They have, for all intents and purposes, regressed. Besides the many blocked kicks (which in all fairness, can’t be blamed on coaching), there’s DuJuan Harris, who has the lowest return average of any returner in the league. He’s also likely near the bottom in total returns, as he is often taking a knee in the end zone. The Packers gave up a punt return for a touchdown against the Bills and have had their struggles in corralling some of the better returners in the league. The one silver lining has been Micah Hyde and his two punt return touchdowns this season. He now has three and has all but ended the debate about who should be returning punts on this team now. Hyde has improved in his savvy and has taken good care of the football. If he wasn’t on Slocum’s Christmas list, he better be on some sort of New Year’s list instead! There’s really no time to magically fix the Packers special teams and while putting some more veterans and starters in those spots might help from a talent standpoint, there’s still the mental aspect of where to be and what to do. Without regular practice, that type of move can actually do more harm than good.
For now, let’s enjoy the bye week and enjoy watching four other NFC teams slug it out with each other for the chance to have to go on the road to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and a Packers team who is playing lights out there. The pain of past playoff losses, especially at home, is surely resonating with this Packers team and while nothing is promised, this year’s team won’t lack for effort or desire to do more than they have the last three times around. As I’ve said a few times before, there are some historical elements at play here. The last two times the Super Bowl has been in Arizona (1995 and 2007 seasons), the Packers went to the NFC championship both times. They lost both games, one on the road and one at home. Had they won in ’95, they would have faced the Pittsburgh Steelers, who they did face in Super Bowl XLV. Had they won in ’07, they would have faced the New England Patriots, who they did face in Super Bowl XXXI. The Patriots and Steelers are among the top three AFC playoff teams along with the Denver Broncos, who the Packers faced in Super Bowl XXXII. It looks like a fun little postseason is ahead of us.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: