Remember when the Packers drafted a quarterback in the first round? Nobody else does either. The Packers beat the Rams 32-18 on Saturday, dealing a blow to those who predicted before this season that a combination of regression and internal turmoil would lead to a disappointing campaign. Green Bay’s decision to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love with the 26th pick instead of a wide receiver last April was just one of the myriad reasons many people (including me) doubted the Packers. Some of that was attributed to the team’s decision-making in the offseason, but it also stemmed from a skepticism about last season’s 13-3 record. The advanced math suggested the Packers were either the worst or second-worst 13-3 team of all time—there was also compelling evidence that Aaron Rodgers had peaked. It didn’t help matters that they were blown off the field by the 49ers in the NFC championship game 37-20. Entering the 2020 season, Vegas predicted the Packers would decline: The over/under for their win total entering this season was set at nine, a stunningly low number for a 13-3 squad returning most of its key contributors. The odds of the Packers returning to the playoffs with home-field advantage in hand seemed low.
So much for that. For the second year in a row, the Packers went 13-3 in the regular season, won a divisional-round playoff game in Green Bay, and will play in the NFC championship game. They blew the doors off the Rams in a game that didn’t seem as close as the score indicated for most of the contest. Rodgers is the favorite to win MVP this season, the Packers will likely be favored to make the Super Bowl—they await the winner of Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers—and nobody is clamoring for them to add another receiver (and nobody is thinking about Love). But it’s not just that the Packers proved everyone wrong who thought they would regress. It’s that they got much better.
Saturday’s game pitted the Packers’ league-leading scoring offense against the Rams’ league-leading scoring defense. But Rodgers carved up the Rams like a supermarket rotisserie chicken. He didn’t even need a knife; it just kind of came apart. Rodgers completed 23 of 36 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns, but the numbers fail to convey how easy he made everything look. Rodgers was often laughing in between plays. In the first half, Green Bay picked up first downs like they were running drills in practice. The Packers looked elite in the first half, which is no surprise—they led the NFL this season in points scored on their opening drives (73), the highest total in the last 20 years. They also scored 219 points in the second quarter this season, the most in NFL history. But the surprising part was that Green Bay ran the ball down L.A.’s throat—it rushed 10-plus times in the first quarter for just the second time this season. On the first play of the third quarter, running back Aaron Jones broke a 60-yard run that set up a touchdown just five plays later. The Packers rushed 36 times for 188 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and two touchdowns in the game. Jones finished with 14 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown, a huge difference from Green Bay’s divisional-round win against Seattle last season, when he had just 62 yards on 21 carries.
The chess match between Rodgers versus Aaron Donald and Davante Adams versus Jalen Ramsey never materialized. Donald, who was dealing with a rib injury, was consistently beaten in the run game and registered just one tackle and zero quarterback hits. On the few plays where he did get pressure, Rodgers danced away and made big plays.
Ramsey was similarly ineffective against Adams. On their most notable exchange, the Packers put Adams in motion across the field, then motioned him back across the field again, this time in full sprint, and he ran a horizontal route and caught an easy 1-yard touchdown.
Ramsey looked furious after the play.
Last week, Rams head coach Sean McVay compared Adams’s first steps from the line of scrimmage to Allen Iverson’s crossover. This touchdown catch was as if Green Bay sent seven screeners between Adams and Ramsey.
The Rams cut Green Bay’s lead to a touchdown in the second half, but Rodgers iced the game with a flick-of-the-wrist touchdown pass to Allen Lazard on play-action that sucked the Rams defense toward the line of scrimmage before Rodgers floated it over their heads.
That the Packers accomplished all of this without left tackle David Bakhtiari, their All-Pro left tackle, who tore his ACL in December, is particularly impressive. Rodgers was not sacked and was hit just once.
“It’s all about the offensive line,” Rodgers told Fox’s Pam Oliver after the game. “Jonesy and [running backs Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon] ran the ball well, but I was barely touched all night. They are incredible. [The Rams have] got some really good players on that side of the ball. And we did a good job shutting them down. They became non-factors.”
Rodgers even managed to get another big gain on a free play, which he is clearly the best at doing in the NFL.
Since 2008 and including playoffs, Aaron Rodgers entered today with 41 passes for 1,146 yards and 17 TD on “free plays” — all most in the NFL. He added a 27-yarder to EQ St. Brown on the game’s opening drive today. https://t.co/Pl0mUnA78a
— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) January 16, 2021
By the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, the Packers had exactly doubled the Rams’ total yardage, 488 to 244. After kneel-downs, the Packers finished with 484 yards, the most against a no. 1-ranked defense since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
“It was all about execution,” Rodgers said. “And frankly, it could have been a few more.”
Rodgers is right on this point. On their first drive, the Packers missed a touchdown on back-to-back plays where receivers dropped catchable-but-inaccurate passes from Rodgers. He also nearly threw two interceptions at the end of the first half, but Rams defenders dropped both. The Packers failed to capitalize on a few touchdown opportunities in the second half, once when Lazard dropped a deep pass and again when Rodgers overthrew Marquez Valdes-Scantling on another. There was also a botched extra-point snap and a failed two-point conversion. And the defense looked overwhelmed at times by Rams running back Cam Akers—pass rusher Za’Darius Smith was stiff-armed to the ground by Akers on one memorable play.
But we’ve focused on the Packers’ flaws for far too long. This team has proven they belong with the NFL’s elite. Green Bay scored 32 points on Saturday, almost exactly their league-leading 31.8 average. The Packers scored a touchdown on three of their four red-zone chances outside of garbage time, which actually was lower than their season average of 80 percent—the highest red zone scoring percentage in the NFL since 1998 (call it the Rodgers rate). Rodgers led the NFL in touchdown passes, completion percentage, and passer rating this season and became the first player to have 45-plus touchdown passes and five or fewer interceptions in a season. And the results for the Packers as a team are clear: they are just the fifth group to win at least 13 games and reach the championship game in back-to-back seasons.
From @ESPNStatsInfo: Teams with 13+ regular-season wins and conference championship game appearance in consecutive seasons:
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 17, 2021
There were many reasons to doubt the Packers before this season. But the most glaring one was that they seemed to be doubting themselves. By drafting Love, the Packers sent a muddled message about whether they were valuing their future or their present. Even Rodgers wasn’t sure what to make of the team’s strategy. But now the answer is clear. Jordan isn’t anywhere to be seen, but it’s all love in Green Bay.