Dec 4, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws a pass during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 21-13. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
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A step closer to running the table, the Green Bay Packers have followed a four-game losing stretch with back-to-back victories. What did we learn from Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans?
Aaron Rodgers made it clear in the aftermath of the Packers’ loss at Washington two weeks ago. He believed Green Bay could run the table and punch their ticket to the postseason for an eighth year on the bounce. Those that watched the humiliation to the Redskins could be excused for doubting the two-time MVP, but maybe he was right.
Far from flawless, Sunday’s victory needed grit under testing conditions at Lambeau Field. Rodgers, himself, was limited with a hamstring injury suffered in Monday night’s win at Philadelphia, and frigid conditions made life all the more challenging.
A sixth win on the season puts the Pack at .500 after slipping two games behind. Now they must focus on closing down the Detroit Lions, who won in New Orleans on Sunday.
What did we learn from Sunday’s game, and how is the NFC shaking out ahead of a huge showdown with Seattle at Lambeau next week? Here’s five takeaways from a second season-saving victory in six days.
Dec 4, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) catches a pass against the Houston Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph (24) at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jim Matthews/Green Bay Press Gazette via USA TODAY Sports
As the snow chilled Lambeau Field, Jordy Nelson’s star shone bright, Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target hauling in eight passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.
Davante Adams’ rise is an exciting development for the future, but the third-year man took a back seat to the Packers’ grizzled veteran. Moving the ball took a lot of work in frigid conditions, but Nelson looked unfazed as he lit up the Houston secondary.
A year removed from ACL surgery, Nelson is no longer the deep threat that made him one of the league’s toughest covers two years ago, but he’s carved out an equally productive role in Green Bay’s new short passing game. Crisp routes, reliable hands and chemistry with Aaron Rodgers makes Nelson the Packers’ most dangerous receiver.
Nelson moves onto 872 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns from 12 games, putting him on pace for 1,162 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year. Not bad considering the severity of the injury he suffered during a season-altering preseason game in Pittsburgh 15 months ago.
On what was a tough day for the Packers offense, Nelson battled the elements to post his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.
Dec 4, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook (89) signals a first down in the first quarter against the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Adam Wesley/Green Bay Press Gazette via USA TODAY Sports
Packers play best ball when it counts
Following Ryan Griffin’s game-tying touchdown midway through the third quarter, the Packers’ playoff hopes looked as uncertain as ever. Momentum was firmly in Houston’s corner, who had forced three straight Packers punts.
Then came the fourth quarter.
A nine-yard strike to Richard Rodgers began a bold 98-yard drive that resulted in a go-ahead touchdown. The Packers would never lose the lead.
Aaron Rodgers looked sharp, refusing to give in to a nagging hamstring injury. Ty Montgomery, Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers all made key plays to move the Packers downfield, before Jordy Nelson strolled into the end zone for the drive-defining play.
The defense took just seven plays to hand the ball back to Rodgers, who led another emphatic drive. Over four minutes and 89 yards later, the Packers were in the end zone again courtesy of fullback Aaron Ripkowski, his second touchdown in as many games. Ballgame.
A late flurry from the Texans bumped up the box score, but two huge offensive drives in the fourth quarter ensured the Packers remain hot on the heels of the division-leading Lions with four to play.
It took a while to get going, but the Packers saved their best ball for crunch time.
Dec 4, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Ty Montgomery (88) jumps past an attempted tackle by Houston Texans defensive back Robert Nelson (32) in the third quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Adam Wesley/Green Bay Press Gazette via USA TODAY Sports
Ty Montgomery is the best option at running back
Mike McCarthy appears to have finally given up with James Starks in the backfield. Four pedestrian carries to the tune of one yard prompted a change, McCarthy handing the keys to Christine Michael and Ty Montgomery.
The latter won the audition, again proving he’s the Packers’ best option on the ground. Montgomery rushed only six times, but piled up 40 yards in that time, over double the yardage of any other Green Bay rusher.
The receiver-turned-running back looks natural between the tackles, weaving his way through defenders and fighting for every yard. Montgomery now has 36 carries on the season, grinding out 187 yards at a healthy average of 5.2 YPC.
Some will question whether the second-year man can handle a heavier workload, but his consistent performances at least merit an opportunity.
The Packers don’t need a true workhorse back, just one who can keep defenses honest, and one who can open up the play-action pass. Montgomery has put enough on tape to believe he can lead the way.
James Starks’ struggles may have punched his ticket to the bench. Montgomery is Green Bay’s premier running back, and it’s on McCarthy to get him the football more often.
Dec 4, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) scrambles for a first down in the fourth quarter during the game against the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Rodgers’ hamstring injury is a concern
Limited all week at practice, it was clear Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t be at 100 percent. He played a smart, cautious yet efficient game, and importantly didn’t suffer any setbacks to his ailing hamstring.
Speaking postgame, Rodgers said his hamstring felt “not better than I did coming in, but I feel good about where I’m at. Had decent movement and didn’t do anything to create a major setback.”
“Felt progressively better throughout the week, so I wanted to get under center on a few of those plays. But yeah, the hamstring, and the field was pretty slick.”
Rodgers remained productive, completing 20 of his 30 passes for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Despite that, one has to wonder how much better his performance could have been without any mobility limitations. Rodgers hung in the pocket in situations he’d usually roll out in to buy time. A smart move for his health, but his rushing ability is an important part of the Packers offense, and one they will need down the stretch.
The hope is another week of treatment will help Rodgers return closer to full health ahead of Sunday’s visit of Seattle at Lambeau Field. Given the Seahawks’ dominance on defense, Rodgers’ ability (or lack thereof) to scramble may prove to be key.
Dec 4, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; The Packers offense huddles in the fourth quarter as the Green Bay Packers host the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Adam Wesley/Green Bay Press Gazette via USA TODAY Sports
Victory puts Packers back in wild-card race
The Packers’ simplest and least complicated route to the postseason is within the NFC North. At 6-6, Green Bay sits two games behind Detroit (8-4), with a meeting with the Lions looming in Week 17.
But after Sunday’s victory over Houston, the Packers have pulled themselves back into the wild-card race. Losses for the Giants, Saints and Redskins inches them closer to the sixth seed.
New York (8-4) currently owns the fifth seed, two games ahead of Green Bay. The tiebreaker belongs to the Packers, however, after their win over the Giants in Week 5. Tampa Bay (7-5) moved into the sixth seed with victory at San Diego, but they are just one win ahead of Green Bay. Washington (6-5-1) lost at Arizona (5-6-1).
Minnesota (6-6), defeated on Thursday night by Dallas, now share the same record as the Packers, although the Vikings hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. The two meet again in Week 16, this time at Lambeau.
Victory over Seattle next week would do the Packers’ playoff hopes the world of good.