How good are the 11-0 Packers? Well, after watching them in Detroit on Thursday, I’d say they have a legitimate shot at 19-0 because they can play an average game like they did against the Lions and still look unbeatable.
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It was an emotional home game for the Lions on Thanksgiving. The frenzied Ford Field fans screamed as loud as they could on every Green Bay possession. And, yes, Aaron Rodgers looked, dare I say, human throughout much of the first half. But after the Packers defense forced a turnover late in the half, Rodgers cashed it in with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings, a simple pass-and-catch that they execute every day in practice. And thus, despite all of their problems, the Packers were off and running.
Here’s how much went wrong for the Packers: They dropped five passes — two by Jordy Nelson, they lost both of their starting inside linebackers (A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop) to calf injuries, and they were once again forced to throw far more than run due to an ineffective running game. But here is how good they are: Rodgers still completed 22 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns, one of the replacement linebackers, Rob Francois, had a key third-quarter interception of Matthew Stafford, and they threw a variety of hitch passes out of the run formations in order to take advantage whenever a Lions cornerback played too soft at the line of scrimmage.
But some other issues in the Detroit game do lend themselves to perhaps greater long-term concern.
Green Bay lost its best guard, Josh Sitton, to a knee injury and his replacement, Evan Dietrich-Smith, was stomped on by Ndamukong Suh; the now-infamous play that led to Suh’s ejection two plays before the Packers’ second touchdown. The Packers also committed some uncharacteristic penalties that wiped out big pass gains.
But what’s interesting about the Sitton injury is that Dietrich-Smith may not even be the starter next Monday night when the Packers travel to play the New York Giants. And why’s that? Well, the Packers have tons of depth — it’s the true strength of this team — and McCarthy has a few days to think of possibly inserting No. 1 pick Derek Sherrod, a tackle, into the lineup. Green Bay’s offensive line, with Rodgers so adept at escaping the pocket and throwing on the run, really hasn’t struggled much since losing veteran left tackle Chad Clifton to a leg injury in early October.
Granted, the Packers haven’t looked interested in a running game. Even in Detroit, the Packers seem to run the ball as an afterthought. It often looks like a wasted down except when they are attempting to run the clock with a big second-half lead.
And now the Packers have an off-field issue with a player, as outside linebacker Erik Walden sits in jail after being arrested on charges of allegedly assaulting his live-in girlfriend.
Walden, 26, is being held in the Brown County Jail in Green Bay and will reportedly remain there on suspicion of felony domestic violence-substantial battery until at least Monday because the county court is closed for the holiday weekend. On the field, Frank Zombo, a starter last season, is healthy and ready to step in for Walden if needed.
In the end, the on-field success comes down to Rodgers. Despite passing for only 65 yards in the first half Thursday, he still finished with 307 yards, including a 65-yard strike to James Jones, who outran the secondary to the end zone for a score that seemed to turn the game in the Packers’ favor for good.
And that is the beauty of the Packers’ passing game. Rodgers has too many weapons; he doesn’t need to focus on, say, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski like Tom Brady does these days. With five solid receivers (Jennings, Jones, Nelson, Donald Driver and rookie Randall Cobb) and receiver-fast tight end Jermichael Finley, Rodgers has plenty of targets to whom he can deliver a strike.
Rodgers even watched in amazement as tight end Andrew Quarless and Cobb dropped sure touchdowns. Rodgers may not break Brady’s 50-touchdown record, but he does have 33 against only four interceptions, and that’s not bad.
Finally, the defense has been much maligned this season. But against the Lions, rush linebacker Clay Matthews forced two huge holding calls coming off the edge and intercepted a Stafford deflection to set up Green Bay’s first touchdown. Cornerback Charles Woodson, the 2009 defensive player of the year, jumped a route and simply ripped the ball away from Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew to set up a field goal.
The Packers may surrender a lot of big pass plays, but they have men like Matthews and Woodson who can turn a game with a brilliant play. Matthews even properly read a screen pass and reversed field in order to knock it down — a move that would have drawn a goaltending call in the NBA.
As long as Woodson, Matthews and Rodgers stay healthy, the Packers should be in Indianapolis and walking home with their fifth Super Bowl trophy. And quite possibly their 19th victory.