Dec 24, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) scores a touchdown against Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) in the first quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Rick Wood /Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK
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Chants of “MVP…MVP” could be heard throughout Lambeau Field, asAaron Rodgersspearheaded yet another victory moving the Packers one step closer to their mission of conquering the NFC North in a decisive Christmas-Eve romp over the offensively-challenged Minnesota Vikings.
Although Ty Montgomerynever came close to offering an encore performance of last week’s 162-yard, two touchdown effort, the Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson connection was firing on all cylinders, particularly in the first half where the two combined for 7 completions for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns.
As for the Vikings, their infinitesimal chances of qualifying for the playoffs went up in smoke despite the pressure applied by its defense that produced 4 sacks and 10 quarterback hits.
Minnesota’s offense should be the unit that is deserving of the lion’s share of the blame in its soul-crushing Week-16 loss due to two costly fumbles and subpar pass blocking that prevented the Purple and Gold from going toe-to-toe with the home squad despite the 25 points and 446 yards they generated.
Team diehards in the North Star State and beyond will have an entire offseason to ponder what could have been while devoted Cheeseheads are setting their sights on the Detroit Lions in next week’s final regular-season meeting that will ultimately decide the division.
But it’s never a bad idea to look back upon key player performances from the previous matchup before going all in on next Sunday’s game plan.
So let’s all revisit the Packers’ 9th win of the year and hone in on key contributors that have pushed this proud franchise one step closer to the postseason, but also address those that are currently struggling in the holiday version of the Stock-Up, Stock-Down Report.
Dec 24, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) rolls out against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Wm. Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin via USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Rodgers: The biggest takeaway from Rodgers’ latest outing was his improved mobility that was often called into play against a fierce pass rush.
His 7-yard touchdown run to close the first half was clear proof of No. 12 having his legs back, as he eluded a chargingEverson Griffen in the pocket and went on to shakeJabari Pricebefore crossing the goal line.
In terms of throwing the ball, Rodgers was razor-sharp by identifying open passing lanes and hitting his receivers in stride.
One of his better throws came early on in the fourth quarter when the 33-year-old triggerman perfectly lobbed an over-the-top pass into the arms of a streaking JaredCook with Trae Waynes in tight coverage on the 30-yard hook-up.
With his mobility back, it almost seemed as if there wasn’t anything Rodgers couldn’t do, as he spun and dodged his way out of some compromising situations with most of the pressure coming from the right side.
The 12th-year pro completed 28 of his 38 pass attempts for 346 yards and four touchdowns becoming the first quarterback all season to produce a 300-yard stat line against Minnesota’s vaunted defense.
The one scary moment took place on a third-quarter 3rd-and-8 dropback that saw Danielle Hunter and Erik Kendricks sandwich Rodgers on a 9-yard sack that the California native was slow to get up from.
Kudos to Rodgers for shaking off the massive hit and picking up right where he left off. The one attribute he probably gets the least amount of credit for is his toughness.
Jordy Nelson: The NFL leader in touchdown receptions (14) burned the Vikings’ secondary on the second drive of the game by running past a shallowHarrison Smithand finding the hole in the zone by turning back toward his quarterback in front of the deep defenders and running it into the end zone from 21 yards out.
Nelson’s next big play was on a first-quarter 48-yard completion where the 31-year-old wideout ran straight down the middle of the field withCaptain Munnerlynand proceeded to make his defender slip while breaking off his route to the outside.
On the scoring drive that allowed Green Bay to take a 21-6 lead, Rodgers and Nelson hooked up on a 33-yard connection that saw No. 87 get open by staying in front of strong safetyAndrew Sendejoon a well-executed crossing route.
Two plays later, Nelson worked his way open by going left and breaking right in the back of the end zone to separate fromAnthony Barrand haul in the 2-yard touchdown.
All told, the 6-foot-3 pass catcher caught 9 of 11 targets for 154 yards and 2 scores.
It didn’t matter what the Vikings threw at him, Nelson continually found ways to get open. The crafty veteran’s timing in breaking off his routes and turning back for the ball was flawless—as it has been for most of the year.
The fact that he didn’t make the starting Pro Bowl roster is a flat-out crime.
Jared Cook: Cook’s stats (3-37) were pretty pedestrian, but could have looked a whole lot better if the ball had arrived to him sooner on a 2nd-and-8 pass in the third quarter in which the tight end did a great job to separate from Kendricks downfield and break to the outside.
But by the time of the ball’s arrival, Cook’s momentum forced one of his feet out of bounds on a play that looked to cover about 20 to 25 yards in distance.
Otherwise, the former Ram and Titan displayed tremendous agility to go down for a difficult 5-yard catch at about the five-minute mark of the second quarter.
And then came the previously referenced 30-yard completion to Cook in the fourth quarter that the former South Carolina Gamecock caught over his shoulder with Waynes in his back pocket.
Cook’s blocking wasn’t as strong given how he was responsible for letting Hunter infiltrate the pocket for a sack.
Still, the first-year Packer is moving well and creating separation down the field. His speed can only help clear out plenty of room underneath for players like Montgomery or Randall Cobb—when he returns––on screen plays.
David Bahktiari: The 6-foot-4, 310-pound block of granite held premiere edge rusher Everson Griffen to one tackle and one quarterback hit by locking him up and keeping the defensive end at arm’s length for the entire afternoon.
The second-quarter 2-yard touchdown pass to Nelson was a perfect example of Bakh handling his man and giving Rodgers ample time to spot an open target.
Clay Matthews: Packer devotees witnessed the return of the “Claymaker,” who manhandled left tackle T.J. Clemmingsand terrorizedSam Bradfordwith a sack, a fumble and 3 quarterback hits.
Matthews’ all-out assault on the opposing offense started with a well-timed pass knock down with the Vikings driving at the Packers 4 yard line, which held the enemy to 22-yard field goal.
It had been a while since we’ve seen the one-time USC Trojan come off the snap with that type of quickness.
On the ensuing drive, Matthews spun around Clemmings and left the Vikings’ quarterback no other alternative but to toss the ball away on 2nd and 6.
But the outside linebacker’s highlight-reel forced fumble right before halftime came at a time when the visiting side was beginning to gain momentum and trailed by only one score.
Had Minnesota scored with one minute remaining in the half, things might have quickly snowballed since Bradford and company would have gotten the ball to start the third quarter.
Matthews exploded off the edge and easily discarded Clemmings with an arm-over move before clobbering the quarterback, who fumbled the ball into the hands of Mike Daniels.
The newfound game wrecker was just as effective in the second half by flying out of his stance and taking down Jerrick McKinnon on a carry that only went for two yards on 1st and 15.
On the same drive, Matthews was met by Clemmings with some sort of clothesline on his way to the passer, which earned a holding call against the offense on a possession that resulted in a punt.
Game balls are in order for No. 52’s acupuncturist and massage therapist since Matthews seemed healthier than he has since Week 1.
Joe Thomas: For the second consecutive week, Thomas led the defense it tackles (10). He’ll always struggle in pass coverage, but he was active and aggressive in getting to the ball on plays, such as a 3rd-and-15 completion toKyle Rudolphwhere Thomas wrestled the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end to the ground before he could make a run for the first-down marker.
Jake Ryan: The second-year inside linebacker was terrific in limiting the damage on a few plays that could have resulted into big ones that could have made the ball game much tighter than it was.
Ryan was excellent in pursuit of anAdam Thielenon an end-around in the second quarter that only went four 4 yards. He later chased downMatt Asiataon a third-quarter screen and prevented the sure first down on the 9-yard gain.
Micah Hyde: The veteran defensive back was hit or miss on a number of plays both as a run blitzer and in pass coverage, but also helped cover up forQuinten Rollins’ errors in run support. Where Hyde was truly exceptional, however, was as a punt returner.
He ran with confidence and patience in his efforts to set his team up with strong field position.
On a 39-yardJeff Lockepunt in the third quarter, Hyde caught the ball off a bounce and advanced it 11 yards to the Minnesota 44 yard line.
On his next return, the all-purpose defender and special-teams contributor found a lane to run through and picked up 19 yards by carrying the ball from the Green Bay 15 to the 34 yard line.
In total, Hyde produced 40 yards on his four returns and even recovered his own muff on one of those occasions.
Damarious Randall: The much-maligned cornerback took positive steps forward after one of his worst performances the week prior in Chicago.
He started the game on the bench and later very capably filled in for an injuredLadarius Gunterin the second quarter.
Most notably, he didn’t play scared and, instead, stayed closer to receivers than he did in Week 15, as evidenced by his coverage onCharles Johnsonon a third-quarter 1st-and-10 pass that was overthrown by Bradford.
Randall once again did well on the next series in running stride-for-stride with Cordarelle Pattersonon a high pass that the second-year corner went up for and deflected.
With the exception of a missed tackle on Asiata late in the fourth quarter, Randall was much more technically sound in playing the run and defending receivers.
He won’t be earning any awards for his work, but his ability to bounce back was great to see because Green Bay needs him to be at his best in the worst way with a more potent Lions’ passing attack up next on the schedule.
Dec 24, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (24) hits Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) out of bounds in the fourth quarterat Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin via USA TODAY Sports
Bryan Bulaga: The steady right tackle, who had been consistently providing excellent pass protection in recent weeks, struggled mightily, particularly against the long 6-foot-6 (Danielle) Hunter and his 34 ½” arms coming off the left side of the Vikings’ defensive line.
The younger Hunter seemed to wear down Bulaga starting in the second quarter with the veteran blocker unable to sustain his protection on 3rd-and-1 sequence that forced Rodgers to prematurely leave the pocket and execute a poor throw to Montgomery.
Bulaga was also responsible for Rodgers getting sandwiched on the third-quarter sack that left him laying on the ground for quite a while. On the play, the right bookend was knocked off-balance by Hunter, who combined with Kendricks on the nasty hit.
Was this just a case of Bulaga going up against a high-level opponent? Probably considering how well the seasoned trenchman had been performing for much of the year, but I would rather have him commit a few more penalties than see Rodgers risk another serious injury.
Corey Linsley: From the outset, it was easy to see that the Packers weren’t going to make a living running the ball against a stout Vikings’ front seven.
Linval Josephpushed Linsely back into the pocket on a 1st-and-10 Montgomery run leaving the running back with no room to work with on the fourth snap of the game that lost one yard.
In total, Green Bay’s running backs were held to 27 yards on 13 carries and much of that can be attributed to the inability of Linsley and the other interior blockers to keep Joseph and friends at bay.
Kenny Clark: The rookie defender deserves much credit for quickly pouncing on a second-quarter mishandled snap by centerNick Easton, but other than that, Clark never gained any penetration to make plays against the run.
Opportunities for him to step up were there for No. 97 given all the double-teams Mike Daniels was facing, but the Vikings continually racked up big yards up the middle averaging about 4.9 yards per rush excluding two carries by Bradford.
Huge concerns remain for Green Bay’s run defense, especially if they ever need to face the Cowboys again in postseason play…stay tuned.
Quinten Rollins: Those who enjoyed Randall getting torched byStefon Diggsin Week 2, really had to get a kick out of Rollins trying to match up with (Adam) Thielen, who toasted the clueless cornerback nine ways to Sunday in his 12-catch, 202-yard outing that also saw the Minnesota-born receiver score two touchdowns.
On the second drive of the game, Thielen beat Rollins twice by once bumping him off his route on a 17-yard sideline throw and then cleanly going around his defender off the line on a play where Bradford missed his open target which forced the Vikings to settle for a field goal.
But the best was yet to come for Rollins on a 2nd-and-6 play midway through the second quarter in which Thielen again came cleanly off the line and forced his opponent to bite while pretending to stop, but then turned on the jets on a 71-yard touchdown reception. It was Minnesota’s longest play of the season.
I can go on, but what it boils down to is the fact that Rollins remains a raw defender that cannot read routes, does not bump receivers off the line of scrimmage and repeatedly comes up empty in run support. Plan and simple: the instincts aren’t there for him to be a viable NFL cornerback.
He may want to consider hitting the hard court again at some point and go back to being a point guard. You can make a nice living doing that out in Europe.
Ladarius Gunter: His day could have been much worse if he wasn’t forced to exit the contest with an elbow injury in the second quarter.
Much like Rollins, Gunter couldn’t not hang with Thielen, who burned the one-time Miami Hurricane on an 11-yard slant and a 32-yard completion in which the receiver simply outran his man to the outside.