The Packers clinch NFC North title while tightening grip on NFC's top playoff seed
The Packers survived a scare in Baltimore to clinch their third consecutive NFC North title while adding distance between themselves and the rest of the conference's Super Bowl contenders.
The Green Bay Packers survived a scare in Baltimore on Sunday to clinch their third consecutive NFC North title while adding distance between themselves and the rest of the conference's Super Bowl contenders.
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Has Aaron Rodgers become the MVP front-runner?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Directly following Sunday's games, the answer remains no. Depending on where one looks, oddsmakers list Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady between -115 and -120 to win the MVP while Aaron Rodgers sits at +250. While that marks a sizable change from the same odds heading into the day — Brady -150 versus Rodgers +500 — the Tampa signal-caller still holds a meaningful lead.
But, as we always stress with these big national awards, narrative drives voting more than any other factor, and the two quarterbacks offer decidedly different stories. Whenever Brady makes a decent play, both the broadcast and social media fire off some version of "can you believe he does this at age 44?!" Meanwhile, Rodgers has to fight voter fatigue from winning the award last season and lingering resentment among voters over his intentional misdirection over his vaccination status.
However, while those two factors work against Rodgers, they don't preclude him from bridging the gap altogether. As Peter detailed earlier this month, Rodgers has performed better than his competition in multiple important objective metrics, and the gap between him and the rest of the league has widened in the time since. Moreover, this year's MVP has become a two-man race, with only Brady and Rodgers registering odds under +1000.
With Brady and the Buccaneers' awful performance Sunday night giving the Packers' a full game of cushion in the NFC playoff standings mere hours after Rodgers tore apart the Baltimore Ravens defense, the two award candidates have begun drifting in opposite directions. If Rodgers maintains his current level of play and Green Bay clinches the No. 1 seed — especially if that occurs before Week 18 — he should win his second consecutive MVP and fourth overall.
Peter Bukowski: Technically, no. The question is implicitly about odds to win the award, and in that regard, Rodgers still trails Tom Brady who remains a minus favorite to take home the trophy.
On the other hand, right now, Rodgers leads the league in EPA/play, adjusted EPA/play, CPOE, and CPOE+EPA/play. Plus he plays for the best team in the league by record and one of the games they lost, was a game he missed.
From Week 2 on, the numbers aren’t even close.
That said, Rodgers will have to overcome the narratives from the offseason when he blew up the Packers’ spring and summer, not to mention the criticism he took for his handling of his vaccination status and ultimately his absence from the Chiefs game after getting COVID.
It was always going to take a superhuman effort from Rodgers to win it given those stipulations. By EPA/play, the best quarterback over the last two seasons is Rodgers in 2020. The second-best? Rodgers in 2021. He is the most valuable player, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be the MVP.
Over the last four weeks, the Packers defense has given up at least 28 points in every game. What are they doing differently that has led to this troubling month of performances?
JBH: The Packers don't have a neat-and-tidy explanation for opponents scoring so much of late. Some of the issues relate directly to circumstance, such as the special-teams units putting the defense in problematic field position (or literally allowing touchdown returns). In other instances, they have given up explosive gains to players with unique skill sets. Green Bay dealt with the latter scenario in Week 15, struggling throughout the game to corral soon-to-be All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
Ultimately, the personnel dictates how well or poorly a game plan unfolds, and the Packers simply don't have a full arsenal at their disposal. Kenny Clark's absence showed up early and often in Baltimore, and the defense remains vulnerable in pass coverage over the middle thanks to the lack of a reliable slot cornerback (Green Bay cycled through Chandon Sullivan, Kevin King, and other options over the past few weeks).
Granted, the team doesn't expect Clark to miss much more time, and help might arrive soon in the secondary. But until the Packers find solutions and see them on the field, they could see opponents light up the scoreboard again.
PB: The injuries are catching up with them. Green Bay deserves sincere kudos for how they’ve handled losing superstar players this season, but at a certain point, playing with backups every week will become easier to scout because teams will have more film on how to attack them.
What’s more, losing elite talent and replacing them with backups shrinks down the margin for error in these games. The Packers weathered injury storms with Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith because they have Rashan Gary and Eric Stokes to step in. There’s no one to replace Kenny Clark’s versatility and impact.
Against the Ravens, the Packers experimented with Kevin King as an overhang defender, a sort of nickel safety type. That’s a fun idea because Henry Black has struggled, but matching him against Mark Andrew one-on-one on fourth down doesn’t make much sense. If the Packers had Alexander, maybe they could slide an actual good cover player onto Andrews in that situation.
Over time, teams will find those weaknesses more often and exploit them.
What we're seeing/hearing
PB: Don’t underrate what the Packers did on Sunday because of who was playing quarterback. Tyler Huntley was an extremely underrated prospect coming out of Utah whose statistical resume was as good as anyone in college football. Not receiving an invitation to the scouting combine was a joke.
During the game, I tweeted (somewhat in jest) wondering if he’d be the second-best QB in the NFC North, and a league source sent me a message suggesting he thought that could actually be true.
He’s an elite athlete with poise, accuracy, and good instincts. Had this been most other teams, the backup would have been no problem, but Huntley is not only a dangerous runner but an efficient passer, making a Ravens team already impossibly difficult to gameplan for because of their style, a little more confusing because Green Bay presumably had to plan for both Huntley and Jackson.
JBH: At 37 years old, Marcedes Lewis has blown past the expected sell-by date of an NFL tight end. Even athletic specimens at the position shouldn't still play roughly 50% of a team's offensive snaps as Lewis has this season.
They also shouldn't have the ability to embarrass half of an NFL defense on a single play.
The Ravens' depth issues throughout the defense didn't help their efforts to bring down Lewis, but the veteran tight end has done this too often the past few seasons to write it off as a fortuitous matchup. Lewis arrived in Green Bay as a likely one-year veteran band-aid under Mike McCarthy before carving out a more meaningful role under Matt LaFleur. And while Lewis' contributions rarely garner the same attention as the rest of the Packers' receiving corps, his blocking and versatility have helped the offense mitigate myriad personnel issues.
Lewis won't receive the credit if the Packers reach the Super Bowl this season, which is fair. However, along with other key role players, they probably won't make it there without him.
PB: Matt LaFleur became just the third coach since 1970 to win 11+ games in each of his first three seasons. The other two: Jim Harbaugh and Chuck Pagano. This is where I point out neither one of those coaches won a Super Bowl in that span. The Colts couldn’t get past the Patriots in the AFC with Andrew Luck, and Harbaugh fell to his brother John in the Super Bowl in a season the 49ers pantsed the Packers in the playoffs thanks to Colin Kaepernick.
That’s not suggesting a similar fate will befall the Packers, but it’s certainly not proof everything will turn out well for LaFleur now or in the future.
On the other hand, the Packers have the best record in football, along with three losses, despite missing three of their best ~5 players essentially all season, not to mention one of those three losses came without Rodgers.
LaFleur’s impact on the culture from the moment he stepped foot in Green Bay has been well-documented and his revamping of the offense revitalized one of the best players to ever play the game. So far, LaFleur looks more responsible for the success of the Packers than the two aforementioned coaches and his success is more closely tied to the quarterback because it’s his offense they’re running, his gameplans they’re putting together.
With the Patriots and Cardinals each losing this week, Matt LaFleur deserves to be the favorite to win Coach of the Year, though I’m sure he’ll settle for that elusive Super Bowl title.