The setting was perfect. The snowflakes were falling, the crowd was going crazy and the Panthers were two yards away from a potential game-tying touchdown at Lambeau. The entire galaxy knew that Christian McCaffrey was getting the ball. Standing in his way: the Packers’ defense, which had just allowed the Panthers to march 89 yards down the field, setting them up for this moment.
And what do you know? The Pack got the stop, barely. After giving the Panthers extra chances with mind-numbing penalties in the closing seconds, they did just enough to keep McCaffrey short of the goal line. We think. There was no camera angle that proved that he got in, but he might have. Had they ruled touchdown on the field, they wouldn’t have been able to overturn it. Give the defense credit: yes, McCaffrey got his 100 yards, but they avoided giving up explosive plays and took the ball away a couple of times–and that was the difference in the game.
The Packers were the more productive running team on this day, led by Aaron Jones’ 93 yards on just 13 carries. Jamaal Williams chipped in another 63 and that productive running attack allowed Aaron Rodgers to hit some big plays downfield, including a huge 48 yarder to Jimmy Graham and a number of connections to Davante Adams, who finally looked like Davante Adams again.
Yes, the Pack caught a break on the roughing the passer penalty on Rodgers in the end zone in the second quarter. A punt there could have set up the Panthers in good field position. Instead, the Packers were given new life and marched down the field until they were stopped on fourth and goal on the final play of the half (I loved the aggressiveness there, even though it didn’t work out). The Panthers had caught a break earlier on the fictional offensive pass interference call on Allen Lazard, which ended a Packer drive.
Remember back when the season started, we hoped/expected that Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdez-Scantling would step into expanded roles as the #2 and #3 wide receivers. The reality is that they are afterthoughts in this offense. MVS didn’t catch a pass and Gmo caught three for six yards. Instead, Lazard and Jake Kumerow have earned Rodgers’ confidence and are earning bigger roles in this offense each week.
Defensively, the Smiths continue to be difference makers, with Preston Smith now at ten sacks, notching two more on Sunday. The Pack’s beefed up pass rush is probably the biggest reason this team is 8-2, that and the improved run game. When Matt LaFleur remembers to commit to the run, the offense hums.
It wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t perfect, but the Pack responded from their flat performance in LA with a steady performance in their only home game in November–a game they absolutely had to win as they head into their bye week. With the Vikings exorcizing their demons by winning a prime time road game against a winning team, the Pack’s lead remains just one game in the North. There’s a good chance that after week 12, both teams will be 8-3 heading into December, when the schedule turns to the Vikings’ favor.
For now, the Packers have two weeks to prepare for the unbeaten 49ers, a great test that will give us an idea how seriously we can take this team in the post-season. But sitting at 8-2 at the bye is more than we could have asked for. This team is healthy, Rodgers is playing well and their defense is making big plays when they need them. That’s the recipe for a winning team.