Let’s start with the important stuff. The Packers are back in the playoffs after a two year hiatus. Back in the post-season for the 20th time in 27 years of the Favre-Rodgers eras. They close the decade with a 17-4 record over the Bears, with seven sweeps in the last 11 years. And with two games to go, they can finish anywhere from the top seed to the bottom seed in the NFC.
When relative unknown Matt LaFleur was hired, it was mostly met with a yawn. 11 months later he is the first head coach in Packer history to lead the Pack to the playoffs in his first season. GM Brian Gutekunst deserves at least an equal share of the credit for tweaking the roster with key free agent signings and what’s looking like two mostly solid draft classes.
It’s such a weird spot to sit in as a Packer fan, because though they’re 11-3 with the NFC North title just one win or Vikings loss away, I’d guess that the majority of the fan base is not too excited about the team’s post-season prospects. Their two most recent losses were no contest affairs and their wins have mostly been of the ugly variety. The Bears game is just the most recent example.
It started on the Pack’s first play from scrimmage when Marquez Valdez-Scantling showed off his alligator arms on what could (should) have been a 75 yard touchdown pass. It set the tone for yet another uneven, inconsistent day for the offense, which teased us by coming out of halftime with two impressive touchdown drives, only to fail to convert a third down the rest of the afternoon.
When Dean Lowry picked off Mitch Trubisky midway through the fourth quarter, setting the Pack up at the 33 with a chance to make it a two score game and basically end it, Rodgers took an inexcusable sack on third and four to take the team out of field goal range.
It’s a scenario we’ve seen play out all season: the Packers take a lead and can’t convert key third downs to extend drives and put teams away. They converted just five of 15 third downs and once again were outgained by their opponent. Davante Adams had seven receptions, but nobody else had more than two and once again they were unable to get any production from the running backs in the passing game.
At this point, we just have to assume this is what this offense is this season. The strength of the unit is the offensive line, which kept Rodgers upright (just one sack) and rendered Khalil Mack all but invisible (he flashed on one play all afternoon). Yes, the run blocking wasn’t great, but nobody runs well against the Bears, especially with Akiem Hicks back to anchor the D-line. And they did outgain the Bears on the ground.
The defense was solid all afternoon, not letting Trubisky do too much damage with his legs and keeping David Montgomery in check. Yes, they threw for more than 300 yards, but much of that came after they fell into a 21-3 hole. Kenny Clark was the star on that side of the ball, causing havoc all afternoon.
Yes, the Pack caught a break on the penalty called on Cordarelle Patterson’s hit on fill-in punt returner Tramon Williams. I haven’t heard what happened to Tyler Ervin and why Williams had to step in there. Ervin was back the next time the Bears punted. I have to think Williams was told ‘just make a fair catch; don’t try to be a hero.’ The last thing the team needed was for him to get injured. I have no earthly idea why he didn’t signal for a fair catch. Patterson delivered a textbook hit, causing him to lose the ball and the Bears pounced on it. It was a bang bang play and the officials obviously thought he wasn’t given a chance to catch it. But they blew it and four plays later the Pack was in the end zone on a 29 yard TD pass to Davante Adams on fourth and four. It was what it was: a huge break for the Pack. To quote Reese’s: ‘not sorry.’ There was also a missed PI call on Adams on a huge third down play later in the game. Crap happens.
Big picture: the Packers finished the season 7-1 at home and sit one win away from the North title. If they get some help on Sunday and the Saints lose on the road at Tennessee, they could hold on to a top two seed, even if they lose at US Bank Stadium next Monday night. But how nice it would be to officially wrap up the division with a win over the Vikings. A statement win like that would quiet the naysayers and stamp the Pack as a dangerous playoff team. Recent performances would make it seem unlikely, but the Packers have surprised us quite a bit this season. And as maddening as it’s been, it feels awfully good to be back in contention once again.