There’s so much to unpack from the Pack’s heart-pounding 28-23 playoff win over the Seahawks, but the one thing that stuck with me as I considered what I’d just seen: Matt LaFleur passed his first playoff test with flying colors.
Despite finding out 90 minutes before kickoff that he wouldn’t have the services of Bryan Bulaga, he trusted backup Jared Veldheer and stuck to his game plan, with a near 50-50 split of run vs. pass and dialing up great third down calls and letting his quarterback take it from there. Green Bay’s third down success won this game, and none were bigger than the completions to the last two, to Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham.
I was surprised when Pete Carroll elected to punt on his team’s final possession, as hot as Russell Wilson was in the second half and as uncertain he had to be that his defense would make one more stop. 4th and 10, 2:41 on the clock, I expect the aggressive Carroll to put it in his amazing QB’s hands, knowing that worst case they give up a field goal and get the ball back in a one possession game. And let’s not forget Preston’s Smith’s huge sack that set up the fourth down decision.
But he trusted his defense and LaFleur, Rodgers and company made them pay. The fade to Adams on third and long was the play of the game. What a night for Adams. We talked before the game about how Seattle ranks 31st against teams’ #1 receivers and that stat held true. This was the Adams we’ve come to know and love, his toe fully healed and his release and route running at an elite level.
And then there was the dagger to Jimmy Graham, who stepped up against his former team and delivered three big catches–none bigger than the last one, when he did just enough to move the chains, even after the ‘additional footage’ came in for the officials to look at. What the heck was that, by the way? I was ready to throw something when Clete Blackman started to explain it, expecting the call to be reversed at the last moment.
Give the Seahawks credit for bottling up Aaron Jones for most of the night, but give LaFleur additional credit for staying with the run. It set up a number of tough third down situations, the average yardage the Pack needed averaged more than six throughout the game, but Rodgers was as sharp as he’s been all season on third downs and Green Bay needed every one of them.
We’ve gotten used to seeing this team jump out to leads and hold on for dear life (though I’m not sure we can expect to see that in the title game). The defense was absolutely brilliant in the first half, stuffing the running game and for the most part keeping Wilson in the pocket. You figured they’d make some adjustments and turn Wilson loose in the second half. His brilliance almost pulled it off. He got on the same page as electric receiver Tyler Lockett and showed how difficult it can be to try to bring him down. Kevin King called him Houdini after the game, and that’s not far off. He provided the stiffest test this defense has faced all season and they ultimately passed it.
Leading the way, as usual were the Smiths, whose box scores were identical: two sacks each, a tackle for loss and four quarterback hits. They have transformed Mike Pettine’s defense and are the primary reason this team is playing for the NFC championship.
While we’re at it, let’s step back and consider the job Brian Gutekunst has done to remake this roster. Consider the two moves he made in the past month: signing returner/running back Tyler Ervin and tackle Jared Veldheer. Ervin has settled the return game situation, which was on an historically inept pace. He’s also provided a nice little complement in the run game, gaining 25 yards on two carries Sunday night. Veldheer provided Bulaga insurance–we all saw what happened to the line when he exited against the 49ers. Having his veteran presence to fill in against the Lions and then starting against the Seahawks patched up the biggest hole on this roster. I shudder to think what might have played out if Alex Light was playing right tackle.
So here the Packers sit, one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl, with a gigantic obstacle in their way on their quest to try to earn Rodgers his second ring. We’ll worry about the 49ers as the week progresses. For now, let’s appreciate what this team has accomplished: a team that a year ago hit rock bottom and many mused that Rodgers’ window had closed and it was time to start from scratch.
The Pack handed the keys to a young untested head coach, trusted and retained their defensive coordinator, brought in high priced defensive reinforcements, put the ball in Aaron Jones’ hands, trusted that their rookie guard was ready to step up and proceeded to sweep their division games, go 8-1 at home and finish 4-2 against teams with winning records.
And now they’re 60 minutes away from a trip to the Super Bowl. Sure, they’re big time underdogs to get there. But they’re in the NFC title game–and nobody not named Carl Gerbschmidt expected that.