I asked Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Tuesday to explain the biggest difference between the 4-6 Packers from last month and the 8-6 Packers who head into Saturday’s game against the Vikings at Lambeau Field.
“Well,” he said, “I think the No. 1 is just taking care of the football and generating takeaways. We’re plus-10 in just the last two weeks.”
Having since watched Green Bay’s 30-27 win over the Bears, I can confirm that answer as the correct one. Without a plus-4 turnover ratio on Sunday, the Packers are 7-7, losers to a three-win Bears team and no Wisconsinite worth his weight in cheese would be R-E-L-A-X-I-N-G.
Overview: A reminder to all: Don’t write off good franchises quarterbacked by great players. Since these teams met last met in a 17-14 Vikings win at U.S. Bank Stadium back in Week 2, the Packers are 7-5, while the Vikings are 5-7. The Vikings need two wins and a prayer to make the playoffs. The Packers can still win the division with two wins and a Detroit loss at Dallas on Monday night.
To the tape: …
Top five thoughts while watching tape of the Packers’ 30-27 win at Chicago on Sunday:
—The TV analyst spent the first few plays talking about two things: Aaron Rodgers’ gimpy left hamstring and Aaron Rodgers’ gimpy right calf. Rodgers then played 58 snaps plus penalties in 11-degree weather showing no signs of either. Facing his first third-down situation, Rodgers faced a front-side safety blitz on third-and-2. He moved quickly to his left, ducked, stepped up with authority and fired a ball 32 yards through the air, just over the head of a defender, to tight end Jared Cook. Rodgers ran three times for 19 yards, including back-to-back red-zone runs of 8 yards to the sideline and 7 yards up the middle on third-and-goal from the 8 in the third quarter. He also had a first-down run nullified by penalty. His ability to extend plays is very much intact.
—I’ve heard people say Ty Montgomery is a receiver who now plays running back. I have to disagree. To me, Ty Montgomery looks like a running back who used to play receiver. He’s 6-foot, 216 pounds. Or, as Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, “He’s a thicker guy.” Montgomery looks like a seasoned running back with a combination of patience and explosiveness. He had 162 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries. His 10.13 average was the third-highest by a Packer in a game since 1960. On his career-long 61-yard run in the second quarter, Montgomery started in the pistol formation, lined up behind Rodgers in the shotgun. He took the ball going to his left, hopped inside and bounced back outside when nothing was there. He was swarmed under and it appeared he would lose yardage. But he broke a linebacker’s arm tackle at the line of scrimmage, broke two more tackles to get to the sideline and then used his downfield blockers.
—If you believe turnovers are the most important stat in football, this game can serve as Exhibit A. The Packers’ defense was vulnerable to awful at points in this game. Bears QB Matt Barkley completed 30 passes to eight different receivers, two of whom surpassed 100 yards. Running back Jordan Howard kept the Packers guessing with 90 yards and a 5.3 average. In the fourth quarter alone, Barkley completed 15 of 20 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. The Bears scored 17 points on 224 yards and 16 first downs to tie the game at 27-27. Yes, 16 first downs in one quarter. But ultimately it didn’t matter because three of Barkley’s four turnovers led to the Packers scoring 17 third-quarter points. And Barkley’s other turnover, an interception in the end zone, ended the first half. Ageless Julius Peppers started things off on the Bears’ first possession of the third quarter. He had a strip, sack and fumble recovery at the Chicago 17 to set up a field goal. On the Bears’ other two third-quarter possessions, Barkley sailed two balls high and over the middle to safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The Packers converted those picks into TDs.
—Obviously, Jordy Nelson looks a lot more like Jordy Nelson now than he did back in Week 2 when he was still in the early stages of his return from a major knee injury. He led the way with seven catches for 124 yards, including the 60-yarder we’ve all seen multiple times on the highlight shows. On third-and-11 and the final seconds running down, Nelson got behind the defense and Rodgers did what Rodgers does to set up the winning field goal as time expired. But watching this game, I can’t help but think the biggest difference for Rodgers during the four-game winning streak is the return of tight end Jared Cook. Since returning from injury five games ago, Cook has averaged 13.6 yards on 17 catches. On the opening drive Sunday, Cook converted the first two third downs with catches of 27 yards on third-and-2 and 17 yards on third-and-11. The Packers, who went into the game ranked No. 2 in third down percentage (47), then went 0-for-8 on third downs until the 60-yarder to Nelson at the end of the game.
—The Packers had five trips into the red zone and scored only two touchdowns. Just don’t blame Rodgers for having to settle for three field goals in a near loss to the Bears. Receiver Davante Adams dropped not one, but two 16-yard touchdown passes. One near the end of the first half and the other at the opening minutes of the third quarter. And we’re talking clear-cut, hit-his-hands-while-open drops. Rodgers is tied with Drew Brees with 25 red-zone passing touchdowns. He has thrown no red-zone interceptions and has a 107.2 passer rating in the red zone.
Key stat: 1978
The last time the Packers were plus-10 in turnover ratio (15 takeaways, five giveaways) in a two-game span. In wins over Seattle and Chicago, the Packers had 10 takeaways and zero giveaways.
Prediction: Packers 27, Vikings 24
Why?: The Packers’ wild run of takeaways probably will slow. If that happens and the Vikings show some pride and bounce back from a completely lifeless effort against the Colts, this will be a close game the Vikings could win. The three-win Bears were sloppy last week, but they almost won because they played with energy and passion before third-quarter turnovers took buried them too deep. The Vikings should be able to muster as much effort and energy out of sheer professional pride, not to mention a slight glimmer of playoff hopes still alive. But the pick here goes to the home team and the quarterback we never should throw dirt on.