GREEN BAY -- With Sunday's defeat of Chicago, Green Bay not only returns to the playoffs, but returns to Philadelphia where it opened the season with a victory. Only there is something different about the Packers then and now, and it's their offense.
One guy and one guy alone carries them, and that's quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- and that's not good.
That is not a knock on Rodgers. The guy is one of the top quarterbacks in the business. He's accurate, he's experienced and he wins. Heck, he lifted the Packers to critical wins over the Giants and Bears the past two weeks when their playoff hopes were on life support. And when you consider what Green Bay has been through -- with 15 players on injured reserve, including six starters -- that's a considerable achievement.
But there's only so much one man can do, and, just a hunch, but Rodgers and the Packers will learn the hard way in the playoffs.
That's another way of saying I don't trust teams that can't run the ball, and the Packers can't. I thought the emergence of short-yardage back John Kuhn changed things there, but then I watched the Packers operate in their 10-3 defeat of Chicago when, basically, they won without a running game.
They had only 60 yards rushing, averaged 2.6 yards per try, and couldn't punch the ball in from the Chicago 1 when they were set up first-and-goal. Not only that, but their leading rusher wasn't a running back at all. It was Aaron Rodgers, and, as I said, there's only so much one man can do.
"That's what we hang our hat on," wide receiver Greg Jennings said. "We're a passing team. When we need a play we're trying to throw the ball."
That's great, except you only go so far like that, and Green Bay should know. Earlier this season they couldn't beat Atlanta -- the top-seeded team in the NFC playoffs -- because they couldn't score from the 1 there, either. When they absolutely, positively needed a score, they had Rodgers try to sneak it in -- twice, no less -- with the quarterback fumbling on his second attempt, and, yeah, that's a problem.
I know, I know, Indianapolis went to the Super Bowl last season with the league's 32nd-ranked running game, but there's a difference between those Colts and these Packers. The Packers simply can't run; the Colts chose not to run -- understandable when Peyton Manning is your quarterback.
|More on Bears-Packers|
Nevertheless, they were capable of mixing things up, which they did in the AFC Championship Game when Joseph Addai, who totaled 10 touchdowns in the 2009 regular season -- ran for 80 yards. Now, look at Green Bay this season: Its entire team ran for 11, one more than Addai, and in 10 of its 16 starts it never eclipsed 100 yards rushing.
"You can't win in this game," quarterback Steve Young once said, "without the threat of a running game. Opponents must respect your backs, and if they don't you're dead."
The reason: One-dimensional ball clubs are predictable and easier to defend. The Packers proved that in the 1995 playoffs when they defended Young and the 49ers with a three-man rush, practically daring San Francisco to beat them with a running back named Derek Loville. The 49ers could not and were beaten.
I'm afraid the same thing could happen to Green Bay. Look, the Packers can play defense with anyone, and they proved that again Sunday. They stopped Chicago twice inside their 25 -- holding the Bears to a field goal after they reached the Green Bay 4, then intercepting Jay Cutler in the end zone after Chicago had driven to the Packers' 24.
The box score will tell you that Rodgers won this game on a short touchdown pass to tight end Donald Lee, but Rodgers wasn't the difference; the Packers' defense was. It held fast while Rodgers and the offense sputtered, and, in the end, saved the day with a game-ending interception.
"We take a backseat to nobody on defense," defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "We have the players, the scheme and the coaches. It's just a matter of executing, and if we do we're tough to beat."
He could make the same statement about the Green Bay offense -- except it doesn't have the players. It has the quarterback. And it has the wide receivers. But it doesn't have the running game, and that can cripple a club's Super Bowl chances.
All of which brings me back to Rodgers. It is his play -- not that of the Green Bay defense -- that determines how far the Packers go now. There's been a lot of talk around here about the Packers' playoff meltdown last year, when Arizona put 51 points on them in an opening-round loss, but that won't happen next week. Or the week after that. Or the week after that, if they get that far.
|Considering they had nothing to play for, every aspect of the Bears' game looked playoff-worthy except for pass protection. QB Jay Cutler has to take some blame for that, as well, as he held the ball too long. He also threw away a field goal try with an ill-advised third-down INT in the end zone.|
|By Gene Chamberlain|
|Green Bay Packers|
|The defense was inside the red zone twice and did not give up a TD. WRs Greg Jennings and Donald Driver had poor first halves and the running game was pretty non-existent except for rookie James Starks. Jennings came up big in the end with a 46-yard catch to set up the game-winning TD. ||By Tom Silverstein|
Give us your grades on Twitter
I'm confident of that.
I'm not so confident, however, of what happens to Rodgers and the offense. In seven road games, he's 3-4 as a starter. Now, take away his best performance of the season -- a four-touchdown effort in Minnesota -- and look at his remaining six road starts. He has five touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 80.82. More to the point, look what his teammates have done on the road: They lost their last three there and were 3-5 this season.
"I like our chances," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "I feel good about our team. We just kept fighting, and now we have a chance to make some noise. "
I'll second that. But it's all about Aaron Rodgers, and how he handles the pressure -- and, yes, I mean that literally. Look at what Chicago did here: The Bears brought more heat than Rodgers and the Packers anticipated, and it had an impact. Rodgers and the Packers struggled to make plays, failing to score on their first eight series and hanging tough only because the Green Bay defense didn't budge. Eventually, Rodgers came around, and so did the Packers -- with Rodgers hitting three straight completions early in the fourth quarter for 68 yards and a TD, and that was that.
Only it isn't. Because now we must assess Green Bay's chances to make a Super Bowl run, and, frankly, the Packers aren't as good as they were a year ago when they won seven of their last eight regular-season starts and looked like the most dangerous wild card out there ... only to be one and done in the playoffs.
"It's been a frustrating year because maybe we haven't played as we did at times last year," Rodgers said. "[For me] there have been a lot of highs and lows this year. There were times when I felt I played like I was capable of playing, and there were times when I felt like I made huge mistakes. I'm going to have to be more efficient."
The Packers know they can beat Philadelphia. They've done it once before. But they must wonder how they can sustain a three-week run through the playoffs without Rodgers at his peak each week. As I said, I don't worry about their defense. It allowed the fewest points in the NFC and was second only to Pittsburgh in the NFL. Plus, only once in the past nine games did it allow more than 20 points, and that was a 31-27 loss at New England.
But the Packers go only as far as Rodgers can carry them, and while he produced seven games with passer ratings of 100 or more this season, only two were on the road. But let's forget about away games for the moment. Let's look at the bigger picture: Aaron Rodgers hasn't won a playoff game in his career, and now he must because, like it or not, now he is the Green Bay Packers offense.
"Nothing has come easy for us," said Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, "and we wouldn't want it any other way."
Well, they just got their wish.