How Packers reached 2020 NFC Championship game: Key acquisitions, draft picks, turning point, results and more
Green Bay's aggressive offseason spent revamping their defense has paid off
The Green Bay Packers are headed to the NFC title game for the eighth time in franchise history. The short story of how they got there is they went 13-3 during the regular season, secured a first-round bye in the playoffs, and defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round by a score of 28-23. We're here to tell the slightly longer story.
It begins, as most things regarding the current version of the Packers do, with the drafting of Aaron Rodgers. One of two candidates to go No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, Rodgers instead saw Alex Smith go to the 49ers, and began to slide down the board. He eventually tumbled all the way to No. 24, where Green Bay scooped him up.
Of course, most everyone knows what happened next. Rodgers sat for three full seasons behind franchise legend Brett Favre, until the team finally had enough of Favre's will-he-or-won't-he retirement dance and jettisoned him in favor of thrusting Rodgers into the lineup. After a subpar debut season, Rodgers quickly blossomed into one of the small handful of best quarterbacks in the history of the league, and he has been exactly that for most of the time since 2009.
Over the few years prior to this one, however, things began to get a bit stale. The relationship between Rodgers and former coach Mike McCarthy went south. Green Bay was no longer nailing every draft, and a team-building philosophy that just about ignored free agency meant there were not as many high-level players supporting Rodgers as there used to be. As we wrote this offseason:
For a long time, the Green Bay Packers operated in a very specific way. First under Ron Wolf and then under Mike Sherman and later Ted Thompson, the Packers had a philosophy that changed very little. They drafted and developed players, prioritized homegrown talent and rarely splurged in free agency, and almost always moved down the draft board when making trades.
For much of that time, that philosophy served the organization extremely well. From 1990, when Wolf was hired, through 2017, when Thompson was let go, the Packers compiled a 271-176-1 record, the third-best mark in the league. The Packers made 19 playoff appearances and won 12 division titles during that time, capturing 21 postseason victories (second-most in the league) and two Super Bowl titles along the way.
Toward the tail end of Thompson's tenure, though, things began to get a bit stale. Between 2014 and 2017, the Packers saw their record plummet from 12-4 to 7-9, and while there was a whole lot of (justified) consternation about the team's archaic offensive system during that time, perhaps a bigger issue was the erosion of the Packers' defense. From both a talent standpoint and in terms of former defensive coordinator Dom Capers' schemes, Green Bay was just not good enough on that side of the ball.
And so Green Bay missed the playoffs in both 2017 and 2018, the first time they'd missed out on the postseason in back-to-back years since 2005 and 2006. The situation called for change, and change was made. Out went McCarthy, and in came Matt LaFleur, the former offensive coordinator for the Rams and then the Titans. LaFleur kept in place defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, for whom general manager Brian Gutekunst -- who replaced the departed Ted Thompson, the architect of the no-free-agents philosophy, following the 2017 season -- broke from Packer tradition and went on a this offseason, bringing in edge pass rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith on four-year deals that totaled a combined $118 million and safety Adrian Amos on a four-year, $36 million contract.
Those moves represented a major step in Gutekunst's attempt to aggressively remodel the team's defense during his two years at the helm. His other major moves also involved breaking the Packers' mold. Gutekunst traded down in the 2018 draft, as his predecessors had before him, but he just as quickly traded back up, landing cornerback Jaire Alexander with the No. 18 pick. Using the extra first-rounder acquired in the original trade down the board, Gutekunst moved up again in the 2019 draft, landing safety Darnell Savage at No. 21 overall.
In between, he added players like Josh Jackson, Oren Burks, and Rashan Gary, plus undrafted nose tackle Tyler Lancaster, and second-chance players like Tramon Williams, Chandon Sullivan, Ibraheim Campbell, and B.J. Goodson. Add that group to holdovers like Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Kyler Fackrell, Kevin King, Montravius Adams, and Blake Martinez, and you've suddenly got a unit bursting with talent -- and one that is significantly younger and more athletic than it had been in the recent past.
The development of that defense -- and particularly of the Smiths-led pass rush -- is a major part of what helped the Packers level-up this season. While most Rodgers-helmed Packers teams in years past were led by their dominant offense, this year it was the defense that was the better unit. Green Bay went 7-2 in games where the offense scored less than 24 points this season. In Rodgers' career as a starter prior to this year, the Packers were only 24-40 in such games. That's the equivalent of winning around 3.4 out of nine games, compared to the seven of nine Green Bay won this season.
And it wasn't just the defense that gave Rodgers a lift. Green Bay scored 44 total touchdowns this season, with Rodgers accounting for 27 -- 26 in the air and one on the ground. That's a rate of 61.4 percent. In his career prior to this year, Rodgers was responsible for 364 of the Packers' 548 total touchdowns, a rate of 66.4 percent. And that doesn't even account for the touchdowns the team scored in games that he missed due to injury, or any of the touchdowns that were scored by the defense or special teams during his starts.
This year, the Packers made a concerted effort to run the ball near the goal line, and it resulted in Aaron Jones finding the end zone a whole lot. Jones, the second of three running backs the Packers selected during the 2017 NFL Draft, ended the season with 1,084 yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns on the ground. Jones also finished tied for fourth out of 45 qualifiers in Football Outsiders' Success Rate, and tied for eighth in the NFL in explosive runs (13 carries of 15-plus yards) despite ranking 15th in carries. Jones split the backfield work with Jamaal Williams, who was the first of those three 2017 running backs to come off the board. Williams ranked seventh in Success Rate this season, and he was a major contributor in a passing game that lacked reliable options beyond Jones and Davante Adams for most of the season.
Even Adams -- fresh off exploding for 160 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches against the Seahawks -- was absent for a decent chunk of this season. He injured his toe during the Packers' Week 4 loss to the Eagles and had to miss the next four games, during which time Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling were also hurt. That necessitated players like Allen Lazard and Jake Kumerow stepping into the lineup, and they all remained contributors in one form or another for the remainder of the season. In his eight games after returning from injury, Adams looked pretty much like himself: 58 catches for 619 yards and five scores, putting him on a 116-1,238-10 pace over a full season.
Everything came together pretty perfectly for the Packers in the divisional round. Rodgers was at his best. Adams had a great matchup and was nearly unstoppable. Jones found the end zone twice. The defense wreaked havoc all afternoon, with the Smiths leading the charge. Even Jimmy Graham got in on the action against his former team. It wasn't like that all year. The Packers had their ups and downs, and they had the worst point differential of any team that has ever gone 13-3. But stacking those wins in games they might have lost in previous seasons had value -- getting the Packers a bye and a home game in the playoffs. Now, they're one win away from the Super Bowl.
Week 1: Packers 10, Bears 3 (1-0)
Week 2: Packers 21, Vikings 16 (2-0)
Week 3: Packers 27, Broncos 16 (3-0)
Week 4: Eagles 34, Packers 27 (3-1)
Week 5: Packers 34, Cowboys 24 (4-1)
Week 6: Packers 23, Lions 22 (5-1)
Week 7: Packers 42, Raiders 24 (6-1)
Week 8: Packers 31, Chiefs 24 (7-1)
Week 9: Chargers 26, Packers 11 (7-2)
Week 10: Packers 24, Panthers 16 (8-2)
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: 49ers 37, Packers 8 (8-3)
Week 13: Packers 31, Giants 13 (9-3)
Week 14: Packers 20, Washington 16 (10-3)
Week 15: Packers 21, Bears 13 (11-3)
Week 16: Packers 23, Vikings 10 (12-3)
Week 17: Packers 23, Lions 20 (13-3)
Wild Card: BYE
Divisional: Packers 28, Seahawks 23 (14-3)
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