Packers vs Bye: Game(less)day Preview - 2021 Week 19

The Packers have a bye this week (because they had the best record in the NFL), so instead of previewing the upcoming opponent, let's look at the big picture and preview how they look going into the playoffs.

The last time the Packers had a playoff bye was just last year.

They ran the Rams out of town in the divisional round before dropping a heart-breakingly close NFCCG.

In the NFCCG, injuries hurt. The Packers really felt the loss of David Bakhtiari and shuffling the line around exposed their lack of depth against an absolutely dominant pass rush. Kevin King started, despite a bad back injury, and was targeted often, giving up two touchdowns in a very close loss.

But this year, the Packers have stocked up on depth at both offensive line and cornerback.

After a season of watching star after star go down with injury, the Packers saw backups rise to the occasion and now they're getting almost everyone back in time for the playoffs.

It's a very exciting time to be a Packers fan.

 

WHEN THE OTHER TEAM HAS THE BALL

The Packers defense has let off the gas a little the last few weeks after an incredibly hot start. They've given up over 30 points three times in their 5 games since the bye.

But is it as bad as it sounds?

Their best effort was slapping around the Vikings in a 37-10 laugher. Then they gave up 37 to the Lions in a meaningless game where it was clear the defense was not going to get creative with any scheme and was mostly trying to stay healthy and rest starters. They gave up 30 to the Bears, but a lot of that was because of special teams and the Packers blew them out anyways. They gave up 22 to the Browns in a 2 point win and 30 to the Ravens in a 1 point win. Close endings, but the Packers had two score leads late in both contests and the defense just appeared to take their foot off the gas.

At no point did the Packers look helpless or outclassed on defense. When they gave up points, it was usually because they let up late.

I don't think that lack of intensity will be a problem in the playoffs - the coaches should certainly have reminded them of how close those games got.

The most promising thing of all, though, is that they have everyone on defense healthy enough to practice.

After going without All Pros Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander for most of the year, they've both returned to practice and were unexpectedly joined by Whitney Mercilus, who previously looked lost for the year with a torn bicep.

Now, the biggest challenge they have is where to play everyone.

With a deep edge position featuring Preston Smith and Rashon Gary (who had very good seasons) now complemented by Za'Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus, the Packers have a lot of flexibility. They could rotate them often and keep them fresh, while making opposing offensive tackles constantly have to change their approach to suit a different rusher. They could also use Za'Darius Smith and Gary as defense ends. They could also get them all on the field at the same time as standup linebackers.

The possibilities are endless and, with no film on how the Packers would use all four of them, they have a gameplanning advantage as well.

Then in the secondary, Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes have had great seasons as boundary corners. Now Jaire Alexander is back and he has the perfect skillset to play the slot. He played mostly on the outside so far in his career, but that's in part because he was so good and in part because they needed more help on the outside. With Douglas and Stokes now firmly entrenched outside, the Packers could let them stay where they've been comfortable and successful and play Jaire in the slot. The Packers also have the ability to roll out any number of alternative looks with Jaire outside or rolling zones.

Again, becuase they have so much talent and opponents have no film, the Packers are at a huge advantage.

Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos have been mostly solid on the back end (which should be easier with Jaire, Douglas, and Stokes all in coverage) and Kenny Clark and First Team All Pro De'Vondre Campbell have been dominant in the middle of the defense.

There's a lot of talent and big names, but the wild card just might be Dean Lowry.

With offensive coordinators focused on beating the Packers stacked secondary and trying to get a blocking scheme for the bigger names, Lowry, who has quietly been playing some of the best ball of his career, could find himself in a position to make some splash plays as the forgotten man if offenses forget about him.

 

WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL

The Packers lack of offensive line depth was a major factor in not winning the Super Bowl last year.

This year, the Packers offensive line has been impressive while playing mostly 2nd and 3rd stringers all season.

Last week, Josh Myers came back and looked pretty comfortable at center, allowing Lucas Patrick to to move to right guard, effectively upgrading two positions with his return. David Bakhtiari also stepped in at left tackle and looked like he hadn't missed a beat. He stonewalled everyone who came near him and then took a seat to catch his breath.

Yosh Nijman performed more than good enough for the Packers to win, but the Packers clearly altered their play calling to keep him out of any overly-difficult positions. David Bakhtiari is something different. He's a guy who can  hold down the blind side while you can run long-developing pass routes. Bring Billy Turner back on the right side and you've suddenly gone from a bunch of backups to one of the best offensive lines in the league.

That can really open up an offense.

At running back, we know the complementary tandem of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon can do pretty much anything - and the Packers just might need that. If temperatures are in the single digits, the Packers may lean on the run more than usual. Aaron Jones is effective in any weather, but AJ Dillon can have an absolutely soul-crushing effect on defenses in the cold. These two should each get plenty of carries, regardless of the temperature.

But we know that the Packers will pass.

When they do, they'll have Unanimous First Team All Pro Davante Adams (aka the best receiver in the league), Allen Lazard (who has been coming on strong and looks primed for a big playoff impact), and hopefully a healthy MVS (who opens up the playbook like no other receiver on this team).

But the biggest impact in the passing game might be from the return of Randall Cobb.

His veteran savvy and mental connection with the quarterback put him in a position where he wasn't always racking up huge numbers, but he was always racking up key plays. He was big on 3rd down conversions and in the red zone, and there's no reason that he won't pick up where he left off when he's healthy for the playoffs.

And the most important piece to this offense...

Four-time All Pro Aaron Rodgers should win the MVP.

I don't care if other QBs have more volume stats from throwing more passes, this isn't fantasy football - no quarterback has consistently made amazing throws with so few mistakes as Aaron Rodgers. Even playing through a broken toe, behind a backup line, with receivers in and out of the lineup with injuries, he regularly made breath-taking throws that most other quarterbacks wouldn't even try (and the ones that would couldn't dream of being as successful) and came up with signature wins under difficult circumstances against playoff teams.

Now, Aaron Rodgers has a much-healthier supporting cast around him, and it appears his toe is fully healed.

After an offseason of taking grief from the media, and a regular season of listening to non-stop criticism and nonsense, he's ready to destroy any team that steps in front of him.

 

OTHER NOTES

The Packers special teams unit, which bounced around from really bad to abjectly terrible for most of the year, seems to have found a groove hovering around average.

Corey Bojorquez was amazing early and has levelled off at really, really good. The field goal unit has worked out a lot of kinks and Mason Crosby hasn't missed a field goal since the bye. David Moore even looks like he could be a solid punt returner.

In short, special teams might not be bad enough to sink this ship!

How great does that feel?

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Packers have the best odds to win the Super Bowl.

That's pretty impressive considering it looked like the team was ready to implode in the offseason. In Week 1, they got spanked for three hours in all facets of the game and lost their best pass rusher.

Things looked bleak.

Then, somehow, they just... turned it around.

The Packers won game after game after game. Then, on a short week, missing most of their offensive line and all their top receivers, they traveled west on a Thursday to face the only undefeated team in the league.

And won.

At that moment, I felt there was something special about this team and I said I wouldn't pick them to lose the rest of the year.

Since then, they lost by six on the road against one of the best teams in the league while playing with their backup quarterback and missing two field goals, they dropped a road division game where they missed a field goal, dropped 6 interceptions, and lost on a last second field goal, and then they lost by 7 in a game where they didn't try.

They won every other game. They went 5-0 against playoff teams when Aaron Rodgers started.

And they don't look done.

They won all those games missing tons of key players. Now, they're pretty much all back. They're rested and healthy and they have another week of rest and prep time.

This team is special. This is a complete team that is battle-tested, a team that fought through adversity to claw their way to the best record in the league and the only bye in the conference.

This is a veteran group that knows how hard these chances are to come by. And they don't look ready to waste it.

This is a group that looks ready to strap up and win three more games.

Prediction: The Packers win the whole f#cking thing

 

Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Best-selling author of books such as A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan's Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.

Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.

 

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7 points

Comments (19)

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Spock's picture

January 16, 2022 at 06:22 am

Nice article, Bruce. Love your prediction; and I agree with it. GPG!

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Packerlifer's picture

January 16, 2022 at 07:36 am

It feels like 1996. Although this year's team is not as dominant and complete in all phases as that one was they have pretty much done what that team did, except yet win the Super Bowl.

The '96 team was pretty much expected to achieve what it did from the get-go while this one actually exceeded expectations. But both had to overcome some significant injury situations and gave rise to some concerns about how they would actually do in the postseason. The Packers of 25 years ago answered by bringing home the Lombardi Trophy. We await the verdict of history on this year's squad.

The "pieces" do indeed seem to be coming together and the "table set." It looked that way last year, too. Perhaps that's why there is some feeling of nervousness about the Pack ending up "so near and yet so far" again.

There was some apprehension about the Packers' postseason prospects in '96 as well. They had that playoff monkey with Dallas still unresolved. San Francisco was still an elite club and Carolina was a fast rising expansion team with some star power to it. Until the Packers had comfortably disposed of the 49ers and the Panthers had ended the Cowboys' Super Bowl run it wasn't perfectly clear that the Pack would be bringing home the Lombardi Trophy after 29 years.

The year before the Packers had lost the NFC title game at Dallas. Last year the Packers lost to Tampa Bay. After their loss on the doorstep of the Super Bowl the '96 Packers made the moves that put things they needed in place to succeed the next time. This year's team is proving to have done much the same, despite criticisms and doubts since last off-season.

When they lost to Dallas 3 straight years in the playoffs, especially the '95 championship game, they showed progress but weren't quite "there' yet for the Super Bowl. We might say the same about the Pack's last two defeats in NFC Championship Games. But I think they are "there" now.

They lost last year's game to Tampa on a couple of bad mistakes. Though not enough attention has been paid to the pivotal and perhaps decisive reason they lost that game.
https://thespun.com/nfl/nfc-north/green-bay-packers/look-refs-missed-cle...

The Pack wasn't "there" yet then but they sure as hell should be now. On the 25th anniversary of the Super Bowl XXXI team I can't think of a more fitting way to celebrate than by winning LVI where they won the first Super Bowl in Los Angeles and maybe over the same club, Kansas City, they defeated in that one.

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murf7777's picture

January 16, 2022 at 08:32 am

I agree…..while this years team might not of had as dominate year, we were playing with many injuries to pro bowl/all pro players at key positions…IE: LT, pass rush and CB. I think this could be the most dominate team entering the playoffs, even more so than the 96’ team. Now we have All Pro at QB, MLB, CB, LT and pro bowl at many other positions. It’s always hard to compare, but on paper, just like Buffalo did to NE last night, this is the best chance to actually blow out some teams in the playoffs in quite sometime. Bring on Tampa or Dallas or LA I don’t care we are set up to beat them all!

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BruceIrons's picture

January 16, 2022 at 11:57 am

I agree that the "feel" of this year is very similar to '96 where it just felt like everything was coming together.

As for last year, the missed PI hurt, but I was more upset with the PI they called at the end of the game to let Tampa keep the ball and run out the clock. They had let physical play go all game and then that obvious flop on an uncatchable ball got a flag.

Refs aside, the Packers still could have won. The big play to Miller at the end of the half was the exact same play the Bucs ran against the Raiders in the exact same situation earlier in the year (with the same result). That was inexcusable and I believe the last straw for Mike Pettine.

What it all came down to for me, was injuries. This year they're getting guys back instead of losing guys - I think that will be the difference.

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Coldworld's picture

January 16, 2022 at 09:03 am

This team, if it stays healthy and Covid doesn’t cause chaos, is good enough and sufficiently healthy that I think it is fair to say that failure will be down to the coaches and players. It’s as close as it will ever be to one we ought not to lose.

To me the big questions are LaFleur and Barry. If we play not to lose like last year then it will be on them just as it was chiefly last year (well, LaFleur and Pettine). As far as I’m concerned, ST suicide at this point is squarely on LaFleur: the risk has been consistent and he’s done nothing to abate it.

This needs to be LaFleur’s coming out year. Win it and he will give credibility to the claim that he is a truly rounded coach. At this point he’s never been the best coach on the day when it really mattered.

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BruceIrons's picture

January 16, 2022 at 11:58 am

I think the special teams have improved over the last month but agree that it's the most important season yet in grading Matt LaFleur.

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

January 16, 2022 at 10:55 am

Bruce, I at times have been accused of being unrealistically optimistic by friends, so your article is music to my ears.

I loved the words you chose and I too believe every team in the NFL should fear playing our Packers. I feel we will be unstoppable during the playoffs this year and strongly believe that this is the year we go from 13 time champions to 14.

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BruceIrons's picture

January 16, 2022 at 12:17 pm

I try to be optimistic, but I really had a lot of doubts in the first half of the season.

After they overcame everything the did against Arizona, I became a believer.

It's less about matchups and schemes and analytics than it is about this: it's a group of men who have galvanized and I think they will overcome any challenges that get laid in front of them.

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PatrickGB's picture

January 16, 2022 at 11:30 am

I am notorious for being pessimistic. Thanks for the infusion of optimism. I had both. Now I am immunized.~

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Tedlyflyfisher's picture

January 16, 2022 at 12:16 pm

I certainly HOPE you are right Bruce. I’m not quite as optimistic, although with so much uncertainty about the roster for next year’s team, I desperately want a championship.

We certainly have a lot of key players returning, and we have a lot of talent on the team.

However, we also have a number of weaknesses that have been glaring at time. Yeah, I know, it seems like just about every team this year has some area where they’re weak.

But let’s face it, special teams has been inept. Yes, they’ve been better recently, but a few special teams blunders at the wrong teams could ruin a special season. I don’t want to see Amari as a returner in the post season! And FG kicking and coverage units have been an adventure.

On defense we have seen big plays when we lose containment. Hopefully getting some of our big names on defense will solve it.

What’s amazing is how well our offensive line has played despite missing Bahk, Myers and Elgton Jenkins. Getting 2 of them back for the playoffs could be huge. Are they really 100%? I sure hope so, but if not we know Nijman, Runyon and Newman can play.

I hope we can return to being the team for whom ice cold conditions are a huge home field advantage!

Go Pack, GO!

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BruceIrons's picture

January 16, 2022 at 03:54 pm

I'm doing everything I can to not think about next year and just enjoy this journey.

They are rare.

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splitpea1's picture

January 16, 2022 at 12:57 pm

Reasons to be optimistic: This team now has extraordinary depth at the CB, OL, and LB positions--they should be able to handle anything that comes their way. Also remember that Dillon was underused in last year's playoffs, and I KNOW that isn't going to happen again, right?

Reasons to be pessimistic: Just because the ST unit hasn't committed any horrible gaffes lately dosen't mean they won't revert for a brief episode; in fact, I'd almost be willing to bet on it. Run defense: Not as concerned as I've been in the past, but still, the IDL needs to hold its own and the tackling needs to be solid. Savage: Has been called for illegal blocks/tackles twice recently, so he has to watch watch he's doing out there. Barry: please, no soft coverage unless you're ahead by a few touchdowns.

Though this year's Packers are not what anyone would consider a dominant team, they're still the best team in the conference and have home field. I fully expect them to reach the Super Bowl.

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Gman1976's picture

January 16, 2022 at 01:59 pm

The Packers are loaded with talent with everyone coming back from injury and with the extra week of R&R. I am confident, but cautious because we haven't been dominating. With this group of men back, we should start overwhelming our opponents. If we don't, it's not lack of talent.

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White92's picture

January 16, 2022 at 04:04 pm

If they gotta face SF, it's gonna be a dog fight.

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dobber's picture

January 16, 2022 at 06:40 pm

SF it is...

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

January 17, 2022 at 10:38 am

I have full confidence in our "Terrier" Packers against the "Poodle" 49'ers.

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MEO73's picture

January 16, 2022 at 04:59 pm

I dont think the team is really "complete" as we have two glaring weaknesses: Special Teams and run D. Year in and out we seem to have the same problem. But still, its hard to find a better team than the Pack.

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Starrbrite's picture

January 16, 2022 at 05:41 pm

This is an outstanding article.
I’ve posted several times that I believe Jaire belongs in the slot, but many are afraid he’ll be hurt; fact is, you can get hurt on any given play at any particular position. Can’t play fearing injury.
I agree with your comments on Lowry—he is definitely a wildcard. I posted earlier that Lowry is Ron Kostelnik reincarnated. Someone gave me a thumbs down, although I’m not sure they knew what I meant.
In 1967, Kostelnik, a DT, had back to back outstanding in playoff games against L.A. and Dallas, making a huge difference. I see the same thing happening with Lowry.
Finally, I believe our new punt/kick returner appears to be very comfortable and I see him making a big contribution.
Apologies for the long post.

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Avrumi's picture

January 18, 2022 at 03:03 pm

𝐈 𝐠𝐞𝐭 𝐩𝐚𝐢𝐝 𝐦𝐨𝐫𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐧 $𝟏𝟒𝟎 𝐭𝐨 $𝟒𝟓𝟎 𝐩𝐞𝐫 𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐫 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐤𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐨𝐧𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐞. 𝐈 𝐡𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐝 𝐚𝐛𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐣𝐨𝐛 𝟑 𝐦𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐡𝐬 𝐚𝐠𝐨 𝐢𝐢𝐥 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐚𝐟𝐭𝐞𝐫 𝐣𝐨𝐢𝐧𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐈 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐧𝐞𝐝 𝐞𝐚𝐬𝐢𝐥𝐲 $𝟐𝟒𝟔𝟓𝟐 𝐟𝐫𝐨𝐦 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐨𝐧𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐞 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐤𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐬𝐤𝐢𝐥𝐥𝐬 .

𝐒𝐢𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐲 𝐠𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐢𝐭 𝐨𝐩𝐞𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐤 𝐇𝐄𝐑𝐄,,..,,... 𝘄𝘄𝘄.𝗟𝗶𝘃𝗲𝗝𝗼𝗯𝟮𝟰𝟳.𝗰𝗼𝗺

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