When they make the Packers’ 2012 season highlight film, the title is going to be “Winning Ugly.” For the better part of half a season, the Packers have scratched and clawed for wins, and fortunately they have a 10-4 record and a division title to show for it.
And when it all comes down, that’s all that really matters. No matter what the stats show or what the product on the field looks like, the Packers are 10-4 and they’re in the playoffs, and even could end up as the number two seed depending on what the 49ers end up doing to end the season.
Ugly as it’s been, though, the Packers have been steadily improving as well, especially on the defensive side of the ball. An undeniably large part of that is due to health, specifically the return of Clay Matthews. The Pro Bowler Matthews made his presence felt in a big way this week, and could be the difference in the playoffs between a deep run and an early trip home.
James Jones (5 receptions, 60 yards, 3 TD) - Jones hadn’t had a game with more than five receptions since he had seven against Jacksonville in Week 8. He busted out of that slump in a big way Sunday, scoring literally all of the Packers touchdowns. With Jordy Nelson on the sideline and Greg Jennings still finding his sea legs, James Jones stepped up in a big way.
Aaron Rodgers (23 of 36 for 291 yards, 3 TD) - Part of James Jones’ big day was due to an inspired performance from Aaron Rodgers, who used every sidestep, spin, and slither in his repertoire to avoid the Bears’ pass rush. At one point, Rodgers made ever single one of the Bears’ four defensive linemen miss before firing a pass deep down the field to Randall Cobb. Were it not for his mobility, Rodgers may have spent a lot more time on the ground.
Clay Matthews (5 tackles, 1 assist, 2 sacks, 1 pass defensed) - How much did the Packers miss Clay Matthews? Quite a bit, apparently. Just about every part of the Green Bay defense seemed revitalized with their leader back on the field, and he showed why he’s one of the best in the business with two sacks and a number of quality stops in the run game.
3 – The number of players who caught passes for the Bears on Sunday: Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and Armando Allen. For all his boasting, Marshall only managed 56 yards on six catches, although his 15 yard touchdown was a thing of beauty (just ask Casey Hayward, who ended up on the receiving end of a brutal stiff arm from Marshall). The slow receiving day was in part due to only 21 passing attempts from the Bears, but the Packer defense did a bang up job as well.
8 – Consecutive games in which Mason Crosby has missed a field goal. He hasn’t had a game without a miss since Week 6 against Houston, and he didn’t even attempt a field goal in that one. Crosby’s last perfect kicking game was all the way back in Week 3, when he made both of his attempts in the Fail Mary game in Seattle. It’s been a long, sad season for Crosby, who just seems so mentally out of it at this point that the Packers might be doing him a favor if they cut him.
50 – Receiving yards by Greg Jennings, his highest total of the season and the most he’s had since December 4, 2011, when he logged seven catches for 94 yards against the Giants. Although he’s hardly been the focal point of the offense by any stretch of the imagination, he has slowly improved as he continues to recover from groin surgery. Jennings may yet have a bigger role to play in the Packer offense.
Champs - For the second consecutive year, the Packers have won the NFC North, which is significant only in that it guarantees them a playoff spot. A divisional crown is nice, but it bears repeating that they were a wildcard qualifier when they won the Super Bowl in 2010. That said, hosting a playoff game is always nice.
Cobb - A career game from James Jones knocked him out of the “Three Packers” segment, but Cobb was excellent once again, posting his second consecutive 100 yard game and a career high 115 receiving yards. One doesn’t always think of a (generously listed) 5’10″ receiver as a security blanket, but that’s exactly what Cobb has been: a rock of consistency in a position group hampered by injuries.
Diversity - Nine different players contributed to the offensive effort, gaining yards either running or receiving. Such a deep stable of offensive talent could make the Packers difficult to stop in the postseason.
Kicking and Screaming - It feels like beating a dead horse, but Mason Crosby has been absolutely horrific after starting the season 5 for 5 on field goal attempts. Sure, every kicker on the street right now is technically there for a reason, but you’d think that any kicker who’s ever had any NFL experience would be able to make better than 50% of their kicks, which is exactly what Mason Crosby has done after his perfect start.
Protection Problems - Were it not for his near-supernatural ability to spin out of sacks, Aaron Rodgers would have been victimized more than three times this week. The Packers must figure out a way to protect Rodgers, because if he goes down, so does the season. Julius Peppers (and his 6’7″, 287 pound frame) came nearly untouched into the backfield and absolutely walloped Rodgers on a play in the second half, and for a moment it looked like Rodgers wouldn’t be getting up for a while. That’s a scary sight for any Packer fan, and hopefully McCarthy and Company have a plan for preventing it in the future.
Not So Special Teams – Clinging to a lead in the fourth quarter of an important divisional game, what play would you call to help put the contest away? If you answered “anything but a dangerous cross-field lateral where a part-time college quarterback throws across the field to a sixth string wide receiver,” you have one up on the Packers’ coaching staff. Yes, it was one of those “if it works, you’re a hero” plays, but why even take that risk? Had the Bears managed to punch that drive in for a score, Mike McCarthy would have had all kinds of egg on his face. The Cobb/Ross disaster was a questionable call at the very, very best.
Up Next - A rare non-divisional meeting with the Tennessee Titans, a team the Packers haven’t seen in the regular season since 2008. The Packers will host Tennessee at Lambeau for a noon kickoff.