Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers ended the New York Giants’ season with a 38-13 blowout on Sunday. As long as one looks no deeper than the final score, one might be tempted to consider the Packers the new NFC favorites.
But the wiseguys in Las Vegas aren’t fooled: They watched the game more closely, and made the Packers four-point underdogs at Dallas next weekend. What did they see that the box score didn’t?
For one, they saw Packers receiver Jordy Nelson carted off the field with a rib injury:
“That’d be a huge loss for us,” Rodgers admitted in his postgame press conference, when asked about Nelson’s potential absence at Dallas. Nelson’s ability to get open and draw coverage sparked a midseason explosion in the Packers’ offensive effectiveness. Without a fully healthy Nelson, the Packers’ second game against the Cowboys this season might go the way their first did, in Week 6 — when according to Football Outsiders, the Packers’ offense posted their second-worst single-game offensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) of the season (-25.1 percent).
But the concerns run even deeper than the Packers’ receiver depth: For much of the game, Rodgers and company struggled mightily to score. Before a short punt let them start a drive on the Giants’ 38-yard line with less than four minutes left in the first half, the Packers had been shut out entirely.
Rodgers registered the fifth-longest average time to throw of any quarterback in the NFL, per NFL.com this season, and while he was also pressured on 29 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, he adapted in the pocket and got his throws off. For the season, he had a QBR of 71.8 when pressured — the league average for such plays is 31.5 — with 10 touchdowns and 1 interception.
The hard-to-contain combination of top-notch pass protection and elite pocket movement was on display against the Giants, as Rodgers extended plays as long as he needed to to make offense happen:
But the mother of invention is necessity, and it quickly became clear Rodgers would have to wait ages for his receivers to get open against the Giants’ excellent secondary — too long, in fact, as Rodgers was sacked five times and forced into an intentional grounding penalty over the course of the game.
But after the field-position gift that turned into the Davante Adams touchdown above, and a Hail Mary pass somehow found its way to Packers wideout Randall Cobb 132 seconds later, putting the Packers up 14-6. Before those two drives, the Giants had outgained the Packers 194-7. After halftime, Eli Manning and the Giants were the first to score. With less than 18 minutes left in the game, the Packers led by only one point.
Of course, 20 minutes and nine seconds later, the Packers had outgained the Giants 406-365, and outscored them 38-13. Part of that production came from Cobb, who caught five passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns, including that Hail Mary. It was Cobb’s return from two missed games with an ankle injury, it was Cobb’s best statistical game of 2016, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
But the reality of the Packers’ path to the Super Bowl is inescapable: They have to go from Lambeau Field, where the Cowboys already beat them 30-16, to the toasty indoor track of AT&T Stadium. Should they win there, they’ll either have to win a shootout with the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome, or a slugfest with the Seattle Seahawks in CenturyLink Field.
Without Nelson it’s hard to see how the Packers win one, let alone both, of their subsequent contests. Rodgers will need open options against the Cowboys defense — whose fifth-ranked scoring defense allowed just 1.38 more points per game in 2016 than the Giants’ second-ranked scoring defense.
Of course, the Packers won’t roll over and forfeit if Nelson isn’t fit to play. But the impression a casual fan might get from the box score is that the Packers are ready to roll over the rest of the NFL — and unless Nelson is healthy enough for defenses to respect, that’s just not true.