Aaron Rodgers was in the midst of the worst statistical year of his career, had just suffered losses in five of the previous six games and was about to spend Thanksgiving watching the Detroit Lions pull 2.5 games ahead of his Green Bay Packers. Yet Rodgers somehow knew there was enough talent in the huddle, on the sidelines and in his arm to win the NFC North.
“I feel like we can run the table,” Rodgers said at a news conference on Nov. 23. “I really do.” On Sunday night, he finished the task by leading the Packers to the division title with a masterful 300-yard, four-touchdown performance. What felt like an offhand comment in the moment looks like a Namathesque guarantee in light of the Packers’ six-game win streak.
But how did Rodgers and the Packers flip the switch midseason? The same way they flipped it in the middle of Sunday’s season finale: by using fully healed wideout Jordy Nelson to dictate matchups and exploit mismatches.
Although Packers head coach Mike McCarthy declared Nelson 100 percent at the start of the season, it was clear that Nelson wasn’t nearly in top form early on. Having missed all of 2015’s regular season with an ACL tear in his right knee, Nelson was slowed over the summer with an injury to the other knee. In Week 1 of this season, his first competitive action since the 2015 Pro Bowl, Nelson got nine targets and six catches, but for only 32 yards and a touchdown.
This mincing performance — Nelson averaged just 5.3 yards per catch — set the tone for the first half of the season. Across the first eight weeks, Nelson caught just 51.7 percent of his targets, averaging four catches and 59 yards per game.
Though Nelson remained effective in the red zone, his yards per target (6.9) were far below his career average of 9.9. He struggled to get open deep, struggled to break short passes long and failed to help his fellow pass-catchers by drawing coverage to his side.
As Rodgers forced passes to well-covered receivers, his numbers sagged, too: Through five games, Rodgers’ completion rate, touchdown-to-interception ratio, passer efficiency rating and average yards per attempt were all below his career-worst season marks.
But as Nelson regained his explosion, the Packers offense found its groove. Even as they lost shootouts in Nashville and Washington in Weeks 10 and 11, Rodgers and Nelson put up big numbers. But he’s really come on since Rodgers’s prediction. Over the first 10 games, Nelson caught just 56.4 percent of his targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group; over the final six, he caught 83 percent of them.
The routes Nelson was running weren’t that much deeper than they had been — his air yards per target, meaning how far past the sticks the ball traveled, only went from 11.87 to 12.43. But the effect of an improved Nelson opened up the offense. Through the first 10 games, only 19 percent of Rodgers’s pass attempts went 15 or more yards down the field; 10 percent went 20 or more yards. Since then, those numbers have spiked to 24.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
In the first half against Detroit on Sunday, Nelson was shadowed by top Lions corner Darius Slay. With both teams playing conservatively and relying on their ground game, Nelson saw only one target before halftime. The Packers went into the locker room down 14-10, and the winning streak was in serious danger.
But on the first drive of the second half, Nelson lined up primarily in the slot — and sliced through the Lions’ linebackers and safeties for gain after gain. On that drive alone, Nelson had three catches for 42 yards, streaking through holes in the Lions’ zones and setting up a go-ahead touchdown.
As the Lions’ defensive backs shuffled around to contain Nelson, receiver-cum-tailback Ty Montgomery did damage out of the backfield, and undrafted free agent rookie wideout Geronimo Allison roasted the Lions down the sideline for a team-high 91 yards and a score on the day.
This is the Packers offense as it’s supposed to be: Defenses scrambling to cover all of Rodgers’s targets, Rodgers picking them apart and making unknowns look like world-beaters in the process. During their table run, the Packers offense averaged 30.8 points per game, third-most in the NFL — after ranking just 11th in scoring offense over the first half of the season with an average of 24.8.
During the six-game win streak that won the Packers a division title and made Rodgers an MVP candidate, Nelson averaged nine targets, seven catches, 99 yards and a score, with a healthy yards-per-target average of 10.6.
“I believe in myself and my abilities, but I also believe in this team,” Rodgers said after Sunday’s win. “This wasn’t just a shot in the dark. It was an optimistic belief in my teammates that we were going to start handling adversity better.”
But now the Packers are in the playoffs, and arguably the hottest team in football. Can they handle the adversity of winning three straight playoff games to make it to the Super Bowl? As long as Nelson keeps changing the math of how teams defend the Packers, it’s possible.
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