Strong second half propels Green Bay to unlikely playoff push

Love, LaFleur provide strong answers to critics
By: 
Luke Reimer
Green & Gold Express

While it looked like the season was going to be a wash and fans could expect to come away with a top-10 draft pick, Jordan Love, Matt LaFleur and company had different plans.

After the 3-6 start to the season, it appeared that it was only going to get more difficult for Green Bay moving forward. With the Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs in each of the next three games, Green Bay was going to need to find a way to subdue some of the best offenses in the NFL. That all started against the Chargers.

The Packers once again got off to a slow start, as the team was unable to put up any points in the first quarter. Following that though, Jayden Reed, who was in the midst of his breakout, sparked the offense early in the second quarter with a 32-yard rushing touchdown. With Aaron Jones injured, Reed’s emergence was really a spark plug for the Green Bay offense, as he brought another rushing threat and helped to take some pressure off A.J. Dillon.

After the Chargers went up 13-10, Love connected with Christian Watson to take a lead. From there, Chargers superstar quarterback Justin Herbert connected with superstar receiver Keenan Allen to regain the lead, before Romeo Doubs found the end zone in what turned out to be the game-clinching touchdown.

While Doubs’ touchdown late in the fourth quarter put Green Bay up three, it was actually a drop from Chargers rookie receiver Quinton Johnston, which would have been a walk-in touchdown, that actually won the game. With hindsight, Johnston’s dropping that sure touchdown, much like Saints kicker Blake Grupe missing a game-winning field goal, proved to be the biggest play for Green Bay all season, as the Packers barely snuck into the playoffs.

From there, though, it looked like something changed in the offense. Not only was there an emergence of Reed, but other players whom the average fan may have never heard of started to stake their claim as household names.

Green Bay’s next matchup came on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, as the Packers took on the new and improved Detroit Lions. Led by Jared Goff, David Montgomery, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta, the Lions were one of the highest scoring teams in the NFL. With the inconsistent play of the Green Bay Packers’ defense, many Packers fans thought that this game could get out of hand quickly.

Not only did the game not get out of hand, but it was dominated by Green Bay.

On the back of the newly found weapon in Reed, Green Bay scored immediately on a 10-yard pass from Love. While the Lions matched with a LaPorta touchdown, Green Bay finished the first quarter off with a nine-yard touchdown reception from Tucker Kraft and a 27-yard fumble return for a touchdown by safety Jonathan Owens. Before anyone knew it, Green Bay was up 20-6.

The defense then continued its masterclass of a game, as it held Detroit scoreless for the rest of the first half to take a 23-6 lead into halftime. Both teams added a touchdown in the third quarter and entered the fourth quarter with a 29-14 Green Bay lead. Detroit made the game close, but it came in garbage time, as Josh Reynolds found the end zone and, after a two-point conversion, put the score at 29-22.

If you had to point to one game that turned the season around for Green Bay, it might be this victory over the Detroit Lions. The questions surrounding Love and LaFleur seemed to finally be somewhat answered, as Love tied his career high in touchdown passes with three, adding 268 yards through the air. As had been the story all season long, there wasn’t just one dominant receiver, though. At this point in the season, Reed, Watson, Doubs, Luke Musgrave and Kraft all had been on the receiving ends of touchdowns.

What added to the emergence of the offense was a spark from the defense. In the two team’s previous matchup, Montgomery gashed the Green Bay defense for three rushing touchdowns. In this matchup, the Iowa State alum was held to just 71 yards, and with the lack of production in the run game, Goff was under constant pressure. That started to become a theme for the defense moving forward.

Working off the momentum of upsetting both the Chargers and the Lions, the Packers faced its toughest test of the season, as the Kansas City Chiefs came to Lambeau Field. While the Chiefs were dealing with a decline on the offensive side of the ball, its defense was quietly performing as one of the best units in the NFL.

With Taylor Swift in the building, all eyes were on how Love could improve upon his previous career performance. He did not disappoint. Love finished the game with 267 passing yards and three touchdowns. Two of those touchdowns went to Watson. To continue the trend of getting everyone on the offense involved, rookie tight end Ben Sims found the end zone.

While Love continued to display his ability to be the franchise quarterback for the Packers, what was more impressive was that Green Bay never trailed in this game. Patrick Mahomes was held to just 210 yards and one touchdown, with the defense also forcing an interception. For the most part, too, Travis Kelce was held in check, as the future first ballot Hall of Famer was held to 81 yards on four receptions.

For the second game in a row, it looked like the Green Bay Packers played a full game. With the exception of a few plays here and there, all three phases of the team seemed to be at the tops of their games.

Dillon also registered a great game with 73 yards on 18 rushes, which really helped to compliment the passing attack. As for the defense, it was certainly a group effort, as Rashan Gary, Devonte Wyatt, Kenny Clark and Preston Smith all recorded half a sack, while Quay Walker and Carrington Valentine racked up 10 or more tackles, and Keisean Nixon came away with an interception.

“They’re coming together,” said LaFleur, after this win. “They’re working. They’re getting better. They’re playing faster, more confident.”

The play of the defense against Mahomes was kind of a microcosm of the Packers on this three-game winning streak. Everybody was playing together, while nobody was trying to do too much. It became very obvious that if Green Bay actually wanted to make a run at the playoffs that this would have to be the way to attack games. There was no Aaron Rodgers or Davante Adams to bail the team out. If it wanted to move on and build success. it would have to be as one complete unit.

While the three-game win streak was certainly fun for Packers fans, things quickly turned dark, as Green Bay dropped its next two games to the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In those losses, it looked like for whatever reason the defense took a major step back.

As a whole, the Packer gave up a total of 58 points in the losses. This brought into question if defensive coordinator Joe Barry was the right man to lead this defense. Especially against the Buccaneers, there seemed to be a shift. The Packers’ pass defense, which had been playing extraordinarily all year, seemed to take a step back. Now the injury to Jaire Alexander may have been a factor, but the coverage from linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Walker had obviously been diminished.

“Now’s not the time for that,” said LaFleur, after being asked if the team was going to move on from Barry, showing that even through struggles, LaFleur still had faith in the team’s defensive coordinator.

Sitting at 6-8 on the season, all of the momentum that Green Bay garnered over the past three weeks was all but lost. It looked like the team was heading for a top-10 pick in the draft, and much of the fan base was asking that the Packers tank the remainder of the season.

The Packers now faced a scenario where it basically needed to win the rest of its games if it even wanted a chance at making the postseason. Luckily for the team, that meant just beating the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears. With the Panthers and Bears playing as two of the worst teams in the league and Minnesota playing without Kirk Cousins, it seemed likely that Green Bay could turn its season around together.

Over the next two games, the offense got back to the form of what it was during that three-game win streak. Love and company scored 66 points and, as a whole, outscored the Panthers and Vikings by 26 points. From mediocrity to overachieving, the Packers all of a sudden found themselves in a win-and-you-are-in game, similar to the previous season. Green Bay was able to pull out the victory and reach the playoffs as the seventh seed in the NFC.

“At the beginning of the season, everybody tried counting us out,” said Jones. “In the middle of the season, everybody tried to count us out. I think that speaks to a lot of the guys in this locker room, tuning out the noise and just getting to work.”

With a first-round matchup against the Dallas Cowboys — who employed one of the best, if not the very best, offenses in the NFL all season long — almost nobody thought Green Bay had a fighting chance. That didn’t deter the Packers, though.

In the best game of the season for the team, Green Bay came out of the gates hot and smacked Dallas in the face. Scoring early and playing fast, the Packers raced out to a 27-0 lead. At this point in the season, it really seemed like the Packers should not have been there. But because they were, they were basically playing with house money. The team was fast and loose and became the first No. 7 seed in NFL history to win a playoff game.

After beating the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs, the Packers built upon that momentum and gave the San Francisco 49ers everything it could handle. Green Bay hung around with the best team in the NFC for the majority of the game, playing close to 58 minutes of winning football. It eventually ran out of steam though, and the Green Bay Packers’ season was once again ended by the 49ers. While the loss was certainly painful, as the team was playing with as much confidence as it had all season, the season was not a disappointment by any means.

“For us to lose this game certainly stings, and I’m sure it’s going to sting for a long time,” said LaFleur. “But I was proud of the effort of our guys, our ability to weather some real adversity throughout the course of the season and stick together.”

If anything at all, Green Bay learned that it likely had its next franchise quarterback in Love. Outside of that, it looked like there was an influx of young talent to surround Love. On top of all of that, Jones continued to come up in big moments like he has done his whole career.

The theme of the second half of the season for Green Bay was resiliency. After getting punched in the mouth to open the season, it seemed likely that a team as young as the Packers could just lay down and die. That certainly wasn’t the case, though. For a team full of twenty-somethings, the fight was never lost. Everyone on the team believed in each other, and that’s all LaFleur was asking for.