For the second season in two years under head coach Matt LaFleur, the Green Bay Packers are 11-3 heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. Green Bay faces a great test this weekend, welcoming in Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans to Lambeau Field on Sunday night. It’s a chance for them to clinch the 1-seed in the NFC (with a little help) and have the playoffs come through 1265 Lombardi Avenue, something they couldn’t do last season. While a lot has stayed consistent with the Packers of 2020, including some of the same questions from 2019, there have been noticeable changes as well.
Let’s start with what’s different. It’s wild how the Packers’ weapons stayed exactly the same as a year ago, yet the offense is so much more dynamic and productive. According to PFF, Green Bay graded out as the ninth best offensive unit in the NFL last year. So far in 2020 and with only two weeks left, the offense ranks No. 1, and it led the league in points and touchdowns prior to Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers.
While Aaron Rodgers was good last year, he’s on another galaxy this year. He and Patrick Mahomes are going head-to-head for the MVP award, something you couldn’t have come close to saying a year ago about Rodgers. Do we chalk it up to the comfortability of being in season two of LaFleur’s system? Could it really be he was that pissed off by the Jordan Love draft pick that he decided to set the league on fire this year? Let’s chalk it up to both and a combination of smaller other things, as well. It would appear, though, that Rodgers and the rest of the offense are feeling the vibes of LaFleur’s offense and the intricacies of it. The numbers and results reflect that.
Rodgers’s demeanor also appears to be different from the past two or three years. The dude seems genuinely happy throwing around that old pigskin this year. There have been FAR fewer glares towards the sidelines, which we saw frequently the last couple of years under the old regime. There have been far fewer occasions where he appears to be yelling and directing towards the sidelines. And if your argument is, “Winning cures all,” newsflash: The Packers have been winning just about every damn year No. 12 has been under center. But back to the point, the attitude. That change can spread throughout the team. Your leader being more upbeat, more optimistic, whatever you want to call out, guys in that locker room follow the lead.
Rodgers appearing to be much happier is sending good energy throughout the locker room.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t point the arrow of change towards trending players as well. Robert Tonyan has had a massive breakout year for the Packers offense, Elgton Jenkins has become one of the more versatile, reliable linemen in the league, and Davante Adams has gone from, “He’s a damn good receiver,” to, “Umm, yeah, he might be the best receiver in the NFL.” Those “changes” have been crucial for the Packers offense playing even better this year.
Staying the same can be positive. Sometimes it’s what’s preferred or what’s needed. It can also be concerning.
One of the suffocating narratives that have hovered around the Packers for a few seasons now is the inability to play well when going up against teams that like to get really physical and run the ball down their throats. The example most referenced last year was the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers; a game the Niners won convincingly by running 42 TIMES for 285 yards while only attempting EIGHT total passes in the game. That was the most extreme example for a couple of reasons: While the narrative has swirled around Packers teams of the past, this was the biggest meltdown and on one of the biggest stages, a game away from playing for a title.
This year has had its moments too.
Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota Vikings ran all over Green Bay, pushing them around at times in a Week 8 victory for the purple at Lambeau Field this year. The Jacksonville Jaguars nearly pulled off a shocker, losing 24-20 to the Packers in Week 10. How? They pushed Green Bay around in the trenches and their rookie running back, James Robinson, had 23 carries for 109 yards. This problem has still existed for Green Bay this year.
Enter Derrick Henry.
Henry has near weekly viral clips of him stiff-arming defenders into oblivion or busting off massive runs. He’s arguably the best back going right now and certainly one of the largest.
The Packers’ defense has played well lately and in fact, were the overarching reason they pushed around the Panthers last Saturday night. You know they desperately want the narrative to change. Many are in a spot of indecision, wondering if this is the same old defense that could be exposed come postseason time or if they are truly turning a corner. What better way to shine more light on this than to welcome in one of the best running games with one of the best backs Sunday night.
This defense has an opportunity to put the rest of the league on notice and let them know they are playing good ball at the right time. They have a chance to prove that they, too, are different from last year’s team.