Sunday, September 25, 2016

Packers 2016/17 Season Preview - Playoffs or Superbowl?

It might be a difference of only one win, but to the Green Bay Packers, owning a 2-1 record through three games has a markedly different feel than where they were just one week ago, owning a 1-1 record.

It was about this time last week where it felt like the sky was falling in Northeast Wisconsin. They had just lost to the Minnesota Vikings -- the team that dethroned them from atop the NFC North -- again. The Packers were struggling with the basic operations of their offense. They were ranked dead last in first-down efficiency (the percentage of first down plays that go for four yards or more), and 28th in the number of plays over 10 yards or more. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been sacked six times in two games, and was the lowest-graded active quarterback in the NFL to date, according to Pro Football Focus. They couldn't run the ball effectively, or didn't really give it a try in general. On top of all of that, they had fellow NFC North rival Detroit -- who beat the Packers in Green Bay last year -- heading to Lambeau Field this weekend.

But fast forward to today, and the sky suddenly looks a lot friendlier to the Green and Gold faithful. That's what a 34-27 win over the Lions will do for you, especially when the score was a comical 31-10 at halftime. Rodgers threw for 205 yards and four touchdowns on the day, including two in the first half to the still-recovering Jordy Nelson (he finished the day with 101 yards on six catches). Sitting on said lead, the Packers also gave running back Eddie Lacy 17 carries, to help ice the win; Lacy finished with 103 yards on the day, including the six yard rush right at the two minute warning, allowing the Packers to end the game through the victory formation.

So what happens next for Green Bay? First and foremost, they have to find a way to limit the production of the opponent’s top receiver. Last week, Stefon Diggs of the Vikings racked up 182 yards receiving and a touchdown on nine catches. This week, Marvin Jones of the Lions actually topped those numbers, racking up 205 receiving yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.

They'll also have to continue to build on the fact that head coach Mike McCarthy went away from his focus on executing basic plays, and implemented different looks and formations than what Detroit may have studied on film. Adding variety and innovation to this offense will make it very difficult to stop, as opposed to forcing Rodgers to make improvisational plays when opponents shut down the plays they know are coming.

But more importantly, they have to carry the momentum gained from their victory over Detroit through the next six games, where they'll play six teams who all failed to make the playoffs in 2015. If they want to create some separation in the standings as part of their quest to regain the division crown, piling up the wins in this first half of the season will be imperative. If nothing else, they have to make sure they don't add any more to the loss column, considering the Vikings haven't lost a game yet this season.

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