Week 13 Recap: Packers Win Battle of NFL’s Best

The Packers and Patriots did what everyone thought they would on Sunday. They played a tight contest where the outcome was in doubt until the final minutes. The Packers made a few more plays than the Patriots and came out with a 5-point win. Here’s how they did it.

Controlling the Clock:
The Packers won the time of possession battle, controlling the ball for 36 minutes and 25 seconds to the Patriots 23 minutes and 35 seconds. 3rd down tells some of the story, with the Packers converting on 10 of 17 chances, while New England converted just 4 of 10 opportunities.

All About the Matchups:
The Patriots played mostly man coverage on Sunday. They started the game with Darrelle Revis covering Randall Cobb in the slot, Brandon Browner covering Jordy Nelson, and nickel corner Logan Ryan taking Davante Adams.

After a brilliantly executed 45-yard out-and-up to Adams on 3rd and 2 in the 1st quarter, Ryan was replaced by Kyle Arrington. Revis moved over to take Jordy Nelson, Browner took Adams, and Arrington took Cobb. The Packers countered by attacking Arrington. They aligned Cobb in the backfield on several plays, which allowed him to avoid any sort of jam or disruption at the line of scrimmage. On one particularly well designed play, Rodgers hit Cobb for 33 yards on a wheel route from out of the backfield (shown below). Arrington was pinned inside because the Packers used a bunch formation (3 receivers) to the side of the wheel. The result was an easy pitch and catch.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Belichick continued his game of musical chairs with his nickel back. Arrington was replaced midway through the 3rd quarter by Alfonzo Dennard. Dennard took Adams, Revis went back to Cobb, and Browner went back to Jordy Nelson. Then Rodgers went back to Davante Adams. Logan Ryan eventually came back in the game at nickel. Once again, Rodgers went after him.

It was clear what Green Bay was trying to do in their passing game. Anticipating man coverage, they used alignment (e.g. Cobb in the backfield or a tight end on the outside) and motion to define the matchups. Then Rodgers went after New England’s 3rd and 4th best corners with great success. He only threw at Revis or Browner’s receiver 7 times in man coverage, completing just 1 pass. Although that one pass was pretty significant – a 45-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson at the end of the first half.

Spy Games:
The Patriots chose to try and win this game with coverage. Most of the time, they only rushed 4. Sometimes they rushed 3 and used a spy on Rodgers. One time, they even used a double spy and rushed 2. This was on a critical 3rd down in the 4th quarter. Rodgers kept his poise in the pocket and found an open receiver to keep the chains moving. The Patriots did not get much of a pass rush with this approach, something they’ll need to revisit if these teams square off again this season.

Aaron Rodgers:
Rodgers was absolutely brilliant on Sunday. He used his legs when necessary. His downfield passes were like long hand offs. He didn’t turn the ball over. He hit some critical 3rd-down passes, including the final pass of the game to seal the victory. On that play, the defense won early. Rodgers’ initial looks were not open. He stayed in the pocket, though, and eventually found Randall Cobb with a perfect throw into a tight window to end the game. At this point, it’s difficult to argue for anyone else in the 2014 MVP race.

Just Enough:
The Packers defense wasn’t great on Sunday, but they did enough to keep New England from marching down the field, unimpeded, on drive after drive. Were they great against the pass? No. Did they get a ton of pressure on Tom Brady? No. Did they stuff the run? No. However, they did make enough plays at critical moments to thwart Patriot drives.

Linebacker Sam Barrington stuffed Shane Vereen and then LeGarrette Blount on consecutive plays in the hole to end New England’s first drive. On 3rd down of the next drive, cornerback Tramon Williams read Julian Edelman’s route perfectly and pounced on him after he caught the ball, stopping him short of the first-down marker. The Packers forced New England into 3rd-and-long situations from which they couldn’t convert to start the 2nd half. On 3rd-and-9 at the end of the game, they finally sacked Brady, thwarting a potential go-ahead touchdown drive.

Throughout the game, the Packers were close to Brady. They didn’t get tremendous pressure, but they got enough to hurry a few of his throws, again limiting this well-oiled offensive machine from operating as smoothly as normal. They played New England’s route concepts well. Instead of just dropping into zone coverage to a designated area, they actually reacted to nearby receivers and route combinations. They were effective enough in this respect. This in conjunction with the Packers possessing the ball on offense kept the Patriots in check.

Defending Gronk:
Folks, we finally saw a defense treat Rob Gronkowski like Rob Gronkowski should be treated by a defense. They didn’t do it on every play, but a handful of times, the Packers actually jammed Gronk at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes it didn’t impact him tremendously, but it was enough to disrupt his path and Brady’s timing.

Other times, the Packers actually paid attention to him in zone. When he was aligned on the outside, Green Bay often put safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on him in man coverage. Clinton-Dix did a good job of staying between Gronk and Brady and using the sideline as help.

There were a few plays where Brady and Gronk weren’t on the same page. There were a few plays where Brady waited for Gronk because of the disruption at the line of scrimmage, which then allowed the pass rush to have a chance to get to Brady and impact his throws. This is how you slow down a monster like Rob Gronkowski. He still put up decent numbers – 7 receptions for 98 yards – but it took 12 targets.

Getting Away from the Run:
There is no doubt that the Patriots should have run the ball more. The Packers are not very stout up front. Their interior d-line has gotten pushed around all season, and that didn’t change on Sunday against New England. The Patriots ran the ball 17 times for 85 yards. That’s 5 yards per carry. They got some great double-teams on their powers and counters, creating huge running lanes. 10 of their 17 runs were either powers or counters, and these plays racked up 54 yards and a touchdown. The Packers were not stopping the run. It’s strange that the Patriots didn’t stick with this aspect of their offense more.

Final Thoughts:
If this was a Super Bowl preview, then football fans everywhere have to be excited about February in Arizona. No quarterbacks are playing the position better than Rodgers and Brady are right now. No clubs are playing better team football than the Packers and Patriots are right now. There is still a long way to go in the season, but after Sunday’s showdown in Lambeau, it would be great to see how a rematch between these two teams would play out.

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