This hit me about the playoff weekend: Playoff teams went back to the future. The NFL averaged 41 percent running plays in the regular season this year. On divisional weekend (what a dumb name, “divisional weekend,” for the greatest weekend of the pro football season), the four winners ran 57 percent. That’s not just Tennessee, either. The Niners had a 69-31 run-pass ratio Saturday in their rout of the Vikings. “Playoff football,” LaFleur said. “You’ve got to be able to run in January.”
So now, upstart Tennessee at Kansas City. Green Bay at San Francisco. Both championship games should be fun—though the Packers have work to do to turn a 29-point November loss to San Francisco into a competitive game. Titans-Chiefs is a matchup of the two most compelling offensive forces left in the playoffs: runner Derrick Henry versus passer Patrick Mahomes. More about those matchups in a few paragraphs, and about how the Giants and Panthers and a confusing train station and Mississippi State and Josh McDaniels and Mike Leach and Key West all intersected for 40 hours last week, and about how to fix the Rooney Rule.
Rodgers and his revival were vital this weekend. But he’s got a good partner too. LaFleur’s done a good job this year massaging some plays so they look new to a defense. And one of those plays helped the Packers win more than anyone in the second-biggest Lambeau crowd ever (78,998) would know. Go back to Green Bay’s first touchdown, the 20-yard Rodgers-to-Adams TD on the first drive of the game. It was a thing of beauty.
In the NFL today, every team has legal pick routes. They’re called “rub routes,” the kind of pass plays that feature two receivers running at good speed very close to each other so that, ideally, two defenders will run into each other or knock each other off the coverage trail. So four minutes into the game, Adams and Geronimo Allison lined up wide left, four yards apart. At the snap, they ran toward each other like it’d be a rub route. But as they converged maybe four yards down the field, each pivoted and ran up the field—they were faking a rub route, and Adams, on the left, ran diagonally to the left pylon, and Allison ran toward the post. The defensive backs, Tre Flowers and Amadi, were momentarily distracted, and by the time they got their footing, Adams had two steps on them.
Rodgers to Adams, touchdown. Easy as pie. Crazy thing was, if Rodgers waited a split-second, Allison would have been more open. The two Seahawk defenders both followed Adams. No one covered Allison. You can say Seattle screwed up the coverage. Okay, true. But LaFleur’s job is to come up with plays that confuse the D. And this one absolutely did. That’s the kind of play that Rodgers has to see and say, I’m dealing with a guy who’s got next-level knowledge of offense, just like I do. “That play,” said LaFleur, “is not one we’ve used. We just added it a week or so ago, to be truthful. It made sense. When you put so much of a similar play on tape for opponents to see, and you decide to change it a little bit, you hope you can catch the defense. That’s what you have to do in offensive football today.”
I don’t know if the Packers have it in them to go to San Francisco and win Sunday, but I think they’ll be more competitive than they were in November’s 37-8 loss to the Niners. The blossoming LaFleur-Rodgers partnership should see to that . . . as long as the Packer offensive line can protect Rodgers a tick better than it did last time. It was interesting to see Rodgers linger a bit at his post-game press conference, talking Marshawn Lynch (who scored twice for Seattle in what could be his last NFL game) and the offense and his adjustments this year. And nostalgia. When you get to be 36, and you’re in the playoffs for the first time in three years, it’s pretty natural to wonder if this could be the last time. Rodgers stayed on the field for a couple of minutes after the game, waving to the fans and soaking it in. Cool moment.
“We have such a special relationship with our fans,” said Rodgers. “It’s a different connection. We don’t have an owner. We have thousands of people who have a piece of paper that’s a stock certificate. But people feel like they’re invested in what we’re doing. To be able to walk off that field again, victorious, there’s no feeling like it. I stopped myself in the second quarter and I was just looking around when there was a TV timeout and they were waving the towels, and in that moment I was just grateful for the opportunity, loving what I do.”
Rodgers the sentimentalist. That’s not the usual Rodgers.
I doubt he’s near the end. Not close, from the look of Sunday’s game. And from the sounds of it afterward.