Of the 149 games played in this NFL season, I would wager not a single one has said more, about more significant things, than Green Bay 17, Seattle 0 in a Wisconsin snow squall Sunday, the first wintry day of the season. What it said:
1) The Packers can win without vintage Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay won by 17 with Rodgers throwing a Red Zone pick, looking out of sorts after his 10-day Covid sabbatical, not throwing a touchdown pass, and playing like a game the Lombardi Packers might have played. In fact, 56 years ago Sunday, Green Bay beat the Rams 6-3 with Bart Starr having an invisible day and Jim Taylor bulling out 117 yards from scrimmage. Sound familiar? What I’m saying is Sunday’s game, with Rodgers showing the effects of being drained from his 10 days away, was a very good thing for a team that might have to win a variety of ways in January and February.
2) Brian Gutekunst is not a lummox. With the world screaming for the Packers to get a wideout in the 2020 draft, Gutekunst, the embattled Green Bay GM, bypassed trading up for a receiver in the second round and picked a 247-pound fire hydrant of a back, A.J. Dillon, with the 62nd overall pick. Dillon won this game. He carried likely Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Wagner into the end zone on one TD to make it 10-0 early in the fourth quarter, nimbly caught-and-ran a 50-yard pass from Rodgers a few minutes later, and bulled for an insurance TD at the two-minute warning. So maybe Gutekunst should have traded up for a Van Jefferson type midway through round two, but this Dillon is a winter back who could be vital this postseason. Gutekunst’s first-round corner from Georgia, Eric Stokes, didn’t allow a completion Sunday, while one of the smartest free-agent finds of the year, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (cap number: $1.19 million) led the team in tackles.
3) I wonder if we’re seeing the end of the Russell Wilson era in Seattle. It’s dumb to make any long-term judgments about a great player on such a rotten day, when Wilson returned after finger surgery and looked inaccurate and ineffective, getting shut out for the first time in 166 Seattle starts. His receivers didn’t help him, rarely getting free enough for him to have a chance at a long gain. But as I watched the futility of this game, I just started thinking it might be time for the Seahawks to think of alternatives to Wilson, particularly if he gets mopey again next offseason. For now, with Seattle 3-6, Arizona looming next week, and San Francisco and the Rams on the horizon after that, making the playoffs will be tough. Sabers were rattled last year by Wilson and his agent, and I just wonder if an 8-9 season might make Seattle GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll wonder if rewriting the script and getting three first-round picks and maybe one top player from a Carolina or Denver or Pittsburgh or Miami or Philadelphia is smarter than trying to keep Wilson happy. Schneider is a confident man. He convinced Carroll that a short quarterback would be a star back in 2012, and Wilson in the third round followed. I doubt he’d be afraid of doing it again.
4) The Green Bay defense, even without its two best players, is a top five NFL unit. In fact, the Pack should be third, surrendering 309.9 yards per game, when this week’s stats are finalized after Rams-Niners tonight. This was the masterpiece, particularly without Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander, the D’s top two players, likely not back from injuries till December.
Green Bay is the NFC’s top seed this morning. The Pack was last year too, but home-field didn’t help when Tampa Bay came to town for the championship game. Something feels different this year. That something different is Green Bay has a good defense and a war-horse running back, and maybe Rodgers doesn’t have to score in the thirties every week to win big ones. We didn’t see that coming.
Dillon heard all the chatter after he was drafted. Stupid Packers. They don’t need a back! Where’s the receiver?! “I saw it,” Dillon told me post-game. “I heard it. I just kind of put that with bulletin board material. I really always wanted to be an all-purpose back. APB. I knew I could be.”
Then he got into practice, and Aaron Rodgers treated him well—“Like a real teammate,” he said—and Aaron Jones treated him “like a brother.” Though Dillon didn’t get a lot of chances last year, he was sure he’d do well when called. In camp this summer, he was honored to be kidded by Rodgers, who he watched as a fan growing up in Connecticut. “Your legs get smaller this offseason?” Rodgers said to Dillon, an ice-breaker after the Rodgers drama of the offseason. Smaller? Dillon had the biggest legs of any back in the league. Dillon wasn’t sure if his QB was kidding, but he told him no, he put some strength and pounds on each of them.
“All of it, to me, is so cool,” Dillon said Sunday night. “The day after the draft, I watched like a three-hour documentary on the Packers and what Green Bay was. Being on this team is an indescribable feeling, really. Sometimes I still gotta like pinch myself before I get into practice. Or I’m driving over to practice and I’m like, ‘Oh wow, this is real, I’m a Packer’ when I’m pulling up and see Lambeau. I’ve walked into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame like three times now, just to see it. Now I know the history, and I’m so honored to be a part of the family here.”
But then the games get played, and it’s not time for gee-whiz stuff anymore. The fourth quarter of this game was huge for Dillon, and for the Packers. Four minutes into the fourth quarter, this was a 3-0 game, and Green Bay had a third-and-goal from the 3-yard line. The play-call was a pile-mover, Dillon up the gut trying for the three yards to give the Packers a cushion. In his way: Wagner and the surprisingly stout Seattle D. “I felt a lot of trust from the coaches when I heard the call,” Dillon said. He blasted up the middle, and Wagner got hold of him, and Dillon used his powerful calf muscles to almost back his way into the end zone, Wagner holding on for dear life.
“You’re a legend,” Dillon the fan told Wagner after the game. But fan beat legend on this play, and Green Bay went up 10-0.
On the next Packer series, Dillon took a swing pass to the left and showed his nimble side. It’s not often a 247-pound back keeps his balance athletically on the sideline, making sure he stays in while bouncing off tacklers. “I’ve been working all off-season on my receiving, all the time on the JUGS machine and running after the catch,” he said. “Good to see it’s paying off. It makes me really happy.” That set up the insurance score, a two-yard Dillon TD at the two-minute warning.
Dillon, for the game, had 23 touches for 128 yards and two TDs. Now, with Jones (MCL) expected to miss time, Dillon hopes to be as productive in two big games the next two Sundays: Vikings on the road, Rams at home.
With this win, Green Bay goes to 8-2, with a tiebreaker lead over Arizona for the top spot in the NFC with seven games left. Next week, Green Bay will be indoors at the arch-rival Vikes. The Packers have won seven of 11 in Minneapolis since 2010, and Rodgers has a 50-7 touchdown-to-interception margin against Minnesota in his career. It’s also one of the first times in a while the Packers enter a big division game knowing Rodgers doesn’t have to carry them for Green Bay to win. Newbies like Dillon are seeing to that.