A revitalised Aaron Rodgers took the Packers to the top seed in the NFC this season and they will expect to get past the Rams despite their top-ranked defence, writes Mark Kirwan...
"The Packers have been one of the premier offences in the league this season, leading a range of significant offensive categories - first in average scoring, points per play and TD Red zone scoring percentage..."
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After a week off earned by finishing top of the NFC, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers resume their assault on the quarterback's attempt to collect his second Super Bowl ring and the franchise's fifth Lombardi trophy.
It'd also add another exclamation mark to the curious decision the Packers made in the 2020 Draft to select quarter-back Jordan Love to (apparently) replace 37-year-old Rodgers in the not-too-distant future.
Some said this was an attempt to "motivate" the veteran quarterback to win another Super Bowl, the Pack's efforts having fallen apart in occasionally farcical circumstances in the ten years since Rodgers' only title.
All Bostick had to do was get out of the way & let Jordy catch it, and the Packers would have gone back to the Super Bowl. Instead, this happened... pic.twitter.com/dCBcCvp1ZX? Sean Vosq (@SeanVosq) October 30, 2020
The decision-makers at Lambeau Field will probably say their kick up the backside worked, as Rodgers is likely to take the league MVP award for 2020, having already been named first-team All-Pro QB with a 70%+ completion rate and made 48 passing TDs with just five interceptions on his record in 2020.
The best explanation of his improvement, however, is that this is his second year working with coach Matt LaFleur.
The 41-year-old coach has unleashed the potential that has lurked in the Aaron Jones-led Packers backfield since 2017. The 26-year-old running back added 11 touchdowns and another 1,000 yard season to his 19 scores of 2019. It's aided Rodgers, who has made the best of some limited receivers - Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Robert Tonyan - beyond the almost telepathic connection he enjoys with Davante Adams.
The Packers have been one of the premier offences in the league this season, leading a range of significant offensive categories - first in average scoring (31.8), points per play (0.514), TD Red zone scoring percentage (80%) - and their balanced attack means they can destroy opponents in multiple ways.
There have been concerns on defence. DC Mike Pettine has come in for criticism at times, and you would be concerned that they've only really faced one good offence - the Titans - in the six-game winning run that closed their season and earned the top seed in the NFC. But the Packers did limit Tennessee's powerful running game to just 14 points, an encouraging sign, and only the Lions scored more than 16 against them in their last five games.
Injuries along the O-line could offer a chance to the Rams to pressure Rodgers, and they'll have to do that if they want to win this game.
Rams roll with defence
Los Angeles is set for its own QB controversy, although in truth there's always been a question about how reliable a starter Jared Goff ever was.
His first season in the league was a disaster, but the dynamic Sean McVay was brought in as coach for his second and turned Goff into an efficient passer behind a powerful, game-smashing run game led by Todd Gurley. Gurley's health fell apart and he was sent to Atlanta despite a big contract, and if Coach McVay could have his way he'd probably wish the quarterback would do likewise.
If anyone doubts that, they just need to look at his head coach's reticence to name the starter for this game despite an injury to back-up passer John Wolford.
John Wolford is down after this hit from Jamal Adams.? PFF (@PFF) January 9, 2021
Jared Goff warming up...
Wolford's last career stop before the Rams was in the Alliance of American Football - remember that? - and yet the coach was waiting to see if he could go in the Divisional Round this week.
Goff was confirmed as starter on Wednesday, but the Rams will want to run the ball and rely on their league-leading defence anyway. They had the sixth-most rushing attempts per game this season
Rookie Cam Akers emerged in the closing weeks of the season as their primary threat, following Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown's stints as the hot-hand in their offence. These three combined for over 1600 yards on the ground.
The Rams have had the best D in the league this year to accompany them. DC Brandon Staley has been propelled into head coaching consideration by his first season overseeing the unit led by Aaron Donald on the line and Jalen Ramsey in the secondary.
They've limited opponents to just over 280 yard per game and slightly over two touchdowns on average. If they can do that this Saturday they'll have a chance of taking the NFC Championship next weekend.
Essentially this game boils down to three Aarons - Rodgers, Donald and Jones.
The Rams caught a break this week when their defensive wrecking ball Aaron Donald confirmed he'd play against Green Bay despite missing time in the Seattle game last week. He might be the all-time greatest player in league history when his career is over, already holding 85.5 career sacks in seven seasons.
Aaron Rodgers vs Aaron Donald next week? PFF (@PFF) January 11, 2021
The two highest-graded players in the NFL (94.5) pic.twitter.com/fJj343RWje
He could close down Rodgers' time in the pocket and with Jalen Ramsey, one of the league's top cornerbacks, on Davante Adams, Rodgers could be forced to work with the surrounding talent instead.
But can the Rams contain them while also holding off the Packers running attack? It's a tough ask. Aaron Jones is a powerful, bruising runner, and Jamaal Williams is a strong back-up.
If the Packers build a lead on the ground the Rams could struggle to clamber back into the game, especially with Lambeau Field likely to be blanketed in snow according to weather reports. That's not the weather teams from Los Angeles are used to. I'd take the Packers to cover 6.5 points at home.
On the total of 45.5, I'd lean towards the under. LA's games have trended towards the under and the Packers defence has improved through the closing weeks of the season.
Aaron Jones is the stand-out first TD scorer option at 5/1. His scoring-rate - 33 touchdowns in 32 games over the last two regular seasons and playoffs - speaks for itself, and I expect him to feature early in coach Matt LaFleur's game plan.
There are a few tempting anytime options, but I'll go for the masochistic choice of Marquez Valdes-Scantling of the Packers. He has six TDs in 16 games this season and presents a deep threat in Green Bay's receiving corps. While Aaron Rodgers has the knack for hitting him deep and in-stride, there have been notable drops this season, so MVS does represent a boom-bust pick. But I think that's factored into the 9/2 price.