Episode 135 - Week 14 Preview: Packers Embrace Meaningless Football

 The Packers are a very different team than the one that traveled to Atlanta in Week 2 of the 2017 season. HaHa Clinton-Dix is one of many players no longer with the team.

The Packers are a very different team than the one that traveled to Atlanta in Week 2 of the 2017 season. HaHa Clinton-Dix is one of many players no longer with the team.

Last week I introduced our preview by saying a win wouldn’t even teach us all that much about the Packers.

In a backward kind of way, it ended up being completely true that a win didn’t teach us anything about the Packers...because they didn’t win.

But you know what? That’s fine. Because we got the next best thing: utter chaos.

I think if you can’t root for the Packers to win, rooting for chaos, either in Green Bay or around the league, is the second best option.

Very few things are interesting when they go according to plan. But fortunately, right now very few things about the Packers can be said to be going according to plan. The head coach is gone, the starting quarterback is playing weirdly, and the defense seems to have to go to great lengths just to find enough healthy players to play every week. Heck, the Packers’ long snapper is hurt right now. That’s how weird and wild things are. Who’s going to be snapping the balls for punts and field goals and extra points on Sunday? Who even knows!

And to me, that’s great. Chaos means there’s always something going on. Chaos means there are a thousand different possibilities for how things can turn out. Chaos means we can look back in five years and think about how it’s strange that it turned out this way instead of that way. Chaos makes things interesting.

As bad as things have been for the Packers since Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last year, there’s been very little outside-the-box-type activity. But now? Now we’re completely off the map. The Packers are sailing through chaos, and if they’re not going to be winning, there’s nowhere else I’d have them be.

Five Things to Think About During Sunday’s Game

1 - Of all the Packers’ recent recurring opponents, their games with the Falcons have been the most reliably high scoring. Dating back to the 2011 regular season, the Packers and Falcons have played seven times. In five of those seven games, at least one team has scored 30 or more points. In three, at least one team has cracked 40. Twice, both teams have finished with more than 30 points. If that trend continues, we could be seeing a shootout on Sunday.

2 - For all the conversation surrounding the emergence of Packers running back Aaron Jones, the Green Bay rushing attack statistically trails the 2017 team. Last season before their Week 14 game against the Cleveland Browns, the Packers had run for 1,303 yards – an average of 108.6 per game. This season, Green Bay has rushed for 1,268 yards, but are averaging just 105.7 yards per game.

3 - The Packers are a drastically different team than the one that visited Atlanta a little more than a year ago. Of the 43 players who participated in a play on offense, defense, or special teams in last year’s game, just 18 are still on the active roster this week. The other 25 are either on injured reserve or have been released or traded.

4 - Neither Aaron Rodgers nor Matt Ryan is among their expected positions among the league leaders in volume passing stats, but both are still having nominally efficient seasons. Ryan, in particular, is doing well in efficiency stats, throwing TDs at a rate above his career average and throwing interceptions at a rate below his career average.

The big play has always been key for both Rodgers and Ryan and both are maintaining their place among the top big-play producers in the league. The two are tied for the second-most touchdown passes of 75 or more yards over the last ten seasons. Each has thrown for ten touchdowns, and trail Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, who has thrown eleven. They have both thrown one this year.

5 - The Packers sack the opposing quarterback on 9.77 percent of dropbacks – best in the league – and are tied for third with 38 sacks. They’ve come at important moments, too. Green Bay leads the NFL with 24 sacks in the second half of games, is in third place with 15 sacks in the fourth quarter, and is second in the league with 18 sacks on third downs.

The Falcons’ defense, meanwhile, is currently ranked 28th in scoring and 26th in yards. They are led by defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, who should be a familiar name to Packers fans. Manuel started 16 games at strong safety for Green Bay in 2006 after signing a five-year, $10 million contract in 2006 as one of general manager Ted Thompson’s first free agent acquisitions. He was released after training camp in 2007 but went on to play for three more NFL teams.

What Young Player Should We Watch This Week?

Though both the Packers and Falcons technically have something to play for this week, it’s really just that: a technicality. While both teams may nominally be trying to win, this is also a time to evaluate young players. So we’ll do the same for the rest of the year. Instead of looking for an X-factor, we’ll pick one younger player to focus on for each of the next four games.

Our list is going to start with Alex Light, one of four undrafted rookies to make the roster this season. He hasn’t been active for a game yet this season, but he has a similar background and skill set to 2018 fifth round pick Cole Madison. A college tackle, Light could play guard for the Packers and could get an opportunity at tackle as well with both David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga hobbled by injury.

Plus, if his time at Richmond is any indication, Light may be able to fill in at tight end in a pinch.

What Happened the Last Time the Packers and the Falcons Played?

The last Packers/Falcons game happened less than 15 months ago but it feels like absolutely ancient history. The Packers traveled to Atlanta in Week 2 of the 2017 season to help the Falcons kick off their first season in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Packers were seriously banged up on the offensive line; David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga, and Jason Spriggs were all inactive, leading to a starting tackle tandem of Lane Taylor and Kyle Murphy. Predictably, Aaron Rodgers was hassled all day. He was sacked three times, hit seven others, and was generally bothered enough to put the Packers into bad spots. The Falcons coasted to a much less close than it looked 34-23 win.

Who’s Going to Win?

I really don’t know who wins, but if the Packers are going to win a game over their last four chances, this one or the Jets game in two weeks is probably their best opportunity.

The Falcons’ defense is, to put it plainly, not good. They’ve dealt with injuries all season and are still doing so this week. Those injuries have affected their raw numbers and their efficiency stats. As we mentioned before, the Falcons are the league’s 28th ranked scoring defense and come into this week’s game 26th in yards. By DVOA, they’re the worst defense in the league, coming in at 31st against the pass and 29th against the run.

If the Packers can’t move the ball in this game, they might never. I think the Packers get a bit of a late-season bounce off the firing of Mike McCarthy and win a sloppy one, 34-28.

Survey Updates

Not surprisingly, the poll results are not super optimistic this week. According to our poll, voters have just a 52% confidence in the Packers coming out with a win on Sunday.

Even with the low belief in the Packers ability to win, most voters do not believe the team should tank. 62% of voters in our poll said the Packers should not try to lose games to get a better draft position.

But overall, people are feeling better about the team in the wake of Mike McCarthy’s departure. Weighted approval ratings for the team overall, Brian Gutekunst, Mike Pettine, the defense, and the offense all went up this week. Even Mike McCarthy made a rally! But one key Packers figure’s rating did drop: Aaron Rodgers. His weighted approval rating is currently at 51.25%

We do have a couple new additions to the poll. Just as we did with Mike McCarthy, we’ll be tracking Joe Philbin’s approval rating. He debuted this week with a 70.25% rating, which is higher than Mike McCarthy’s rating was at any point this season except prior to the Packers’ Week 1 game against the Bears.

We’ll also be tracking your opinions on Mark Murphy’s handling of the Packers’ coaching search. As of this week, our poll revealed a weighted approval rating of 63.25% of the job Murphy has done so far.

One Last Thought

I’ve used variations of it a couple times in this very episode, but I’m kind of tickled by the assessment that “these games don’t mean anything.”

Of course, they don’t. None of these games mean anything. And that’s kind of the point!

As the Packers season has spiraled completely out of control, I’ve thought back quite frequently to why I started blogging about the Packers in the first place. When I launched my first Packers blog in 2012, I had recently started my first job as a local radio news reporter. I was feeling a little burned out one night after a week full of reporting on school board votes and city council meetings and small-town crime. That stuff is important, but it’s mind-numbing. In my free time, I wanted to do something I enjoyed, like writing, about something I enjoyed, like the Packers.

That it didn’t ultimately matter was exactly what appealed to me. Ultimately, who cares if the Packers win or lose? Sure it’s great if they win, but all of it can be interesting and fun.

This next stretch might not be great for the Packers. The games might be functionally meaningless. But it’s all pretty meaningless if you think about it for any amount of time. And that’s fine. Let’s enjoy the meaninglessness together.

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