Episode 118 - Week 8 Preview: Packers Face a Superior Opponent in Rams
It can be interesting and revealing to look back on the history of the NFL and see how things have changed. This week’s Packers/Rams game is the perfect opportunity to do just that.
The Packers and Rams have only played three times since the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, but given the two teams’ history together, we should view this stretch more as the exception than the rule. Historically speaking, these are two very familiar teams.
Since 1940, the Packers and Rams have played 88 times. In the early days of the rivalry, when both teams were part of the “Western Division” of the NFL, it wasn’t at all uncommon for the Packers and Rams to meet two and even three times a season. The Rams were at times dominant during that period, too. From 1948 through 1959, the Packers and Rams played 24 times and the Rams won 20 of those games, including 12 in a row at one stretch. In a different stretch from 1967 through 1973, the Packers played the Rams seven times and won just once.
But that one game was hugely important.
It was December 23, 1967. Historically literate Packers fans should recognize that date, because it’s a week before the Packers faced the Dallas Cowboys in the game that would be known as the Ice Bowl. Had the Packers not taken care of business that day, there would have been no legendary game at Lambeau Field, no second Super Bowl for Vince Lombardi, and no third straight championship.
It’s just a reminder of how close these two teams used to be and how much their games used to mean. Sure, this week features an undefeated Los Angeles squad and a Packers team looking to get back on their feet after a slow start, but it’s nothing compared to how things used to be.
Five Things to Think About During Sunday’s Game
1 - The Rams have a well-earned reputation for big plays, but the Packers should be right there with them. Aaron Rodgers currently leads the league in passes of 50 yards or more. He has six to his name so far this year. Jared Goff is just two behind Rodgers with four, but he’ll likely be without one of his big-play targets on Sunday. Cooper Kupp has caught two of those four passes of 50-plus yards, he is doubtful for Sunday.
2 - Speaking of Goff, he’s a much better quarterback than other Rams signal-callers who have faced the Packers over the last few years. Since 2011, the Packers defense has allowed a passer rating of 79.8 in 18 games against NFC West quarterbacks. That mark is the lowest passer rating the defense allows against an NFC division and is almost five points lower than the next closest division, the NFC North. But those numbers have come in three games against Nick Foles and Sam Bradford, both of whom languished in St. Louis.
3 - The Packers’ running game has gotten a lot of attention during the bye week. Mike McCarthy says the need to run the ball was one of the significant takeaways of the Packers’ self-scout. HIstory shows that would be a good idea. The Packers are 25-3 with Aaron Rodgers under center when they run the ball on 50 percent or more of their offensive plays.
From the start of the 2016 season onward, the Packers have run the ball on more plays than they passed just three times with Aaron Rodgers under center:
2016 Week 3 vs. Lions
2016 Week 14 vs. Seahawks
2017 Week 5 at Cowboys
All three of those games were Packers victories.
4 - The Packers defense has its work cut out for it this week, but things may get easier as the rest of the season goes on. Between now and the end of the year, the Packers will play four of the seven worst offenses in the NFL according to the current league rankings.
But even so far, the Packers’ defense has done well at one specific thing: forcing three-and-outs. 26.8% of opposing drives have ended in a three-and-out so far. That’s third best in the league.
5 - Slowing down the Rams offense may come down to stopping Todd Gurley, which is far easier said than done. Everyone knows that Gurley is good, but you may not realize just how much of a statistical monster he’s been. He leads the league in at least seven offensive categories, including rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, rushing yards per game, points scored, total touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage. Not a bad effort from a guy who was averaging 3.2 yards per carry two years ago. That’s what Jeff Fisher will do to you.
Who Could Be an X-Factor This Week?
Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb are back and expected to play this week, and not a moment too soon. The Rams have a good pass defense, but they’re weak in a couple key areas. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams have a Top 10 pass defense against number one receivers, tight ends, and running backs, but they’re 17th against #2 receivers and 24th against all others. If ever there was a chance for someone not named Davante Adams or Jimmy Graham to have a big day, this could be it.
What Happened the Last Time the Packers and Rams Played?
The Packers last met the Rams in 2015 in the midst of what would be a misleading hot start to their season. This game may have been a sign of the offensive slog to come as the Packers won 24-10 but didn’t look good doing it.
Aaron Rodgers threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw two interceptions in one of only six multi-interception games in the past five years. He also ran for 39 yards and ended up as the team’s leading rusher on the day as Eddie Lacy only managed 27 yards on 13 carries and James Starks ran for 17 on 5 attempts. Quinten Rollins did have one of the few highlights of his short Packers career, returning an interception 41 yards for a touchdown.
The last time the Packers played the Los Angeles Rams was in 1994, beating the Rams 24-17 at Lambeau Field. Pre-MVP Brett Favre threw for 222 yards on 41 attempts, Robert Brooks returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown, and Reggie White had two sacks.
Who’s Going to Win?
The Rams are not an unstoppable juggernaut. The Vikings, Seahawks, and Broncos have all played them close this year. There are very plausible scenarios in which the Packers play well and win this game.
But given what we’ve seen so far this season, what’s the most likely outcome? For the Packers to win, they’ll have to play a complete, high-level game on both sides of the ball, something they’ve not shown themselves to be capable of doing through almost two months of regular season football. The Rams may not be unstoppable, but at least they’re consistent, and the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions both showed that you can beat the Packers through consistent, steady effort and avoiding mistakes.
Neither of those teams is as good as the Rams, which is why I feel comfortable picking Los Angeles to come out on top 33-17.
Most voters in our poll this week are not feeling very confident. 45% of voters rated their confidence at 1 out of 4 that the Packers would win this week, by far the lowest total of the season.
In general, people are a bit down on the Packers after the bye week. Positive feelings about the team went down pretty much across the board. Other than Mike Pettine, every Packers’ figure we track in our poll saw their approval rating drop. Mike McCarthy saw the biggest hit, though. Just 28% of voters in our poll reported somewhat or very positive feelings about the head coach, his second lowest number this year.
People also don’t seem terribly optimistic about the idea of the Packers making a trade before next week’s deadline. Only 36% of voters believe the Packers will make a move.
One Last Thought
You can’t go a week without hearing someone pining for Jordy Nelson, and while I still believe it was and is the right move to move on, I think there’s one area where he could still have been a big help this season: broken plays.
Everyone knows Aaron Rodgers likes to freelance and sort of make up an offense as he goes along, and Nelson was great for that. With the passing game looking a bit disjointed at times, I wonder if Nelson could have helped with that.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure having that security blank is a good thing for the Packers or for Rodgers. In the long term, it’s better that Rodgers and the Packers develop multiple receiving options. We’ve already seen how dangerous the offense can be with Rodgers hitting diverse targets throughout the offense. If taking away the easy option helps both Rodgers and his young receivers get into a new groove, so much the better for the rest of this season and beyond.