GREEN BAY, Wis. — One down. Three more to go.
The Green Bay Packers exited their late-season bye with the faintest faith, a small glimmer of hope, that a mildly miraculous sprint to the postseason might be possible. They need a lot of help to get there from the likes of the Washington Commanders, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
They mostly needed to help themselves.
The Packers handled the first step toward doing that Monday night, beating the hapless Los Angeles Rams, 24-12, inside a frozen Lambeau Field. The four-win Rams were an early Christmas present, a terrible team from a warm climate that looked lifeless most of Monday night. To have any shot at the postseason – namely, to win out – the Packers need to accept their gifts. Mostly, they’ve failed to take advantage of those opportunities this season.
They’ve beaten only one other opponent by double digits. That came back in Week 2.
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Bigger tests are coming, starting later this week on Christmas Day. To win the rest of their schedule, they will need to hold up in southern Florida’s heat and humidity, against a Miami Dolphins team fighting for a playoff spot. After two straight wins, it seems the Packers are clicking more than they have perhaps all season. If they’re officially hot, they picked a good time for it.
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Here are some observations from Monday night’s victory:
AJ Dillon bulldozes Rams defense
It’s cold. That means it’s time for AJ Dillon to heat up. With temperatures in the teens, the Packers offense rode Dillon on Monday night. Dillon had two touchdowns, the first an 8-yard run that ended with him bulldozing three Rams defenders at the goal line. The second, a 2-yard carry, opened a 17-6 lead for the Packers with 8:04 left in the third quarter. Dillon has scored a touchdown in each of the past three games, four total in that stretch. Before then, the bruising tailback had one touchdown run in the season’s first 11 games.
It’s no coincidence the past three games have been played in Philadelphia, Chicago and Green Bay, each after Thanksgiving. Dillon was drafted in the second round in no small part because of his fit for a cold-weather team. Aaron Jones finished with the better line, gaining 90 yards on 17 carries (5.4-yard average). Dillon’s ability to punish the defense went a long way toward paving Jones’ night. Dillon finished with 36 yards on 11 carries before exiting and being evaluated for a concussion, but his two scores set a tone.
Romeo Doubs, Christian Watson a good fit
For the fourth time this season, rookie receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs played an entire game together. In context, that’s a bit misleading. Because it was the first time Doubs has been on the field since Watson exploded into something of a supernova, scoring eight touchdowns in four games before Monday night. So this was the first time to see how Doubs and Watson fit together in this form after the former missed the past four games with a high-ankle sprain, and the early returns were promising.
Watson was quieter than he’s been, though his speed remained a noticeable threat, especially on a 16-yard penalty for pass interference on a deep shot in the second half. His ability to stretch the field also helped open things up for Doubs. It’s easy to forget now, but it was Doubs who stood out first this season. Since training camp, he has shown his potential. Doubs finished with a team-high five catches for 55 yards, each coming on the short and intermediate levels. Watson added four catches on six targets for 46 yards. In theory, Doubs’ ability to work the underneath routes should be a good complement with Watson. That’s how it played out on the field Monday night.
Packers defense lives in Rams backfield
Kenny Clark set the tone from the start, breaking through the Rams offensive line on the first two plays. He was unable to reach tailback Cam Akers on the first, enabling him to gain 15 yards. On the second, Clark dropped Akers for a 2-yard loss.
The rest of the Packers defensive front followed suit, wrecking the Rams offense throughout Monday’s win. The Packers had three sacks, six quarterback hits and four tackles for loss in the first half alone. The third sack, a missile blitz from rookie linebacker Quay Walker, forced Baker Mayfield to fumble (Rams recovered). The Rams entered Monday night allowing 46 sacks this season, fourth most in the NFL. Even without Rashan Gary (torn ACL), the Packers showed they have enough pass rush to dominate a bad offensive line.
Keisean Nixon knifing through punt returns
The Packers coaching staff been slow to react to their personnel this season. It took too long to move Yosh Nijman to right tackle. It took too long to replace Darnell Savage at safety with Rudy Ford. Their special teams hasn’t been immune. How it took the Packers two whole months to give Keisean Nixon a shot at punt returner is an utter mystery. It’s not like they didn’t know Nixon well.
Rich Bisaccia, the Packers first-year special teams coordinator, was Nixon’s special teams coordinator for three seasons with the Las Vegas Raiders. He made the switch to kickoff returner much earlier in this season, but it wasn’t until Week 10 against the Dallas Cowboys he fielded a punt. Since then, the Packers punt return game has come to life. Nixon has six punt returns for 92 yards this season – a 15.3-yard average – including a pair of returns for 36 yards Monday night. Amari Rodgers, who was released a few weeks ago, had 139 yards on 20 returns (7-yard average).
Nixon is unconventional, if not daring, fielding punts that others might not. It’s a risky way to live, but he hasn’t had fielding issues on any of his six attempts. So far, the reward has greatly outweighed the gamble.
Story Credit: usatoday.com