Packers' Rodgers weathers challenging season for offense
GENARO C. ARMAS
Dec. 31, 2015
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers realizes he might be held to a standard higher than the average NFL quarterback.
Thirty touchdowns to just seven interceptions with more than 3,500 yards passing entering Week 17 might be a spectacular season for any other quarterback. That's just average at best for Green Bay's Rodgers, the two-time NFL MVP.
"Well, I should be, based on production. And I'm OK with that," Rodgers said when asked about bigger expectations for him. "It's been definitely a different year for me, but I'm proud of the way we've responded" to adversity this year.
This sounds a lot like the Packers' season in general.
Green Bay is 10-5 going into a Week 17 showdown with the Minnesota Vikings for the NFC North title and the right to host a wild-card playoff game. The Packers are going for their fifth straight division crown despite what has been a surprisingly choppy offense all year long.
Injuries at receiver and offensive line, along with an inconsistent running game, have contributed to the decline. Protection has been spotty. Rodgers, for whatever reason, hasn't looked his sharpest.
Few NFL experts, if any, would have predicted that Vikings second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's passer rating of 90.6 entering the finale would be just 3.1 points shy of Rodgers' mark.
If the season ended after 16 weeks, Rodgers' 93.7 passer rating would be his lowest since taking over as the starter in 2008 (93.6).
Defense-minded Vikings coach Mike Zimmer isn't just looking at the stats.
"I just happened to be watching that game upstairs earlier today and the guy still looks like a surgeon to me when he throws the ball," said Zimmer, referencing the Packers' 38-8 loss last week to Arizona.
Bridgewater has been better the last three weeks.
His 123.2 passer rating in that stretch ranks him only behind Washington's Kirk Cousins. Bridgewater is 57 of 81 (70 percent) for 734 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I know that the most important stat is the wins and losses," Bridgewater said. "Right now we have 10 wins and playing for a chance to win a division title."
Over the last three weeks, Rodgers has a passer rating of 78.6, going 59 of 102 (58 percent) with 573 yards, four TDs and two picks.
The loss of deep threat Jordy Nelson in the preseason to a knee injury hurt. Defenses have played more press coverage, daring the Packers to throw deep.
"We just don't have that element to our offense. We just have to be a little more patient and realize it's going to be more of a grind-out game sometimes," Rodgers said.
At one point this year, Rodgers spoke of the need to work to "get on the same page with receivers."
Lately, he's been looking more in the direction of veteran James Jones, who has 15 catches and 27 targets over the last three games. One of Jones' strength is making tough catches on back-shoulder throws. But most success in the passing game in general has come on shorter throws.
Every starter on the offensive line was listed on the injury report this week. Protection issues were exposed against Arizona, when the Cardinals had eight sacks of Rodgers against a line that had to use two backup tackles.
The Packers seem to be at their best when tailback Eddie Lacy is grinding out yards and there's a run-pass balance, which was the formula used to beat Minnesota 30-13 on Nov. 22.
Three games later, coach Mike McCarthy took back play-calling responsibility from associate head coach Tom Clements. The Packers' offense looked like it was headed in a positive direction again in a 28-7 win over Dallas. They looked out of sync again two weeks later against a tough Arizona defense.
Through all the problems, Green Bay still has a shot at another division title. It gives Rodgers' perspective through the challenges on offense.
"It's all about winning, and winning championships," he said. "There's a lot of guys who are part of that, a lot of guys who weren't, and they bring that hunger, as do we who've tasted that success and who want to get back there."
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this story.
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