Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

For the second consecutive season the Packers play in the NFC Championship, this time at home against Tampa Bay.

The weather may cooperate …

… but whether or not it does, getting to the most pressure packed game of the season for the second consecutive season is quite an accomplishment for coach Matt LaFleur.

Matt Wadleigh:

When the Green Bay Packers decided to part ways with longtime head coach Mike McCarthy, they knew the next hire had to be huge. After all, McCarthy brought a Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay and had the Packers competitive year in and year out.

The Packers hired Matt LaFleur to replace McCarthy, and he has taken this team to new heights in just his second season after spending time as the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans. He has the most wins in franchise history through the first two seasons and has led the Packers to back-to-back NFC North titles.

Yes, LaFleur has more wins in his first two seasons than Packers legends Vince Lombardi, Mike McCarthy, and Mike Holmgren, just to name a few.

Lambeau Field is now home to the NFC Championship Game, and Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams have been playing at an all-time high level, with Rodgers the favorite to win MVP. The Packers’ defense has been solid, and Aaron Jones rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second straight season. Green Bay’s offense is in the top five in both total offense as well as points scored, and the relationship between LaFleur and Rodgers has been incredible.

Questions initially swirled regarding the offense when LaFleur was brought in as head coach, but Rodgers insisted he wasn’t going to change his grasp of changing the offense on the go like he did year after year under McCarthy. As it turns out, LaFleur and Rodgers have worked together without blemish, even more so this season after the Packers selected quarterback Jordan Love in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Aaron Rodgers responded to the Love selection with arguably the best season of his careerand he deserves MVP. LaFleur commended Rodgers’ ability to change the play on the fly earlier in the season:

“He definitely has free rein,” LaFleur said. “So, if he sees something and can get us out of a bad play, yeah, he will get us out of a bad play. And he’s done a great job of it,” per Michael Silver of NFL.com.

It’s no secret that LaFleur has turned around this Packers team in his short time in Green Bay, and putting full trust in a Hall of Fame quarterback has a lot to do with it.

LaFleur’s team is preparing for their second consecutive conference title game, and with the home-field advantage this time around and a few thousand fans in the stands, it’s theirs for the taking. While Tom Brady is never an easy opponent, the Packers are still sour about their 38-10 embarrassment to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in October.

However, LaFleur and the Packers aren’t thinking about that game in October:

“I think our team has come a long way from that day, but everything’s just words at this point,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said Monday. “You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to have a great week of preparation and you’ve got to go earn it on the field. So that’ll be our mindset and that’s how we’ll approach it,” per FOX Sports.

The Packers got off to a 10-0 start in that game against Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers shut down Rodgers and company for the remainder of the game. Don’t expect that to happen this time around.

The stakes are at an all-time high for both teams, and Green Bay will have the benefit of home field on Sunday. Will the Packers reach the Super Bowl in just their second season with LaFleur, or will Brady reach yet another Super Bowl?

Whatever happens, LaFleur needs to be commended for getting the most out of Aaron Rodgers even at his advanced age. It was clear the Rodgers-McCarthy relationship had run its course, and the future Hall of Famer is rejuvenated under Matt LaFleur.

This seems not entirely accurate. McCarthy’s last days were more a case of players no longer listening to him, possibly including Rodgers, than the specific coach–quarterback relationship. It also was analogous to when the Packers hired Ron Wolf while Lindy Infante was still the head coach and Ted Thompson (who died Wednesday) when Mike Sherman was still the head coach. McCarthy had to know the writing was likely on the wall when Brian Gutekunst, who did not hire McCarthy, took over as general manager. And as happened to Infante and Sherman, McCarthy became the victim to some extent of the subpar work of his previous general manager. (Which, you’ll remember, in Sherman’s case was Sherman.)

On the other hand, McCarthy has not been a roaring success in Big D, but LaFleur has been so far. (McCarthy might be able to blame some of that on his current general manager, who mistakenly doubles as his team’s owner.) To paraphrase Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are.

An interesting take comes from Nick Angstadt:

The Green Bay Packers have been the NFL’s best team for a large part of the season. They showed just that this weekend against the Los Angeles Rams by staying true to their offensive plan.

On the daily Locked On Packers podcast, Peter Bukowski shared why the Packers were able to operate so successfully on offense. In his opinion, it’s the same reason Daniel Day-Lewis is such a good actor.

Bukowski: What I absolutely loved is everything that they (the Packers) did, they did in character. They did not say that the Rams do X, Y, and Z, so we are going to counter with this. They just played their game. They stuck with the RPOs. Devonte Adams said after the game that most of the runs were called runs. They felt like they had an advantage.

Aaron Jones said during the week that they felt like they could run on these guys and guess what, not only did they run on them, but they also dominated on the ground. Every third and short, it felt like Green Bay could pick it up because they could get two yards. They could get two yards on the ground, or three yards or four yards, at will. That is what they did. That is why Green Bay finished the game eight of 12 on third down because they were in so many advantageous third-down situations. You get something going a little bit on first down, you run, and you get four yards. Okay, now it is second and six and the whole playbook is open to you. You could throw it, you could run it and if you do run it, you are going to get four or five yards and now it is third and short and the whole playbook is open to you. The Packers stayed in-phase the entire game.

What other coach was famous for sticking to his game plan and not worrying about what the opposition would do? Vince Lombardi.

Andrew Beaton reveals something unusual:

In the tensest moment of the Green Bay Packers’ season, they had a three-point lead against the New Orleans Saints with two minutes left and the ball just inches away from the end zone. Then Aaron Rodgers did something that separates him from every other quarterback in the NFL.

Rodgers threw a 1-yard touchdown pass.

It sounds so simple. It’s also unusual. Rodgers’s aggressiveness passing the ball when he’s so close to the end zone, as opposed to handing it off, is unlike any other quarterback in football. It’s one of the critical reasons why the Packers are the No. 1 seed in the NFC and Rodgers’s career has undergone a resurgence at age 37.

The Packers went 13-3 this season, led the league in points and earned the right to watch the first week of the playoffs from the couch. They play the Rams in the divisional round in a matchup between the NFL’s top offense (Green Bay) and top defense (Los Angeles). The Packers are led by Rodgers, a heavy favorite to win MVP who commands an offense, cooked up by second-year coach Matt LaFleur, that behaves differently than every other one in the NFL.

Their extreme pass heaviness near the end zone—and Rodgers’s unmatched ability to do it successfully—explains how he threw for a league-high 48 touchdowns. His extraordinary production in these spots is the key reason why Green Bay scored on 80% of its red zone drives inside the 20—the highest rate for any team in at least three decades, according to Stats LLC.

“There’s been a lot of schematic touchdowns this year where I didn’t really have to do a whole lot except make sure I don’t screw up the throw,” Rodgers said last week.

Analytics experts have for years grown hoarse pleading with teams to throw the ball more often. It doesn’t take fancy metrics to understand that the average passing play gains more yards than the average running play or that modern offenses are throwing the ball more efficiently than ever. But the question teams have to philosophically answer isn’t as binary as run or pass. It’s also when and where.

The where makes Rodgers an extreme outlier.

There’s only one place in the NFL where offensive philosophies approach near uniformity: the parcels of grass closest to the end zone. Teams ran 441 plays from the 1-yard line this season. There were seven field goals, and of the 434 other plays 74.9% were runs. All but one team called more running plays than passing plays in these situations. The lone exception: the Packers.

Even Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league in normal situations, ran the ball more than they passed it from the 1-yard line. Four teams never passed the ball from there all season. Those four teams—the Eagles, Jaguars, Panthers and Jets—also happen to all be picking in the top eight of the draft.

Green Bay placed the ball in Rodgers’s hands in the exact situation when every other team usually takes it away from its quarterback. He threw eight touchdowns from this spot on the field—twice as many as any other quarterback in the NFL. Thirteen of the 20 offensive plays the Packers ran from the 1-yard line, or 65%, were passes. They threw the ball almost as much as the rest of the league ran it.

Even as you inch farther out, Rodgers’s play is unlike his peers. Inside the 10-yard-line, he completed 39 passes. That is eight more than the next closest quarterback, Tom Brady, even though Brady actually attempted two more throws.

Rodgers’s success in these situations isn’t just a matter of play calling. It’s execution, too. He completed 81.3% of his passes inside the 10. The only two other starting quarterbacks above 70%, Drew Brees and Carson Wentz, attempted fewer of these passes, combined, than Rodgers.

It’s a remarkable blend of volume and efficiency for one other reason. Quarterbacks are supposed to be less accurate on this part of the field. Their receivers have less space to run, and they have to fit the ball in tighter windows. While passers completed 65.2% of their throws this season—the highest rate ever—they only connected 55.7% inside the 10. Rodgers, who completed a league-high 70.7% of the time in 2020, completed 81.3% of his passes inside the 10. He was even more accurate than he usually is on this area of the field, while other quarterbacks are less so.

LaFleur says it starts with the plan the team has for this part of the field, adding that it’s made possible when “you have a quarterback, that without a doubt in my mind is the MVP, directing you down there and being able to make quick decisions.”

That decision making is paramount in an offense like Green Bay’s that so often deploys run-pass option plays. Those calls mean Rodgers has to make a near-instantaneous choice after the snap on whether to throw or hand it off—and he has thrived by throwing more than anyone else when he’s so near the end zone.

It also helped that he has the NFL’s premier receiving threat, especially in these situations. Davante Adams led the NFL with 18 touchdown catches. Three of those were one-yard hauls. Thirteen of them came inside the 10. Adams’s 20 targets inside the 10 were the most since Randy Moss in 2002.

It produced a stunning transformation because Rodgers, who was previously MVP in 2011 and 2014, had stopped playing like one in recent years. From 2017 to 2019, Green Bay’s offense ranked no higher than 14th in the NFL in points per game. Even when the team made the NFC Championship game a year ago, it ranked 15th. His 48 touchdown passes this year were just three fewer than the prior two years combined.

The combination of his age and diminishing play were enough of a red flag that the Packers used their first round pick in the last NFL draft on a quarterback, Jordan Love.

Rodgers responded by tightening his grip on his job instead of loosening it—and again making Green Bay the place no other team wants to play in January.

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