In what is quarterback's league, the NFL's three best signal-callers this season appear to be -- in some order -- Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. The likelihood that one walks away with MVP honors is pretty high, but regardless, no individual trophy can take the place of the conversation piece -- you have a game you need to win, which would you least like to face?
Well, if you are Rod Marinelli, odds are pretty high that if you have designs on winning three more games to capture Dallas' first Lombardi Trophy in a generation, you will have to go through all three.
In other words, this sounds a bit like a defensive coordinator's nightmare.
They all bring different attributes to the table. No two quarterbacks are alike, and I would argue that while scheme and timing makes Ryan and Brady extremely formidable players to deal with, the challenge of dealing with Rodgers has proven to be too much for the league in general recently.
Good defenses -- in particular, the Vikings and Giants -- both had 38 points put on them by Rodgers (Seattle, too) during this streak the Packers are on. They are trying their normal ideas against the two-time MVP, and the normal ideas are maybe slowing him down a bit, but certainly not coming close to stopping him.
Now, the Dallas Cowboys did stop him. On Oct. 16, with the whole football world watching, Rodgers had a very poor day. In fact, about as poor a day as he has had all season long. They used a fair amount of pass-rush strategy -- in an effort to corral him, keep him home in the pocket and dropping eight in coverage to cover up his options.
He was shaking his head, exuding poor body language and just looked like he would have rather been somewhere else. Can Marinelli do this again?
Let's review a few of the results from that game that produced four takeaways (one interception, three fumbles), which not only is the season high for Green Bay, but ties the highest number of any Rodgers start -- ever. The Packers had just 13 giveaways in their other 16 games this year -- combined.
AARON RODGERS THROW CHART -- WEEK 6
I want to focus on the four red dots -- high and left. What happened on those, where he generally has success? What were the Cowboys doing? Let's go back to October and look at those four misses:
A pretty simple route to his tight end, Richard Rodgers, right in front of him and behind the linebackers. He throws it behind his target, which is odd, because Aaron Rodgers doesn't throw passes this off very often, but if he does, it is to a speedster. Richard Rodgers is very slow.
End-zone view. The play is there. This is a key play early in the second quarter. It isn't covered. It is just a horrible throw. Catchable, maybe, but very poor.
This is fourth down. They want to get Randall Cobb into space out of the slot with Byron Jones. The play looks just like Green Bay wants it to look, with Cobb having a step on the safety. But, for whatever reason, Rodgers misses this throw short that is pretty easy for him on most days.
Three-man rush and J.J. Wilcox is nowhere close to the scene. The Packers don't get guys wide open. Rodgers is able to throw them open, and then find small targets. On this day, in perfect weather, he was missing these throws. Good news for the defense, but these are opportunities he normally takes.
They love the five-wide, empty look. They also love being able to dictate man coverage, and Cobb wants to take Jones deep out of the slot.
As you can see, this throw is there. It is missed. Jones is doing his best to stay with Cobb, but on this occasion, the throw is missed again.
One more: This is the first play of the fourth quarter. Green Bay is behind by a 20-6 margin, but perhaps they can pull back into the game with seven points here. Instead, what is this?
Trips left, double-post routes where the first will take the safety -- it does -- and the middle man will get a great look in the back of the end zone. But, that throw ...
You can watch Rodgers for a long time and not see this. But on this day, he airmailed yet another throw with very little reason to do so. Clean pocket, easy look. Maybe it was the throwback uniforms.
Here is a quick look at their personnel from that day. Green Bay will change things up, but its health has made the decision-making easier. Not much to choose from these days.
PERSONNEL GROUPINGS - WEEK 6
Here is what Marinelli did with pass rushes that day. As you can see, lots of three-man rushes and four-man to keep him in the pocket. Very few blitzes.
OK, so that day happened.
But what sort of Rodgers is the league seeing right now? Was that a slump? Did Green Bay change its season?
Well, there is no doubt having the big target down the middle in Jared Cook is key. Now the Packers have a tight end you have to respect, and that means Jones likely moves over there. Now, you figure, Cobb is locked up with Orlando Scandrick -- who did not play in the first matchup.
No Jordy Nelson is a really big deal, but honestly, if you watched Green Bay's past seven games, you see that it is a lot of Rodgers playing the best football of his decorated career -- not him playing catch with Nelson because nobody can cover the receiver.
Here are a few examples:
Talk about a small window to hit. Dropped in a bucket.
Versus Minnesota, he decides to just run the ball after a blitzer comes free.
Versus Detroit, for the division title -- this is ridiculous:
And vs. the Giants on Sunday. At no point is Davante Adams open here. This is throwing a guy open.
These plays are what he does. It has been said that many don't have a whole lot of regard for the offensive scheme up there, because so much of it operates on the second phase of each play -- which often seems very improvisational.
There are days when it looks very poor. There are days he misses throws. There are days he doesn't look right.
But the only days he is stopped by opponents are the days when he is under constant pressure (see the 2015 Denver game and playoff losses to San Francisco, Seattle and the Giants). But in 2016, the Packers have given him pass protection that chases away pressure. So now, he stays alive until something looks appealing to him. And then he makes a throw.
It is very reminiscent to the throw he made in that playoff game in 2014. The Cowboys tried to keep him contained, and then bring him down. But with a bad hamstring, in the fourth quarter, he pulled off this play and gave the Packers a lead they would never give back.
Small window. The pass rush almost got him. But this is what this guy can do.
Here is the throw chart from his game against the Giants in the wild-card round:
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Yesterday we broke down how the offense and defense have wildly different jobs to do Sunday. Scott Linehan and the offense have tasty matchups they should be able to use to their advantage all day and rack up points. They need to, because 17 points won't cut it. Plan on doing that each half.
Because the defense has now reached the portion of the season where bad quarterbacks don't live.
This is Rodgers, Ryan and Brady we're talking about. To take down one -- or all three -- of these guys, you are going to need to understand that they will "get theirs." You are up against some very powerful offenses that do things very well.
To stop Rodgers, you hope to keep his options covered, keep him under duress, and then hope he is a hair off. When a guy throws 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions, you realize he isn't off very often. You don't have to worry about a running game. You don't have to worry about an unguardable receiver. You simply have to worry about this guy doing his thing.
Keep fighting, and try to get two stops per half. If that happens, you figure in a 10-possession game, you should have him in the 28-31 point range. And if that happens, you should assume your offense can get you to 35.
This feels like it could be the Pittsburgh game -- or the Green Bay playoff game. Whoever has the ball last may like their chances. This is what you hope for. Take down the big boys in the playoffs because they have to come to your place.