Wednesday, December 19, 2012

NFC North Dominance Starts With Rodgers

By: Matt Bove

After Sunday's win at Chicago, the Green Bay Packers have now won an astounding 12 consecutive games against their NFC North division rivals. This is really an incredible accomplishment because of how well the division teams know each other and how hard they play against each other.

The NFC North is a solid division this year and has been for the last few years. So what separates the Packers from the Bears, Lions and Vikings? Simply put, it is the fact that the Packers have Aaron Rodgers and the ither quarterbacks on the other three teams range from mediocre to poor. It is no coincidence that the last time the Packers lost a division game was when Rodgers got hurt in a 2010 game at Detroit in Week 14.

If you look at the rosters of these four teams, the only clear advantages the Packers have over their division rivals are at quarterback and wide receiver. Also, the Packers probably have a better secondary than the Lions and Vikings, but the Packers' defense as a whole is not far and away better than what the Lions and the Vikings have. All four NFC North teams have very solid front sevens that feature elite pass rushers. Also, none of the teams in the division have a great offensive line. As as usually is the case on most NFL teams, the quarterback makes all the difference.

The difference between Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler was on display again on Sunday, just as it is every time the Packers and Bears have matched up. The Packers and Rodgers have owned Cutler and the Bears recently, as the Packers are 8-1 vs. the Bears since Cutler took over as quarterback in 2009 (Cutler did not start in the Packers' Week 16 victory over the Bears in 2011). Cutler has thrown seven touchdowns to 18 interceptions in his eight career starts against Green Bay. Also, he has been sacked 30 times and has a 56.9 passer rating in those game

Rodgers is the antithesis of Cutler as a leader and as a player. Rodgers will not make the same dumb decisions and he will not throw the dumb interceptions that Cutler does. Also, he has a much better personality on and off the field and he will not throw his teammates and coaches under the bus the way that Cutler has during games. Both Rodgers and Cutler have had to deal with offensive line issues this season, but one player has been able to overcome them while the other hasn't.

Rodgers had one of his best games of the season on Sunday, while Cutler did what he usually does. Rodgers had a bunch of "wow" throws that made it seem like it was 2011 all over again. He made amazing throws to beat the Bears' Cover-2 defense to Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb down the middle of the field for completions of 31 yards and 29 yards respectively.

On 3rd-and-6 from the Packers' 34 yard line,  Rodgers got pressured up the middle, rolled out to his right and threw an absolute dart to Cobb on the sideline for a 31-yard gain. He threw it where only Cobb could catch it in between two defenders and that play got the offense rolling. Also, Rodgers threw three touchdowns to James Jones, including an unstoppable back shoulder throw.

Meanwhile, Cutler only completed passes to one wide receiver, was sacked four times and threw what was really a game changing interception right into Casey Heyward's chest right with 1:36 left in the first half. This allowed the Packers to get a score at the end of the first half and on the opening drive of the second half to take a 21-7 lead.

The quarterbacks have also been the difference in the games against the Lions and Vikings this season. Matthew Stafford has some similarities to Cutler. He had a great season last year, but has majorly regressed this season. Stafford has great talent, but often locks in on Calvin Johnson to much, makes poor decisions, has accuracy that comes and goes and he is not a great leader.

In Packers and Lions' first meeting in Detroit on November 8th this season, Stafford had three turnovers, including a pick-six to M.D. Jennings. After Rodgers led the Packers on a drive late in the fourth quarter to take the lead, Stafford had plenty of time to tie the game with a field goal or win it with a touchdown. He ended up doing neither, as he did not even get a first down or even attempt a pass to Johnson on all four plays. The Packers won because Rodgers made the plays late that Stafford didn't make and Rodgers didn't make the mistakes that Stafford made with turnovers throughout the game.

A similar game took place 10 days ago at Lambeau Field between Green Bay and Detroit. Detroit had a 14-0 lead and was dominating the Packers in every facet of the game. Then in the second quarter, Stafford inexplicably fumbled when he was attempting a pass and Mike Daniels ran it back for a touchdown. The Packers never looked back and won 27-20. Rodgers didn't have a great game, but he didn't make the big mistake that Stafford made yet again.

Comparing Rodgers to Christian Ponder is obviously laughable, as Ponder may not even be a starting caliber NFL quarterback. However, even if the Vikings just had a competent quarterback, they could have beaten the Packers in their Week 13 matchup at Lambeau. Adrian Peterson ran wild on the ground for an astounding 210 yards, yet Ponder could not even complete a single pass to a wide receiver until late in the fourth quarter. He threw a killer interception to Morgan Burnett in the end zone when the Vikings were ready to go ahead 21-10. Ponder threw another interception to Burnett with the Vikings driving and only trailing 20-14. The quarterback difference between these two teams is obvious.

The Packers' run of 12 consecutive division wins is pretty overlooked considering how remarkable it is. Mike McCarthy deserves a lot of credit as well, as he has out-coached all of his division head coaching counterparts. However, without Rodgers this win streak would not have been possible. Until the Lions, Bears and Vikings can compete with the Packers at the quarterback position, the Packers will continue to rack up division wins. 

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