Saving the Packers

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It seemed reasonable to expect the Green Bay Packers to have one of the best offenses in the NFL this year. Jordy Nelson‘s August ACL tear hurt their prospects, but they still had Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy, and one of the league’s better offensive lines. Instead, they have been shockingly mediocre. What do the numbers suggest, and is there any reason to expect the Packers to be better in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings and in their playoff game the following week?

The Trend Is Discouraging

There is no doubt their Week 16 offensive performance against the Arizona Cardinals was miserable. By DVOA, Football Outsiders’ play-by-play metric that adjusts for game situation and opponent quality, it was the second-worst of Rodgers’ tenure as the Packers’ starter. Only his three-interception performance in Tampa back in 2008, in his first season as a starter, is worse, and just barely (minus-56.2 percent versus minus-55.2 percent).

If that was just a one-off, we could write it off. It was not. The Packers have posted a below-average DVOA on offense in four of their past five games. Coach Mike McCarthy taking the play-calling reins back from offensive coordinator Tom Clements worked against Dallas, but not against Oakland and certainly not last week.

Some week-to-week variation is to be expected, but Green Bay’s three best offensive performances of the season by DVOA came in Weeks 1, 2, and 3. Since then, they are 21st in DVOA, just ahead of the Browns (minus-6.3 percent compared to minus-7.2 percent). This is not the company the Packers expected to be keeping.

Offensive Line Issues Are Part of the Problem

In 2014, the Packers had an excellent, consistent offensive line. From left to right, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey LinsleyT.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga started 79 of 80 games. All five returned, but not for every game. Sitton is the only one with 15 starts, and he has been worse than his near-flawless performance last year (0.0 blown pass blocks per Football Outsiders’ charting). The others have all missed time, and Green Bay’s offensive line depth has not been up to the challenge.

The line issues have shown up in both the run and pass games. It seemed like Rodgers turned a corner in 2014, going from a quarterback sacked more than most to one adept at avoiding sacks. His adjusted sack rate, which accounts for down and distance and opponent was just 5.3 percent last year and is 7.3 percent this year. By offensive line yards, which attempt to account for the distribution of yards between the back and the line, they went from a top-eight unit the past two seasons to 22nd. That includes fifth-worst in stuffs, those runs for no gain or a loss.

Receiving Depth Was Tested and Flunked

The loss of Nelson was potentially devastating because Rodgers was extraordinarily reliant on just two receivers last year, both by volume and for big plays. Both Nelson and Cobb caught over 90 passes and did so with great efficiency. Cobb ranked first in DVOA last year, while Nelson was eighth. No other Packers receiver or tight end came out better than average.

The story is similar this year. James Jones, reunited with Rodgers after the Giants cut him, is the only Packers wide receiver or tight end with a DVOA better than 0.0 percent on 25 or more targets. Green Bay’s young players have not developed the same rapport with Rodgers as Cobb and Nelson.

Davante Adams, praised to the skies by Rodgers in the offseason, ranks next-to-last in DVOA among qualifying receivers. The other young player who saw a big uptick in his role, tight end Richard Rodgers, is merely below average.

The more puzzling case is Cobb, who is below average by DVOA after he topped the league last year. His yards per catch have fallen from 14.1 to 10.8. Some decline in his YAC was expected; he had a number of long touchdowns last year, more than was sustainable. But Rodgers has found him more than 20 yards downfield on just six targets this year, even on one of his customary extended plays.

Cobb has seen his usage change. In 2014, he was largely a short-area receiver, with 38 percent of his targets between one and five yards downfield and was rarely targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage. This year, his distribution is much more even, with between 23 and 32 targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, from 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15 yards downfield. That looks a lot more like how Nelson was targeted last year. But as good as Cobb is, he is not Nelson, and trying to force him to be him has not worked and might have taken Cobb away from what he does best.

What Can Be Done?

McCarthy took back play-calling duties because he wanted the offense to work differently. The Packers have tried to run the ball more since, but they haven’t had much success outside of the Dallas game. Yes, Lacy and James Starks have been part of the problem, or at least not the answer. Both have been efficient receivers this year, though, and a pass game oriented more towards the backs and short passes could be more successful than the receiver-driven offense McCarthy has preferred. It is too late to make major changes, though, so only incremental modifications are likely. Green Bay’s best chance to realize the promise of their 6-0 start is to rely on Rodgers’ improvisational ability and a defense that outside of the Broncos game has played at least reasonably well.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL