What We Learned From This Weekend’s Divisional Playoff Games

Seattle, San Francisco shapes up to be a defensive battle royale; Green Bay can watch & learn
The NFL’s Divisional Playoff round was at once exciting and educational this weekend.
Each of the eight teams came into the weekend with a Top Ten quarterback to lead them. The Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos and Patriots prevailed because they had more than Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. They had coaching, defense and special teams and the better team won in each case, advancing to the Championship Round this weekend.
The emphasis, of course, is on team. The Packers should have been a divisional qualifier based on the presence of Aaron Rodgers, one of the game’s top quarterbacks. They fell short in the wildcard round because of defensive deficiencies and subpar special teams play. While injuries certainly contributed to that situation, to chalk it completely up to that is not realistic. 
Whether head coach Mike McCarthy decides to continue with Dom Capers as the defensive coordinator and Shawn Slocum as the special teams coordinator is his call. He might be right to stay with them another season, and see how they do with hopefully a more healthy team and an infusion of new talent. But the hunch here is we may be having this same conversation in mid-January of 2015. If McCarthy truly believes that the Packers were on their way at 5-2 coming off the 44-31 victory at Minnesota on Oct. 27 he might now be reconsidering. He thought Rodgers would have his best season, and that the Packers would continue to roll through their schedule. The problem is when Rodgers got hurt, the defense was exposed and nothing can change that fact.
Like all good teams and organizations in the NFL, the Packers need to own up to their deficiencies and learn from mistakes. The Packers’ safeties didn’t have an interception for the first time in 50 years. That’s almost unfathomable in this day and age of the NFL’s pass happy teams. The safeties’ shortcomings are the most glaring, but the entire defense needs a close review. The Packers should add two safeties this offseason: One in the draft, and another in mid-level free agency. If Burnett and Co. fends them off, so be it. If not, the secondary will be that much better for the infusion.
The front seven also needs major alterations. B.J. Raji hasn’t earned the $10 million annually that he is seeking. Josh Boyd’s strong surge late in the season makes him expendable. Ryan Pickett is a valuable veteran and at 34 shouldn’t break the bank. The cast of Datone Jones, Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson need to elevate its play. Mike Daniels was the team’s best defensive lineman and in no small part because he was high energy, 100-percent effort start to finish. Others could learn from Daniels’ example. And Jerel Worthy’s return to form would be most welcome for this unit.
The linebackers’ unit is thin. Clay Matthews is a premier pass rusher but he must find a way to stay healthy. His absence for four and five games at a stretch is too great to overcome given the surrounding talent, or lack thereof. The Packers still hold out hope that Nick Perry will stay healthy and thereby live up to his first-round status. When healthy, he has shown intermittent flashes of big-play capability. Like many players, you’d like more consistency…..doing it some times becoming being counted on to do it when the games are most important and the competition is keenest.
Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk accepted a pay cut before the season and then promptly went out and earned every penny. Brad Jones, his running mate, is OK in coverage but his forte is not taking on ball carriers in the hole. And Jones also has been bit by the injury bug too often. The Packers will be wise to re-sign Hawk at a modest pay increase, and plan on moving ahead with Jones as a nickel linebacker only. Despite the big defensive draft of two years ago, they need help on that side of the ball. They need to draft a safety, an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker in the first four rounds.
On offense, the Packers’ greatest need is a tight end. Jermichael Finley’s healthy return would be a god send, but right now that’s very far from a certainty. And they could easily lose him in Free Agency, if he is cleared to play. Eddie Lacy is the difference maker. The Packers’ offensive line is plenty good enough when it is healthy, and when Lacy and Rodgers are the one-two punch in the backfield. Both elevate the line’s performance, and Lacy gives Green Bay the toughness and tenacity that Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and San Francisco’s Frank Gore bring. Having Lacy going into next season, and having the offseason to get healthy, will make the Packers a better team. But if they are going to be playing in the NFC Divisional Playoffs next January, they need to shore up the defense, either with or without a new coordinator. The same can be said for special teams.
It’s not an easy call for McCarthy, but it’s why he is entrusted with the Packers’ fortunes in the foreseeable future. He and GM Ted Thompson face considerable challenges in the coming months, but it could be worse. They have a top-rate quarterback, running back and receiving corps. The tight ends are OK, the fullback is solid and the offensive line is good enough if it stays healthy.
It will be interesting to see what McCarthy decides. Who says the off season is boring?

Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.