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Krasovic column: Packers, Rodgers look legit, despite injury barrages

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, playing with a broken pinkie toe, is playing well enough to challenge for a fourth MVP award and become the NFL's first back-to-back MVP since Peyton Manning in 2008-09.

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Aaron Rodgers (12) of the Green Bay Packers looks to throw the ball during the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 in Green Bay. Patrick McDermott/Getty Images/TNS
TNS

The NFL doesn't award a trophy to the team that best overcomes health setbacks to frontline players.

The Packers would win such a trophy, giving them one edge in the "adapt or perish" NFL's annual test of attrition.

The Sunday, Nov. 28, game at chilly Lambeau Field surfaced more evidence of special stuff as Green Bay, underdogs by a point on betting lines, outplayed the healthier, rested Rams and earned a 36-28 victory without trailing.

This year's Super Bowl race, true to the NFL's formula, is clogged with several plausible contenders to raise the Lombardi Trophy at the Kroenke Dome. With six weeks left in the regular season, who's the favorite?

It's the Packers — though only by the width of football laces over fellow NFC contenders such as the Arizona Cardinals (9-2) and defending-champion Tampa Bay Bucs (8-3).

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Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, playing with a broken pinkie toe, may be the person most responsible for making Green Bay's "plug-and-play" efforts succeed.

Rodgers, 37, is playing well enough to challenge for a fourth MVP award and become the NFL's first back-to-back MVP since Peyton Manning in 2008-09.

RELATED: Packers improve to 9-3 with win over Rams Davante Adams had eight receptions for 104 yards.
Solving problems while also drawing upon field-position gifts from Green Bay's improved defense, Rodgers outplayed Rams QB Matthew Stafford and led the Pack to a 20-17 halftime lead.

This despite Rodgers losing a top-flight left tackle (Elgton Jenkins) the previous week and seeing No. 1 running back Aaron Jones limited by a knee sprain, while again working with a No. 2 center.

Green Bay began the second half without Randall Cobb, a personal favorite of Rodgers.

Cobb had gone for 95 receiving yards and a touchdown in the first half before a groin injury shut him down. No problem. Rodgers responded by leading a 13-play touchdown drive to open the second half.

Aiding Rodgers, coach Matt LaFleur has worked more motion and versatility into Green Bay's offense.

Example: When a tight end motioned to the widest spot in a spread formation, the shuffle put Packers No. 1 receiver Davante Adams on L.A.'s No. 3 cornerback instead of All-Pro Jalen Ramsey.

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Rodgers found Adams for 43 yards, leading to Cobb's first-half TD catch against the same No. 3 corner.

The chess move was like a pawn (Joseph Deguara) taking out a queen (Ramsey).

Deguara was third on Green Bay's depth chart five weeks ago when starter Robert Tonyan went down for the season. Rodgers and LaFleur had helped turned Tonyan, an undrafted Lions castoff, into a force who caught 11 TD passes last year.

Another LaFleur fingerprint: improved physicality since the Packers were smashed twice by Kyle Shanahan's 49ers — in the regular season and the NFL title game — in the coach's first season.

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A.J. Dillon (28) of the Green Bay Packers runs for a first down and is tackled by Darious Williams (11) of the Los Angeles Rams during the second half at Lambeau Field on Nov. 28, 2021, in Green Bay. Patrick McDermott/Getty Images/TNS
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Powerful running back A.J. Dillon has beefed up the offense since arriving as a second-round draftee in 2020, and his growth as a receiver, where he wasn't a factor at Boston College, is an evolving strength.

For example: When the Rams went with run stuffers at linebacker to counter the 247-pound Dillon behind their speedy line, LaFleur and Rodgers forced stiff linebacker Troy Reeder to chase him in the open field. The result was Dillon cutting past Reeder to create a key gain after a catch and beating Reeder on an angle route for a TD reception.

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Coming off a poor game at Minnesota, the Green Bay defense started fast against the Rams (7-4) and got big plays from each unit: a front led by end Rashan Gary (strip sack) and tackle Kenny Clark; a Krys Barnes-led group of linebackers; and a secondary where veteran additions Andre Amos (fourth-down stop on run blitz) and Rasul Douglas (interception for touchdown) have thrived under coordinator Joe Barry, an offseason hire.

The defense once again was without three injured stars in cornerback Jaire Alexander, edge rusher Zadarius Smith and safety Darnell Savage.

It seems CEO Mark Murphy — a former Washington safety under Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs — knew what he was doing when he promoted longtime Packers scout Brian Gutekunst into the GM job four years ago and fired Mike McCarthy deep into the coach's 13th season and hired LaFleur.

The Packers would like to emulate the 2010 Packers team that overcame rare injury attrition to earn a playoff spot and win the Super Bowl. Two advantages, in comparison: The Packers still have a shot at a first-round bye and home-field advantage in January, and could regain a few starters in December.

The Rams (7-4) were coming off a bye at an ideal time — deep into the season and soon after adding veterans Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. — but suffered their third straight defeat. Unlikely to catch the West-leading Cardinals, who routed them in L.A., the Rams can grasp at last year's Bucs for inspiration. Tampa Bay evolved late in the season under a veteran QB, Tom Brady, who was new to them. They claimed the NFC's No. 5 seed and won three road games, then the Super Bowl.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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