GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) – This can’t be what the NFL’s schedule-makers and ESPN executives had in mind.
When the league’s slate of prime-time games came out in the spring, a mid-December matchup between the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and the three-time defending NFC North champion Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field sounded like TV ratings gold.
Surely visions of gorgeous wide-angle shots of the falling snow and big-time playoff implications were dancing in their heads.
But instead of a playoff preview, the “Monday Night Football” audience will get two of the NFL’s most disappointing teams when the Rams (4-9) visit the Packers (5-8).
Although both teams are still mathematically in playoff contention, the Rams are assured a sub-.500 record, and the Packers could win out and still miss the postseason for the first time under coach Matt LaFleur.
“Being the No. 1 seed (in the NFC) the last two seasons leading into this season, a lot of high hopes, right?” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said during the bye week. “We were certainly expected to be competing for a championship – and we are still in it.
“If we’re able to dig our way back into this thing, we still kind of feel like we have the ability to do that. But this season has not gone as we expected.”
Rams coach Sean McVay knows the feeling.
Before newly added quarterback Baker Mayfield rallied the Rams to a 17-16 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders last week – just two days after being claimed on waivers from the Carolina Panthers – the defending champs looked like they were playing out the string.
But their Mayfield-fueled comeback has at least brought some energy to what could have been a lifeless final month of the season.
“I think some positive momentum, no doubt,” McVay said. “You’re just so happy because you see the players be able to see the work that they’ve put in and then get some tangible rewards.”
LET HIM BAKE
Mayfield not only learned enough of the playbook in less than two days to function within the Rams’ offense when he replaced John Wolford after one series against the Raiders, he managed to throw for 230 yards and the game-winning touchdown to cap a 98-yard drive with the game on the line. For his efforts, he was named the NFC offensive player of the week.
“I don’t know if you could write it any better than that,” Mayfield said after the game. “Obviously, we’d like to be a little bit more stress-free. But it’s a pretty damn good story. I’ll be honest with you. It’s special.”
McVay subsequently named Mayfield the starter for Monday night, with Wolford dealing with a neck injury and starter Matthew Stafford done for the year because of a spinal contusion.
The last time the Packers saw Mayfield was last Christmas Day, when he was throwing four interceptions for the Cleveland Browns in the Packers’ 24-22 victory at Lambeau Field. Rasul Douglas had two of those picks, but the Packers’ defense hasn’t been nearly as effective at taking the ball away this season.
A year after ranking third in the league with 26 turnovers forced, the Packers are tied for 15th with 15 takeaways this year – although nearly half of those (seven) have come in the past four games.
“I do think they come in bunches,” Douglas said. “I just think we’re being more aggressive as a team and we’re all on the same page with what we’ve got going on.”
Packers edge rusher Justin Hollins, much like Mayfield, hit the ground running full speed with his new team.
Hollins arrived in Green Bay on Thanksgiving after being claimed on waivers from the Rams, and was on the field three days later against Philadelphia on Nov. 30. Hollins stuffed Eagles running back Miles Sanders for a 2-yard loss early and sacked Jalen Hurts for a 5-yard loss in that game.
The Packers were in dire need at the position after losing top edge rusher Rashan Gary to a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 6.
Packers rookie second-round pick Christian Watson’s eight touchdowns over the past four games made him the second rookie wide receiver in NFL history to score eight TDs from scrimmage over four games, per the Elias Sports Bureau. Minnesota’s Randy Moss was the first to do it, in 1998.
“When the opportunities presented themselves, obviously he’s made the most of them,” Gutekunst said. “I think the thing I’m most proud about with Christian right now is he really has a desire to be great – and he’s not walking around here like he’s arrived in any way. … He knows there’s still a lot of work out there for him.”
ON THE MEND
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the MVP the past two seasons, enters the Packers’ final four games having thrown nine interceptions –the most he’s had in a season since he threw 11 during the team’s Super Bowl-winning season of 2010. His passer rating of 92.4 would be his lowest in 15 years as a starter.
How much of his statistical downturn can be traced to the broken right thumb he suffered in London against the New York Giants on Oct. 9 is hard to say, but Rodgers said the thumb is close to fully healed and the rib injury he suffered against the Eagles is also much improved.