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Aaron Rodgers, Packers stave off Rams for return trip to NFC title game

Aaron Rodgers and a productive Green Bay Packers running game looked good early and then withstood a Los Angeles Rams second-half rally. With the Rams having made it a seven-point game, Rodgers hit an in-stride Allen Lazard for a 58-yard, fourth-quarter score to salt the game away. The Packers prevailed in the end against the Rams, 32-18, in Lambeau Field on Saturday and top-seeded Green Bay will return to the NFC Championship Game for the second season in a row. The Packers will host next weekend's NFC title game against the Buccaneers.

1) Great offense beats great defense. The Green Bay Packers offense steamrolled the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense. The Rams D had smothered opponents all season by inviting them to run, avoiding giving up the big plays and daring offenses to dink and dunk their way down the field, betting most offenses would get impatient. Most can't play that style. Aaron Rodgers can. The QB was content to be patient early, leaning on the run game and picking apart L.A. underneath by hitting his outlets. The MVP frontrunner wasn't crisp early, but every time the Rams threatened, Rodgers made a dynamic throw under pressure, showing his superior pocket presence. Green Bay leaned on a mauling offense line to create creases, and the run game gobbled up yards. The three-headed backfield of Aaron Jones (14/99/1), Jamaal Williams (12/65) and A.J. Dillon (6/27) racked up 99 rushing yards. Out of the half, Jones dashed for a 60-yard run up the gut on the first play of a 75-yard TD drive with all those yards coming on the ground. Green Bay scored on each of its first five possessions and gobbled up 484 total yards against a Rams defense that had given up 300-plus total yards just six times this season, with a high of 390. With L.A. making a close game of it, Rodgers finally took his shot, hitting Allen Lazard on a 58-yard TD bomb to seal the contest. It was a beautiful, balanced offensive performance by the NFC's No. 1 seed.

2) Aaron Donald clearly wasn't 100%. The perennial AP Defensive Player of the Year candidate insisted all week that the rib cartilage tear suffered last week wouldn't be a factor Saturday. It was. Donald played 39 of 72 snaps, 54.2%, well below the average of a player who usually hovered between 80-90% of snaps played. More importantly, the DT wasn't the game-wrecking beast we're used to seeing. He finished with one tackle and a single pressure, with zero QB hits. Packers guard Elgton Jenkins did a great job on Donald. With the beast not himself, the rest of the Rams defense was exposed. Rodgers wasn't sacked at all and L.A. managed just one QB hit. Give a HOF QB that much time and no secondary will hold up. The Rams defense was walled out by the Packers O-line, earning just a single tackle for loss. It didn't help that L.A. missed on several opportunities, including back-to-back chances for INTs at the end of the first half and a forced fumble that popped right back to Rodgers. Entering the contest, the Rams D needed to carry the load against Rodgers and Co. With the best defender in the NFL not himself, L.A.'s defense got stampeded.

3) Jared Goff is less than three weeks removed from surgery on his throwing-hand thumb. Last week, the QB's passes fluttered and lacked zip. Saturday at Lambeau Field, Goff had much better velocity, particularly over the middle of the field. The QB kept the Rams in the game until late by making a bevy of throws and avoiding the big mistake. He finished 21-of-27 for 174 yards and a TD. L.A. leaned on rookie Cam Akers, who responded, averaging 5.0 yards per carry on 18 totes for 90 yards and a score. The rookie's superior vision, cutting ability and power to plow through tackles allows him to gain extra yards. Having employed the Wildcat formation just once before in his tenure as Rams coach, McVay used the direct snap to Akers a handful of times, one resulting in a TD. Despite Goff playing better than expected and Akers looking good, the Rams offense was much too inefficient to keep up with Rodgers. L.A. alternated three scoring drives with three three-and-outs through the first three quarters, while Goff took four sacks on the day. Credit the Packers' defensive front with causing havoc, particularly Kenny Clark (1.5 sacks) who seemed to live in the backfield.

4) Much was made all season about the Packers using their first-round pick on a backup QB and not selecting a WR in a draft deep at the position. Saturday, the "others" on Green Bay stepped up. While Davante Adams was slowed below his norms (nine catches for 66 yards and a score), others stepped up. Lazard atoned for a drop with his big score, catching four passes for 96 yards on the day. Robert Tonyan (4/60) was a chain-mover. Marquez Valdes-Scantling (4/33) and Equanimeous St. Brown (1/27) added key first-down catches. When the Packers' run game is humming as it was Saturday, the rest of the offense opens up, and Rodgers distributes like an MVP point guard. It's the offense Matt LaFleur envisioned for Green Bay. The play-calling coach was in a groove Saturday and employed some great play designs. His pre-snap motion to get Adams away from Jalen Ramsey near the goal line for an early score was a fabulous design by LaFleur.

5) Rodgers finally has the elusive NFC title home game he's been seeking. Next week's bout versus the Buccaneers at Lambeau field will be the first NFC Championship Game in Green Bay of Rodgers' career. The last three trips to the NFC Championship Game have ended with road losses, including last year's blowout in San Francisco. With the weather expected to be in the 20s with the possibility of snow, it could be a bitter experience for whichever 40-year-old QB faces Green Bay next week. ... The Rams' season ends with a 14-point loss, but there is a reason to be optimistic in L.A. McVay's team leaned heavily on young players this season, including several who stood out Saturday. Akers is a stud. Van Jefferson (6/46/1) came on strong, especially with Cooper Kupp out. And safety Jordan Fuller is a keeper on the back end. If the Rams can get more consistent QB play next year, it's a team that should be right back in postseason contention.

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