All the people who keep waiting for Aaron Rodgers to look like his old self need to relax. There's still plenty of time for the Pro Bowl quarterback to find his rhythm in the offense of first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. In fact, it's starting to look like folks should pay more attention to what's happening around the star signal-caller. He suddenly has the type of supporting cast that makes the Green Bay Packers' future seem so much brighter.
Everybody knew the Green Bay defense was vastly improved before the Packers' 34-24 win over Dallas on Sunday. We then learned that the Packers' backfield has some legitimate juice, too, as running back Aaron Jones ran for 107 yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys, while adding another 75 receiving yards on seven receptions. However, the real revelation in Dallas was a simple comment Rodgers gave to a question about the success Green Bay has enjoyed after improving to 4-1. To put it simply, he's got the kind of help around him that he's long wanted.
"We're just a more connected team this year," Rodgers said. "We enjoy each other more. We like each other a little more. We hang out with each other. The locker room is a raucous environment, whether it's on a Monday or right after a big win. I think guys really play for each other and we have that chemistry -- maybe because of the leadership that we have -- that we've been lacking the last couple of years."
That last sentence may be taken as a dig at former Packers coach Mike McCarthy. It could just be an attempt to give LaFleur a little love, as Rodgers knows full well how much scrutiny has hovered around the relationship with his new head coach. The reality is that it doesn't matter why the Packers are a more harmonious bunch. The only thing they should care about is that they are a more bonded group these days.
The evidence isn't hard to miss. The Packers came into this contest without star wide receiver Davante Adams, which meant Rodgers would have a tougher time throwing the football. So the Packers leaned more on Jones and a more conservative game plan. The defense did its part, as well, intercepting Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott three times and helping the Packers build a 31-3 lead in the third quarter.
It's true that Dallas managed to close the deficit to 10 points in the fourth quarter. It's also apparent that Green Bay is the more complete team at this stage, a squad with a strong chance to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl if it continues to evolve so impressively. The Packers now have beaten two of the best teams in the conference on the road (with a season-opening win over the Bears being the other victory). Last season, when they finished 6-9-1, they only had one road win all year.
If not for a 34-27 loss to Philadelphia two Thursdays ago -- in a game that ended with Rodgers throwing a late interception -- the Packers might easily be considered the best team in the NFC. "We were all on the same page," said Jones after the Dallas win. "Coach came up with the game plan and we focused in on it. Coming off the Philly loss, we didn't want to take another loss. We know what kind of team we are, and we wanted to come out here and make a statement."
"We knew going into this game that we had to be physical," LaFleur said. "It starts up front and I was really proud of our guys. Offensively, defensively and on special teams. We had some adversity and fought through a lot of injuries and had guys going in and out of the lineup against a really quality football team. It's always tough to go on the road in this league, especially in this building, and pick up a win. But it was just a great team win."
LaFleur acknowledged he wasn't happy about some of the things that happened in the contest. The Cowboys did generate 563 total yards, with Prescott throwing for 463 yards and Amari Cooper amassing 226 yards on 11 receptions. Dallas also used some big plays to rally in that second half -- Prescott threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Michael Gallup and a 53-yard scoring toss to Amari Cooper in the final two quarters -- while the Packers' couldn't do much on offense. However, the Cowboys were desperately trying to recover from a huge deficit.
The Packers players also said they didn't help themselves on offense. As right tackle Bryan Bulaga said, "I don't think we were being conservative. I think we did some dumb things with penalties and shooting ourselves in the foot. We got ourselves in bad down and distances. Against this defense and in their house, (winding up in) second-and-20 or third-and-15, we are probably not going to move the chains."
"The story of the game was turnovers, giving [Aaron Jones] the ball, and our inability to stop the run," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "We think we have answers for that, (but) certainly we didn't have them early on tonight."
The other noteworthy aspect of this game was that Rodgers didn't have to be superhuman for the Packers to win. He's enjoyed extraordinary success at AT&T Stadium -- Rodgers has never lost to the Cowboys in that venue -- and it's usually been because of a highlight-reel throw or last-minute heroics. This time around, he operated mainly as a game manager. Rodgers finished the contest with 238 passing yards and no touchdowns.
This is now the fourth time this season that Rodgers has failed to hit the 300-yard passing mark in a game. He also didn't appear frustrated by that stretch, as his only game over that benchmark was the loss to the Eagles. In Sunday's game, Rodgers was at his best when he kept a play alive and found a receiver underneath for a key first down. He was only sacked twice and didn't throw an interception, either.
Rodgers can play that way because he knows he has more help around him. "Days like today aren't the best statistical games for myself, but I feel like [I] played my best game," Rodgers said. "The way I kept moving and seeing things. I've accomplished a lot statistically in this league. I just want to win now."
That clearly is a sentiment shared by everyone in the Packers locker room. They haven't played too many pretty games this year, but they don't seem to care much about style points. Some days, it will be the defense that has to carry more of the load. On other afternoons, they might need more efforts like the one that Jones just produced.
The important thing to remember here is that it's been a long time since the Packers could say their defense was a positive. It's been even longer since the running game could be a potent weapon. But it appears to be a new day in Green Bay, one where long-term success isn't solely a function of the quarterback being a magician. Now it's about a team believing in itself, and finding a way to do whatever it takes to get a win.