Friends turn foe if only for a few hours Saturday when the Green Bay Packers welcome the Los Angeles Rams in an NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field.
Two years and five days after being hired as head coach of the Packers, Matt LaFleur led his team and MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers onto the practice field to accelerate preparation for an unexpected guest.
Due to Jared Goff’s thumb injury, the Rams started undrafted rookie John Wolford at Seattle last week, but they beat the NFC West champion Seahawks by battering quarterback Russell Wilson and avoiding mistakes.
The toll was steep for the Rams, who returned to Los Angeles with no obvious choice at quarterback for the Green Bay game. Perhaps of greater importance, defensive tackle Aaron Donald (ribs) and leading wide receiver Cooper Kupp (knee) were injured in the team’s first playoff triumph since losing to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
“This is a legit, real-deal defense,” LaFleur said Tuesday of the Rams, calling Donald a “once in a lifetime player.”
Packers All-Pro center Corey Linsley draws the Donald assignment as Green Bay attempts to prevent Rodgers from being trampled by a Rams defense that sacked Wilson five times last week. Donald left little doubt he will play through his injury. He tied for second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks in the regular season.
Kupp plans to play, too, but could be limited and more broadly impacted by who is throwing the ball for the Rams.
Wolford was not long for the wild-card win. He got hurt and was transported to the hospital for tests on his neck, leaving Goff to pilot the Rams in the second half. Coach Sean McVay said both players are trending in the right direction, but he won’t likely name a starter until later in the week.
Donald, Kupp and Wolford all sat out the team’s light workout Tuesday.
LaFleur likely has a good idea of what’s coming. He said Tuesday the Packers have to “prepare for both” Goff and Wolford and wouldn’t put a surprise or two past his good friend McVay.
The coaches assistants with the Washington Football Team from 2010-13, and when McVay became a head coach at age 30 in 2017, he hired LaFleur as offensive coordinator in Los Angeles.
“We still talk pretty regularly. I don’t know how much I’ll talk to him this week,” LaFleur said. “That’s one of my closest friends in life. He’s like a brother to me … but the gloves will be off on Saturday.”
McVay said, “He’s a great coach. He’s a great friend of mine. You’re so happy to see that success.
“It’s pretty crazy that we’re getting an opportunity to play against one another — really, our teams our getting to play each other in the divisional round. That’s going to be the most important thing, is the Rams versus the Packers and we’ll see if we can go and get after Matt a little bit. It’ll be fun.”
After Lambeau Field was mostly empty during the regular season, the Packers are allowing fans in the stadium — up to 6,000 — on Saturday afternoon.
Champions of the North division, the Packers were idle last week after securing the top seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record. Rodgers lost his previous meeting with Goff and the Rams in 2018 — 29-27 at Los Angeles — in a duel of Cal quarterback products. Rodgers was sacked twice by Donald in that contest.
Green Bay has won six consecutive games since a Nov. 22 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Rodgers was consistently great in 2020, leading the NFL with 48 touchdowns, a 70.7 percent completion rate, a 121.5 passer rating, a league-tying-low five interceptions and a loud and clear statement that he’s not done at age 37. He is 10-8 all-time in the playoffs with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Rodgers’ job has been easier this season with Davante Adams healthy. Adams will draw a lot of one-on-one coverage from Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, an aggressive and physical counterpart. LaFleur said the matchup should be entertaining but is confident in Adams, a player he called “one of the best route-runners of all-time.”
Adams is the first player in NFL history to have at least 100 receptions with 18 receiving touchdowns in a season, as he finished with 115 receptions and 18 touchdowns in just 14 games this fall.
During film study, the Packers have seen a lot of cover-2 looks from the Rams, and Rodgers said he might not see Ramsey over Adams as speculated.
That’s just another exhibit, Adams said, of how Rodgers makes his life easier on game day — a knack for simplifying everything with relentless focus.
“You can kind of see a weight off a guy’s shoulders in the huddle just hearing that from Aaron,” Adams said. “I think that’s how you wind up being MVP 16 seasons in, finding something in your game to get better.”