It's still the middle of November, but a double-helping of must-see TV on Sunday is already sparking thoughts of January.
A clash of the class of the NFC -- the 8-1 Cardinals are hosting the 7-2 Lions and the 6-3 Packers are hosting the 7-2 Eagles -- is rightfully garnering attention. The upside for Arizona, Detroit, Green Bay and Philadelphia is to make a legit Super Bowl run. The downside, when you factor in schedules and competition (in the form of Dallas, Seattle and San Francisco), is to miss the playoffs completely.
Yes, Green Bay did just destroy Chicago in a game that had Al Michaels wondering aloud during the broadcast if NBC was going to "flex out of the second half." But the focus in the aftermath was on the Bears' meltdown. Jay Cutler was awful and seemingly didn't care. Marc Trestman couldn't coach. The defense was nonexistent. And while I understand why those were the talking points, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers put on a clinic of sheer brilliance. They humbled and humiliated Chicago, controlling and dominating every phase of the game.
Rodgers is the single best quarterback in the NFL. He always has been. If you'd forgotten that, the six touchdown passes he threw in the first half Sunday should've jogged your memory. Since his famous order to R-E-L-A-X, the Packers have won five of six, peaking as they head into the stretch run. Rodgers was confident they would bounce back from the 1-2 start, and Rodgers was right.
In a wide-ranging interview with me on SiriusXM Radio's "Schein on Sports," the quarterback stressed the team-oriented nature of last week's win, from the grit displayed by offensive linemen Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang (who both came through on Sunday despite missing practice the week before) to the incredible execution of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy. Rodgers raved about the downfield blocking of Sitton, Lang and Nelson on a screen pass to Lacy for a touchdown. Sitton and Lang ooze toughness -- and if you haven't noticed, the previously maligned line has come together.
Nelson is a legit star. Rodgers explained: "He's not one of the big names that people talk about. But he's been doing it at a high level for a long time. He's not a flashy, flashy guy; he doesn't draw a lot of attention to himself. He doesn't go into any tirades on the field or on the sidelines. ... He leads extremely well, during the week, in the meeting room; he practices hard. ... He does everything you could possibly want. And then on top of all that, he's a phenomenal teammate, and he cares about winning more than his personal statistics."
Cobb, meanwhile, has become a highlight-making co-star, racking up 10 touchdown catches this season, second-most in the NFL. And Rodgers explained the secret to his success.
"We're looking for him a little more in the red zone," Rodgers said. "He's so quick. He's got that quick twitchability to make moves in the slot and get open, and he's done a good job of catching the ball in space this year, so we're just finding more ways to put him at the No. 1 or No. 2 spots in the progression, and he's made the most of those opportunities."
Rodgers knows this is a big game -- and he knows Green Bay needs to score touchdowns to beat the Eagles.
"I'm not going to give you the cliché answer," Rodgers said. "It's a great team. ... They have a lot of weapons. ... And their offense runs at a high-tempo. I think you have to be aware of the tempo you're running on offense and see how that corresponds with how your defense is playing. But you're going to have to expect to score points in this game, because this is a high-powered offense, it gets a lot of yards ... it's a high-powered team, and they know how to play offensive football."
Arizona has the best record in the NFC for a reason. The Cardinals are fantastic, and -- as I wrote in September -- I think backup quarterback Drew Stanton can take them to the postseason. Detroit has been supremely tough and clutch on both offense and defense, and the Lionsbeat the Packers once already this year. But come playoff time, can these teams stop Rodgers, Nelson, Cobb and Lacy? I don't think so.
Especially noteworthy is the way the Packers' defense is coalescing. It will never be elite; heck, it will never be as good as what the Cardinals and Lions run out there. But it is vastly improved and good enough to win. Clay Matthews shifted inside against the Bears and played his best game of the year. You can argue Julius Peppers did, too.
"He's a talented guy," Rodgers said of Matthews, who collected 11 tackles and a sack Sunday. "The versatility he brings to our defense is incredible. People were getting on him about his stat totals or whatever, but they don't see the kind of impact that he makes and the respect that he warrants from an opposing offense. When you have to pay so much attention to him, he opens up stuff for Julius and Mike Daniels and Mike Neal and Nick Perry and our guys rushing the quarterback."
I wrote last week that I wasn't buying the notion of Mark Sanchez as savior of the Eagles. Perhaps lost in Philly's trashing of Carolina on Monday -- which inspired Sanchez to take a victory lap eating cheesesteaks (of course) -- was the fact that Sanchez completed just 54 percent of his passes against a weak Panthers team. There was one ball he threw in the second quarter, with the Eagles up 24-7, that would've counted as an interception if Panthers defender Josh Norman had kept his feet in-bounds after catching it. That kind of thing simply cannot happen Sunday; if it does, Sanchez and Co. will lose by 20.