To go from 1-2 with a pair of double-digit losses to winning seven of eight and looking like the best team in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers required nothing more transformative than a bit of self-evaluation and adjustment.
"It's nothing that crazy -- we're not doing anything different," Nelson said. "We're keeping it very simple and figuring out the team we're going to be this year. You go into the season thinking we'll run the ball, we'll throw the ball, whatever. You can't always determine what you're going to do. Defenses tried to take Eddie Lacy away, so we had to throw."
"Had to throw" -- as if that is not a preferred option.
Nelson, the son of farmers who might have been one himself if he did not instead turn out to be one of the NFL's most reliable deep-ball threats, views the Packers' evolution from a unique vantage point -- usually way downfield, where he often receives back-shoulder passes from Aaron Rodgers that flummox defenders and ignite the league's second-highest-ranked scoring offense.
That Nelson has emerged as the catalyst for this machine still seems surprising -- his blue-collar, below-the-radar personality has something to do with that -- but it probably shouldn't. At 6-foot-3, 217 pounds, with the speed of a former high school track star and the work ethic that drove him from the farm to college walk-on to second-round pick, Nelson is the embodiment of big-play receiver. His 68 receptions this season average 15.7 yards. DeSean Jackson leads that category with an average of 20.4 yards per reception, but Nelson has more receptions than any receiver ahead of him on that list -- and he has scored nine touchdowns, also more than any player ahead of him for deep-pass prowess.
Oddly, the Packers (8-3) and Patriots (9-2) -- their opponent this week in a matchup of the best teams in each conference -- had similarly slow offensive starts this season before they became the league's hottest and highest-scoring teams (New England edges Green Bay by an average of 3/10ths of a point per game). The Patriots' offense settled in when the offensive line settled down and as Rob Gronkowski regained his game form. They have won seven in a row, having manhandled a string of division leaders.
For the Packers, Nelson said, it was merely a matter of getting the offense up to speed and increasing the comfort level with the no-huddle attack. Rodgers has the ability, in coach Mike McCarthy's system, to change a play at the line of scrimmage to get the Packers into a better play. The results have been dramatic. After three weeks (and two losses), the Packers were 27th in scoring, having notched just seven points against the Lions in the performance that necessitated Rodgers' admonition to fans to R-E-L-A-X. Now, they've lost one game in the past two months and have been staggeringly fast starters at home. The Packers have outscored opponents 128-9 in the first half of their past four home games. They've averaged almost 38 points and 400 yards in their past eight games total.
"I think understanding the plays we're going to run is part of it," Nelson said. "Aaron knows his checks. The offensive line and Eddie know their checks. It's a feeling-out process. You'd like to get it done in training camp, but sometimes it takes live game action."
The action has been mostly in the air. Rodgers has completed 51.4 percent of passes that travel at least 20 yards in the air, the highest completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 30 such attempts. Of the 18 completions of that distance, eight have gone for touchdowns. And of the 35 pass attempts that have traveled that far -- none of which have been intercepted -- Nelson has been targeted on 18 of them, by far the most on the team. Nelson has caught nine of those passes and converted six into touchdowns.
"We've been able to call the right play against the right coverage," Nelson said. "We took advantage of broken coverage a couple of weeks ago. It's big for our offense to get big plays, to make the drive a little bit easier, to get quick touchdowns. To get that momentum, it really provides a spark for us."
1) The Broncos finally embraced balance last week, with a season-high 35 rushes against the Dolphins. They might need the running game again for a cold night game at Arrowhead Stadium with huge playoff implications, because the Chiefs entered this week with the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL -- and the 26th-ranked run D. If the Broncos can score by running and draining the clock, the pressure will shift to Alex Smith. The Chiefsstill don't have a touchdown pass to a wide receiver this season, which makes scoring quickly unlikely.
2) Which Steelers offense shows up against New Orleans? This season, the Steelers are averaging 33.6 points per game in their seven wins and just 13.3 in their four losses, but Pittsburgh is potent at home (35.6 ppg). Meanwhile, the Saints' defense is allowing opponents to score on 43.9 percent of drives (31st in the NFL through Week 12) and to convert 47.9 percent of third downs (dead last). This could be a snapshot of the relative strength of divisions: At 7-4, the Steelers need to win to keep pace in the AFC North, where every team is at least three games over .500; the Saints, at 4-7, are tied for the best record in the NFC South, where every team is at least three games under .500.
3) Cover your eyes, Washington fans. An up-close look at Andrew Luck, likely playoff-bound for the third time in three NFL seasons, is probably going to be painful -- especially with Robert Griffin III, whose team is 4-14 in games he has started over the last two seasons, on the bench. Griffin has produced the fewest total yards per game among the three Washington quarterbacks who have played this season, so Jay Gruden opted for Colt McCoy this week. Luck is on pace to throw for 5,296 yards, which would be the third-highest single-season total in NFL history. Take a long look at Griffin on the sideline; he might not take the field for Washington again.
4) Let's skip directly to the fourth quarter of the Chargers-Ravens game. Both teams are clinging to playoff hopes in the crowded AFC field. Baltimore has scored 96 fourth-quarter points this season, tied for third-most in the NFL. The Chargers, though, have allowed just 46 fourth-quarter points, third-fewest in the NFL. With San Diego facing a much tougher schedule in the final month, this is a must-win for the Bolts, whose quarterback (Philip Rivers) has thrown just two touchdown passes over the past three games.
5) Fearing that Drew Stanton is regressing even as the Cardinals hold the NFC's top seed? Stanton threw no interceptions in his first 104 pass attempts this season, but three interceptions in his last 47. The Falcons' defense could be a balm for that. Atlanta entered this week with the worst total defense (409.9 yards per game), worst passing defense (284.1) and 30th-ranked third-down defense (47 percent conversion rate allowed) in the NFL. The Cardinals haven't lost consecutive games since Weeks 6 and 7 of 2013, and the Falcons are 0-7 versus non-NFC South opponents this season.
6) A matchup of the two teams trying to break the NFL's longest playoff droughts. Yes, Cleveland at Buffalo pits the Bills' league-leading pass rush against the Browns' inconsistent QB, Brian Hoyer, who had three interceptions and no touchdowns last week (and has just four total touchdown passes in his last six games). Switch to the run? The Browns have 14 rushing touchdowns, second-most in the league entering Week 13, but the Bills have allowed just five rushing touchdowns, second-fewest. Cleveland's defense is second in the league with 15 interceptions, although Tashaun Gipson, who leads the NFL with six picks, is out with a knee injury.
7) Can the Dolphins take advantage of the reeling Jets to boost their playoff hopes? Opposing teams have thrown 27 touchdown passes against Gang Green this season, tied for the most in the NFL. New York's on pace to allow 39 touchdown passes, which would be the second-most since 1933. Ryan Tannehill is rapidly improving (66.1 completion percentage, 20 touchdowns, eight interceptions), but the Dolphins are 6-0 when they rush at least 24 times. The Jets, though, allow 4-plus yards on just 37.5 percent of rushes, second-best in the league heading into the week.
8) Can Cincinnati hold first place in the NFL's most competitive division? The Bengals lead the AFC North because of their one tie and have won the first two games of an unusual three-game road stretch. Andy Dalton has struggled over the last six weeks, with eight touchdowns and eight turnovers. The Bengals are 7-0-1 when rushing at least 26 times. Despite having just two wins, the Bucs are only two games out of the NFC South lead, but the Bengals might need this game even more. The rest of their schedule is very difficult: two games against the Steelers, and one each against the Browns and Broncos.
9) Can Carolina's offense snap out of its slump in time to make a run in the NFC South? The Panthers have lost five straight, but they're just barely behind in the division race. After not recording a single turnover in their first two games (and posting a 2-0 record), the Panthers have 19 giveaways in their last nine contests (1-7-1). Cam Newton has struggled during the losing streak, completing just 55 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and eight interceptions. The host Vikings have 21 sacks in their last six games and have allowed just 35 plays of 20-plus yards on the season, tied for fifth-fewest entering the week.
10) Sixteen teams came into this week with at least seven victories, the most through 11 games in NFL history. Every team in the AFC North has seven wins, and nine of the 16 are in the AFC. But that doesn't indicate overall dominance. The AFC has a slight lead on the NFC this season in head-to-head games (25-22-1). And while there are just two AFC teams with at least eight victories (Patriots and Broncos), there are three times as many in the NFC (Cardinals, Packers, Eagles, Cowboys, Seahawks and Lions).