Love stars in game he had ‘circled for a long time’

Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jordan Love waited more than two years — 756 days to be exact — and the Green Bay Packers quarterback wasn’t about to let what happened back then at Arrowhead Stadium repeat itself Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

It was back on Nov. 7, 2021, when Love made his first NFL start against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was a one-time thing with Aaron Rodgers out because of COVID-19. And it was a disaster. Love crumbled in the face of blitz after blitz and walked away a 13-7 loser.

That Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo tried a similar strategy Sunday and Love masterfully sidestepped it showed how important this 27-19 victory on “Sunday Night Football” was, and just how far he has come 12 games into his first season as Green Bay’s full-time starting quarterback.

“Yeah, it’s huge,” said Love, who finished 25-of-36 passing for 267 yards with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. “For me personally, obviously I’ve had this game circled for a long time. My first start, obviously, didn’t play how I wanted to the first game. So to be able to see these guys again and get the victory is huge. It’s just a great team win tonight. Everybody just balled out, so it was an awesome win.”

It was also huge for the Packers’ playoff chances. A team that in late October was 2-5 now sits at 6-6 and — for now — in the final playoff spot in the NFC. Their playoff chances jumped all the way to 66%, according to ESPN Analytics, from 45% entering the game. A loss would have reduced the possibility to 37%.

Love didn’t just beat the Chiefs on Sunday, he beat their blitzes. He completed 10 of 13 passes with 3 touchdowns when Spagnuolo sent five or more pass-rushers. It gave Love 8 touchdown passes and zero interceptions this season against the blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Miami‘s Tua Tagovailoa has more touchdown passes (10) with an interception against the blitz this season.

Two years ago, Love managed just six completions in 17 pass attempts for a mere 30 yards against Kansas City’s pressure packages.

The difference for Love: Time and experience. He had plenty of time to watch that first Kansas City game. He said he watched it on repeat that offseason in part because it was the only significant game film he had to that point.

“I’ve gotten more reps, [and] I’m more comfortable understanding where I need to go with the ball,” Love said. “I think the O-line is doing a great job to be able to pick this stuff up. It’s not easy when they’re bringing some of these all-out blitzes, stuff like that, but they’ve been doing a great job giving me time. And then the receivers, obviously, they’re having awareness of when they need to be open and how long I’ve got and then just going out there and making plays.

“But it’s definitely something we as a team, in practice, we know it’s something teams are going to bring. And we’ve got to be able to execute and go out there and be able to make sure they don’t do it again.”

That’s also where Christian Watson came in. Before he left with a right hamstring injury in the fourth quarter, Watson caught seven passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Five of those — and both touchdowns — came against the blitz. It was Watson’s first two-touchdown-catch game of the season. He has four touchdowns in his last three games and has caught 70% of his targets in that span after earlier this season having the lowest catch rate of any receiver with more than 30 targets.

The problem, however, may be that right hamstring. It’s the same one that kept Watson out of the first three games of this season. He did not know the severity, but he limped out of the locker room after he spoke to reporters.

Watson said he could tell in the days leading up to this game that it meant something to Love, and he said in pregame warmups that Love was “locked in and ready to go.”

“Honestly, the way that he’s just been attacking the process and coming to work every day, it seems like every single game has been circled on his calendar to be honest these past couple weeks,” Watson said. “So I mean, it’s really tough to tell, but I mean yeah, the way he approaches every single day in practice, especially this week, you could tell he was about his business.”

But Love wasn’t just locked in on Watson on Sunday night. There was Romeo Doubs and his improbably 33-yard catch on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter to set up Watson’s second touchdown. And there were rookies Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks, Tucker Kraft, Malik Heath and Ben Sims who combined for nearly half (12) of Love’s 25 completions on the night.

Love also continued a remarkable streak that Rodgers and coach Matt LaFleur started in 2019. It was the Packers’ 16th straight win in the month of December, the second-longest streak in NFL history.

“When I got here last year, I was saying watch [Rodgers], learn from [No.] 12,” said cornerback Keisean Nixon, who picked off Mahomes in the fourth quarter. “And 12 gave him the key. And s—, he’s driving the Porsche now.”

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