Learning how to start games better has sparked Packers' turnaround

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The Green Bay Packers are finishing this season with a flourish because they’ve figured out how to start games better.

Green Bay has surged into the divisional round of the playoffs by outscoring opponents 80-26 in the first half during its four-game winning streak. That’s a remarkable step forward for a team that failed to score a single first-half touchdown for five straight games earlier this season.

The trend continued Sunday as the Packers (10-8) scored the game’s first 27 points in a 48-32 victory over the Dallas Cowboys that advanced them to a Saturday divisional playoff matchup with the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers (12-5).

“It kind of just happened so fast,” right guard Jon Runyan Jr. said after the game. “I didn’t think we were going to jump on them like that. I knew we were going to run the ball on them, but we just kept getting first down, first down, big play, big play.”

Green Bay’s transformation into a strong-starting team coincides with quarterback Jordan Love’s emergence. Love has thrown 21 touchdown passes with only one interception while completing more than 70% of his attempts over his past nine games.

The Packers were outscored 73-9 in the first half for a five-game stretch in which they failed to score a touchdown before halftime. Green Bay finally ended that drought Nov. 5 when Aaron Jones reached the end zone in the second quarter of a 20-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams that snapped a four-game skid.

But the real turning point came in a Thanksgiving Day triumph at Detroit.

Green Bay won the toss, took the ball and got a 53-yard completion from Jordan Love to Christian Watson on the game’s first play from scrimmage. That set up a touchdown drive that helped the Packers take a 23-6 halftime lead in a game they eventually won 29-22.

The Packers have been sizzling at the start of games ever since. They’ve trailed at halftime in just one of their past seven games.

“We talk about it all the time, starting off fast,” wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks said.

During their 2-5 start, the Packers were getting outscored 88-29 in the first half of games. They have outscored opponents 167-88 before halftime in 11 games since.

“That’s kind of the expectation is you’re either getting better or getting worse,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said on Monday. “You’re never staying the same, and thankfully our guys approach it the right way and have a lot to prove and continue to push one another and have gotten better. We’re seeing that progress and it’s fun to be a part of that.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The Packers have scored at least 33 points in three of their past four games. In the one game in which they failed to reach that scoring total — a 17-9 victory over the Chicago Bears — they never had to punt all game. Green Bay matched its highest playoff point total Sunday and had its highest scoring output in any game since a 53-20 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 16, 2014.

WHAT NEEDS WORK

After holding the Cowboys scoreless until the final play of the first half, the defense gave up 25 points in the second half, including two fourth-quarter touchdowns that were followed by 2-point conversions.

STOCK UP

Love had a perfect 158.3 passer rating until he re-entered the game late in the fourth quarter and his final attempt went off TE Tucker Kraft’s hands. … WR Romeo Doubs had six catches for a career-high 151 yards and scored a touchdown. … RB Aaron Jones rushed for 118 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries, marking his fourth straight game with at least 111 yards. … Wicks has four touchdown catches over his past three games. … S Darnell Savage had a 64-yard interception return for his second career touchdown. … CB Jaire Alexander picked off a pass that set up Green Bay’s second touchdown. … The starting offensive line of Rasheed Walker, Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Runyan and Zach Tom paved the way for 143 yards rushing and didn’t allow a sack all game. The Packers have given up just two sacks during their four-game winning streak.

STOCK DOWN

K Anders Carlson missed an extra-point attempt for the sixth time this season. … DL TJ Slaton had an unnecessary roughness penalty that assisted the Cowboys on their final touchdown drive.

INJURIES

Alexander left with an ankle injury and OLB Kingsley Enagbare suffered a knee injury. Although LaFleur had no definitive update on Enagbare's status Monday, the coach acknowledged that “it didn't look good."

KEY NUMBER

7 — The Packers are the first No. 7 seed to win a postseason game since the NFL expanded the playoffs during the 2020 season to allow seven teams from each conference to make it. No. 7 seeds had been a combined 0-6 before the Packers’ victory.

NEXT STEPS

The Packers try to end their recent playoff frustration against the 49ers. The Packers have lost the past four playoff matchups in this series.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL