Are the Green Bay Packers dead in the water? That’s the question the NFL world is asking in the wake of the Aaron Rodgers injury, a fractured collarbone last night on Monday Night Football, a game his team lost 27-20 to the Chicago Bears, slipping into a three-way tie with the Bears and Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North.
Rodgers will reportedly miss up to three weeks. TheSportsNotebook will seek to answer the question of whether this is the death knell for the Packers’ playoff hopes or for a Super Bowl run.
Let’s deal with the easy question first–this is not the end of the Green Bay playoff hopes. Even if the Packers lose all three games they would presumably miss Rodgers for, the quarterback would still come back at 5-6, and we see teams every year get on December runs that push them into the postseason. What’s more, the NFC is exceptionally mediocre this year and it seems a virtual certainty that 9-7 will take the last wild-card spot. So no, the Pack isn’t done.
Realistically though, Green Bay needs to think about winning at least one of these upcoming games, and ideally two. The opponents are all manageable–home games with the Eagles and Vikings sandwiched around a road game with the Giants. What has to happen for the Packers to steal a victory or two?
We begin by pointing out that this Packer team has been exceptionally good running the ball. Eddie Lacy has given the offense a new dimension, and they rank 5th in the NFL in yards-per-rush. That’s going to get a stiff challenge, as opposing defenses will follow Chicago’s lead from last night and put eight defenders in the box, but Green Bay at least has a foundation to build on.
They do a similarly good job on the defensive side. If you only watched last night’s game you might not have guessed it, but the Packers have played good run defense all season, ranking in the top five of the NFL in yards-per-rush.
Green Bay also takes care of the football, it’s 10 giveaways being among the league leaders. The formula of controlling the line of scrimmage and taking care of the ball is being used to great effect in Kansas City. No one is suggesting the Packers are about to imitate a 9-0 team, but our standard is only stealing a win or two against mediocre teams. Why can’t it happen?
That’s the rosy scenario. Now let’s look at the downside. The first is that Green Bay’s other playmakers are also injured. Randall Cobb, the receiver most likely to make a big play after the catch, and Clay Matthews, the outside linebacker who can change a game plan by himself, are already out. Truth be told, Green Bay was already in survival mode, with the hope being that Rodgers could keep the ship afloat until everyone else got healthy.
The pass defense absolutely has to improve. Even without Matthews, and even without Nick Perry rushing the passer on the opposite side, Green Bay still ranks 12th in the NFL in sacks. But they are a subpar 19th in yards-per-pass. That was tolerable when Rodgers could bail the team out in a scoring race. It’s going to be completely unacceptable when the Packers have to win games by controlling tempo the same way the Wisconsin basketball team does–controlling the pace in the halfcourt offense.
Matthews may return either this week or next week, but in looking through the Packers healthy players, the first one I would single out to step up would be Tramon Williams. The corner that was such a big playmaker in the 2010 Super Bowl run and the 15-1 regular season a year later, has not played well. We can add in free safety Morgan Burnett, who hasn’t been quite as mediocre, but needs to make some more big plays.
The Packers are one of the NFL’s worst at forcing turnovers, the worst in the NFC and better than only three teams in the league overall. To put in stark perspective, the Jacksonville Jaguars force more turnovers than Green Bay, and that needs to change immediately.
Seneca Wallace is the new quarterback, and while he looked hideous on Monday night, he’ll now get the full week of practice reps with the first string and be prepared to start. Head coach Mike McCarthy has shown himself capable of making lemonade out of lemons before, at least on the offensive side. The coach has covered up a bad offensive line for a few years now with some rolling pockets, and he’s pieced together a running game.
I’m not saying McCarthy is going to turn Wallace into Johnny Unitas, but the coach might find a way to put 21 points a game on the board. Then it’s up to the defense.
I think the Packers can still beat the Vikings at home. Minnesota is having a disaster a season, one that seems to just have a dark cloud hanging over it, and even in the best of times, the Vikes don’t play well outdoors. Even handing a 6-5 team over to Rodgers keeps the season manageable. If Green Bay can then pull out one of the games against the lousy NFC East, they can well-positioned when #12 comes back.
All of this presupposes though, that Rodgers makes it back in three weeks and that he can be immediately effective upon his return. If we use the three-week timetable, that would make his return on Thanksgiving Day at Detroit. That’s going to be a must-win, at least as far as the NFC North title goes. The same goes for a Week 17 visit to Chicago, a point in which Cobb might also be back.
The Packers have a stiff challenge ahead the next three weeks, but I believe they’ll survive it. The real hinge on which their 2013 hopes will swing is whether these injured playmakers–most notably the quarterback–can all come back and hit on all cylinders in December. Right now, Green Bay fans are living in a world they haven’t occupied since the early weeks of the 1992 season–one where the quarterback position is up in the air.