The Packers are in an interesting situation right now. On one hand they are the hottest team in the league on a five game win streak and have reclaimed the top place in the NFC North – arguably the hardest division in football. On the other hand they are a beaten up team who has struggled their way through ugly victories of underperforming teams. What should we Packer fans take from these mixed messages? What should our realistic expectations be at this point in the season?
Are the Packers still Super Bowl contenders?
The optimists of the community will come forward with a resounding yes! The NFC still looks wide open, and there has yet to be a truly elite team to step forward in 2012. If it’s not the Packers then who is it?
Meanwhile the cynics will be quick to point out that the Packers don’t have much left in the tank. They are beaten up. The offensive line is bad, and boarders on dreadful. The run game is worse, with none of the backs truly stepping up. With a tough slate of games coming up, including a stretch of division games which always be tougher than expected, the Packers may not be in a great a spot as it seems on the surface.
As always, what is really happening with the team probably lies somewhere between these two points. The Packers are in a rough spot, there is no denying it....but there is still some light at the end of the tunnel. To understand it all we first must debunk a few myths about the Packers right now so we can get a sense of where they really at….
1. This team is ready to go on a run just like that 2010 team did.
The thing people need to appreciate about that 2010 team is they were equal parts lucky and good. If you watch interviews with some of the guys from that team they will tell you that they thought their season was over in New England after losing to the Patriots on Sunday Night Football. It wasn’t until after they got back to the locker room after the game that they saw that the Eagles had beaten the Giants and so were still alive for the playoffs. That team played well enough down the stretch, and had a few breaks go their way, in order to have their playoff hopes come alive. If this version of the Packers is going to go that same path it’s very likely that they will find themselves on the outside looking in at the end of the season.
2. This team is overcoming injuries just the same way as the 2010 team did.
It’s almost laughable to compare the injuries of 2010 to this year’s cluster of injuries. They just aren’t the same. In 2010 the Packers lost three…at most four…key players. The big losses came in the form of Nick Barnett, Ryan Grant, and Jermichael Finley. You may be able to argue that the loss of Mark Tauscher was a big loss as well…but this is doubtful considering where he was at in his career. After those four (really three) the rest of the injuries were to backups and role players. This year’s injuries are a totally different animal. Sure like 2010 the Packers have lost their top running back, Grant then Cedric Benson now, and sure they lost one of their starting middle linebackers, Barnett then and Desmond Bishop now. You may even argue that the top receiving target was lost too, Finley then (he was the center piece of that offense in 2010 remember) and Greg Jennings now. But this doesn't tell the whole story. The Packers have lost those key players plus a slew of other starters and key personnel such as Sam Shields, Charles Woodson, Jordy Nelson, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry and John Kuhn. Even the RT injuries aren’t the same. In 2010 Bryan Bulaga was ready to step up and start for the injured Tauscher and the rest of the line was able to stay in together. This year, Bulaga was replaced with the LG T.J. Lang and forced Evan Dietrich-Smith in the lineup….causing two positions to shift along the line. All in all this is a much more beat up team and more undermanned team than that 2010 team...and that's saying something.
3. The Packers can rely on the defense much like that 2010 team.
The Packers had the number two defense in the league in 2010. This year they are more of a middle of the road defense. Still better than last year’s defense to be sure, but still not quite as reliable as the 2010 team. Perhaps the biggest difference between the 2010 defense and this one is the fact that there is no secondary pass rusher to Clay Matthews. There are plenty of potentials, sure, but is there any guy as reliable as what Cullen Jenkins was that year? I don’t think so.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pining for Jenkins. Letting him go was the right call….but is there any consistent force opposite Matthews? If Perry was going to come back I would buy into him being the answer, but he’s not coming back this year. Worthy, Neal, B.J. Raji, and even C.J. Wilson have shown some flashes that they can do that…but nothing consistent. Dezman Moses gives us some flashes too, but his play is still raw and a bit undisciplined. Erik Walden has shown time and time again that he’s not the answer. Frank Zombo was back last week but barely registered a tick on the stat sheet. So who is going to be that guy? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
So What Should We Expect Out Of This Team?
One of the most frustrating thing over the past few weeks for all of us fans is seeing how much this team has struggled to win against less talented teams. The word ugly has been used to describe the last three victories, and the teams beaten – the Jaguars, the Cardinals, and the Lions – aren't exactly playoff contenders. These are teams that the Packers should have buried….right? Well, probably not. The Packers have lost a third to half the starters on both sides of the ball. This is a team decimated by injury, but still finding a way to win….and winning isn't easy in the NFL (tired saying yes, but true nonetheless).
In fact, as the myths above point out, this hot streak that the Packers are on isn't even quite the same as the one run by the team at the end of 2010. In a way, it’s more impressive. The Packers are winning not with a backup ILB as a starter, but rather a third string ILB. The Packers aren't missing their top target, they are missing their top two targets. There are more rookies being counted on and more role players stepping up and expanding what their contributions. It’s beautiful to watch even though it’s not good for the blood pressure.
The Packers are still looking like a top team in the NFC and should still be considered a Super Bowl contender. All of the teams that could be considered threats have had games which make you wonder what the team has got going forward. The major difference between those teams and the Packers is that the Packers had those games early in the year while the others, the 49ers, the Bears, the Giants, and the Falcons, have all had those games in the last few weeks.
More important than what other teams are doing though is exactly what the Packers are doing…and that is learning to win at any cost. Last year the Packers won more games. Those wins were pretty and they were often blow outs. All of those games relied on a heavy dose of Aaron Rodgers being perfect and the offense just overwhelming the opponent. When Rodgers got cold and the offense languished the team folded in the playoffs. This Packer team has learned to scrap, claw, and fight their way to victories. They have had defensive battles and won. They have had shoot outs and won. They have played sloppy and found a way to win. They haven’t given up. If the Packers are to go on another great run it’s going to take that attitude and mind set to do it…..just don’t expect it to be pretty along the way.