First of all, Packers fans, if we're still holding out hope for our team making the playoffs this season we can just forget about the Wild Card. It's not happening. The Carolina Panthers are 9-3, the San Francisco 49ers are 8-4, and there are other teams in moderate contention. It's not even worth considering.
But not all is lost. The Packers are fortunate enough to play in a division of deeply flawed teams. The North-leading Detroit Lions are an undisciplined bunch featuring one of the league's worst pass defenses. The Bears' run defense is nearly as poor as the Lions' pass defense. Neither team is bad, exactly, they're just unlikely to run away and hide with the division title. Here's what has to happen for the Packers to find their way into the postseason.
1. The Packers must run the table
Strictly speaking this is not true, but the odds of Green Bay winning the division at 8-7-1 are not really worth discussing. At least not yet. To run the table you're going to need a healthy Aaron Rodgers back immediately and since he has not yet been cleared to play, that's hardly a sure thing this week. I mentioned above that the Bears and Lions are flawed teams, but it's abundantly clear that the Packers are every bit as flawed. Rodgers covers for an insane number of holes, and while it's unlikely that the Pack runs the table, let's take a look at their remaining schedule.
Home vs. Atlanta
Atlanta is 3-9 and basically a disaster. It looks like Roddy White may finally be healthy which helps a bit, but their biggest problem is that they've allowed the 3rd most points in football (the Packers are 23rd in points allowed, the Falcons are 29th). The only teams they've beaten are a sub-par Rams team (at home) that was even worse early in the season before Zach Stacy emerged, the 3-9 Tampa Bay Bucs at home, and last week against the 4-8 Buffalo Bills in Toronto in an overtime shootout. The Falcons are the kind of team that Aaron Rodgers should torch, and the Falcon offense should not overwhelm the Packer defense. With Aaron Rodgers, this is likely a win. Without him, it's certainly still a possibility though.
Dallas isn't a bad team, but just like Atlanta, their defense is absolutely pathetic. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys rank 31st against the run and while they're not quite as sad against the pass, they're still only 19th. This would not be an easy game with Aaron Rodgers under center, but it is certainly winnable. Without him, though, it wouldn't look promising.
Home vs. Pittsburgh
The Steelers' offense has come around a bit lately, but they're defense is still pretty rough. It loos superficially better since the Pats put 55 up against them on November 3rd, but that's mainly a function of their schedule. They held the Browns and Bills in check, but that's not exactly a tall task. Again, not easy, but completely winnable.
The Packers are 5-6-1 and the Bears are 6-6 meaning if they both run the table, the winner of this game will finish ahead of the loser. The Bears are a mirror image of their recent past, excelling on offense under Marc Trestman, but having suffered a complete collapse on defense due largely to age and injuries on that side of the ball.
What all of these games have in common is that there's not a competent defense in the bunch. A Rodgers-led Packer team should put up points, and that's a good start. Even better, due to the Bears' loss to the Vikings on Sunday, they're not really a factor in the race. That means all that matter is...
2. The Lions must lose twice
As recently as two weeks ago, conventional wisdom held that the Lions had the easiest schedule remaining, but a lot has changed since then. Some of the former patsies of the NFC East have rebounded and, perhaps most importantly, the next 3 Detroit opponents are just terrible matchups for the Detroit defense for reasons we will get into momentarily.
Detroit has a spectacular run defense. By DVOA they rank 2nd overall in this category, and I don't think too many would argue with that ranking. Why then do I think the Eagles with Chip Kelly's typically run-based offense are a brutally difficult matchup for the Lions? The Eagles under Nick Foles excel in the two areas where Lions are weakest. Anyone who watched Tiquan Underwood torch them for 108 yards and 2 TDs a few weeks ago will be familiar.
According to Football Outsiders, the Lions are 27th against the pass. They are 28th against #1 receivers and that's a generous number as it includes the Matt Flynn debacle. They are, for my money, the worst secondary in the league. Moreover, while they excel in stopping the run, they are only 20th in the league defending against running backs catching passes. Here are some notable receiving stat lines against the Lions:
Alshon Jeffery - 5/107/1 TD, Brandon Marshall - 7/79/0, Martellus Bennett - 8/90/0
James Jones - 4/127/1 Jordy Nelson - 5/82
Josh Gordon - 7/126/0, Chris Ogbonnaya - 7/61/1
A.J. Green - 6/155/1
Dez Bryant - 3/72/2, Terrence Williams - 2/64/1
Brandon Marshall - 7/139/2, Alshon Jeffery - 9/114
Antonio Brown - 7/147/2
Tiquan Underwood - 3/108/2
The Eagles boast one of the game's best deep threats in DeSean Jackson and one of the best receiving RBs in LeSean McCoy. Moreover, since Nick Foles took over they've basically torched even good defenses. Scoring 24 points against Arizona is no small feat. The Eagles' defense isn't any good themselves, but they actually hold their own against #1 receivers (16th) and #2 receivers (10th). They struggle mightily against "other receivers" (29th) but we're talking Kris Durham here. Again, I'm not saying the Eagles will destroy the Lions, but this will be a very tough game for Detroit. Philly has won four straight games and looks like a different team lately (yes, part of this is an easy schedule). They are in a dogfight in the East, though, and will be highly motivated to win.
Home vs. Baltimore
Remember how I said the Lions have an elite run defense? The Ravens don't care because the Ravens can't run against anyone. Everyone the Ravens play (except the Bears) turns into the Lions. The Ravens don't do a lot well on offense, but one thing they happen to do well is throw the deep ball. Torrey Smith is still an elite deep receiver. Jacoby Jones isn't much, but he's a good deep receiver. These guys should be able to torch the Detroit secondary.
Baltimore may be bad on offense, but they're still a top-10 defensive unit (8th per Football Outsiders). They won't shut down Megatron (who does?) but should be able to keep their offense in the game. The Lions to watch in this game will be Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, as the Ravens rank 26th against backs out of the backfield.
Home vs. New York Giants
The Giants went from a laughingstock at 0-6 to a legitimate playoff contender by winning 5 of their last 6 games. Their defense, and Jason Pierre-Paul in particular, has gotten healthy lately and their season stats do not accurately reflect just how dangerous they currently are. Over the course of their last six games they have allowed 7, 7, 20, 13, 24, and 17 points. Football Outsiders agrees putting them 9th for the season and 6th using their weighted metric, which weighs more recent games more heavily. Better still; the Giants are 5th against #1 receivers (and 1st against #2 receivers).
On offense, the Giants again hit the Lions where it hurts. Victor Cruz is likely to torch this secondary. Rueben Randle is likely to chip in. Even the beleaguered Hakeem Nicks has shown some signs of life lately. With a healthy Andre Brown, who is no slouch in the passing game, the Giants offense is now formidable enough to capitalize on the Detroit defense.
This is the lone good matchup for the Lions. They easily handled the Vikings back in week one and I expect they will again.
I don't expect the Lions to lose all three of those games, but no one should be shocked if they lose two. Keep in mind that some of the intangibles (awful penalties, terrible coaching) and things look rosier still.
So just how dead are the Packers?
The Football Outsiders playoff odds report thinks they have a 5.9% chance of making the playoffs. Let's call it 6%. That's a little better than a 1/17 shot. It's a longshot, but in the grand scheme of things it's not THAT much of a longshot. Events with a 1/17 chance happen, well, one out of seventeen times. That's not like winning the Powerball jackpot. If you want to look at it another way, the Lions, even with the Bears' and Packers' losses last weekend, "only" have a 78% chance of making the playoffs. They miss the playoffs in almost a quarter of scenarios. This is probably all moot if Aaron Rodgers continues to miss time, but if he's around things could still become very dicey for the Lions in short order, and the Packers' practical chances of making the playoffs would increase significantly.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Please welcome a new guest contributor, Paul Noonan, to Acme Packing Company. Paul also writes for the Milwaukee Brewers blog "Ron Roenicke Stole My Baseball" and can be found on twitter at@BadgerNoonan. -Tex)
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