Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The Packers are finding ways to win in games where they don't play their best football, and that's reason for optimism.
The last time Aaron Rodgers didn't throw a touchdown pass in a home game, the Packers lost 27-13 to the Dallas Cowboys in September 2008. The last time Rodgers had fewer than 25 passing attempts (he had 25 on Sunday), it was because the Lions knocked him out of 7-3 Green Bay loss in 2010 with a concussion. The last time the margin between the Packers' rushing total (140 yards on Sunday) and passing total (148 yards) was closer than it was on Sunday was the snowy 2007 Divisional Round game against Seattle, when the Packers actually outgained their passing game (173 yards) on the ground (235 yards).
The last time Green Bay was outgained by more than the 98 yards was ... five weeks ago, when it beat Jacksonville 21-15. The last time the Packers were down 14-0 ... well, they came back to beat the Falcons in Atlanta last year.
And all of those "Last time..." stats are the easy ones: I don't know the last time Green Bay had a nearly 15:00 disadvantage in time of possession, or let its opponent run 26 more offensive plays, or gave up 11 third down conversions.
But I know this: The Packers are getting much, much better at playing left-handed, and that's going to make them much more dangerous in a month.
Tramon Williams touched on this idea in his postgame interview with Michele Tafoya: Sure, the Packers are getting back Clay Matthews' much-needed pass rush abilities and Charles Woodson's sorely-missed versatility soon, but they have had to make do in the interim, and that has gotten Casey Hayward, Brad Jones, Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, and Davon House plenty of experience under fire that they would not have otherwise had.
Likewise, Cedric Benson's injury kneecapped the Packers' running game for six weeks, but four separate runners averaged more than four yards per carry on Sunday, including Rodgers, and Alex Green's development wouldn't have been possible with Benson as the bellcow. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson missing time hastened the star turn of Randall Cobb, now a truly terrifying slot receiver, and their return after the slow and quiet resurgence of Jermichael Finley (14 catches, 193 yards in his last four games) gives the Packers five legitimate big-play receiving options when also counting James Jones.
Heck, given the makeshift offensive line's performance on Sunday, it might be possible that injury forced some reserves to step up there; certainly, giving up just three sacks to the vaunted Lions front four and road-grading the Detroit front seven in the running game was more than I hoped for with whoever Don Barclay is starting.
I don't think that there's a 1:1 correlation between very good players going down and replacement players working their way above replacement level play and staying there, but I suspect that's possible with good coaching like we believe the Packers to have. And I don't know that, say, Jennings being better than he was on October 1 will ultimately mean more for Green Bay than losing Nick Perry did.
But it's important that the Packers have mostly weathered an injury flurry that recalled 2010 in many, many ways, and that they should rightfully be 10-3, just behind Atlanta for the NFC (and NFL's best record), and that their losses this year were rooted in a molasses-slow start on opening day, a miscarriage of football justice, a defensive meltdown (which could still have been salvaged by a made kick), and a true offensive brownout.
Those things all point to the presence of perseverance, experience, and heart; these stock intangibles don't have measurable quantitative value on their own, and they're probably overrated because a) they can't be measured and b) every team has them in some way. But it's better to be worthy of hacky praise than not, right?
These Packers aren't getting beaten soundly, or over and over in the same way (three of those four losses came against superior pass rushes, to be fair), and they're winning games in a bunch of different ways over decent-to-good teams. They're not the ridiculously dominant offensive team of 2011, or the lethal combination of effective offense and playmaking defense that won a Super Bowl in 2010.
But if Green Bay can get to 12-4, the Packers shouldn't see the Giants anywhere but Lambeau. The Niners have been weirdly inconsistent of late, and might just drop another game and swap seeds with the currently No. 3 Packers. Atlanta looks like a paper tiger every other week; it's not unfathomable to think the Falcons could fall to two of the Giants, Lions, and Buccaneers to finish out the year.
And no team appears to be head-and-shoulders above every other in the NFL this season, much like every other one, so why couldn't Green Bay end up as the best team in the league? The Packers know well what can happen even to a team that does look like that, too, so why shouldn't they be considered failure-forged and ready for anything?
I keep trying to find reasons not to believe in this team wholly, and not to grasp the idea of another Super Bowl too tightly. But this team keeps finding new ways to win, and getting closer to the form that can carry a team to a title.
I suspect I'll run out of reasons shortly.