For the pessimistic, the Green Bay's 21-13 defeat in Buffalo delivered a familiar, unpleasant feeling.
Many times over the past few decades the Packers entered the final weeks of the regular season only to stumble at the most inopportune moment, and Sunday's loss brought back the bitter taste from those losses. In 2002, they entered the final week of the season needing only a victory over a mediocre New York Jets team to seal the top seed in the NFC playoffs. The Jets, then an 8-7 team in the league's worst division, possessed a pedestrian offense, a middle-of-the-road defense, and were led by an athletically limited quarterback in his first season as a starter.
Yet all of that didn't matter when they routed Green Bay to the tune of 42-17. The loss dropped the Packers from No. 1 to No. 3 and had to play during Wildcard Weekend. That game, of course, was against the Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons who handed Green Bay their first ever playoff defeat at Lambeau Field. 11 years later, Mike Sherman still hasn't realized that Tyrone Williams didn't muff that punt.
At the same time, the Packers have overcome missed opportunities before to achieve great things. The 2010 season provided a painful, James Jones-fumble aided loss to the Chicago Bears, two blown overtimes, and a 7-3 defeat against a truly awful Detroit Lions team. Yet Green Bay squad persevered, emerging victorious in two pseudo-playoff games to end the regular season before winning four straight to take home the Lombardi Trophy.
As such, the Packers' loss to the Bills can only be properly evaluated in hindsight. It's too early to tell whether it's a mere speed bump or a hole in the tire.
What is clear, however, is that the Packers have no margin for error. Not even the playoffs are guaranteed, and a berth won't come any easier without a healthy offensive line.
Bulaga's injury as significant as the loss to Buffalo
By losing to Buffalo, Green Bay all but erased its chance at the No. 1 seed. The Seattle Seahawks would have to beat the Arizona Cardinals then lose at home to the St. Louis Rams at home, and even then there's no guarantee the Packers take the top spot.
But while they can still make a run with a lower seed, the path won't be as easy without Bryan Bulaga in the fold.
The Packers right tackle suffered a concussion late during Sunday's game, revealing what had long been the team's biggest issue: offensive line depth. In year's past, Don Barclay could have stepped in with negligible drop off, but an ACL tear suffered during training camp ending his season before it began. When Bulaga injured his knee in Week 1, Derek Sherrod was the replacement. Unfortunately for Green Bay, the former first-round pick never recovered from his gruesome leg injury. His performance in relief was so poor the team released him in early November.
Bulaga's availability for next week's game in Tampa Bay is up in the air. While the Buccaneers are one of the NFL's worst teams, they do possess a more than capable defensive line. If Bulaga can't go, it'll be JC Tretter who replaces him on the starting line. Though Tretter is a tough, cerebral blocker, he is a misfit at tackle. His 6'3.5" frame appears to carry less than the 307 pounds he officially weighs, an issue against power rushers. During a critical 2nd-and-14, Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams bull rushed through Tretter. In desperation, Tretter tackled Williams from behind in what should have been flagged for holding.
But that's not the mistake most will remember. On the first and only play of the Packers' final drive, Mario Williams swam past Tretter for a strip sack that ended the game.
It's unfair to Tretter that the coaches are asking him to play out of position. He's shown in the past that he can be an effective blocker along the interior. However, with Lane Taylor as the only other active lineman, the coaches didn't have much of a choice. All the Packers can do is hope that Bulaga returns no later than Week 17's NFC North-deciding showdown with the Detroit Lions.
Lacy and the running game are quietly peaking
Though the offense played horrendously Sunday, that doesn't mean every part of Green Bay's attack fell short of expectation. For the second game in a row, the Packers rushed for over 150 yards at a clip of 6 yards* or more.
This continues an important development from the Atlanta game where David Bakhtiari and Josh Sitton carved out nearly 8 yards per carry when Eddie Lacy ran behind them. This time, however, Lacy's productivity came all over the place. He produced rushes of over 10 yards behind both sides of the line, and generally had clear lanes throughout the afternoon.
Lacy has now rushed for 90 or more yards in three of his last four games. Nearly half of his 12 total touchdowns have come during that span. Assuming the Packers' passing game sorts itself out before next week (and that's a fairly good bet), the offense as a whole could hit its top gear just in time for the playoffs.
*Rounded up from 5.96 against Buffalo
Rodgers played his worst game of the season, but...
A quick survey of the numbers tells you how out of sync Aaron Rodgers was against the Bills. He completed just 17 of his 42 pass attempts, failed to throw a touchdown, and was picked off twice. Though Green Bay's receivers dropped an unthinkable amount of balls including Jordy Nelson's botched 94-yard touchdown, Rodgers' ball placement was noticeably off the entire game.
And though that may be disconcerting, Rodgers almost always follows a dud with a robust performance, sometimes a string of them.
His last garbage game came in Week 3 against the Lions. Though normally an ace in domes, Rodgers completed 59.3 percent of his passes for only 162 yards. The team lost in by similarly disappointing 19-7 final score. Two days later on his radio show, Rodgers gave his now famous "R-E-L-A-X" speech, and his production took off. He tossed at least three touchdowns in each of his next four games, completing over 70 percent of his passes during that stretch.
Now, with his team's shot at a division crown and a playoff bye on the line, Rodgers will once again be called upon to repeat that level of performance. That's a tall order for most quarterbacks, but not for him.