Through five weeks, the Green Bay Packers have looked like a mightily flawed team. Injuries have forced them to use five different starter combinations along the offensive line, knocked out their top running back for the foreseeable future, and cost them the services of key players at each level of the defense. Green Bay has struggled during long stretches of games and has yet to hit its stride on either side of the ball.
While all true, the Packers also leave Week 5 with an impressive 4-1 record and appear well positioned to seize control of a winnable NFC.
The conference has no obvious frontrunner as presently constituted. The Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles have the same record as Green Bay, but each has given plenty reason to suspect a drop-off. The Atlanta Falcons sit just a half game behind the trio and has the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Packers, but they nearly dropped contests to Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions and looked far from Super Bowl-caliber during a 32-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills. While the NFC could ultimately go through Carolina, Philly, or Atlanta, none of those teams has inspired much confidence.
Granted, those same criticisms also apply to the Packers, who needed overtime to knock off the Cincinnati Bengals and a brilliant final drive from Aaron Rodgers to escape AT&T Stadium with the victory on Sunday. Last-minute comebacks make for thrilling games, but few teams consistently clinch favorable playoff seeding relying on such heroics regularly.
But to a degree unlike their conference competitors, the Packers have yet to reveal their true ceiling due to the magnitude of their injuries. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton entered the season with little practice due to a recovering shoulder, and a hip issue for Falcons All-Pro wideout Julio Jones could hinder him in the coming weeks. The Eagles have already lost starting cornerback Ronald Darby for an extended period and still await the return of rookie cover man Sidney Jones.
Meanwhile, Green Bay has literally entered games without any offensive tackles and seen their top two pass-rushers -- Mike Daniels and Nick Perry -- miss time with hip and hand injuries respectively. The secondary also might have to make do without Morgan Burnett and Kevin King after both departed Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys prematurely. All of these absences have forced the Packers to play left-handed, a shell of what they might have become.
But those issues could soon right themselves. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga returned to the lineup this past weekend and blindside protector David Bakhtiari could join him as early as next week. Daniels and Perry have also returned to action, filling important voids in the defense. Running back Ty Montgomery's ribs should keep him sidelined another week or more, but rookie Aaron Jones looks like a better fit for the offense. At receiver, Davante Adams recovered from a scary head injury to play like a top-flight receiver. And, of course, Rodgers remains under center and as dangerous as any signal-caller in the NFL.
The 2017 Packers lack the room for error afforded to squads in earlier years. However, unlike some of those teams, they have a stellar record and a favorable schedule the rest of the way. If they do return most of their absent contributors soon, they could soon outclass the rest of the NFC field and secure one of the top seeds in the playoffs.
Jones adds teeth to Packers' play-action passes
When the top two running backs on the Packers depth chart -- Montgomery and rookie Jamaal Williams -- went down with injuries in Week 4, it seemed the ground game would nearly disappear from the offense altogether. Instead, fifth-round pick Aaron Jones took over in the backfield and delivered 49 yards and a touchdown despite little experience.
That success opened the door for Jones' breakout performance, a 125-yard, one-touchdown performance that helped Green Bay pull out a win in Big D. The big game has elevated Jones' profile and led to speculation that he, not Montgomery, should lead the Packers' running attack.
The Cowboys less-than-stellar run defense likely contributed to Jones' robust numbers. However, the rookie tailback doesn't need to hit the century mark each week to make a meaningful impact on the offense. Rather, just providing a viable threat on the ground puts teeth into the Packers' play-action passes.
Consider Rodgers' touchdown throw to Jordy Nelson on Sunday. On the play, all three Cowboys linebackers and safety Byron Jones bite on the fake handoff to Jones, leaving Nelson completely unattended in the end zone. The Packers have attempted similar plays with Ty Montgomery in the backfield with more limited success. Whether right or wrong, defenses don't commit as much attention to Montgomery as they do to Jones.
Montgomery still has a place in the Packers' backfield. At 5-foot-9, 208 pounds, Jones lacks the size to serve as a workhorse running back, and the offense probably benefits by monitoring their usage and keeping both fresh late into games. Utilizing two tailbacks could further help the team close out games late.
Still, when the Packers have both backs available simultaneously, it looks increasingly as though Jones will get the nod when it matters most.