The Green Bay Packers can still make the playoffs this season, but they really are on life support at this time. Their single biggest problem is that while 10-7 may very well be good enough for some teams to get in, those teams will almost certainly hold a tiebreaker advantage over Green Bay. This means that outside of an insane collapse by one of the current wild card teams, the Packers need to be practically perfect.
That’s a tall order for a team that has no Rashan Gary for the remainder of the season and plays road games against Philly and Miami. But until they’re officially dead, they have hope. In at least one instance, a big collapse is absolutely possible, and in the always-wacky NFL getting breaks happens with some frequency. They have three plausible paths to get in, and so let’s take a look at each.
A Giant Collapse
This one may seem like a longshot, as the Giants not only have an enormous 3.5-game lead on the Packers, but they also hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their head-to-head win over Green Bay in London. We should also give credit where credit is due as the Giants are well coached by Brian Daboll, and tend to not beat themselves.
Still, of all of the teams ahead of the Packers, they are the most likely paper tigers. Their Pythagorean record is just 5-4 and they have only outscored their competition by 14 total points. They are 5-1 in one-score games and they have fattened up on what is only the 15th hardest schedule by DVOA. Their schedule is much more difficult going forward (6th by DVOA), and every metric has them as closer to a .500 team than the 7-2 team they currently are. They’re 20th overall in DVOA, with just the 24th rated defense. They’re 20th in defensive EPA/Play, and while their offense has been surprisingly good, (15th in DVOA, and a genuinely shocking 8th in EPA/Play), they’ve scored 21 or fewer points 5 times, and their season high is a mere 27 points.
The Giants will likely be significant underdogs against in Dallas, in both meetings with Philadelphia, and in Minnesota. It then comes down to two games with the Commanders, one with the Lions, and one with the Colts. While the Colts are terrible, Detroit is actually ahead of the Giants in overall DVOA (19th), and Washington with Taylor Heinecke is about the same level. If New York were to lose all of their difficult games and split their relatively simple games, they would finish 9-8, meaning Green Bay would need to finish the season 10-7, while also passing Washington, to get in. It’s a long shot, but a plausible one.
The Cowboys Fall Apart
The problem with this scenario is that the Cowboys are legitimately good. Despite losing to Green Bay on Saturday, Dallas is still 4th overall in DVOA, though there are a few warts as they’re just 17th in EPA/Play on offense (though there is a healthy dose of Cooper Rush baked into those numbers). Still the case against Dallas isn’t based on any secret underlying weakness, but rather on their proximity to Green Bay. Dallas is just 2.5 games ahead of Green Bay, but unlike the Giants, the Packers own the head-to-head tiebreaker, and while Dallas’ future schedule isn’t particularly daunting (26th by DVOA), they still do have four road games starting with the Vikings next week and one more game against Philly. They also have cupcakes against Houston and Indy, but face a better-than-their-record Jacksonville team in Florida, a Thursday Night game in Tennessee, and one game each against the Giants and Commanders.
A .500 finish over the rest of the season would put them at 10-7 and vulnerable to a Packer serge where it is the Packers who own the tiebreaker. Again, it’s a long shot, but it’s a plausible long shot.
The 49ers Can’t Get it Done
The 49ers sit just a game and a half up on the Packers, but they should probably be better than they are. They’re 11th in DVOA and can boast the league’s 8th best defense. EPA/Play likes the defense even more, where they rank 5th. The 49ers are an underperforming team with the 4th easiest remaining schedule, and usually in this situation, you see a second half boom.
Still, they are close enough to still be catchable if the Packers can spontaneously start playing like an elite team themselves. The only really tough games remaining for the 49ers are a home game against Miami on December 4th and a visit to Seattle for Thursday Night Football on December 15th, but even if they drop both of those games, Green Bay will likely need to see them lose at least one more game to an NFC team for tiebreaker purposes. That means that Arizona, New Orleans, Tampa, or Washington will need to pull an upset, and Washington is a potential compounding problem in its own right.
Still, it’s at least possible. Miami and Seattle will likely be favored in their matchups and if Green Bay can be perfect, or even perfect except for the Miami game, that might be enough.
The Packers’ biggest problem is the Packers (and Washington)
The biggest issue for Green Bay is that outside of last week, there is very little indication that this is some sort of sleeping giant ready to wake up, as was the case in 2010, or that they’re poised to go nuclear like they did in 2016. If anything, they’re more injured now than they were before, and expecting a 6-1 finish is a tall order. They really did blow their best chances against what should have been the easiest part of the schedule, but what may doom them more than anything is Washington.
Even if some of these unlikely scenarios come to pass, Washington will likely be involved, and almost absurdly so. Washington plays every one of these teams down the stretch, including the Giants twice, and while the Packers need New York, and Dallas, and San Francisco to lose, they can’t get too much help from the Commanders. Washington owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with Green Bay and currently possesses a better record.
Dropping that game may be the single worst loss of the season for the Packers, even though the Commanders do not appear to be a playoff team themselves. Green Bay still needs to pass Washington, as they can’t really end up in a 3-way tie with Washington and come out on top in most scenarios. That loss also cost the Packers an NFC game for the conference tiebreaker, and Washington will also be a common opponent with everyone by season’s end. If they win that game they’re in far better shape, and I suspect it ends up haunting them when it’s all said and done.