Projecting the Biggest Roadblocks in the Packers Pursuit of the NFC North Title
In the six years that Mike McCarthy has been the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, the team has won the NFC North title twice. Once in 2007, when the Packers lost in the NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants, and also last season, when the Packers lost again to the Giants, this time in the NFC Divisional Playoff.
Both games were played at Lambeau Field too.
When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, the team advanced to the playoffs as a Wild Card team. The 6th seed of the NFC, in fact.
In the four years that the Packers have not won the NFC North in the McCarthy-era, the Chicago Bears have won the division twice (2006 and 2010), and the Minnesota Vikings have won the division twice (2008 and 2009).
Right now, going into Week 7 of the 2012 NFL season, Da Bears lead the NFC North with a 4-1 record, while the Vikings are in second place with a 4-2 mark. The Packers are 3-3, while the Detroit Lions are in last place with a 2-3 record.
There is plenty of season left for the Packers to take control and still win the NFC North title. I'm going to list five roadblocks that the team faces as the Pack attempts to win their third NFC North title in the McCarthy regime.
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Key injuries can derail any team's efforts to have a successful season, much less winning a divisional title in the NFL. Case in point are the 2010 Packers. The Packers ended up placing 15 players on injured reserve that season, and the team barely made the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
The Packers were the 6th seed as a matter of fact. And it took a couple of strange circumstances for that to even happen.
Circumstances like DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles returning a punt for a touchdown on the last play of the game to defeat the New York Giants.
Or having a touchdown pass caught by Kellen Winslow of the Tampa Bay Bucs nullified by an offensive pass interference call that would have won the game against the Detroit Lions. The NFL later said that the call against Winslow was incorrect.
Had the Giants or Bucs won those games, either team would have won the sixth and final spot in the NFC playoffs, and the Packers would have been on the outside looking in. And winning Super Bowl XLV would had never materialized.
Bottom line, it's always easier to advance to the playoffs by winning a division.
The Packers have their work cut out for them to do that, and the NFL season is just six weeks old. The injury situation is a big reason why the Packers have had issues in 2012.
Already the team has had to place key players like starting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith (his replacement) on IR. The Packers also had to place running back Brandon Saine on IR. All suffered the dreaded ACL knee injury.
The Packers also placed running back Cedric Benson (foot) on injured reserve after Week 5, but he is eligible to return eight weeks after his placement, under a new NFL rule.
In addition to that, the team placed three players on the PUP list (Physically Unable to Perform). They are tight end Andrew Quarless (knee), linebacker Frank Zombo (hamstring) and offensive tackle Derek Sherrod (broken leg). All three are now eligible to practice now with the team, and Quarless and Zombo are indeed doing just that. Sherrod has not yet started practicing.
The team can activate any of those players once they have become physically ready for the rigors of a NFL season.
The Packers have also had lingering injury issues with some of their best players. Starting wide receiver Greg Jennings has been hampered with a groin injury and will not play again until he is completely healthy.
There are others like cornerback Davon House, who was the starting right cornerback, when he suffered a shoulder injury in the first preseason game. House still hasn't returned to the playing field, but the Packers think he is close to returning.
Other key players that have been hampered by injuries include nose tackle B.J. Raji (ankle), outside linebacker Nick Perry (knee) and cornerback Sam Shields (shin).
The Packers can't afford to have the injury situation to become an epidemic, if they expect to win the NFC North. And they certainly can't afford to lose a player of quarterback Aaron Rodger's caliber. That would pretty much doom the 2012 season, if the Packers ever lost the 2011 NFL MVP.
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The Packers definitely played their best game of the season last week, as the team whipped the then undefeated Houston Texans, 42-24. Still, the Packers are just 3-3, and have been an inconsistent team all season.
The stats reflect that. The Packers have always been a top-10 team offensively since Mike Mccarthy took over as head coach in 2006, but so far in 2012, the Packers are just ranked 18th in total offense in the NFL.
The Packers hope that their offensive performance against the Texans will be something that will be repeated the rest of the season, as the Packers rolled to over 400 yards in offense. Aaron Rodgers threw six touchdown passes (no interceptions) and for 338 yards passing, while the team rushed for almost 100 yards.
The key to the offense is Rodgers, and he now has 16 touchdown passes, compared to four picks, for 1,637 yards. Rodgers also has a NFL-leading 105.4 quarterback rating.
The Packers have also allowed 23 sacks, which is second worst in the NFL. That has to improve.
Speaking of sacks, the Packers lead the league defensively with 21 sacks.
The Packers are ranked 14th in total defense overall. The Packers have the makings of a top-10 defense, but have given up the big play far too often.
The Packers led the NFL last season with 31 interceptions, and are now tied for fifth in the league with eight picks. That stat has to continue to get better as the season winds down. The NFC North leading Bears have a NFL-best 13 interceptions.
Overall, on special teams, the Packers have played well, but giving up a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Texans is something that can't happen again.
The Packers have had their own big plays on special teams, which include a punt return for a touchdown by Randall Cobb, a fake field goal, which resulted into a touchdown pass to tight end Tom Crabtree, and a fake punt, when fullback John Kuhn ran for the necessary yardage for a first down.
Bottom line, for the team to continue to get better and have their record reflect that success, consistent and productive play has to happen in all phases of the game.
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The Packers have recently been a team that did not have a lot of turnovers and also created a lot of turnovers for the opponent. The Packers only had 14 turnovers last season, while they created 38 turnovers vs. the teams they played against.
That type of success has to happen if the Packers expect to win the NFC North. Right now, Aaron Rodgers has only thrown four interceptions, which is good. The Packers also have fumbled just twice with the opponents recovering, which isn't too bad.
However, the Packers have just eight interceptions so far in 2012 and haven't recovered a fumble as of yet. That needs to change. In both areas.
Just take a look at the Chicago Bears. The Bears have 13 interceptions so far this season, and have returned five of those picks for touchdowns. Chicago also has recovered four fumbles. Is it any wonder why the Bears lead the NFC North right now?
For the Packers to win the NFC North, they will need to continue to protect the football and also to create more turnovers.
Another Blown Call by an Official That Determines a Game
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Thankfully the replacement refs are gone. Unfortunately, it was a very prominent play against the Packers that made the NFL reach an agreement with the regular officials.
The play I'm talking about was the Hail Mary pass at the end of of the game against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night football in Seattle. Safety M.D. Jennings clearly intercepted the pass by Russell Wilson then, but somehow the refs decided that wide receiver Golden Tate had also caught the ball. In other words, simultaneous possession.
Bottom line, it was a terrible call, no matter what anyone might tell you. And it cost the Packers a victory.
The very next week, with the regular officials now working, the Packers had Jeff Triplette and his crew do their game against the New Orleans Saints in Green Bay. To me, that was outrageous, as Triplette and his crew might be the worst group of officials that the NFL puts out there in any given game. To have Triplette and company there at that game, after what had just happened the previous Monday night, was just ridiculous.
Sure enough, Triplette and his crew made a number of bad calls in the game, but the Packers were able to win despite of that situation.
Bottom line, the Packers need to play their very best football down the stretch in 2012, and not let any of their remaining games get put in the position, where a ref's call might determine the winner.
NFC North Opponents
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It's somewhat hard to believe that the 2012 season is six weeks old, and the Packers have played just one divisional opponent, the Chicago Bears. The Packers gave the Bears their only loss of the season in that game.
The final seven weeks of the season will see the Packers play their five remaining games against NFC North opponents.
That in a nutshell, will most likely determine if the Packers can win the NFC North title.
The Packers have yet to face either the Vikings or Lions.
That all changes on November 18th, when the Packers travel to Detroit to take on the Lions. The Packers will then host the Lions at Lambeau Field on December 9th.
The Packers will first take on the Vikings on December 2nd at Lambeau Field, and then end the season in Minneapolis on December 30th.
The second game with the Bears will happen on December 16th at Soldier Field.
Five key games against NFC North opponents. The Packers need to be playing their best football in those seven weeks, if they expect to win the NFC North.