Green Bay Packers in Playoff Position, but Issues Remain
The good news is that the Packers are well positioned right now to win their division and be in the playoffs. The bad news is that that doesn't mean that problems and issues don't exist for this team.
So here is a look at the rest of the good and bad news and what remains to be seen for the Packers this season.
The Packers are in First Place in the NFC North
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GOOD NEWS: The Packers are 9 - 4 and in first place in the NFC North. They have what is in essence a two game lead on the Chicago Bears and can clinch the division with a win over the Bears this weekend. They have a full two game lead on any of the teams fighting to get into a wild card position and would have to go into a major tailspin in the final three weeks to not be in the tournament.
BAD NEWS: The Packers are currently third in the NFC and would have to play on wild card weekend. If they won the wild card game they would then travel to San Francisco if current seeds hold. San Francisco seemed to have a formula that stymied the Packers well when they played earlier this season and may not be the best match-up for this team. The 49ers have games remaining at New England and at Seattle so the possibility of the Pack passing them remain strong. If the Giants beat the Falcons this week, even the top seed can become an interesting possibility but that is all predicated on the Packers continuing to win.
The Packers Are on a Hot Streak
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GOOD NEWS: The Packers have gone 7 -1 since their 2 - 3 start to the season. This streak includes wins over 11 - 2 Houston, 6 - 6 -1 St. Louis, and 7 - 6 Minnesota.
BAD NEWS: The combined record of the other four teams the Packers have beat on this streak is 14 - 38. And, they also had a terrible loss to the Giants along the way. The Packers have had losses against Seattle (yes, I know but I checked and there is still no asterisk next to this loss in the record), San Francisco, the New York Giants, and Indianapolis where they looked very poor for pretty much the whole game. The Packers need to play much better against good teams if they hope to contend come playoff time.
The Offense Is Dangerous, but Not at Last Seasons Level
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GOOD NEWS: On offense Aaron Rodgers is who we THOUGHT he was. All he needs is a crown. With all the other problems this team has had this season, Rodgers has remained a constant for the Pack. He is accurate, able to find the open man, and can elude the rush well. His statistics don't come close to duplicating last season but I believe he has played even better and is often carrying the offense almost on his own. The Packers also don't turn the ball over a lot and are +8 in turnover margin.
BAD NEWS: The rest of the offense is far from last year's production. The Packers are currently tenth in the league in scoring – a full ten points per game below last season's average. The offense averages 70 yards per game less than it did last season. However, 2011 was a record year and it may be foolish to expect these sort of results every year.
It does remain puzzling why the production has dipped so much with the same cast in most areas. There are a myriad of reasons for this but key among them are poor play in the offensive line and in the receiver position. The line's difficulties have been well documented in many articles here but it is important to note that the Packers like to go downfield and this season they have not had the time to do this on many occasions. They have given up 42 sacks in 13 games making Rodgers' performances even more impressive. Almost as problematic has been that the receivers are often blanketed well by the defense as teams have taken to playing the Packers loose and fading back in deep coverage schemes that block the Packers tendencies.
The running game has made a bit of a resurgence in the last two games, but overall they are still ranked 17th in the league in rushing. Their running game might hurt them in the playoffs.
The Defense Has Improved but Is Still Not Dominating
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GOOD NEWS: The defense is infinitely better than it was last year. Last year's defense was historically awful, so this is not the biggest surprise. The influx of young defenders, especially in the defensive backfield, have increased the play-making and athletic ability of the team. They are firmly in the middle of the rankings in yards and have averaged giving up only 21.5 points per game this season. If the defense only gives up 21 points this team should be in good shape in most games.
They have sacked the quarterback 35 times so far, and have 28 turnovers. Unlike last season the defense is responsible for several of the wins this year and have kept the Packers in the game when the offense has struggled. It is no longer necessary for the Packer offense to outscore every team they play and they can rely on the defense to play well.
BAD NEWS: The defense is still 18th against the pass and 15th against the run and they have played a “bend but don't break” style that has been at times painful to watch for their fans. Without Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson in the lineup the level of pressure has been low and the entire defense seems to be more vanilla. There is hope that with the return of Starks, Woodson and Matthews in the upcoming weeks that the defense will ramp up the pressure and start to look more aggressive come playoff time.
The Special Teams Are Mostly Special
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GOOD NEWS: Randall Cobb averages over 10 yards per punt return and over 25 per kickoff return. He leads the league in total yards with nearly 2,100 yards of return and scrimmage yards combined.
Tim Masthay remains a good punting weapon. He has an average of 43.9 yards per attempt and has downed 28 kicks inside the 20 yard line; his hang time is excellent and the Packers punt coverage unit has held opponents to under 5 yards per punt return. The Packers even blocked a punt for a touchdown for the first time since I was, well, since I was a much younger man.
The longest kick return given up all year is 38 yards.
BAD NEWS: Saying Mason Crosby is in a slump would be an understatement to the level of troubles he has experienced this season. He has made a paltry 63 percent of his kicks for the season and that makes his success rate look good. After going 5 for 5 in field goals for the first four games he went on a tear, a bad tear. He was 7 for 15 over the next seven games, including two misses against Indianapolis in a three point loss. He has been 5 for 7 in the last two games so there is hope he is coming around, but it is a surprise to many he is still with the team. He has the leg to bomb a 60 yard field goal but what good is that if he is going to miss a 35 yarder?
Many of his misses have looked very bad and tail away with wild hooks and slices that only a poor golf player like me can fully appreciate. The Packers coaching staff appear to be confident in his abilities, but it remains to be seen what may happen if he needs to make some key kicks in a tight playoff contest.
The Super Bowl Is the Goal
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GOOD NEWS: The Packers will most likely be in the playoffs and they will be a confident unit. The Super Bowl should be their goal and they will know that they will be more healthy than at almost any time this year.
BAD NEWS: For one more year, injuries decimated this team. Other than Rodgers, almost every position has had a major contributor missing for some portion of the season. The Packers have lost multiple running backs, multiple receivers, multiple middle linebackers, their top sack specialist, an offensive lineman, a safety, and cornerback that were all starters at one time or another. While many of these players may be on hand for the playoffs, we can only hope that they will be ready to perform at a high playoff level.
This season the Packers have not looked good against some of the top teams, but they can also point to games against Houston and Chicago where they dominated a top contender. The level of play needs to be ramped up for the playoffs. It is the team that played Houston that we need to see more of and not the team that played the Giants.