The sky is not falling in Wisconsin, despite the 1-2 Green Bay Packers' current standing at third in the NFC North. The Packers trail the 3-1 Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears in a division that looks wide open after a surprise win by the Lions over the Bears on Sunday.
Green Bay's early Week 4 bye, which at the start of the season looked to be a momentum-killer, is now a welcome opportunity to step back, refocus and zero in on how the Packers can remain a contender in one of the NFC's toughest divisions.
Starting the season 1-2 is not in and of itself cause for concern.
Two of Green Bay's first three games of the season were against teams that won their divisions last season. The Packers lost two of their first three games in 2012 and went on to win the division at 11-5. Of Green Bay's 13 remaining games in 2013, including two against the 1-3 Minnesota Vikings and one each against the winless Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, at least nine should be winnable. However, the Bears have their share of shoo-in matchups yet to come, including the Vikings, St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.
The Packers will need to win division games to secure their spot in the playoffs—and despite a shaky start, some promising trends prove that's a distinct possibility.
Running the Ball
Until Week 2 against the Washington Redskins, the Packers had not had a 100-yard rusher since Week 5 of the 2010-11 season (Brandon Jackson, also against the Redskins). They have now done it two consecutive weeks, with two different backs: James Starks with 132 yards against the Redskins and Johnathan Franklin with 103 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Head coach Mike McCarthy is clearly trying to transition Green Bay from being heavily dependent on Aaron Rodgers' arm to a balanced offense, and the results have been successful, but not without awkwardness. Against the Redskins, the Green Bay run game forced Washington to adjust from the two-high safety formation that so often limits Rodgers' downfield game in order to contain Starks. Rodgers threw for 480 yards, an incredible 283 of them after the catch.
Against the Bengals, however, we saw that the run alone can't guarantee wins.
Franklin's 103 yards would have been enough to keep any other defense honest, but the Bengals' front four is so effective they were able to put seven players into pass coverage and keep Rodgers' head on a swivel, searching for receivers who could not get open. Add Franklin's inexperienced hands, which contributed to a game-ending fumble while the Packers were driving, and we learn that Green Bay is not yet at the point where it can rely on its ground game to march down the field.
Which team will win the NFC North?
The most effective way the Packers can use the run is to overwork opponents' defensive lines and occupy their safeties with containing the backfield—which will be more convincing when Eddie Lacy and Starks recover from their injuries (concussion and knee, respectively).
It's no secret that Rodgers is the key to Green Bay's offense. His accuracy and ability to keep plays alive are the single biggest reasons the Packers have appeared in the postseason four years in a row. As of Sunday, Rodgers was eighth in completion percentage (66.4 percent), third in total yards (1,057) and fourth in yards per attempt (8.66). Only two other quarterbacks have better touchdown-to-interception ratios: Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.
Admittedly, eight touchdowns and three interceptions is unusual for Rodgers, who ended the 2012 season with 39 touchdown passes, compared to just eight picks. However, with Rodgers' reluctance to ever give up on a play and just take a sack (of which he certainly takes enough already), it's surprising he doesn't throw more picks.
Always scanning his options downfield is what allows Rodgers to have almost nine yards per attempt and the Packers to be third in the league in both total yards (454.7) and passing yards (326.7), according to NFL.com's stats.
Being able to put more points on the board than your opponent—whether it's 30 or three—is ultimately the only thing that matters in winning games, and Green Bay's second-ranked 32.0 points per game is one of its biggest strengths in contending for the NFC North title.
League's Top Receiving Corps
Some people will point to the fact that the Packers have three receivers (Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones) with over 200 yards and three (Cobb, Nelson and Jermichael Finley) with two or more touchdowns as evidence that Rodgers elevates the play of everyone around him. Others will point to the fact that ex-Packers backup Matt Flynn, in Week 17 of the 2011-12 season, was able to set franchise records of 480 passing yards and six touchdowns as proof that you can plug anyone into Green Bay's offensive scheme and he will thrive.
Hopefully it's clear by now that the latter is ridiculous, but one thing is for sure: Regardless of who is throwing to them, Green Bay's core four receivers are the most productive tandem in the league.
And the team's 283 yards after catch (YAC) against the Redskins is the most by any team since 2008, according to ESPN. Green Bay receivers are averaging 13.0 yards per reception. The Packers are the only team in the league with two true receivers who have over 100 YAC (excluding running backs).
Of course, the shock waves that Finley's concussion and removal from the game against the Bengals in Week 3 sent through the Packers offense were worrisome. For Green Bay's receiving corps to be effective, it needs to have all the parts in place.
Within the division, the Bears and Vikings have underperformed their opponents in passing yards per game and first downs, while the Lions trail foes in rushing yards per game. The Packers have cumulatively exceeded opponents in passing yards per game, rushing yards per game and points per game, despite their strength of schedule.
Now they need to convert that statistical success into wins.
The Packers play their first division opponent, the Lions, in Week 5. Expect their reinvigorated run game to lend balance to Rodgers' downfield attack in Week 5 and beyond, while the secondary should benefit from the return of Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward by midseason.