The Green Bay Packers extended their winning streak to four games, Sunday night, thanks mostly to a productive running game, stout defense and the right arm of Aaron Rodgers finding second- and third-string receiving targets.
During this unbeaten stretch, the Packers jumped to first place in the NFC North and began taking on the look of a legitimate contender in the NFC. But the scary part for the rest of the division and conference is that this Packers team is likely to get much better down the stretch.
On Sunday night in Minnesota, Green Bay mostly steamrolled the undermanned Vikings, despite the likes of Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Nick Perry missing the contest. It stands to reason that the suddenly rolling Packers will only grow in dangerousness once a handful of difference-makers are re-added to a growing pool of depth.
Against the Vikings, the unshakable Rodgers could be seen throwing to the likes of Jarrett Boykin, Myles White and Andrew Quarless. While much has been made about how Tom Brady has had to make due without a supporting cast of receivers, Rodgers has been robbed of three of his top four pass-catchers in recent weeks.
Yet over the last two games, the Packers quarterback has completed over 75 percent of his passes and thrown five touchdowns against zero interceptions. He's made a temporary star out of Boykin and even White flashed when given an opportunity Sunday night.
A big reason for Rodgers staying so dominant has been a supporting run game that has done most of the heavy lifting.
Running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for 151 rushing yards and two scores against Minnesota. Overall, the Packers ran 42 times for 182 yards—which tied the team's highest rushing total of the 2013 season.
After years of relying so heavily on Rodgers and the passing game, Green Bay now has a complementary run game that can fuel the offense on its own. Missing options such as Cobb, Jones and Finley would have likely crippled past Packers teams, but head coach Mike McCarthy has evolved his offense to lean on Lacy and the run to help take pressure off Rodgers.
McCarthy called 35 passing plays and 36 runs Sunday night, which represents the kind of even ratio that will be expected in coming weeks.
Even a Packers defense that has been stripped of three of its four starting linebackers—including its two best edge pass-rushers—has solidified in recent weeks. The Vikings scored 31 points, but seven came on the opening kickoff and another 14 on garbage-time touchdowns. Minnesota ended the contest with under 250 yards of total offense and a time of possession of just 19:06.
Over their four-game winning streak, the Packers are allowing only 276 yards and 17.5 points per game.
At various points in the near future, Green Bay will start adding key pieces back to the winning puzzle.
Cornerback Casey Hayward was active for the first time this season Sunday night. He intercepted a team-high six passes and proved to be one of the game's better slot cornerbacks during his rookie season. He'll now return to a cornerback group that is blessed with three or four starting-caliber cover players plus a promising rookie in Micah Hyde who has played big snaps in his absence.
While Cobb is on short-term injured reserve and not eligible to return for at least six more weeks, Jones is a good bet to play next week when the Chicago Bears visit Lambeau Field. Without either, Jordy Nelson has embraced the challenge of being a true No. 1 receiver. And when combined with the emergence of Boykin, who has 13 catches and 192 receiving yards over the last two weeks, the Packers receiving core can feel relatively confident in surviving until the versatile Cobb returns.
Will the Green Bay Packers win more than 11 games in 2013?
The Packers defense is also close to getting Matthews, Jones and Perry back. Matthews is probably two weeks away, while Jones and Perry might have a chance to play against the Bears.
In their absence, Green Bay has been able to give important starting reps to young linebackers such as Nate Palmer, Jamari Lattimore and Andy Mulumba. While Dom Capers has needed to get more creative in his blitz calls to create pressure, the Packers defense hasn't taken a step back, despite three starters being robbed from the linebacker group.
In fact, this entire football team has appeared to jell amidst the turmoil and chaos of injuries.
The Packers have responded to losing three of their top pass-catchers by evolving toward a more balanced, conservative approach. A defense missing its best player has suddenly become one of the NFL's stingiest outfits. And Rodgers remains the rope that holds the entire package together.
Winners of four in a row, Green Bay is officially rolling. Any team that can run the football, play defense and pass with Rodgers at the helm can win big, including inside the division and into January.
In the coming weeks, the Packers will reintegrate a number of key members back into the current winning formula. This team's best football is likely still in front of it.