Their pervasive injuries are not the greatest obstacle standing in the way of the Green Bay Packers and the postseason.
It's the mistakes they make in the final 15 minutes of their games.
And while injuries (namely at the quarterback position) have had an effect on that area of Green Bay's game, as they have all others, poor fourth-quarter performance has hindered the Packers since Week 1, when they were at their healthiest.
"It's gone on all year," Mike McCarthy said, via Packers.com's Mike Spofford. "I'm obviously frustrated with it."
A combination of factors has lost games for the Packers at the wire, on both offense and defense. It's not just about how many points Green Bay fails to put on the board or prevents opponents from scoring. Failure to control the clock, penalties and coaching decisions factor in as well.
The below table shows how many games the Packers let get away from them, from their score at the end of the third to the end of the fourth.
|Packers Fourth-Quarter Performance in 2013|
|Week||Win/Loss||End of 3rd Quarter Score||Final Score|
|Week 1 @ San Francisco||L||GB 21, SF 21||GB 28, SF 34|
|Week 2 vs. Washington||W||GB 38, WAS 7||GB 38, WAS 20|
|Week 3 @ Cincinnati||L||GB 30, CIN 21||GB 30, CIN 34|
|Week 5 vs. Detroit||W||GB 16, DET 3||GB 22, DET 9|
|Week 6 @ Baltimore||W||GB 16, BAL 3||GB 19, BAL 17|
|Week 7 vs. Cleveland||W||GB 17, CLE 6||GB 31, CLE 13|
|Week 8 @ Minnesota||W||GB 31, MIN 17||GB 44, MIN 31|
|Week 9 vs. Chicago||L||GB 20, CHI 24||GB 20, CHI 27|
|Week 10 vs. Philadelphia||L||GB 10, PHI 27||GB 13, PHI 27|
Who shoulders the blame? How can the problem be fixed heading into the make-or-break stretch of the season? And can it be fixed, especially without Aaron Rodgers at the helm?
Fourth Quarter Offensive Failures
On three occasions (two of which occurred with Rodgers at the helm), the Packers have scored zero points in the fourth quarter: Week 2 vs. Washington, Week 3 vs. Cincinnati and Week 9 vs. Chicago. Two of those games resulted in a loss.
In two other instances (Week 6 vs. Baltimore and Week 10 vs. Philadelphia), Green Bay only managed to kick a field goal in the fourth quarter.
The Packers certainly aren't looking to give back those wins against Washington and Baltimore, but they need to be able to finish out games, period.
Against the Bengals, Green Bay put its final points on the board with 5:36 left to go in the third. While allowing Cincinnati to score 13 points in the final quarter constitutes a defensive failure, as will be discussed further below, Green Bay had numerous chances to score on which it couldn't capitalize.
Especially egregious is that the Packers had 11 first downs in the fourth quarter, which constituted 41 percent of their total first downs in the game, and they controlled the ball for 10 minutes and 53 seconds, but had nothing to show for it.
Two costly offensive errors essentially gave the game away. The first was a Rodgers pass intended for Randall Cobb that was intercepted by Bengals cornerback Leon Hall early in the fourth quarter.
Though in his postgame press conference Rodgers said he "felt good about the ball" on that play, but "Leon made a good play," that ball never should have been thrown.
Cobb ran a wheel route down the right sideline, but his big error was being lazy out of the gate. Operating out of the slot, Cobb was slow in his cross, and then put on a burst of speed down the sideline. When Hall saw that, it was a dead giveaway that the ball was coming his way, and he was easily able to get a step on Cobb.
And if Rodgers wants to make that throw, which can be successful given the single coverage, he needs to put it on Cobb's back shoulder, as opposed to out in front of him.
Perhaps Jordy Nelson is able to make that catch, but for a wheel route to be successful, the receiver has to be running at full speed, or he'll often get beat by the corner.
The Bengals' win probability percentage, at just 2.6 percent at the start of the fourth quarter, jumped to six percent after the interception.
The second costly offensive mistake in the fourth quarter, with the Packers leading 30-27, was Johnathan Franklin's fumble on 4th-and-1 at the Cincinnati 30-yard line, which in effect sealed the loss.
When Franklin dives over the middle, he does not secure the ball, instead tucking it loosely into the crook of his right arm. Michael Johnson knocks it out easily.
It was a blemish on an otherwise breakout performance for the rookie running back, who had 103 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown.
After that fumble, the Bengals' win probability percentage spiked from 10.2 percent to 78.7 percent.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around in Sunday's game versus the Eagles, the Packers' chances of winning were nearly nonexistent, at 1.6 percent, and they played like it. However, now that Scott Tolzien will have had a full week of first-team practice reps and will be executing a game plan designed for him, he should be better prepared to play well when it counts in Week 11 versus the Giants.
Tolzien went 3-for-7 for 34 yards in the fourth quarter, while Lacy was only able to add five yards on the ground. However, the real culprit there was Green Bay's defense. It couldn't get off the field, leaving the offense only four minutes and seven seconds at the start of the quarter to get anything going.
By and large, the defense has been the bigger culprit in fourth-quarter play.
Fourth Quarter Defensive Failures
Of the 212 total points the Packers defense has allowed this year, 83 have come in the fourth quarter, or about 40 percent.
That means that the Packers, who are only scoring an average of 5.1 points per game in the fourth quarter, are allowing an average of 9.2. Statistically, they would be unable to win a game if tied at the end of the third quarter.
Perhaps the most alarming fact: the defense has given up 13-plus points in the fourth quarter in five separate games.
That's not a blueprint for success.
|Packers Fourth Quarter Points Scored vs. Points Allowed in 2013|
|Total Points Scored||4th Quarter Points Scored||Percent||Total Points Allowed||4th Quarter Points Allowed||Percent|
Though the numbers would seem to suggest that the defense has stepped up in the last two games, only allowing a total of three points combined, anyone who has watched those ugly games knows that's not the case.
The Bears were only leading by four points heading into the fourth, but their failure to put up anything more than a field goal in the final 15 minutes was more the fault of their offense, rather than a credit to the Packers defense.
Chicago controlled the ball for a whopping 10 minutes and 41 seconds in the fourth; Green Bay's defense simply couldn't get off the field. And you had better believe the Bears felt comfortable enough with their four-point lead to only average 4.2 yards per play on both their drives combined, knowing the Packers couldn't score if their defense couldn't give them the opportunity.
In fact, though scoring defense constitutes a huge part of Green Bay's fourth-quarter shortcomings, time of possession can't be overlooked. The below table demonstrates how much the defense letting the clock get away from them has factored into the Packers' four losses this season.
|Fourth-Quarter Time of Possession in Losses|
|Week||GB 4th Quarter ToP||Opponent 4th Quarter ToP|
|Week 1 @ San Francisco||5:01||9:59|
|Week 3 @ Cincinnati||10:53||4:07|
|Week 9 vs. Chicago||4:19||10:41|
|Week 10 vs. Philadelphia||4:07||10:53|
The Bengals game, as shown above, was less a defensive failure and more the fault of the two offensive turnovers. On those two plays, the Bengals only needed two minutes and 51 seconds to score 14 points.
One of the most glaring issues in the defense's fourth-quarter performance has been the inability to tackle.
As defensive coordinator Dom Capers told Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "if you've got legitimate shots to get a guy on the ground, you've got to get him on the ground. And we haven't done it."
Both the secondary and the front seven struggled to contain the Eagles in their final drive of the game on Sunday, which dragged on for nine minutes and 32 seconds. They didn't give up any huge gains, allowing an average of 4.7 yards per play, but it didn't matter—Philadelphia got seven first downs simply by being efficient.
"You let them line up again, get three or four more shots, that's a lot of time off the clock," Capers told Hodkiewicz.
Take the below play, with 6:24 remaining in the fourth on 3rd-and-7. Nick Foles, under pressure from Mike Daniels, dumps a short pass over the middle to James Casey, who catches it two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The pass rush was executed perfectly on this play. Daniels easily beats center Jason Kelce to Foles and puts the Packers in position to make it only a one-yard gain.
Brad Jones, five yards upfield from Casey, first makes contact with him at the 23-yard line. A stop there would have made it 4th-and-6, essentially guaranteeing a punt and another Green Bay opportunity at a score.
However, Jones misses the tackle, and Casey gains eight yards and a first down on the play. It takes the dual effort of Clay Matthews from behind and M.D. Jennings from the front to bring him down. Jones can only watch from the ground.
While injuries have played a role in the issues on defense, Green Bay allowed San Francisco to score 13 points in the fourth quarter in Week 1, after holding them to just seven points in each of the first three quarters. The issue has persisted not only since the beginning of this season, but factored into some fourth-quarter losses last season, as well.
What exactly is the problem?
The Packers have allowed 78 points in the first halves of their nine games, as compared to 134 in the second halves. The defense certainly starts out strong, but ends sloppily. Are they fatigued? It's a vicious cycle: the longer the defense is on the field, the more worn out it will be, but the more worn out it gets, the longer it will be on the field.
Though both McCarthy and Capers have stressed that the issue is being addressed, Green Bay doesn't seem to be doing any personnel shuffling—either on the field or in the front office, as many fans have become restless about the fact that Capers continues to have a job in Green Bay.
It appears Tramon Williams and Sam Shields will continue to start on the outside in the base package, with Micah Hyde and Davon House sharing reps in the nickel. Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings will likely continue to start at safety.
Are those the right configurations? Backup Chris Banjo is currently the Packers' best-ranked safety by far, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He has allowed a team-low 39.6 quarterback rating for passes thrown into his coverage. However, he's played the fourth-fewest snaps, at 144.
Meanwhile, starter Shields is the team's worst-ranked corner, with a Pro Football Focus grade of minus-2.0, allowing a team-high 165 yards after the catch. Should Capers give Hyde or House an opportunity to play opposite Williams in the base?
They have to make some adjustments. As McCarthy said, via Spofford, "we're not playing our best football when it counts."
If the Packers don't make some huge mid-season strides, they could effectively remove themselves from the playoff race before Rodgers returns.