Despite not winning a game in the last 29 days, the Green Bay Packers currently find themselves within a half-game of the division lead in the stumbling NFC North.
During a different year, or in a different division, and the 5-5-1 Packers might be thinking about the offseason. But missed opportunity after missed opportunity from the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears—presumed front-runners with Aaron Rodgers stuck on the sidelines—have kept the slumping Packers afloat.
Considering Rodgers is now entering the realistic window in which he could return from his fractured collarbone, it's clear now that the Packers will still be major players in the division's outcome over the final four or five games.
In fact, if Rodgers returns in time for Thursday's Thanksgiving matchup with the Detroit Lions, Green Bay might suddenly become the NFC North favorites.
McCarthy-Had a meeting with Aaron Rodgers, he'd like to play, based on information, I'd say he's slim to none. #Packers— Green Bay Packers (@packers) November 25, 2013
On Monday, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy called Rodgers' chances of playing this week "slim to none." But the team won't officially know until Wednesday, the latest day Rodgers could practice and still play against the Lions. McCarthy indicated that Rodgers is pushing to play.
The Packers are lucky to still be alive in the division race given how the team has fared without their MVP quarterback.
Losing Rodgers on Nov. 4 sparked a four-game slump, in which the Packers fell three straight times and then tied the 2-8 Minnesota Vikings at home on Sunday. His absence has reverberated throughout the roster, as Green Bay is struggling to both score points on offense (averaging 18.0 over the last four games) and stop teams from scoring on defense (allowing almost 27).
In most divisions, a stretch of such wide-spread dysfunction during the middle of a season would be the death blow to any playoff hopes.
Yet the Packers remain alive, but not by their own doing. The Lions, once 6-3 and the new darlings of the division, have lost to the 3-6 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in back-to-back weeks. The Bears have dropped two of their last three games, including Sunday's 42-21 defeat in St. Louis. Both teams are 6-5.
“We’re aware of what went on in the division today,” McCarthy said Sunday, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN. “We’ve had opportunities that we’ve let go in the past, but it’s in the past."
If not for the stumbles of Detroit and Chicago, Rodgers might not have the opportunity he does now—to return to a team right in the thick of a playoff push.
While Matt Flynn put together a gutsy rally that salvaged a tie out of Sunday's overall dreary performance, the Packers need Rodgers back under center as soon as possible to get to the nine or 10 wins that will be necessary to keep the division crown.
If he returns Thursday, it's reasonable to think the Packers could run the table and finish 10-5-1. Green Bay would be guaranteed the NFC North title and a home playoff game in such a scenario.
And in all reality, the Packers would probably be sitting at 9-2—in the driver's seat in the division and competing for home-field advantage in the NFC—had Rodgers not suffered his fractured collarbone against the Bears. All four of the games dropped by Green Bay could have been won with the superlative quarterback play Rodgers brings to the table week-in and week-out.
Keep in mind, the Packers were in the midst of a four-game winning streak when Rodgers went down. He was orchestrating a club lacking Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, Nick Perry and Jermichael Finley, yet Green Bay was playing its best football of the season.
That same brilliance would be enough to make the Packers favorites in any of the five remaining games.
Rodgers remains one of the game's rare "elevators," a player whose presence touches every aspect of a football game in a positive way. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees might be the only other quarterbacks that claim that title in today's game.
Take away key, seemingly irreplaceable players at positions all around him, and Rodgers can still cover enough ills to produce winning football. He simply raises the play of all those at his disposal.
Green Bay is finally well aware of this phenomenon.
|Points/G||Pass Yards/G||Rush Yards/G|
Source: Pro Football Reference
While the Packers have remained competitive on offense without Rodgers, scoring points has become a laborious chore.
The run game has suffered through bouts of inconsistency, as teams have stacked the box to contain rookie running back Eddie Lacy. Without Rodgers and his ability to make any mistake at the back end hurt, defensive coordinators have rightfully become less and less afraid to play heavy fronts.
The Packers have thrown for over 295 yards in three straight games, which would seem to indicate a passing game that hasn't dropped off significantly. However, Green Bay has taken on three teams ranked in the lower half of the NFL against the pass, including the Eagles and Vikings, who are both near the bottom of the league rankings.
With Rodgers under center, the Packers could have and likely would have posted big point totals against the three suspect pass defenses. Instead, Green Bay has scored just 52 total points in the last three weeks. Dealing with pressure and converting on third down have been hurdles the backup quarterbacks can't measure up to Rodgers in.
"You play different football with Aaron Rodgers than you play with the other quarterbacks," McCarthy said.
Does Aaron Rodgers need to return by Thursday for the Packers to win the NFC North?
The fall of the defense is a little trickier to understand.
Green Bay has allowed 26 or more points in all four games minus Rodgers. In three of the games, the Packers gave up 170 or more rushing yards, including 232 to Minnesota and 204 to Chicago. Green Bay was ranked in the top-five against the run before Rodgers' injury.
Did figuring out the Packers front seven simply coincide with Rodgers going down? Or was this a defense that had identifiable flaws that Rodgers covered up so well on the other side?
A few things we do know: The Packers defense is playing more snaps and the offense is holding the football less since Rodgers came off against the Bears on Nov. 4. These factors can add up, especially late in games when the Packers have struggled to get off the field.
It's also certainly possible that a defense playing so well at times during a five-week stretch before the injury simply put too much pressure on itself to play a perfect game for its backup quarterbacks.
While giving up roughly 27 points a game has doomed a team lacking Rodgers, one with him is certainly capable of beating teams even when the defense doesn't play well.
Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett still believes the Packers are Super Bowl-caliber, per Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
"Nobody's feeling like it's over. Everybody's ready to get back to work and get out. We just have to get out of this hole. We can just imagine how it's going to be when we get out of this hole. We're going to talk about this one day — how we came back to win the Super Bowl. That's how we all feel."
That claim seems ludicrous now, with the Packers winless over the last four games and 29 days. A struggling defense doesn't look anywhere near title quality, either.
But with the eventual re-addition of Rodgers, who is now entering his window to return, and other contenders still stumbling, Green Bay is certainly capable of keeping its crown as NFC North champions.
While so many other factors do play in, the last five games need not be any more complicated than this: The Packers are dead in the water without Rodgers, or division favorites with him. The waiting game on his season-defining return continues on.