The Green Bay Packers snuck into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. Now that they're in, they pose a serious threat to any team they face. Thanks to a dynamic running back duo, a deadly receiving corps and the return of Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are a dark horse candidate in the NFL playoffs.
Rodgers is the main factor on offense, but don't forget about what carried Green Bay during his absence—the running game.
The prowess of the Packers' running backs was superbly showcased against the Chicago Bears in Week 17. The combination of Eddie Lacy and James Starks worked perfectly, as Starks piled up 88 yards on only 11 carries. Lacy, despite a down performance, found the end zone for the fourth straight game, and the ninth time in the last 11 games.
Lacy has been red hot as of late. Even with his lackluster performance in Week 17 (21 carries, 66 yards), he has 291 rushing yards in his last three games with a 5.1 yard per carry average.
Starks has been the perfect complement to Lacy at running back as well. Despite playing the backup role, Starks averaged a remarkable 5.5 YPC this season. He's averaged 6.6 YPC or more on five separate occasions.
With the solid play of their running backs in the last couple of games, the Packers have far more than a one dimensional offense.
The success of that other dimension, the passing game, is made possible by the Packers' talented receiving corps.
Nelson is the undeniable leader of the receivers. He ranked 10th in the NFL in receiving yards in 2013, and his biggest game came in Week 17 (10 catches for 161 yards—both season highs).
Cobb, meanwhile, returned in Week 17 without having played since Oct. 13. He had only two catches, but both of them went for touchdowns, including the game-winning 48-yarder.
Rodgers, however, is of course, the primary reason the Packers have a shot at advancing deep in the playoffs. Arguably the best quarterback in the NFL over the past five years, Rodgers looked a bit off in his return in Week 17, as expected.
Now that he has been able to shake off the rust, the rest of the NFL should watch out. Rodgers had a passer rating above 100 in five of his eight starts this year, not including the game in which he broke his collarbone. One of those five games came against the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers' first-round matchup.
In fact, the Packers have a more-than-decent shot at beating the Niners on Sunday. Most importantly, the game is at Lambeau Field, which gives the Packers a distinct advantage. This is especially helpful for them because many of the Niners players have little experience playing in cold weather.
As Ann Killion of SF Gate notes, the Niners' only road postseason games during the past two seasons have taken place in domed stadiums. They also haven't played a game in below-freezing weather during that span. That should play in the Packers' favor in a big way.
How far can the Packers go in the playoffs?
Granted, the absence of Clay Matthews in Sunday's matchup against the 49ers is a tough loss. That will make containing Colin Kaepernick that much more difficult.
One of the real tests will be limiting Frank Gore. The 49ers running back has compiled only 428 yards in his last seven games, averaging 3.75 yards per carry during that span. He is also coming off his worst performance this season, with 14 yards on 13 carries.
While that poor performance came against the NFL's top-ranked rush defense of the Arizona Cardinals, the Packers at least have a shot at stopping Gore, who has inarguably struggled as of late.
If the Packers can sneak past the Niners, they have an excellent shot at going far in the playoffs. Their dynamic offense gives them a shot against anyone.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.