The season being on the line has done for the Packers what Mike McCarthy, pie-in-the-sky preseason expectations or two revenge divisional games against Brett Favre could not—motivate them to play with intensity.
Packers put together two good games and climbed to a 6-4 record to place themselves directly in the hunt for a wildcard playoff spot.
The Packers' imitation of "The Mighty Ducks"—coming after a soul-searching team meeting that featured speeches by Aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, Mark Tauscher and, presumably, Emilio Estevez—was exactly what the team needed.
Rodgers' decision making the last two games has been a beat quicker and his awareness in the pocket has improved. In the last eight quarters Rodgers has been sacked six times. An improvement considering Rodgers took six in four quarters against Tampa Bay.
The return of Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson has been a boost to the offense. Against the 49ers Finley was targeted by Rodgers 10 times and had seven catches for 54 yards. Nelson caught all three passes thrown his way, including a seven-yard TD. They are two guys QB Aaron Rodgers clearly loves to go to when the pocket breaks down and he has to scramble away from the pass rush—which is pretty often.
The Packers have also found their ability to get yards after the catch. Jennings' 64-yard TD was a short pass he took to the house. Nelson weaved through three defenders on his seven-yard TD. The Packers, not too long ago, made this happen every week. That it is back suggests good things for the Packers offense.
The best part of the success of the rejuvenated Packers is the running game. Over the last three weeks the Packers are averaging 144 yards on the ground. In the fourth quarter against the 49ers, with 5:56 left, the Packers were able to turn to running backs Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson to eat clock and secure the win.
“The running game stepped up huge,” Greg Jennings said after the game. “Keep the ball out of their hands, just milk the clock and end the game kneeling down. It's the best play in the playbook.”
This is a skill they didn't have in the early part of the season and will be essential if they want to get to the playoffs. It is also especially important now that the defense is question mark for the team.
Packers have lost Al Harris and Aaron Kampman, both Pro Bowl players and influential veterans in the locker room, for the season with knee injuries. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have some difficult decisions, on a short week, to account for the injuries.
Kampman has struggled with the 3-4 scheme and has capable backups in linebackers Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga. The linebacking corps is probably the Packers' deepest position. Jones started for Kampman last week and played well. Poppinga was a starter until Clay Matthews started to flash his talent.
Al Harris will be more difficult to replace. Harris and Tramon Williams have been the primary cover corners on wideouts this season; allowing Charles Woodson to wander around creating confusion and taking away dangerous players like Jason Witten and Vernon Davis. Backup cornerbacks Brandon Underwood and Jarrett Bush came in when Harris went down and Woodson was allowed to remain in that role, but Underwood and Bush are not shut down corners like Harris.
Capers loves playing nickel and dime packages. It will be interesting if the combination of decreased talent at cornerback and increased mobility at outside linebacker will have the Packers in more base packages. It will also be interesting to see if teams try to go with three and four receiver sets to test the Packers young cornerbacks.
Another bad sign Sunday was a 76-yard kickoff return that helped fuel San Francisco's late surge. Special teams have been momentum killers for the Packers all season, seemingly giving up a big play at exactly the moment the Packers should be putting teams away.
These problems are just as much of a concern for the team as they were after the Tampa Bay embarrassment and they will come roaring back if the Lions have some Turkey Day magic.
No one tell them about "The Mighty Ducks."