There used to be a time -- not that long ago, in fact -- when it was silly to worry about the Green Bay Packers' regular-season problems. They usually found a way to overcome injuries, frustrating stretches of ineffective play or a disappointing loss that nobody saw coming. Last year, quarterback Aaron Rodgers even implored his fans to relax when the team was struggling.
Anybody who has been paying attention to the NFC North in recent weeks knows one thing is certain: The Packers are no longer safe bets to cruise into the playoffs and challenge for another Super Bowl bid.
Part of the problem is that Green Bay has fallen into a funk of epic proportions, one that has resulted in four losses in their last five games. The other issue is that the rest of the division no longer stinks. Aside from Carolina, Minnesota has been the most improved team in the NFL, while Chicago and Detroit have both played better football over the last few weeks.
It was literally laughable to think Green Bay would be struggling this winter when the Packers opened the season with six straight wins. Now it's realistic to think they could miss the playoffs if they can't course-correct, especially if they lose this week's suddenly critical Thursday night game at Detroit. As Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said after his team's 17-13 loss to Chicago on Thanksgiving night, "We're not getting it done in the classroom. We gotta demand more as coaches. We gotta make changes. We'll work hard at it. We're not going to overreact to it, but there's a pattern here, in certain areas, and we need to adjust it, or change it, or emphasize whatever we need to do to play better when we line up."
It's really difficult to know where to start when assessing all that is going wrong with Green Bay. It's startling to think the Packers have now lost two straight home games to Detroitand Chicago. It's just as mystifying to see how poorly Green Bay has played when facing more dominant teams in the NFL. Denver beat them 29-10, while a 37-29 final score in the loss to Carolina was deceiving when considering the Packers trailed by 23 in that contest.
The more the Packers play in the second half of this season, the more obvious it becomes that their once-vaunted offense might not have the juice to break them out of this slump. Green Bay currently ranks 23rd in the NFL in total passing yards. Rodgers continues to produce some solid numbers, but his completion percentage (60.5) is the lowest it's been since he became a starter in 2008. Then there are the receivers. The Packers have more drops (23) than any other NFL team since Week 3, according to Pro Football Focus.
Most people suspected Green Bay would miss the presence of star wide receiver Jordy Nelson, largely because of his big-play ability. Nobody could've imagined this offense being as tepid as it's become lately. It's not simply that the other receivers -- specifically, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Davante Adams -- aren't getting the job done. Running back Eddie Lacy also wasn't having much of an impact before gaining 100 yards in each of his last two games. Oh yeah, he's also fumbled in four of his last five contests.
There was plenty of jubilation when the Packers beat Minnesota in an NFC North showdown two weeks ago, but this is also a team that has scored all of 29 points in its last two home games.
"I'm obviously going to have to make sure my preparation is as high as it's ever been because we gotta get on the same page in the passing game," said Rodgers, who's completed more than 52 percent of his passes in only one of his last four games. "The running game has been better the last couple of weeks -- obviously Eddie being healthy lately has helped. We're just ... on different pages. When you miss throws, when I'm throwing at a certain depth, when the receiver is running at a certain depth, obviously we're on different pages, so we need to have some better communication."
The Packers need to find answers quickly because they don't have the same advantages of previous seasons. At 7-4, they already sit one game behind the Vikings (8-3) in the NFC North standings. There's also no guarantee that they'll win in Detroit, especially since the Lions earned their first road victory over the Pack in 24 years just last month. If Green Bay keeps falling -- and the Bears and Lions keep surging -- it's quite conceivable that the Packers could be fighting for a wild-card spot that won't be easy to grab.
Green Bay still has to travel to Oaklandand Arizona later this month before hosting the Vikings in the season finale. The Packers might be able to ride their running game and an improving defense through that stretch. They'd be better served if they found quick fixes to everything else that is ailing this team. Said McCarthy: "There's no big 'something's broke' here. We gotta do a better job on the little things."
McCarthy might feel comfortable taking that approach because he's been through so much during his 10-year tenure as the Packers' head coach. After all, he led this team to a Super Bowl victory during the 2010 season after 16 players landed on injured reserve. That Packers squad also was 7-4 at one point and didn't even qualify for the final wild-card spot until they won their season finale against Chicago. Green Bay ultimately went on one of the greatest runs in Super Bowl history.
To be blunt, the odds of that happening again don't look good at all. This year's Packers defense isn't nearly as strong as that unit was, and Rodgers was playing at a much higher level, largely because his supporting cast was better. The problems ailing Green Bay today are also far more complex. This isn't simply a matter of the Packers getting back to playing their game.
The division they play in is suddenly stronger. The NFC has more teams competing for playoff spots. In other words, we've long since passed the days when we could sit back and wait for Green Bay to hit that second gear. What we have to question now, at least based on what we've seen lately, is whether we've already seen the best the Packers have to offer for this season.