By: Chris Dagonas
The Green Bay Packers lost their second straight game on Sunday afternoon, this time failing to complete a fourth quarter comeback and falling 37-29 to the still-undefeated (and suddenly best team in the NFC) Carolina Panthers.
That loss follows up a Week 8 loss to the Denver Broncos, and coupled with the resurgence of the Minnesota Vikings, who now sit TIED for the division lead, and suddenly there are some serious questions in Green Bay. Sorry Danny G, but this has to be done.
Those questions start with the quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. On a key play, down 8 points with less than two minutes to go, Rodgers missed a wide-open Randall Cobb, then backpedalled in the face of pressure and threw a duck into the arms of Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis for a game-sealing interception.
While Rodgers’ season stats (64.7 completion percentage, 19 touchdowns, 3 interceptions) appear stellar, the past few weeks have seen a decline in his completion percentage and quarterback rating. The nadir was last week against the Broncos, when Rodgers only managed to tally 77 passing yards on a 63.6 percent completion and 69.7 quarterback rating. This past weekend saw a huge rebound, with Rodgers airing it out for 369 yards, 4 touchdowns to 1 interception, and a 96.6 quarterback rating. That one interception came at a crucial time, and the completion percentage was none too impressive. In fact, Rodgers is on pace for his lowest completion percentage since 2008, his first season as the Packers’ starter.
The receivers for the Packers have suffered through a dismal stretch. Beginning with the loss of Jordy Nelson in the preseason, the Packers receivers have been a big question mark. Veteran free agent James Jones was resigned just before the season began to help support Randall Cobb, and youngsters Ty Montgomery and Davante Adams have been pretty quiet. Tight end Richard Rodgers is respectable, but far from a reliable tight end target. Overall, the receivers and tight ends have been fairly disappointing.
But not as disappointing as third-year running back Eddie Lacy. After two straight seasons of 1,100+ rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, Lacy is on pace for 616 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. Nominal backup James Starks has far outperformed Lacy, and there will be serious questions regarding the Packers running game as the season progresses, especially as Lacy now has turned up with a groin injury. It might not even be crazy to see the Packers draft a running back with an early pick in next year’s draft.
Perhaps a large part of the Packers’ offensive problems stem from the offensive line play. Lacy is not finding much space to run, and Rodgers is getting sacked at the highest clip of his career, so it is not crazy to suggest that there may be something wrong on the offensive line. Featuring a young core at the key positions, left tackle and center, the Packers O-Line may need some retooling after letting their quarterback get sacked 19 times so far this season. By comparison, Rodgers was sacked 28 times all of last season.
At least the defense has been a top-10 unit in the NFC. Giving up an average of just under 21 points per game, the Packers were expected to be able to easily outscore their oppositions. Having struggled to do that, they may have a hard time the rest of the season, particularly against one division rival.
The Minnesota Vikings have quietly crept into a 6-2 record, and a tie for the lead in the NFC North. Built on the strength of an Adrian Peterson running game, a stout defense, and newfound aerial threat in Stefon Diggs, the Vikings might just be the better team of the two. They will have two chances to prove it. Once in Week 11, in Minnesota, and again in Week 17 at Green Bay. Those games could end up proving the difference between a playoff bye or slugging it out on wild card weekend against Atlanta, Arizona or New York.
That brings us to another worry. Carolina is clearly the dominant team in the NFC, while the Vikings, Falcons, and Cardinals are all threats to overtake the Packers, which would knock them down to a 5th seed, and remove all home field advantages of playing in a chilly Lambeau Stadium in January. Move that plodding running attack and ineffective passing game to a dome stadium like Atlanta or Minnesota, or a warm weather climate like Arizona, removes any and all possible advantages for Green Bay.
Of course, it’s not all misery for the Packers. Their schedule eases up considerably, starting this week. They are looking at a possible 4 wins in the next 5 weeks, with two games against the Lions, then the Bears and Cowboys. That would propel them to a 10-3 record, just before a HUGE stretch of games from Weeks 15-17; At the Raiders, at the Cardinals, then hosting the Vikings in Week 17, to clearly determine the playoff picture in the NFC North.
So what’s gone wrong in Green Bay? Well, their passing has had a cold stretch, but nothing from which they can’t recover. Their running game has been dreadful, and unless Lacy finds a rocket booster in his shoes, will continue to lean heavily on James Starks rather than Lacy, the star draft pick of 2013. The defense can hold its own, but has done little to stop high-powered offenses like Carolina and Denver.
The schedule has been tough since the calendar turned to November, but the Packers are built to win, even their tough games. The NFC has provided surprisingly stout opposition, and will continue to do so.
The Packers are not a bad team by any means, but in a half-season when the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, and Panthers, have been damn near perfect, the Packers looking human has them looking like a team outside the elite, until further notice.