The Green Bay Packers aren’t getting the kind of reverential treatment you might expect for a team with a 14-1 record.
They are the defending Super Bowl champions and have owned the best record in the NFL since the start of the season.
Yet the doubters won’t go away.
ESPN analyst Merril Hoge this week ranked the Packers as the third-best team in the NFC, behind New Orleans and San Francisco.
The Packers’ seven Pro Bowl selections was only tied for the third-highest total in the NFL behind New England and San Francisco.
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is generally considered the front-runner for coach of the year honors, pushing Packers coach Mike McCarthy into the shadows.
Aaron Rodgers has produced arguably the best single-season quarterback performance in league history, yet the Saints’ Drew Brees is receiving at least some consideration for MVP honors. This despite Rodgers having more touchdown passes, fewer interceptions, more victories and the upper hand in the Week 1 head-to-head meeting.
If the perceived lack of respect is bothering the Packers, they weren’t letting on Wednesday in the locker room. In fact, they seem to welcome it and will use it as motivation.
“You just take it and run with it,” said tight end Jermichael Finley. “The only way you can prove them wrong is to go and play on that grass and getting W's on the board.”
The Packers relished the underdog role last year heading into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed and rode it all the way to a Super Bowl title. They would love to fly under the radar as an at least 14-victory team this time around.
Make no mistake, the Packers will be favored in any home playoff game. But many believe they are vulnerable, and the blame for that is directed at the defense.
“Our defense hasn’t been the best this year, that’s just honest,” said defensive lineman Ryan Pickett. “We’re giving up way too many yards, too many points. We’re giving them reason to say stuff like that. We got to tighten up on defense. We’re not playing Packer style defense right now.
“We got a lot to prove as a defense.”
The Packers have been repeatedly burned by big plays, but in the process too much focus has been placed on yardage totals and other meaningless stats. It has led to irrational claims by fans and media alike.
Hoge, for example, sounded hysterical following the Packers’ 35-21 victory over the Bears on Sunday.
“Their defense got gashed, got hammered against a third-string quarterback and third-string running back but up front, I mean just getting manhandled,” Hoge said.
Yes, the Packers without Pickett allowed an unsightly 199 rushing yards, but so what? The Packers led 35-10 early in the fourth quarter and to that point held the Bears to just 286 total yards. It was only during garbage time that Chicago accumulated 155 additional yards and sent Hoge and others into a tizzy.
The Packers defense has enough flaws to keep worry-warts up at night. While the Packers won’t win playoff games on the strength of a dominating defense, the ability to consistently force turnovers and keep opponents out of the end zone cannot be discounted.
“Had (the Bears) not turned that ball over, it’s a different scenario,” proclaimed Hoge, who along with his band of skeptics simply don’t get it.
Turnovers don’t happen by accident against the Packers defense. It ranks No. 31 in the NFL in passing yards allowed but No. 1 in interceptions by a wide margin and No. 8 in passer rating. It ranks second-worst in total yards but No. 12 in points allowed.
Give the Packers’ explosive offense all the credit it deserves, but remember that no team with a bad defense could go 14-1.
If the skeptics want to sell this team short because of the defense, the Packers are fine with that.
“The only thing we worry about is the Packers,” said safety Morgan Burnett. “We don’t worry about what anybody (else) has to say.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.