Despite an 8-8-1 record and first-round home playoff loss, the Green Bay Packers aren’t that far away from Super Bowl contention.
The Packers have captured three straight NFC North titles and earned five consecutive playoff berths, and as long as quarterback Aaron Rodgers stays at the peak of his powers it would be a mistake to count this team out.
Naturally there is work to be done. Since winning the Super Bowl in February 2011 the Packers have failed to advance to the NFC title game for three straight seasons, and much of the blame for that can be attributed to their defensive shortcomings.
The Packers fell from No. 11 to No. 25 in overall defense in 2013, while Seattle and San Francisco advanced to Sunday’s conference championship game on the strength of top-five defenses.
The Packers desperately need a playmaking safety and inside linebacker and could use reinforcements on the line and perhaps outside linebacker.
Some of those holes can be filled via the draft, although general manager Ted Thompson’s track record in selecting defensive players in recent years has been shaky.
Thompson would be wise to step outside his comfort zone and supplement his draft picks by signing an unrestricted free agent or two to bolster the defense.
The Packers also could benefit from the development of a few young players from a group that includes cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde, linemen Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy and linebacker Nick Perry.
Clay Matthews is sure to play better in 2014 if he stays healthy, and perhaps Morgan Burnett can rebound from a disappointing season.
Based on overall defensive talent, the Packers don’t match up to the top-ranked Seahawks or No. 5-ranked 49ers.
But then, in order to get back to the Super Bowl, the Packers don’t need a dominating defense, just a respectable one.
That’s because the Packers have the potential to unleash one of the best offenses in the NFL next season and for years to come, spearheaded by Rodgers and running back Eddie Lacy in the prime of their careers.
The Packers lost Rodgers for half a season and receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley for even longer, yet ranked No. 3 in offensive yards and No. 8 in points in 2013.
That’s a testament to coach Mike McCarthy’s skills as an offensive tactician and Lacy’s contributions to a revitalized ground attack.
The Packers’ 4.7-yard average per rush ranked No. 4 overall and better than any of the four teams remaining in the playoffs. Their No. 7 standing in overall rushing yards wasn’t far behind the No. 3 49ers and No. 4 Seahawks.
Giving Rodgers the added weapon of a solid rushing attack in 2014 could spark the offense to unprecedented heights.
After the season McCarthy said the 2013 offense would have been his best ever had Rodgers not broken his collarbone in Week 9. He might as well have sent out a warning to the rest of the league that the Packers’ offense will be a force to be reckoned with next season.
“We run it as good as anybody in the league,” said McCarthy. “We’ve got the best quarterback in football.”
With such a potent 1-2 punch, the Packers should be explosive enough to overcome whatever defensive deficiencies they have.
Neither Denver nor New England, the two AFC title game qualifiers, have stellar defenses. The Broncos rank No. 19 and the Patriots No. 26, which was one slot below the Packers this season.
But the Broncos boast the No. 1 offense behind Peyton Manning, and the Patriots are a top-10 outfit behind Tom Brady, and one of those teams will be heading to the Super Bowl.
It’s a blueprint the Packers could very well follow next season.
— mvandermause@greenbaypress gazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.