GREEN BAY - In the midst of a depressed visiting locker room in Atlanta, hardened vet Julius Peppers encapsulated where the Green Bay Packers stand nearing the season’s midway point.
Peppers has seen almost everything in 15 years of professional football. He has been to a Super Bowl. He has missed the playoffs. His emotional needle doesn’t easily budge.
For some, the Packers' 33-32 loss Sunday could have been traumatic. Given 75 yards of real estate to keep the Falcons out of the end zone inside the final four minutes, the defense caved. Around Peppers, teammates sunk into folding chairs in front of their lockers, replaying the final moments in their minds.
Peppers tied his shoelace, stood from his seat and, with his bag already packed, was asked whether the Packers — the defense, specifically — took a step back.
“I don’t think so,” he said dismissively. “We don’t take no steps back. Obviously, it’s disappointing, but it’s one game in the big scheme of things. So we’re going to come back, we’re going to get to work, and we’re going to bounce back, like we always do.”
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In the big scheme of things, the Packers more or less held serve through the season’s first two months, especially considering how injuries decimated parts of their roster.
That isn’t an easy conclusion to make. Not after a season that started eight weeks ago with legitimate hopes for the NFC’s top overall seed – an ideal path to Super Bowl LI – led to a 4-3 record.
It also won’t be a lasting conclusion if the Packers don’t start stockpiling wins.
Injuries or not, wins and losses are all that matter. The Packers are one of four NFC teams at 4-3. Three teams in the conference have won more games.
“We’re definitely not where we want to be,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “And if you ask any 4-3 team, I’m sure they’ll say the same thing. We’ve just got to get on this film, correct it and get better.”
Before they can get better, the Packers might need to get healthier.
At a season’s onset, there is no way of knowing how injuries might complicate things. Clearly, the Packers’ weekly medical reports prevented them from settling into a groove. It’s a minor miracle they’ve patched things together as well as they have.
What’s left is a choppy, up-and-down team just trying to survive rough waters. The Packers have not met their loftiest of expectations. Things also could be much worse.
“You could view it that way,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “I just stick to the grind of the path that we’re on. This is a fun football team to coach. They have great energy, they’ve got a great attitude, their work ethic is exceptional. But, frankly, we have a lot of work to do.
“You can see it in practice. We’re not as clean in certain areas that we need to be, it’s not a lack of effort, it’s not a lack of detail, it just kind of is where we are. And whether it’s a combination of injuries, youth, that’s kind of where we are.”
For the most part, the Packers beat teams they’re supposed to beat. Their three losses have come against teams with a 16-5 combined record, including a pair of road losses by a total of four points. Their four wins have come against teams with a combined 11-18 record.
Their final nine opponents this season have a combined record of 34-31-1.
To take a big-picture view is to realize that Sunday's game was a big opportunity lost. Here, finally, was a chance to break serve.
The schedule must be considered when evaluating an NFL team. With a win Sunday, the Packers would have improved to 5-2, but they were staring at a potential 7-2 start to the season. In the next two weeks, the Packers will be clear favorites at home against the Indianapolis Colts and on the road against the Tennessee Titans, opponents who hail from the league’s worst division.
The AFC South is simply deplorable.
Now, at best, the Packers will have a 6-3 record in their first nine games. If Sunday was a chance for a season-defining win, their next tipping point comes in late November. Assuming no surprises against the AFC South, consecutive road trips to NFC East opponents (Washington on Nov. 20, Philadelphia on Nov. 28) become a critical two-game swing.
Win both, and the Packers align themselves for a strong playoff push through December. Lose both, and it could have a devastating effect on their season. To win one and lose another once again would be holding serve.
That’s what the Packers did Sunday in Atlanta. Given a chance to break from their pattern, the Packers lost a game that injuries excused them to lose. For now, it’s not enough to sink their season.
At some point later this fall, that could change.
“It’s tough any time you lose,” Peppers said. “But we ain’t going to make no excuses about it. Ain’t no explanations need to be made. We’ve got to do better, and we’ve got to get the win when we have it in our hands like this.”
NFC playoff picture
East: Cowboys (6-1)
North: Vikings (5-2)
West: Seahawks (4-2-1)
South: Falcons (5-3)