Math, remaining schedule offer Packers a glimmer of postseason hope
GREEN BAY – The doomsday prognostications feel right. Losers in three of their past four games, the Green Bay Packers are in one of their worst stretches with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. It’s only the second time since 2009 they’ve been under .500 with Rodgers after Thanksgiving. They can’t buy a win on the road, where they are 0-5 this season.
The sky is falling in northeast Wisconsin if you didn’t know.
Except go look at the NFC standings. Entering Thursday (and not counting the three Thanksgiving games), six teams had either four or five losses, the 4-5-1 Packers among them. Only three teams had fewer. Officially, their record placed them ninth in the NFC, but only one game out of the final wild-card spot with six weeks left.
Then go look at the Packers' remaining schedule. It’s littered with teams destined to pick in the top 10 of next spring’s draft. Their six opponents had a combined record of 25-34-1, giving Green Bay the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings, sixth in the NFC, had a combined remaining schedule of 32-25-1, including the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks on the road in consecutive weeks.
So the Packers are positively dead in the water because they can’t win. But they positively have a second life because the math and the schedule set up for the kind of “run-the-table” magic they conjured in 2016.
Which is why, just before leaving CenturyLink Field’s visitors’ locker room last week, outside linebacker Clay Matthews offered this ray of hope.
“It would be one thing if we were getting blown out each and every week,” Matthews said, “but that’s not the case. We’re hanging tough. And I can’t stress enough how that doesn’t mean anything unless you get the wins. I’m not sure what the analytics or statistics are as far as making the playoffs, but we’re going to go back to work because we’re that close.
“Offensively, we can put up points at will. Defensively, we can make plays. We’ve just got to be more consistent and win these type of games, and we just haven’t. So that has to start Sunday night.”
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PACKERS' NEXT OPPONENT: Crucial rematch vs. Vikings
The Packers return from their extended holiday break when they travel to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night. They can probably afford to lose one more game and still crack the playoffs, though it matters when that loss comes. Specifically, considering how head-to-head tiebreakers would affect the wild-card race, they probably need a win this week.
Even an upset win in Minnesota (the Packers opened as 3.5-point underdogs) would leave plenty of work to do. The Packers have a 16 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. But then, when has Rodgers ever abided by probabilities?
There were six games left when the Packers started their “run-the-table” streak to end 2016. With six to go in 2018, here’s the case for why the Packers won’t and will make the playoffs.
Why they won’t
Have you seen them play? Double-digit lead at the Los Angeles Rams, couldn’t hold it. Double-digit lead at Seattle, couldn't hold it. In between, the Packers were driving in the fourth quarter of a tied game at New England when one of their best players, running back Aaron Jones, fumbled to end a possession that might otherwise have finished with go-ahead points.
Not only has this team had a hard time winning, but it also can’t win when given every opportunity.
Good teams are good in situational football. The Packers? They haven’t been. The Packers ranked 19th in the NFL converting 38.4 percent of their third downs, 14th in red-zone efficiency with touchdowns on 59.3 percent of their trips, and their minus-21 net count in penalties was second-worst in the league.
None of that is more important than turnovers. The Packers, usually stellar in turnover margin under coach Mike McCarthy, were tied for 17th with a plus-one turnover count. That’s one behind the moribund New York Giants. Their defense has struggled forcing turnovers all season, tied for 20th with 12 takeaways. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (11) had fumbled more than the Packers (nine).
Rodgers has been good, even very good, but not great. His numbers are stellar: Rodgers is on pace to throw for a career-high 4,916 yards with 30 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 102.2 rating. That’s goofy. But his 61.8 completion percentage is a career low, and his unusual inaccuracy has shown up in big moments, perhaps none bigger than the third-and-2 pass he bounced to a wide-open Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the fourth quarter at Seattle.
You’d be hard pressed to recall a single throw like that when Rodgers propelled the Packers to run the table in 2016. During that six-game win streak, which ran to eight straight wins in the playoffs, Rodgers played as well as ever. Which is to say it was some of the finest quarterback play in the game’s history. This version of Aaron Rodgers, while statistically excellent, has not been at the same level.
Why they will
Isn’t Clay Matthews onto something? Those double-digit leads on the road have to count for something, right? Sure beats the alternative of getting blown off the field.
If the Packers can jump out to a 10-0 lead in Los Angeles, a 14-3 lead in Seattle and be driving for a fourth-quarter lead inside Tom Brady’s house, they ought to be able to win in Minnesota. The Vikings, by the way, haven’t beaten a single team with a winning record this season (unlike the Packers), and they were blown out at home against the Buffalo Bills.
A team that lost to the Rams and Seahawks on the road by a combined five points clearly has talent. This team might be better than the group that ran the table in 2016. Rodgers is Rodgers. Davante Adams is a legitimate No. 1 receiver. David Bakhtiari is a franchise left tackle, anchoring a solid offensive line. Jones, if they’d ever give him the ball more, is a dynamic playmaker in the backfield. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King, if he could stay healthy, are much better than the Packers top two corners in 2016. And Kyler Fackrell, somehow, has turned into a beast.
The one major deficiency for this team was supposed to be the pass rush. The Packers ranked third in the NFL with 34 sacks.
Then there’s the biggest thing the Packers have going for themselves: the math.
Behind the Rams and New Orleans Saints, the entire NFC is jumbled up in mediocrity. The Packers lose the head-to-head tiebreaker against Seattle, but the Seahawks had a harder remaining strength of schedule at 26-34-1, including games against Carolina, Minnesota and Kansas City. The Dallas Cowboys, also ahead of the Packers, had a 29-31 remaining strength of schedule and games against New Orleans and the red-hot Indianapolis Colts. Even the Carolina Panthers, who hold the NFC’s top wild-card spot, could fall off: Their remaining strength of schedule was 33-26-1 with two games against New Orleans.
None of that matters if the Packers don’t win. But winning wouldn’t matter if the Packers were already out of it, which they are not. With six weeks left, they still have a chance.