Super Bowl contender? Packers don't look part on road
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Green Bay Packers are in the playoffs, that much we know.
Their 20-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday gives them six straight trips, which ties the Mike Holmgren-coached teams from 1993-98 for longest playoff streak in Packers history.
But this team has larger ambitions, as suggested last week when coach Mike McCarthy named his playoff captains even though the Packers hadn't clinched a spot.
"We're proud of making the playoffs for six years in a row," McCarthy said. "But more importantly, this football team has put itself in a great position to accomplish its goal, and that's to win the (NFC North) division and have the bye week (the) first week of the playoffs."
While the Packers are among the four teams with the best Super Bowl chances — Seattle, New England and Denver are the others — you wouldn't necessarily know it by their play the past two weeks. On the road against two of the NFL's most offensively challenged teams, the Packers have come away with a 21-13 loss at Buffalo and their grinding, uneventful victory over the Buccaneers.
After disposing of Tampa Bay, McCarthy and most of his players essentially said that their record and playoff status is all that matters, and they're mostly right. The Arizona Cardinals in 2008 lost two of their last three regular-season games, including a staggering 47-7 loss at New England in their 15th game, yet made it to the Super Bowl. The Packers won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season despite going in as the NFC's lowest-seeded team.
No doubt you can go through each team in contention and find good reasons to question whether it can win it all. And in the Packers' case, two points come to mind: the severity of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' calf injury and the team's struggles on the road, particularly when playing the league's best defensive teams.
Rodgers said he injured his calf on the game's fifth play — he started showing signs of gimpiness after his sixth offensive snap, when he moved around in the pocket and completed a 28-yard pass to Jordy Nelson. And the injury noticeably hindered his play. Although Rodgers generally looked OK dropping back and gathering his feet to throw, he didn't scramble as much as usual, had no rushes and didn't throw as accurately as usual while on the run.
The Packers' training staff put an extra pad in his shoe to lift his heel and take some of the strain off his calf, and Rodgers never had to leave the game because of the injury. But mobility is a huge part of Rodgers' game, and if he's limited in that regard against Detroit, which has maybe the NFL's best front four, the Packers' chances of winning diminish. And if the injury is slow to heal, it could be a similarly big problem in a playoff game against Seattle, which is playing probably the best defense in the league late this season.
"It got really tight about halftime," Rodgers said of his calf. "Came in and got a little treatment and it loosened up a tad but it was still pretty tight, and I had a hard time running. But I was able to move kind of in short segments in the pocket, which was all I needed to do today."
Rodgers' injury if anything makes the Packers' showdown with Detroit for the NFC North Division title even more important, because the winner will be guaranteed a first-round bye. Rodgers obviously could use the extra week to heal.
Just as important, next week's winner is guaranteed a home game in the divisional round of the playoffs. Just a quick look at the Packers' schedule shows how much that means to this team.
At Lambeau Field, the 2014 Packers have been as dominant as anyone in the NFL. Their 7-0 home record includes a point differential of plus-144. Four of their wins were by 21 points or more, and on their home turf they beat probably the best team on their schedule, New England (26-21).
On the road, the Packers are 4-4. Coincidentally, the three best defensive teams they've played have been on the road, and the Packers lost to all three: at Seattle (36-16), which came into this week ranked No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed; at Detroit (19-7), which is ranked No. 1 in points allowed; and at Buffalo (21-13), which is tied for No. 4.
That doesn't bode well for a possible trip to Seattle or Detroit in the playoffs. And even if they don't get the No. 1 seed, the Packers no doubt prefer to get at least one game at home.
"Who doesn't want to play at home?" guard T.J. Lang said. "Especially with the way we've been playing at home. I know (the Lions) would love to have a playoff game at their field, too, so it's going to be a big game. There's a lot at stake here."
And if you're looking for reasons to think the Packers' chances are as good as anyone's, it's their run game with Eddie Lacy and recent play in personnel groups they don't often use.
McCarthy generally has been running his no-huddle offense with three receivers (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams), a tight end (Andrew Quarless or Richard Rodgers) and one running back (usually Lacy but sometimes James Starks).
But in the past couple of weeks, they've probably moved the ball best when they've had fullback John Kuhn in for the tight end, or when they've gone with four receivers and a tight end, and played Cobb at halfback.
"We've really been working on that the last six or eight weeks, making sure we get Eddie a number of touches in the game and then also finding ways to get Randall involved," Rodgers said. "We've had some success with our four-receiver package with (Cobb) kind of being a hybrid guy coming out of the backfield, potentially running the ball.
"So, the (run-pass) balance is there. The greatest jump that we've seen from early in the season is the offensive line play. It's been so consistent. They've been healthy and it's been the same group since Week 3. Because of that, there's a great continuity with those guys and they're blocking their butts off."