Packers limp toward early playoff exit

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) takes a hit during a scramble on a tackle by Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers are straggling to the finish line.

Sixteen games into the 2015 season, they’re still looking for some offense, any offense, and an identity. This week it was a ball-control run game that they’ll probably have to play to have any chance to win in the playoffs, though it didn’t work Sunday night in their 20-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings with the NFC North Division title on the line.

So a week after their blowout loss at Arizona last weekend, there remains little reason to think the Packers are going to have much of a postseason.

And let’s forget all this nonsense that the Packers are better off playing at Washington in the wild-card round, with the possibility of going to Carolina rather than Arizona if they advance. This team hasn’t played well enough over the last three months to predict it will beat 9-7 Washington on the road, and if the Packers win Sunday, does it really matter whether they’re at Carolina or Arizona for the divisional round?

We’ve seen seasons like this before in the Packers’ relatively recent past. In 2002 the Brett Favre-led Packers were 12-4 but by the playoffs were a shell of the team that was 7-1 at midseason with both starting tackles out and halfback Ahman Green running on fumes because of a knee injury. If you’ll remember, the Michael Vick-led Atlanta Falcons came to Lambeau in the wild-card round that year and handed the Packers their first home playoff loss ever, 27-7.

Packers sorely need left tackle solidified

These Packers, likewise, are a shell of the team that started 6-0, but it isn’t because of players they’ve lost since then. They haven’t been as wiped out by season-ending injuries like the ’02 Packers and should be healthier next week than they were Sunday playing without left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Sam Shields.

Coach Mike McCarthy appeared to take extra caution by sitting Bakhtiari a second straight game because of an ankle injury, but Bakhtiari’s pregame workout on the field suggested he’ll be back for Washington. Shields progressed in the concussion protocol this week also, so you have to think he has a decent chance of playing Sunday after missing the last three games.

If only that were this team’s biggest problem. No, the question is whether the Packers can overcome the preseason loss of Jordy Nelson that hasn’t just degraded their offense this season but nearly shut it down. Nothing we saw Sunday suggests they can.

McCarthy desperately is trying to change the team’s identity here at season’s end to give it some kind of chance in the playoffs. But the effort to turn this offense, which had been a thoroughbred from 2009 through last season, into a half-court, grind-it-out running team yielded no results.

It really was an unlikely sight Sunday night: A team whose tight end play has been poor enough to question whether it should have even one on the field played much of the first three quarters of this game with two.

The Packers put up only 181 yards in the first three quarters, before they had to throw the ball in effort to come back from a 20-3 deficit. They rushed for only 76 yards, with Eddie Lacy (13 for 34) and James Starks (8 for 24) combining for only 58 yards on 21 carries. That’s not a ball-control running game.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (80.8 rating) still looks like a different player than the one who won last year’s MVP, and his receiving corps still has almost no dynamic element.

“You’re 16 games in, so you kind of are who you are,” Rodgers said at one point in his postgame press conference.

Third downs short-circuit Packers' offense

Rodgers actually sounded like he wants to go the other way, open things up and take more shots downfield. But at this point, there’s little reason that will work any better.

Minnesota, like almost every Packers opponent the past three months, played most of this game with a single-high safety and absolutely dared the Packers to beat them deep. It was staggering to see Vikings coach Mike Zimmer go single high even on a second-and-20 in the third quarter. He obviously didn’t fear the Packers’ receivers at all.

“We start being aggressive and throwing the ball downfield and good things happen,” Rodgers said.

As it is, this offense has shown only glimpses of life — going back to their bye in late October, they’ve had two promising offensive showings (at Minnesota and home against Dallas) and eight mediocre to bad.

So that’s probably who the 2015 Packers are. And that’s why several Vikings players were shaking  hands with fans surrounding their tunnel as they savored their NFC North Division title that the win provided. Later, 10 players or so returned to the nearly empty Lambeau wearing division-title t-shirts and hats, and posing for photographers and selfies.

The Packers would have been mortified to see that scene on their turf after relinquishing the division title for the first time since 2010, but they were back in their locker room by that point.

So the division-champion Vikings get to host Seattle for a playoff game next weekend. They hit the playoffs on a high, with a tough defense and the NFL’s best running back. The Packers in the meantime could only say what too often has been a postgame theme the second half of this season: time to move on and hope past success somehow shows up in the playoffs.

“We know how to win, we know what it takes to win, and we have a clear understanding of the things you can’t do to win,” McCarthy said. “As we complete our regular season we gear up to turn the page and get ready for Washington.”

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