The Green Bay Packers’ chances of making the playoffs this season are only 16.6 percent, according to a website that has developed a computer algorithm to calculate such things.
Then again, Charley Casserly, the former Washington general manager, predicted this week on the NFL Network that though the Packers are two games back in the NFC North race, they’ll win it by beating Detroit in a winner-take-all season finale.
And me? I’d put the odds at the Packers’ getting into the playoffs at maybe 1-in-4. Not that it matters what any of us thinks. This will be decided on the field.
Regardless, the Packers’ 27-13 win at Philadelphia on Monday night certainly gives them life.
It gave them a big boost psychologically because it ended a four-game losing streak that included two embarrassing losses by 18 points or more.
It gave them a big boost practically because it kept them within two games of the Lions in the division, knowing they play Detroit one more time.
And it gave them reason to think they can go on a winning binge, because the player who will have to carry them, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, had probably his best game of the season while conducting an offense that for the first time in several weeks committed fully to the short passing game.
So let’s take a closer look at the Packers’ playoff prospects. We’ll start with the assumptions that they have to win the division to get into the playoffs; that it will take nine wins to do that; and that the wins will have to include sweeping their remaining three division games.
First, here’s the remaining schedule for the Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Packers, with team records in parenthesis:
Detroit (7-4): at New Orleans (5-6), Chicago (2-9), at New York Giants (8-3), at Dallas (10-1) and Green Bay (5-6).
Minnesota (6-5): Dallas (10-1), at Jacksonville (2-9), Indianapolis (5-6), at Green Bay (5-6) and Chicago (2-9).
Green Bay (5-6): Houston (6-5), Seattle (7-3-1), at Chicago (2-9), Minnesota (6-5), at Detroit (7-4).
The Lions have the toughest remaining schedule because three games are on the road, and two of those are at the two teams with the best records in the NFC: the Giants and Cowboys.
The Vikings have the easiest schedule, empirically and by record. One of their two road games is 2-9 Jacksonville, and Dallas is their only remaining opponent at .500 or better.
For what it’s worth, the Lions’ remaining opponents have a .545 winning percentage, whereas the Packers’ are .518, and the Vikings’ are .446.
As for the Packers’ prospects, let’s start by saying it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict all these games. Things often don’t go the way you’d expect. Outlooks change week to week, so who knows how things will shape up even two weeks from now? Overall parity in the NFL is very real.
Perspective in this league is hard to attain. We’re all prone to be prisoners of what has happened most recently. What had the Packers done in the past month to suggest they’d win at Philadelphia? Nothing. But win they did, and convincingly. It’s a week-to-week league in most respects.
So the Vikings have lost five of their last six? So what? They still have an excellent defense, and they easily could win three or four of their last five.
That said, I’m skeptical of the Packers going 4-1 or better in the last five. The same weaknesses that contributed to their four-game losing streak remain.
Sam Shields isn’t coming back from his concussion, so they will remain undermanned at cornerback the rest of the year. Besides their struggles this season, remember they went 2-3 in the five games (one playoffs) he missed last season, too.
Their pass rush has slipped because injury (Clay Matthews' hamstring and shoulder) and age (Julius Peppers) have diminished their best rushers.
And Eddie Lacy (ankle surgery) isn’t coming back, either. Overweight or not, he was by far their best running back. Without him, they can’t win by using the more conventional pass-run ratios coach Mike McCarthy prefers.
And they still don’t have a receiving target that scares a defense. Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry showed that when he let cornerback Josh Norman cover whichever receiver lined up on the right side rather than matching him on a particular receiver, as he’d been doing in the weeks leading up to that game.
The NFL in so many ways is a game of matchups. The Packers matched up terribly with Tennessee and Washington, because those teams had several bonafide offensive weapons who could exploit their shortcomings on defense. But Philadelphia, which came into last week’s game at 5-5, was different. It had one of the NFL’s worst receiving corps and was shorthanded at running back, with Ryan Matthews sidelined by injury and Darren Sproles (ribs) slowed.
And so matchups will play a huge role down the stretch, starting this week in the Packers’ game against Houston.
The Texans don’t have the weapons Washington and Tennessee did, but they have more than Philadelphia. DeAndre Hopkins’ numbers are down (55 catches, 11.1-yard average, three touchdowns) but he’s one of the most talented receivers in the league. Rookie Will Fuller (4.32-second 40) is a dangerous deep threat, and running back Lamar Miller (881 yards) is the NFL’s No. 5 rusher.
The question is whether quarterback Brock Osweiler will play well enough to not lose the game. He ranks No. 32 in NFL passer rating (72.2) and is tied for the league lead in interceptions (13).
The Packers, on the other hand, have a quarterback who has played brilliant football for long stretches in his career. Rodgers is more than capable of closing the season with four or five more games as good as last week’s against the Eagles.
Then there’s the question of whether the Packers’ emphasis on the quick passing game was Eagles-specific, or whether McCarthy and Rodgers will stick with it the rest of the season. McCarthy veered from it during the four-game losing streak. But you have to play the cards you’re dealt, and those cards say stick with it.
So yeah, there’s reason to think the Packers can go 4-1 over the last five games, and even 5-0 isn’t out of the question. But if I were a betting man, I’d bet against it. The guess here is that the weaknesses that got them to 4-6 ultimately will do them in.
Now let’s see what happens on the field.
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
East: Cowboys (10-1)
West: Seahawks (7-3-1)
North: Lions (7-4)
South: Falcons (7-4)