Dougherty: It’s on to next ‘crucial’ game

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers fist pumps coach Mike McCarthy after thowing a touchdown pass Randall Cobb.

The Green Bay Packers host the Houston Texans Monday, December 5, 2016, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Here’s where the Green Bay Packers sit as they head into the fourth quarter of the NFL season:

Their 21-13 win over Houston at Lambeau Field on Sunday means they’re still two games behind the Detroit Lions in the NFC North, but with brighter prospects than just two weeks ago, when they were a beleaguered team on an even-worse-than-it-sounds losing streak of four games.

After back-to-back wins over Houston and Philadelphia, the possibility of running the table remains very much alive. But now they’re also heading into the pivotal game next Sunday when they play host to the Seattle Seahawks, who very well might be the second-best team in the NFC, behind only Dallas.

If the Packers (6-6) win that game, they’ll need the Lions to lose only once before the two teams meet up in Detroit in the regular-season finale. But if the Packers lose to Seattle, then they’ll need a lot of help to have a shot at the playoffs going into the final week.

“We still have a lot of things in front of us,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We’ve got a very good opponent coming in next week that’s going to be coming off a Sunday night game (against Carolina), so we’ll check that out tonight. We’re moving in the right direction.”

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The Lions (8-4) did themselves wonders Sunday by going into New Orleans as six-point underdogs and coming out 28-13 victors. They host Chicago next week, then play at the New York Giants and at Dallas before finishing against the Packers. They probably will be underdogs against both the Giants and Cowboys, but that doesn’t mean much.

This league is so week to week. You just don’t know what’s going to happen in these games, no matter how obvious it looks after the fact. The Lions could lose both, split or win both. Would any outcome really be surprising? The point is, the Packers don’t want to be three games behind them with three to play. Living that close to the edge usually ends in a nasty fall.

It helps the Packers’ cause that 6-6 Minnesota appears to be collapsing. The Vikings’ inability to do much of anything on offense really was stunning to see on Thursday night against Dallas. Again, never say never in this league — the Vikings still have an excellent defense, so their season could turn again with one good game. But if they continue to fall off, that’s one less team the Packers will have to leapfrog in the division.

As far as the bigger picture of the Packers’ play, there wasn’t a lot to draw from their win Sunday. For all the Packers’ injury issues, the Texans could argue they had it worse. They were missing the NFL’s best defensive player (J.J. Watt) as well as one of their other difference makers on defense (end Jadeveon Clowney, who wasn’t declared out until Saturday). That hurts.

If the Packers were looking for good signs, they might have seen one in running back Christine Michael. He had only 19 yards on nine carries, but on a couple runs he looked more explosive and decisive than James Starks (four carries, one yard) has in weeks. If Sunday was any indication, Ty Montgomery (six for 40), Michael and even fullback Aaron Ripkowski (three for 14) could be the Packers’ primary runners the rest of the season. Starks just isn’t seeing the cut-back lanes in the Packers’ zone running scheme, and the others clearly are running better.

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But with snow falling from start to finish, the slick field conditions at Lambeau made it hard to evaluate the quality of play overall. Players were slipping left and right, and at times the game looked like it was played in slow motion because of the care players had to take in making cuts. Under those conditions, the Rodgers-Jordy Nelson combination had the advantage because of their chemistry and nine years working together. Nelson had 118 yards on eight receptions; Jared Cook and Randall Cobb were next with 19 yards on three catches each. Will Fuller led Houston with all of 59 yards receiving.

“We’re used to it,” Nelson said of the conditions. “It gives us that little edge.”

Probably the biggest thing for the Packers aside from winning is that Rodgers’ injured hamstring appeared to come out of the game not much worse off than it was going in. He’s playing his best football of the season — his 108.9 rating was his lowest of the last three games — and now he’s got the week to get a little healthier.

Linebacker Clay Matthews was clearly slowed by the injured AC joint in his left shoulder sustained last week. He played less and less as the game wore on and was favoring his shoulder at times. But he also gets another week of healing, as do inactive guard T.J. Lang (foot) and inactive linebacker Blake Martinez (knee).

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Regardless, this was a game the Packers had to get in the W column, one way or another. The Texans were short-handed, and the difference between Rodgers and Brock Osweiler at quarterback was simply too great.

So that sets up this week’s showdown with Seattle. It’s not a must-win for the Packers, because Detroit really could lose to both the Giants and Cowboys in the coming weeks and still set up a Lions-Packers finale for the division title. But really, this Sunday is a game that could change the Packers’ season.

“If we can get a couple guys, maybe another guy back this week, that would be nice,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “But just get a little healthier and get ready to beat these Seahawks. That’s all I’m worried about.”

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