CHICAGO – A month ago, the Green Bay Packers couldn’t have hoped to be in better position than they are now.
After beating the Chicago Bears on the final play of the game Sunday, the Packers will win the NFC North if they win their final two games (Minnesota and at Detroit). Four weeks ago, this looked like a long shot.
They’ve also found the offensive identity that eluded them for so much of this season. Converted receiver Ty Montgomery is a better running back than anybody could have expected, and with him in the backfield and a healthy Jared Cook at tight end, coach Mike McCarthy can threaten defenses by putting five legit receiving weapons on the field at once. This is a much different team than we saw in the first 10 weeks of the season.
But if McCarthy has overcome Eddie Lacy’s season-ending ankle injury in mid-October, there’s another injury he and his coaching staff haven’t found a way around, and that’s Sam Shields’ season-ending concussion in Week 1.
D'AMATO: An interloper in a Bears den
INSIDER: Thumbs up to Montgomery
BOX SCORE: Packers 30, Bears 27
The Packers’ defense has been better since Damarious Randall’s and Quinten Rollins' recent return from groin injuries, at least better than it was during the team’s four-game losing streak. But after watching Bears third-string quarterback Matt Barkley torch the Packers for 362 yards passing on a bitter cold day (minus-4 degree wind chill at kickoff) at Soldier Field, there’s still plenty of reason to question whether the Packers’ turn their late run into a Super Bowl title, like they did in 2010.
But first things first. The Packers now control their playoff prospects because their win coupled with Detroit’s defeat at the New York Giants leaves McCarthy’s team only a game out of first place. With a win Saturday at home against fast-fading Minnesota, the Packers will go to Detroit with the division title on the line regardless of whether the Lions beat Dallas next Sunday.
The Packers also are in the running for the No. 2 seeding in the NFC, though that’s still a long shot with division leaders Seattle (9-4-1) and Atlanta (9-5 and with a win over the Packers) ahead of them in the race for that second spot.
Regardless, the Packers look, sound and feel like a different team than the one that was blown out in back-to-back games at Tennessee and Washington. Blowing a 17-point lead to the Bears in the fourth quarter Sunday might have looked bad, but what matters most is they made the plays to win on Mason Crosby’s 32-yard field goal as time ran out. Style points don’t count for much.
“It’s fun to be standing here at 8-6,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We all know what 4-6 felt like, that was tough. We were playing badly. We were taking it on the chin, rightfully so, from the media. But we never stopped believing in each other and we’ve stuck together. I give our coaching staff, our leadership, a lot of credit for that.”
RELATED: Defense can't afford to go cold
RELATED: Rodgers, Nelson work late magic
RELATED: Packers get it done on ground
RELATED: Teammates describe Nelson's catch
Rodgers also can credit Montgomery, whose 162 yards rushing were more than Lacy ever has gained in a game in his four seasons in the NFL.
The fact is, McCarthy is finding that the more he plays Montgomery in the backfield and Jared Cook at tight end, the better his offense is. Now that Cook finally is healthy, he’s proving to be a tough matchup for defenses (six catches for 85 yards Sunday). And with those two plus Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams on the field together, the Packers pose a big problem. Defenses have to find a way to match up across the width of the field with five real receivers, and one of the receivers doubles as a legit running back.
In the last two weeks, McCarthy’s offense has put up 330 yards and 38 points against one of the NFL’s best defenses (Seattle) and 451 yards and 27 points in the bitter cold against the Bears.
An offense that plays off a spread, quick-hitting passing game also has Rodgers playing his best football in two years, and don’t let his pedestrian 87.0 rating from Sunday fool you. He had another excellent game, this time despite the calf injury that basically kept him from practicing last week.
It looked like this one is about bad as in ’14, which means the injury isn’t going away anytime soon. Rodgers was able to hobble for 19 yards on three scrambles and made several throws by drifting out of the pocket, but he still was gimpy, slow and muscling the ball more than stepping into his throws.
Either way, when he and the Packers’ offense play like they have recently, this team has a chance against just about anybody.
The question is whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers can find a way to make up for the loss of his best cornerback, Shields.
Much of that falls on Randall and Rollins, the top two picks from general manager Ted Thompson’s 2015 draft.
Randall showed last week when he ranged far to intercept Russell Wilson at the goal line that he can make plays nobody in the secondary besides Shields can make. Granted, Randall also was on the injury report last week because of the groin ailment that was surgically repaired in October.
But the Bears completed enough throws on him that after Alshon Jeffrey (6-3, 218 pounds) caught a seven-yard slant for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Capers pulled Randall in favor of Micah Hyde. McCarthy said only that they made the change because of a matchup issue.
Rollins, likewise, was caught giving up too much cushion Sunday. In fact, Barkley’s 362 yards passing and comeback from a 17-point deficit were an indictment of the entire Packers’ secondary and really the pass rush (one sack and one other quarterback hit in the official stats) as well.
McCarthy and Rodgers have done well to finally find a way to move the ball and put up points with Lacy out for the season and James Starks both diminished and/or absent because of age and injury. It’s a big reason the Packers now control their playoff fate and have a real chance to do something in the postseason.
But making up for Shields has proven more elusive. Randall and Rollins are young players with ability, but whether they and Capers can help turn this into a special season for their team is very much an open question.