Packers Playoff Window Still Wide Open
The Los Angeles Rams made a small tactical error against the Green Bay Packers in week 8, before kicking the eventual game-winning field goal. Instead of bleeding the clock, the Rams scored a handful of seconds before the two-minute warning, giving Aaron Rodgers plenty of time to overcome a two-point margin. Of course, Ty Montgomery would fumble the ensuing kickoff, allowing the Rams to remain undefeated and undisputed favorites to win the Super Bowl LIII.
Instead of another inspiring comeback victory led by Rodgers, the Packers line to win the NFC North dropped to +275. That puts them behind the Bears and Vikings, who both have one more victory than the Packers. Although they were among the favorites to win the NFC at the beginning of the year, the Packers have stumbled over the first half of the regular season. They now face the potential of falling out of the ultra-competitive NFC playoff picture.
Offense Gains Momentum Via Rush
Now that Ty Montgomery will be dropping balls for the Baltimore Ravens, perhaps the Packers will be able to focus on establishing a more consistent running hierarchy. Watching Rodgers spray passes downfield never gets old, but Green Bay’s unbalanced scheme doesn’t maximize the threat of Rodgers off play-action.
Montgomery was one of the rare running backs who is more of a threat in the passing game than he is on the ground, limiting his overall usefulness. Montgomery’s presence stole 41 touches from more successful contributors, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.
In fact, the lack of touches given to Jones throughout the season should be one of the most important offensive changes made in the second half of the season. Jones averages 54.8 yards per game on 6.2 yards per attempt, leading Green Bay in total rushing production despite 19 fewer attempts than Williams.
In 2018, elite offenses combine running and passing options to obfuscate intent, create space and take what the defense gives. Jones not only produces at a greater clip for running plays, but he also owns a 75 percent catch rate, better than Williams and the departed Montgomery.
Despite a disappointing end-of-game sequence, week 8 could be viewed as a turning point for an offense which includes Jones as a main option. Jones gained 86 yards on only 12 carries, including a TD run on a season-long 33-yard scamper.
Getting the ball into the hands of Jones more often, even through screens and short passes, will make things easier for Rodgers by keeping secondaries and linebackers honest. Forcing opposing defenses to respect the run will create space downfield for the deep passing game.
Defense Rounds Into Good-Enough Shape
No matter the mantra preached by coach Mike McCarthy, defense will never be the focal point of the Green Bay Packers as long McCarthy is coach. This doesn’t mean the Packers can survive without competent defense.
So far, the Packers’ defense has been extremely average, allowing 24.7 points per game, despite a predictable shutout of the Buffalo Bills. The Packers defense arrived in time to beat the Bears and the 49ers, and a nonsense penalty against Clay Matthews led to a tie against the Vikings.
Perhaps more promising, Packers defenders held the Rams to six points in the first half of the week 8 loss in Los Angeles, allowing Rodgers to keep pace with the third-best offense in the NFL. In an alternate universe, Montgomery took a knee in the end zone, and the defense gets credit for holding Los Angeles to a field goal before handing the ball to Rodgers before the two-minute warning.
The loss to the Rams disappointed, but the defense played well enough to beat the best team in the NFL. Green Bay will need to maintain defensive integrity during a rough second half schedule.
An Ugly Schedule Awaits
Dropping a game against the Lions stung because of the difficulty of Green Bay’s second-half schedule. The margin of error will be thin, likely requiring seven wins in the next nine games to clinch a playoff spot.
The road to the postseason begins with a week 9 matchup in Foxborough against the Patriots, who have a five-game winning streak, including exciting victories over the Chiefs and Bears.
Afterwards, the Packers get Miami at home before traveling to Seattle on short rest for a Thursday night tilt with the Seahawks. A trip to Minnesota for a must-win game in Vikings territory finishes the next month of hectic scheduling. The Packers might be able to afford a single loss to a club other than the Vikings.
The other significant obstacle will be a week 15 meeting against the current NFC North leaders, the Chicago Bears. Green Bay barely snuck past the Bears at Lambeau in week 1. Chicago has evolved into a consistent club. Beating them at Soldier Field will prove difficult if the Bears stay healthy. The Packers can’t lose against Arizona, Atlanta, Detroit or the Jets in December and expect to make the playoffs.
No More Excuses
Regardless of what transpired on the sidelines, trading Ty Montgomery and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should clarify things in the locker room, sending a clear message to all personnel.
Losing to the Rams after a bye week was a significant blow and an anti-climatic ending to an outstanding contest.
Aaron Rodgers remains elite, Aaron Jones appears ready to shoulder a greater rushing load and the defense seemed to benefit from a week off, able to compete against an outstanding offense. There’s no excuse for this club to continue with inconsistent play.
Finishing the season with a 10-5-1 record doesn’t guarantee the postseason, but it represents a reasonable goal with a high playoff probability.