The plot is getting thicker in the NFC North.
The Chicago Bears are in first place at 3-1 and are at Carolina, home to Seattle and Washington and at Buffalo over the next four games. The combined record of those teams is 4-12, so the Bears — after getting pulverized by the Giants' defense on Sunday night — are poised to take control of the division by the season's midpoint.
The Green Bay Packers are tied for first place at 3-1, with the Bears' tiebreaker edge being irrelevant at the moment because they have to play each other at Lambeau Field on Jan. 2. While the Packers failed to land Marshawn Lynch, they've survived the first four games even with last year's powerhouse offense not even close to hitting its stride.
The Minnesota Vikings are one of the big disappointments of the league at 1-2 but upped the ante by acquiring Randy Moss. Even with a juggernaut defense that's allowed merely 38 points, can they survive the next four games of at the Jets, home to Dallas, at Green Bay and at New England? The combined record of those teams is 10-5, and only Buffalo and Detroit have losing records among their final 13 opponents.
"I think the NFC North was already a tough division, with Detroit obviously being improved and the way Chicago's playing," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on Wednesday. "Randy just adds another superstar to the mix. He's a guy who's played at a Hall of Fame level for the majority of his career, I think Minnesota obviously wanted him and they got the player they wanted."
By this point in the year, a team is starting to form its identity. To quantify that: Since 1990, 153 of the 240 playoff teams (63.7 percent) started the season 4-0 or 3-1, compared to 87 teams (36.3 percent) who started 2-2, 1-3, 0-4.
So, to state the obvious, the Packers are in good shape.
"We're a great team," Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins said on Wednesday. "We just felt like we left a lot of things out there on the field, and that's all it boils down to. You can put it however you want to put it. We're still a great team."
That great team will have to start playing that way because the Packers are about to embark on a critical part of the schedule. With Sunday's game at Washington and the following week's game at home against Miami — both teams are 2-2 — it would be huge to get to 5-1. After that, it's the season-defining gauntlet of home against Minnesota (1-2), at the Jets (3-1), home against Dallas (1-2), the bye, at Minnesota (1-2) and at Atlanta (3-1).
Aaron Rodgers hits Jermichael Finley on Sunday.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The raw numbers look good. With 106 points, the Packers lead the NFC by 11 points and are two points ahead of last year's pace, when they wound up setting a franchise record with 461 points. In the first four games of last season, Aaron Rodgers had been sacked 20 times. This year, Rodgers has been sacked five times.
Those numbers notwithstanding, there is work to be done, whether it's running the ball, throwing the ball or taking care of the ball.
"I'm not going to sit here and say they're going great," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Monday. "As a coach, I'm putting my faith in the character and the talent of our players and our history with these players and our experience with these guys. We've got a lot of work to do. We're not a finished product by any means. We're not a great offense as we speak, but we weren't one last year when we spoke (at this point in the season). And we ended up scoring more points than any offense in Green Bay Packer history."
One area where the Packers must do better — and history says they will do better, with a plus-52 turnover ratio over the last four seasons — is taking care of the ball.
Rodgers, who entered this season on pace to break Donovan McNabb's record for lowest career interception percentage, has thrown five in four games. He threw 13 in 2008 and a ridiculous seven last year.
Coach Mike McCarthy excuses two of them: the Hail Mary at Chicago and last week's long pass to Greg Jennings, in which cornerback Alphonso Smith made an outstanding play in one-on-one coverage.
"But the other three, you probably want to look closer at and evaluate," McCarthy said. "I'll just say this, and I'll tell you what I told the team today. Minus-1 turnover ratio ain't getting it here in Green Bay. We need to get that turned around. For as much time as we spend practicing it and the emphasis and what we believe in as a core fundamental component of our success around here, we're minus-1 after four games, so we need to turn that around starting this week."
While most teams would kill to convert convert 46 percent of their third downs — the Packers rank fifth in the NFL in that category — Rodgers pointed to that as another area where the offense needs to improve. Perhaps he said that in light of last week, when the Packers were 2-of-6 headed into that last drive. Or that he's a pedestrian 12th with a 44.1 percent conversion rate on third-down passes. Or that his passer rating is 72.4 with three touchdowns and four interceptions on third down after posting a league-high 133.5 last year with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions on third down.
"It is frustrating, especially with the kind of stuff we're able to do at times in the preseason and the end of last year," Rodgers said of the offense's overall production. "But in the situation like that, I have to look in the mirror first and I haven't played well enough yet. I haven't done a good enough job on third downs for us to get more opportunities, to finish those drives off, to take those plays from three-and-outs to drives that end up with points. I've got to be critical of myself first, I haven't got the job done."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.