Last year, the vultures were circling Lambeau Field and ready to start pecking at the carcasses of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson after back-to-back losses at home to rival Minnesota and at winless Tampa Bay. The Packers, sinking like a stone at 4-4, were given almost no chance with mighty Dallas coming to town. But, even with the offense backfiring like a broken-down jalopy, the Packers won 17-7 behind a determined defense that delivered big play after big play.
This year, the vultures convened over Lambeau Field again. This time, the fair-weather fans among Packer Nation said it was different. The Packers were sinking like a stone at 3-3, and there would be no rescuing a ship that was sinking after back-to-back overtime losses.
Well, looky here. Rather than a crash landing, the Packers are taking flight. They showed incredible resolve in holding off the hated Vikings last week, and the defense turned in a remarkable performance in Sunday's 9-0 shutout of the powerful Jets on Sunday. The vultures have been vanquished. And while far too many bodies have been broken, it's obvious their spirit remains very much intact.
"I think you found out what we're capable (of doing)," said cornerback Tramon Williams, who had an interception and fumble recovery. "We always knew what we had, but I think there's something extra out there – guys playing with a lot more passion, a lot more focus. That, you can't teach. We've played like that the last couple weeks, and hopefully guys continue to play that way."
The victory over the Cowboys last year kicked off a 7-1 finish to the regular season. How this season will unfold, of course, remains to be seen.
To be sure, it doesn't figure to be smooth sailing for this year's Green and Gold. The offense looked all-time good on paper, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing like an MVP candidate by completing almost 80 percent of his passes with six touchdown and no interceptions in the preseason.
The regular season started off well enough, with 61 points in victories over Philadelphia and Buffalo. But since then, the offense has gone from third gear to second gear to first gear. It was practically in neutral for most of Sunday's game with another day of third-down ineptitude. Rodgers, who had only three sub-60 percent games in his last 17 outings, has done it three times in the last four games. His 44.1 percent against the Jets was his worst since becoming the starter in 2008.
Yeah, losing Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley can't be overstated. Still, at some point, you'd think Rodgers and Co. would get things figured out. Instead, in the last six games, the Packers have averaged 16.4 points per game. In the last 18 quarters, their offense has scored just six touchdowns. Six! They scored that many in the playoff game against Arizona.
The saving grace is the Packers have their defense to hang their hat on. After a season of struggles against the run, Green Bay's beat-up front seven dominated its matchup against the Jets' sledgehammer running game. After a season of playing good but not good enough, the defense has forced three turnovers in back-to-back games.
Eight days ago, with the Packers struggling and the Vikings and Jets coming up, 3-5 didn't seem far-fetched. Instead, they're 5-3 with a very winnable game against Dallas coming up next Sunday night. The Cowboys – who with Green Bay and Minnesota were the preseason frontrunners in the NFC – are 1-6. Jon Kitna, who has replaced injured Tony Romo at quarterback, threw four interceptions in a 35-17 home loss to Jacksonville.
Suddenly, the Packers have positioned themselves to be 6-3 headed into the bye, with that one-week break providing a chance for some bodies to heal and the offense to step back and figure out what in the heck is going wrong.
"There's nothing wrong with the players, quarterback and things like that," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We need to do a better job of just putting them in better position to be successful."
They figured it out last year. After last year's game against Dallas, in which Rodgers threw for just 189 yards and the defense gift-wrapped 10 of the Packers' 17 points, who would have thought the offense was ready to break loose? But break loose it did, with 30-plus-point performances in five of their final seven games and Rodgers being interception-free in six of those games.
Replicating those performances without Finley and Grant seems highly unlikely. Fortunately, Rodgers doesn't have to be great. He just needs to be better, because this defense is on top of its game.
"This is a big win for us," Rodgers said. "I think it says a lot about the direction that we're going. Hopefully, we'll continue to get more guys back. But the guys we've got, man, you can't say enough about those guys, especially the guys who haven't been here too long, stepping in and playing the way they played today."
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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 email@example.com, 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.