Officially, the Green Bay Packers rank 12th in the NFL in defense.
In reality, no team is better.
The Packers and Bears are tied for the NFL lead in points allowed with 146 through 10 games. Pittsburgh is a distant third with 165 points allowed.
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, this is what the Packers have done lately. Ever since Brett Favre hit Randy Moss for a touchdown with less than 5 minutes to go in the third quarter of the first Packers-Vikings game, the Packers have allowed 10 points and forced 12 turnovers.
"I didn't know that," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
If that hellacious production continues, these Packers are unbeatable. C'mon, who's going to beat a team that forces more turnovers than it allows points?
It all shows how the NFL's official statistical standard — yards — is irrelevant. Last year, the Packers finished second in defense by allowing 284.4 yards per game and ninth on third down by allowing opponents to convert 36 percent of their fourth downs. This year, the Packers rank 12th in defense (323.4 yards per game) and 19th on third down (40 percent).
So, how does Capers explain the defense allowing 14.6 points per game this season compared to 18.6 last year?
"Last year, as good as we were at stopping the run and taking the ball away and all of that, I think our offense turned the ball over 16 times last year, which is outstanding, but I think people scored touchdowns on us 10 of those 16 times," Capers said. "This year, we've turned it over 13 and we've yet to give up a touchdown. You measure how good you are on defense when you have to go on the field in tough situations and taking pride in whatever we have to do. If it's on the 1-yard line, we're going to find a way to keep them out. I sense that with our team. I think we're a little bit more mentally tough this year than we were a year ago."
Two months ago, the Packers were penalized an appalling 18 times in a loss to Chicago. That lack of discipline, the critics charged, was reason enough for Mike McCarthy to be fired as coach. After all, the franchise-record number of penalties that night was just a continuation of the last three seasons, when McCarthy's units franked second, fourth and fifth in terms of penalty yardage.
So — surprise — here we are 10 games into the season and the Packers rank fifth in the NFL with merely 53 penalties and third with 415 penalty yards.
Coach Mike McCarthy
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Responded, indeed. The Packers were penalized one time for 5 yards on Sunday at Minnesota. The raucous atmosphere at Mall of America Field had no impact, with the offense not drawing a single penalty flag.
"Not to make the game simplistic, but to score points, you've got to get first downs," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "To get first downs, you've got to gain 10 yards and you've got to move forward to do that. When you're not hurting yourselves with penalties and turnovers and those type of things, you give yourself a chance. When you're fortunate to have good players like we do, you should be able to get some points on the board. I guess that's the eighth time with this team that we've been up there and I don't recall us not having an offensive penalty like we did yesterday."
Rodgers on a roll
Aaron Rodgers had one of the finest seasons in Packers history last year with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating (103.2) and led the league in interception percentage (1.29).
This year, Rodgers threw more interceptions in seven games (nine) than all of last season combined.
Just like everything else this season, the things that were going wrong early in the year have disappeared. Rodgers, with nine interceptions in his first 222 attempts, has gone 112 passes without being picked off.
"I don't think you can say there was more of a focus (in reducing turnovers) because we focus on it as a team a lot," quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said. "I think last year was a great year as far as the lack of turnovers, especially by him. We set a record for the Packers with the least amount of turnovers. You'd always like to improve on that record but it's not always going to be the case. We're starting to get back to where we want to be with the turnover ratio."
After a four-game streak of passer ratings of 75.7 at Washington, 84.5 vs. Miami, 84.8 vs. Minnesota and 59.7 at the Jets, Rodgers has posted ratings of 131.5 vs. Dallas and 141.3 vs. Minnesota. Philbin joked that the expectation is that Rodgers posts a rating in the 150s at Atlanta — a perfect mark is 158.3. During the four-game slump, he threw four touchdowns and four interceptions. In the last two games, he's thrown seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
What has Philbin seen?
"Just the same thing you guys have seen," Philbin said. "He's playing very effectively. He's not forcing the ball whatsoever. He's been disciplined in his progressions. He's displayed a very good awareness in the pocket; when to put the ball down and possibly run and get a first down. He's thrown the ball accurately. All the good things you want in a quarterback — the decision-making, the accuracy, the pocket awareness and the leadership ability — all of those things, the last two weeks, he's done a very nice job."
The right approach
The Packers and Vikings always make a great comparison because they are division rivals and both have typically been good recently. The franchises couldn't be run more differently, with Minnesota's aggressive attitude toward acquiring players a polar opposite to how the Packers do business under Ted Thompson.
So, what's the better way?
Undoubtedly, it's the Green Bay way. Both McCarthy and the deposed Brad Childress — both part of the 10-man coaching Class of 2006 — led their teams to an overtime field goal of reaching the Super Bowl. But, other than the 6-10 blip on the radar in 2008, the Packers have been consistently good since the end of 2006. The Vikings won the North in 2008 and 2009 but have fallen apart.
Yeah, it's frustrating for Packers fans to look at a good team and wonder if one or two more pieces would be enough to push them over the top. But look at the Vikings. They gambled on an undecided Favre. The roster has gotten old. The Moss trade was a disaster that cost them a valuable third-round pick.
Whether Thompson will lead this team to a championship remains to be seen, but if you're in the running every year, you've always got a shot. Without a quarterback on the roster, the Vikings are a lost cause.
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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.