But on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, they somehow managed to take the checkered flag with a key 23-14 victory.
The Packers played most of the game with 10 starters out of the lineup, with Jordy Nelson (hamstring) and T.J. Lang (ankle) joining four players on injured reserve (Cedric Benson, Bryan Bulaga, Desmond Bishop and Nick Perry) and four others who were deactivated (Charles Woodson, Sam Shields, Clay Matthews and C.J. Wilson).
Still, the Packers earned a victory in the rarest of fashions. Adrian Peterson recorded the 96th 200-yard rushing game in the NFL since the 1960 season. The Vikings, however, were just the fifth team to lose and the only the second in the last 23 years.
It was a critical win in a jumbled NFC playoff race. Green Bay and Chicago are tied for first place in the NFC North. Had the Packers lost, they would have been tied with Minnesota for second place in the North, behind Seattle in a wild-card tiebreaker and behind the eight-ball in a potential end-of-season tiebreaker with the Vikings.
Instead, not only did the Packers win, but they've got a chance to make a major gain through the pain of Lang's injury.
On the drive in which Mason Crosby made a 30-yard field goal to make it 10-0 in the first quarter, Lang allowed two pressures and was flagged for holding to take a touchdown to James Jones off the board. It looked like more of the same as last week from Lang, who had developed into one of the NFL's top young guards but clearly was out of his element at tackle.
Don Barclay, an undrafted rookie from West Virginia, replaced Lang and was flagged for holding on his third play of the game. From there, however, Barclay settled in and certainly held his own against Brian Robison, a quality defensive end. Robison recorded just one tackle when Barclay was in the game. During the second half, the Packers turned to run-heavy attack. With a lot of those plays going behind Barclay, Green Bay ran for 100 yards on 23 carries in the final two quarters. Before Sunday, the Packers had rushed for 100 yards in just five games.
"I don't think anything like this is imaginable when you're trying to make it in the NFL," Barclay said of his journey. "At this point, it took a lot of preparation and hard work to get ready for my time to step in, and my time came today and I went out and executed."
On the 22-yard touchdown run by James Starks to put the Packers ahead for good late in the third quarter, Barclay didn't have a de-cleater of a block against Erin Henderson but he made Henderson take a detour that allowed Starks a clean run to the pylon. On the killer 11-minute drive that led to the clinching field goal, the Packers ran the ball 10 times.
"I thought I did good," Barclay said. "I thought I could have done better technique at times, and I think that will come, but every play I'm out there, I'm going to fight my butt off and scrap every play. That's what it comes down to in these kind of games when we're running the ball a lot. That 11-minute drive, we were chipping away with the run plays and that was awesome."
Without getting a chance to watch the film, coach Mike McCarthy wasn't about to anoint Barclay the team's right tackle for the rest of the season, but the obvious advantage is that Lang can return to left guard. Maybe Barclay isn't the second-coming of Mark Tauscher, who as a seventh-round pick in 2000 became a fixture at right tackle upon replacing an injured Earl Dotson early in his rookie season. Heck, maybe he's not even Bruce Wilkerson, the old pro who, on Dec. 22, 1996 – against Minnesota, no less – became the Packers' fourth left tackle of the season and manned that spot through a victory in Super Bowl XXXI.
Still, an offensive line with Lang at left guard and Barclay replacing Bulaga at right tackle might be a better option than a line with Evan Dietrich-Smith replacing Lang at left guard and Lang replacing Bulaga at right tackle.
"I don't think about any of that kind of stuff," Barclay said. "The only thing I worry about is winning. When they give me the opportunity, I'm going to go out there and give 100 percent and I'm going to contribute to this great team."
Defensively, the yellow highlighter goes on Adrian Peterson's 210-yard performance, but the unit made the kind of big plays that winning defenses have to make. When Peterson rumbled for 48 yards to the Packers' 12, Morgan Burnett's end-zone interception kept points off the board. And when Peterson sprinted for 23 yards and McCarthy almost blew a gasket when Tramon Williams was hit with a 15-yard penalty, Burnett came up with another interception to preserve the second-half shutout.
Yes, it must be noted that Christian Ponder at this point is nothing more than a mediocre quarterback and he didn't have an NFL-caliber receiver on the field. Still, 14 points is a winning defensive effort, and that's all that matters in a bottom-line business.
It's been said here before and we'll say it again: A win is a win, especially considering the injury situation. Greg Jennings had a solid return, and Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and C.J. Wilson will be back for the finishing run to the regular season. At 8-4, the Packers are one of the best teams in the NFL – even with many of its headliners wearing stocking hats instead of football helmets. Nobody – nobody – will want to play this team at something resembling full strength in January.
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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.