It's almost a rite of autumn for the Green Bay Packers — the calendar turns to October, and they start playing well. Packers coach Mike McCarthy thinks he knows why.
"You look at the design of our roster and how it's put together, pretty much with a similar mindset each and every year. There is some development that needs to go on with our football team because of our young players," McCarthy said Monday, one day after the Packers (5-2) won their fourth consecutive game, a 38-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field. "(Then) you start to play some good football."
That is exactly what McCarthy's team is now doing in all facets. It starts with Aaron Rodgers, who completed 19 of 22 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 154.5 - the second-highest of his career - against the Panthers. Rodgers has completed 55 of 81 passes for 675 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions for a 130.4 passer rating in the Packers' three victories in October.
He's gone six games and 192 consecutive passes without throwing an interception, and he enters the team's final game of the month — and last game before its midseason bye — against New Orleans having thrown 18 touchdown passes against only one interception.
"It's funny. I talk to old friends who have been here and are with other teams, and they don't really realize how good Aaron is until they go and play for someone else," veteran left guard Josh Sitton said. "It's hard to realize, I guess, when he's all I've known. I expect that week in and week out."
Since Rodgers took over as the starting quarterback in 2008 the Packers are 21-5 in October games and have won 16 of their last 17 October games. While he has played at an elite level for the last several years, he hasn't been this efficient since his NFL MVP season of 2011 when he threw 20 touchdown passes and two interceptions in the first seven games. The Packers started that season 13-0 and finished 15-1.
That team scored a franchise-record 560 points, the third-most in NFL history behind the 2013 Denver Broncos (606) and 2007 New England Patriots (589).
Asked if this offense could be as good as the one in the 2011 season Sitton said, "We were really, really good in 2011. I mean, we could do pretty much anything. We were putting up (almost) 40 points a game. So it's tough to match that. I feel like we couldn't do anything wrong that year. (But) we're playing good right now. I think it'll be a test over the next few weeks to see where we're at."
The first test of the month could be in their final October game at New Orleans on Sunday. Although the Saints (2-4) lost at Detroit Sunday, the Packers know they'll face a challenge at the Mercedes-Benz Louisiana Superdome. All four of the Saints' losses have been on the road (including three by three points or fewer) while they are 2-0 at home this year.
"They've had some tough, tough losses. The one in Detroit yesterday was a tough loss that they were leading pretty much most of the game," said McCarthy, who was the Saints' offensive coordinator from 2000 through 2004. "I would like to think our whole team clearly understands we're getting ready to go into a hotbox down there in New Orleans. I mean, this is going to be a big-time environment, big-time game. These are the kind of games you love to play in. Everybody wants to go get this one and get to 6-2, especially after where we were four weeks ago."
The area of biggest improvement in those last four weeks has been the defense, which expects to be challenged by the Saints' normally high-powered offense. The defense has forced nine turnovers during the winning streak. Against Carolina on Sunday, the unit proved it can also stop opponents without getting takeaways. The Panthers punted seven times, including on their first five possessions. Carolina's first three possessions went three-and-out.
"I think you've seen improvement over the last four weeks of our defense. I've seen signs, very encouraging signs," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I think we continue to improve in some areas, I think there's more room for improvement. We need to keep pushing forward and try to find a way to play consistently for four quarters."