Over the past 15 years, Packers fans have become accustomed to winning football in December. During that span, the Packers have only twice had losing months and have often used December as a springboard for the playoffs.
After losing last Sunday, December is starting to have a different feel. With the Packers now 4-8, many are already looking to next year, but these five reasons could still make December a month to remember:
1. A muddled NFC: The NFC wild-card playoff spots are shaping up as a survival of the fit-less. All four division champions have basically been decided, but the two wild-card teams will be anyone's guess. Mediocrity may reign supreme. With four teams tied at 6-6, the 5-7 teams, and yes, the 4-8 teams, are still in the hunt.
Based on recent performance, the Packers should be the last team thinking about the playoffs, but if they can put together some semblance of a game plan, they have four games remaining that they should win. That is no joke.
Many of the Packers problems are of the internal variety, so not surprisingly, they are searching their souls this week. Considering who the Packers have yet to play and what position those teams are in, if McCarthy and Co. can get things corrected in-house for the final stretch, the team has a chance.
The 49ers, the focus this week, will present the biggest challenge. Like the Packers, they have had at least four bad losses this year and are a young team on the rise. The Packers will win this week, though, not having to deal with the mastermind coaches and veteran quarterbacks that have killed them the past three weeks. San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan and quarterback Alex Smith are not quite polished yet.
After the 49ers, the Packers have three divisional opponents and a great chance to improve their division and conference record. They will play the Lions (2-10) and Vikings (5-7), who they have already beaten, and the Bears (10-2), who will have home-field advantage locked up by the final regular season game. Like the Seahawks last year, the Bears will likely roll over and play their backups on Dec. 31, giving the Packers a great chance to win.
Seven teams are ahead of the Packers, but all of those teams have issues. The schedule each team faces suggests that at least one and maybe two 8-8 teams will make the playoffs. So the Packers still have an outside shot.
Because the Packers lost to the Eagles (6-6) and Rams (5-7), they would need to finish a game better than either one to win a tie-breaker. Those teams present the biggest hurdles.
2. The possible end of an era: As the season draws closer to its end, speculation begins about Brett Favre's future. Favre has not given any indications yet, but with Aaron Rodgers out for the year, the 37-year-old quarterback will not be giving up any playing time should he remain healthy.
"I'm going to try to make the most of it," said Favre on Wednesday regarding the final month of the regular season.
Complicating matters with Favre's health now are his chronically sore ankles. He said he probably will have surgery after the season on his left ankle, which was giving him some problems on Wednesday. Whether or not that injury or other minor ones he has are affecting his performance is up for debate.
Favre has posted three poor performances in a row among a mostly respectable season. He has completed only 52% of his passes with two touchdowns and five interceptions since Nov. 12 at Minnesota. He will need to play much better than that to give the Packers a chance over the final four games. Knowing they could be his last games, he probably will.
3. New faces in new places: Recent poor performances have opened the door for backup players to receive opportunities. McCarthy has indicated as much this week though he is playing coy as to just what changes will be made.
"We're getting more important people involved as far as reps and things like that, but the course of the week as far as how players do will determine how much they play or how much other individuals don't play," said McCarthy. "So we're looking to do some different things with different guys and things like that."
Based on individual performances of late and throughout the year, players like Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Marquand Manuel, and Nick Collins could be those given less playing time while linebacker/pass rush specialist Jason Hunter, cornerback Jarrett Bush, and safety Tyrone Culver could be given more time than just on special teams.
The Packers may also be getting their running backs and tight ends more involved in the passing game. Until now they have been used infrequently in such roles because of their blocking duties.
"The thing we've gotten away from," explained McCarthy, "is just a lot of our base drop-back pass game, our base normal down-and-distance passing game because of the emphasis in protection. That's affected the attempts for the backs and that's affected some of the attempts for the tight ends."
4. A coach on the hot seat: There is plenty of blame to go around for the recent slide, but if any coach is on the hot seat, it is defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. Late substitutions, coverage problems, lack of in-game adjustments – all of those issues reflect poorly on Sanders. Thus, even after one year, he is a likely candidate to be fired.
Sanders was promoted for continuity because of progress made with the defense a year ago, but his lack of coordination has complicated matters. With more talent on defense, the Packers are much worse than a year ago. Therefore, Sanders will have to show progress in the final four weeks if he wants to be around next season.
The Packers are 29th overall in defense (giving up 352.7 yards per game) and last in scoring defense (27 points per game).
5. McCarthy's response: McCarthy was given a free pass early in the year for some mistakes, but after Sunday's loss to the Jets, his coaching ability can be questioned. The Packers have been clearly outmatched the past three weeks, most notably against the Jets, so how McCarthy will respond in the final month will go a long way in his career.
The Packers have yet to really show their personality on offense and defense this year, and thus they have been a hard team to predict from week-to-week. McCarthy seems to be taking a different approach this week, however, which is why the Packers may resemble a different team against the 49ers.
Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.