On a night billed as possibly Brett Favre's last game ever at Lambeau Field, the Packers showed signs of just how far they have come in one season. To improve further, they need to figure out a way to get into the end zone when they penetrate their opponent's 20-yard line. Ineffectiveness in that area has been a problem all season and it reached a pinnacle on Thursday night against the Vikings.
Four times the Packers' offense drove to the Vikings' 20-yard line or deeper and could only get a sniff of the end zone one time. Bubba Franks had the Packers' best chance at a touchdown when he was headed to paydirt after catching an eight-yard pass, but fumbled at the one-yard line.
Only a dominating game by the Packers' defense and a resilient performance by kicker Dave Rayner saved the day for the Packers. Facing the Vikings third-string quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, the Packers held the Vikings to just three first downs and 104 total yards. Rayner made the game-winner, a 44-yarder with 1:38 remaining, after slipping and missing one attempt earlier in the game and seeing another hit the upright.
With the 9-7 victory, the Packers are, almost incomprehensibly, still in the running for an NFC wild-card spot. Still, it is difficult to picture the Packers as even contending for the playoffs with the lack of confidence and direction they show in the "red zone."
The Packers established early in the game that they were going to employ a pass-happy plan which was quite heady of them considering the Vikings' defense is having one of the best seasons against the run of all-time. On their first three drives of the game, the Packers moved right down the field, primarily via the pass, but could only manage three field goal attempts.
On the first drive, a failed blitz pickup allowed linebacker Ben Leber to sack Brett Favre for a 12-yard loss just after the Packers had gained a first down at the eight-yard line. Two incomplete passes out of the shotgun formation forced a fourth down.
On the second drive, the Packers hit a road block at the 20-yard line. Green ran for no gain on first down and Favre threw two more incompletions to lead to another fourth down.
On the third drive, the Packers went eight plays before entering the red zone, but three more incompletions allowed the pain to continue.
The second-half scoring opportunities were no better for results with Franks fumbling on the only trip inside the 20-yard line.
The obvious trend is that the Packers were going to stick with the pass regardless of where they were on the field. Favre even threw a career-high 33 attempts in the first half. Ineffective as the pass was, though, its selection was not the issue. The lack of a power running game and poor tight end play was a bigger problem.
There is no easy solution to curing the Packers' scoring deficiency when the move into optimal range. More than anything, they need to find an attitude and a personality. That is what will get it done when the end zone is near. Against the Vikings, it was not there.
The zone-blocking scheme could be part of the problem with not being effective running in short-yardage, and certainly the Packers' tight ends have had a difficult year. Franks, clearly dejected in the locker room afterward even though the Packers won, had a long night of dropped passes and fumbles. His fourth-quarter giveaway, thanks to a solid hit by E.J. Henderson could have been a back-breaker for the Packers had their defense not stepped up to stop the Vikings on the next drive, like it did all night.
The Packers had the second-worst touchdown percentage inside the red zone coming into the game, which could move to worst after this week's games are completed. That pitiful output is not lost on at least one of the offensive players.
"We should have put 28 points on the board and they shouldn't have scored at all," said wide receiver Donald Driver, who caught nine passes for 99 yards.
"Red zone has been our toughest thing. That's what we have to work on week in and week out – just get stronger in the red zone. On first and second down, we're good. Further out on the field, we're good. We just have to make sure that once we get in the red zone we put points on the board."
The missed scoring opportunities by the Packers added to the drama of the night. It forced the Packers' defense rise to the occasion on almost every second-half possession, and it also gave Rayner the opportunity to kick his first game-winner. Those were important steps for a team on the rise.
The next step will be to convert more scoring opportunities should they be fortunate enough to have some on Dec. 31 against the mighty Bears' defense. If they can do that, they just might complete an improbable and, in some ways, an unsightly journey to the playoffs.
Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.