Ever since the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl following the 2010 season, they have dominated the NFC North. They have won the NFC North each of the last four years and are one win away from making it a fifth straight if the can beat the Minnesota Vikings Sunday night.
But this isn’t the dominating Packers teams of previous seasons. After starting the season 6-0, Green Bay has lost five of its last nine games and is coming off a 38-8 blowout loss at Arizona last week.
Aaron Rodgers has been a Pro Bowl quarterback for years but is on pace to have the lowest passing yards, completion percentage and yards per pass of any full season of his career as a starter. He has a career passer rating of 104.4 but has only had a passer rating of 100.0 or above three times this season and none in his last nine games.
Part of the problem has been an erratic running game that hasn’t been consistent after being a strength of the team the last couple of years. Featured back Eddie Lacy has rushed for more than 50 yards just six times this season and has struggled to stay healthy. No. 2 running back James Starks hasn’t been much better. He hasn’t made tacklers miss and has struggled to string together positive gains, often forcing the Packers into passing situations.
The receiver corps suffered a huge blow when it lost Jordy Nelson during the summer and has never recovered. Randall Cobb is the leading receiver on the team with 73 receptions for 792 yards and six touchdowns, but those numbers are deceiving. In his first three games, he caught 20 passes for 245 yards and four TDs. In the last 12 games, he has caught just 53 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns – less than 50 yards a game on average. Second-year pro Davante Adams was expected to fill in some of the void left by Nelson’s loss, but he has averaged just 9 yards a reception, hasn’t had more than 42 yards in any of his last six games and has scored just one touchdown. Veteran James Jones has caught 46 passes for 788 yards and eight touchdowns, but four of those TDs came in the first three games, and he has has less than 50 yards in seven of his last 10 games. Tight end Richard Rodgers has been the top end zone target, catching 51 passes and scoring seven touchdowns. The receivers have struggled to get separation and the result has been teams locking up their receivers in single coverage and putting pressure on Rodgers.
One of the biggest issues for the Packers has been an offensive line that is extremely banged up and limping down the stretch. All five offensive linemen – tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang and center Corey Linsley – were all limited or out of practice this week. Bakhtiari is listed as questionable, but the injuries the Packers have sustained along the line make it a question mark as to whether they will all be able to finish the game, which could be a huge edge for the attacking Vikings defense.
As banged up as the Packers offense is, the defense isn’t in much better condition. The only healthy defensive line starter is former Viking Letroy Guion. Nose tackle B.J. Raji is listed as questionable while dealing with a concussion and their best defensive linemen – tackle Mike Daniels – is also questionable with a groin injury. With only five defensive linemen on the roster, backups Datone Jones and Mike Pennel may have to see significant playing time.
The strength of the Packers defense has been its linebacker corps with playmakers in Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. They have good depth at the position with veterans Nick Perry and Mike Neal, who is listed as questionable with a hip injury. Inside, it’s a different story. The inside linebackers are young, but prone to taking critical missteps. Rookie Jake Ryan and third-year pro Nate Palmer are both athletic tacklers but can get caught by misdirection. Matthews hasn’t had a tackle in the last two games, but he and Peppers will both have to come up big if Green Bay is going to win.
Green Bay’s defensive philosophy has its cornerbacks taking on receivers man-to-man, which can be a blessing and a curse. Their best cornerback, Sam Shields, is in the concussion protocol and is questionable for Sunday’s game. But the Packers have depth with fourth-year pro Casey Hayward and rookie Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. At safety, Green Bay is very solid with Morgan Burnett and 2014 first-rounder Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The Packers have been the big dog of the NFC North for the last five years, but they will need to pull it together for one more game to keep their spot at the top. The Vikings have come a long way this season and have the opportunity to exploit the Packers on both sides of the ball. They will have to play a technically sound game to win, but this is the most vulnerable Packers team that the Vikings have faced in the last few years and it may be the best chance any NFC North team has had to knock out the Packers in a long time. They look beatable and the Vikings have their own destiny in front of them to take them out and become the new divisional king of the hill.