GREEN BAY, Wis. — It wasn’t too long ago that the Green Bay Packers were in a bad place, lagging at the bottom of the NFC North with a — gasp! — losing record while folks picked apart their flaws as if they were some sideshow on Dr. Phil.
Well, well. Look at them now.
A five-game winning streak that’s tied for best in the NFL has the Packers (7-3) atop their division and in position to start the playoffs at home. (Yes, they have the same record as the Chicago Bears, but Green Bay owns the tiebreaker after beating its rivals to the south in September.)
With four of the last six games against NFC North opponents and some of their many ailing players beginning to get healthy, the Packers are right where they want to be.
“We’re happy to be back up there, especially after starting 2-3,” Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday. “We’re kind of getting on a roll. But even like we said at the beginning of the season, it’s all about playing the right way in December and moving forward. We’re not quite to December. We’re gaining momentum as we go, but we know we need to play our best late in the season and into the playoffs.”
As if they needed any reminder, the Packers play the New York Giants on Sunday night. Those would be the same Giants who came on strong at the end of last season, knocked the Packers out of the playoffs and went on to win the Super Bowl for the second time in 5 years.
“Watching the playoff game, I mean it wasn’t fun. I think that’s obvious,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Neither was the start of this season.
Green Bay had about as rough a start as it gets. Stunned in the opener by San Francisco, the Packers seemed to have things back on track with their win over Chicago the next week. But then came the Inaccurate Reception out in Seattle, and the injuries began piling up. The low point was blowing an 18-point halftime lead in Indianapolis.
Instead of falling apart, though, the Packers pulled together. They each took responsibility for the losses, and didn’t argue when McCarthy preached a return to the fundamentals. When key players went down — Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Cedric Benson and Clay Matthews, just to name a few — guys stepped up to fill the holes.
Little by little, the Packers got better. So did their record.
After scoring a total of 57 points in the first three games, Green Bay has averaged 29.4 in the last seven, fourth best in the NFL. Rodgers has been the league’s best quarterback over that span, with 24 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passing rating of 117.
The defense is second in the NFL with 33 sacks, and rookie Casey Hayward is tied for second in the league with five interceptions. Since Week 4, Green Bay has allowed a league-best 84 yards rushing per game — no small thing with winter coming and four cold-weather games left.
“It’s been impressive to watch simply because I think, last year, with having so much success, we didn’t experience the losses and the, for lack of a better word, that lull,” said Jennings, who practiced Wednesday for the first time since Nov. 1 surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle. “But we’ve experienced some adversity this year and we’ve overcome it. Guys have stepped up to the plate, made plays when their numbers were called and we haven’t really missed a beat.
“There was a time there where it was kind of like, OK, we had to fill everything out and guys had to kind of get comfortable in their roles. Once everybody got comfortable, we started rolling again.”
The Packers now have the third-best record in the NFC, behind Atlanta and San Francisco, and would host a wild-card game if the season ended now.
The tough start may actually make the Packers more dangerous come December and January, too. The defense, so maligned last year, is much improved, and it actually bailed out the offense last week in Detroit. Forced into larger roles because of the injuries, youngsters like Hayward and Randall Cobb have become big-time players who could be cornerstones of the Packers for years to come.
As for that long list of injuries, it should get shorter in the coming weeks. Jennings isn’t ruling himself out for Sunday night’s game, despite only being back at practice the one day. Matthews could return in the next week or so, and Benson and Woodson are ahead of schedule in their rehabs.
Yes, the Packers are back in the conversation these days. And unlike a few weeks ago, they don’t mind what people are saying about them.
“It’s still early, but it’s nice to be in the lead and have, for a lack of a better term, your destiny in your own hands,” B.J. Raji said. “But like I said, it’s still early and we still have a lot of games to play. The key is to maintain it, and keep the lead.”