Green Bay Packers at crossroads ahead of huge NFC North bout

After defeating the 49ers jerseys to win their fourth straight game to open the season, a handful of Packers players spoke openly about their goal to make sure the NFC championship came through Lambeau Field.

They went on to win two games after that, making their aspirations seem more like a done deal, and they seemed much more superior to the rest of the conference — but that was then. Following Sunday’s groin kick of a defeat to lowly, visiting Detroit, which hadn’t won in Wisconsin since 1991, the Packers are simply hoping to get a victory.

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They have not been in the win column since Oct. 18. In that span, they’ve fallen to 6-3 and now sit a game behind the NFC North-leading Vikings, who have won five straight. Green Bay travels to Minnesota this weekend in a matchup that could set the tone for the postseason stretch run.

This is the type of game in which — and type of opponent against whom — the Packers tend to rediscover their focus and their mojo. But there certainly is no guarantee that’ll be the case on Sunday. Minnesota is a good team. Several Vikings players told me, following their Week 9 overtime win against St. Louis, that they’re just now rounding into form.

“R-E-L-A-X” was quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ mantra when the Packers started 1-2 in 2014. There’s been no such reassuring decree now. Nor is there anything about the way the team has played lately to signal much measure of comfort. Coach Mike McCarthy’s business-like tact and the team’s history of working its way out of jams will have to do for now.

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“You just have to stay true to your preparation, don’t overreact and keep things in perspective,” McCarthy said following the loss to the last-place Lions, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “That’s the reality of how we’re going to approach it.”

McCarthy’s measured approach to adversity has proven successful over the years. He helped navigate the Packers through a pair of two-game losing streaks en route to a Super Bowl championship in 2010. There also was a five-game stretch in 2013 when, with Rodgers hurt, they failed to win a game (four losses, one tie) — but that team rallied to make the playoffs.

What’s happened the past few weeks could be just one of those dips that most teams experience over 16 games. After all, of the three losses, one came at Denver (now 7-2) and one at Carolina (9-0). But McCarthy mentioned perspective, and the perspective most of us held regarding his Packers is that they would be better than the Broncos and Panthers and everyone else.

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Yet, the typically well-oiled offensive machine isn’t clicking. Rodgers has not consistently played at the amazing level that has hidden this team’s flaws for years. He’s been pretty darn good (six TDs, one INT during the losing streak), but he hasn’t been able to make enough magic happen with receivers who are having a hard time routinely getting open. The running game also has gone back to being inconsistent.

Green Bay Packers Nike Youth Team Color Game JerseyOver the past two games, Rodgers has thrown 109 passes, completing 60. He threw it 61 times against the Lions, who rank 28th against the run. If the run game isn’t rolling — and Detroit did bow up when it had to against James Starks — having a stud like Rodgers sling the ball around is a great option. He’s had to do it plenty in his career.

However, the timing in the passing game is off — and Jordy Nelson (injured) isn’t walking through the door. Against the Lions, wideout Davante Adams was targeted 21 times, but only made 10 catches. The number of targets means he was beating his defender. (Detroit was the latest to have its corners really get physically into Green Bay’s receivers.) It also means the Packers’ other receivers — Randall Cobb, James Jones and crew — weren’t winning enough physical battles for Rodgers to feel comfortable giving them a ton of chances.

When the flow of the passing game buckled a bit against the Broncos and Panthers, it could easily be written off to those teams having stellar defenses. When the trend continued against Detroit, which held Green Bay to 16 points, alarm bells rightfully sounded.

Getting back to that perspective McCarthy mentioned, had Mason Crosby not Wiffle-balled a 52-yard field-goal attempt as time expired against the Lions, the Packers would have won and had the same record as Minnesota.

Still, the victory that didn’t happen would not have hidden the fact that Green Bay’s in a rut. And not just offensively, either.

Although the Packers played well enough defensively to hold the Lions to 18 points, they yielded late, surrendering an 80-yard touchdown drive to allow Detroit to tally its decisive point total. Not enough plays have been made when they need to be made. The Packers, usually among the top takeaway teams in the NFL, generated 10 turnovers in the first six games. They’ve only managed three since.

Green Bay can look at its schedule and see that, after Minnesota, things seemingly ease a bit. However, the game against Detroit was supposed to be a relative layup.

Looking at the schedule isn’t the remedy for the Packers, anyway. Looking in the mirror is.

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