December 20, 2012

How the Packers can prime for a playoff run

Eight out of nine victories. An NFC North Championship. But in Mike McCarthy’s words this Packers team is just getting started. They’re also just getting healthy. But as fans learned last year, as beautiful as the outlook can seem in late December, the playoffs aren't so kind to teams who have an off-week. Here are a few ways the Packers can prime their squad for a deep playoff run, starting with their final two games of the regular season.

Fix the kicking situation
While the Packers are 7-1 in the past eight games that Crosby has missed a kick, the margin for error in the Playoffs is much smaller. Numbers don’t lie. Crosby is statistically the worst kicker in the NFL with a 58.6% make rate (17-of-29). He’s missed kicks not by small margins, but many by embarrassing shanks. If Green Bay’s playoff life rests on the right foot of Mason Crosby, an otherwise promising season might be flat-lined prematurely. For comparison, the Redskins cut PK Billy Cundiff Oct. 9 after he made just 7 of 12 field goal attempts, a similar 58.3% make rate. I guess Mike Shanahan isn't as patient. This issue needs resolving because the Packers will be hard-pressed to win a Super Bowl with the worst kicker in the NFL.

Packers Aaron Rodgers scampers for a first down against the Chicago Bears 
Protect Aaron Rodgers
Forty-five. That’s how many sacks Aaron Rodgers has taken this year. Only four players have taken 35 through week 15. We’re revisiting an issue we discussed at the start of the season. When Bryan Bulaga went out for the year, I’m not sure the casual fan realized how huge of a loss it was. Sure, Don Barclay has filled in admirably, but when your potential playoff foes include Justin/Aldon Smith, Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, etc. etc., a rookie right tackle can only be so effective. If Rodgers isn’t upright, neither are the Packers playoff chances.

Defense continues getting off field on third down
Perhaps the most telling stat of last week’s victory at Soldier Field was that the Bears didn’t have a single third-down conversion. Zero for nine. Additionally, the defensive unit that’s getting healthier by the week is doing what it did best during the 2010 Super Bowl run—making big plays (sacks, INTs, open-field tackles) and not giving them up. The next two weeks will reveal a great deal, as two of the most explosive runners in the NFL look to thrash Green Bay. If the Packers can hold these backs in check, it will be another positive sign heading into the playoffs, where almost every team has a formidable back.

If the above three factors continue holding steady, Green Bay will be in a position to make a deep run and earn a trip to New Orleans. Just as easily if any one of the above goes in a different direction, the Packers may be disappointed for a second straight year come February.