The Skol Debate: Are the Packers Still Legit Contenders for the NFC North?

Questions Answered: GB-MIN Prediction, Why Cousins Is Better This Year, Brian Asamoah
Sep 11, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

Currently, the race in the NFC North favors the Vikings, not the Packers. Coming into the season, we’d have expected the opposite to be the case.

For three-straight seasons, Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur have led their team to the division crown. The safest guess would have been for that trend to continue in 2022. After the opening third(ish) of the season, it no longer looks like GB is the favorite. In fact, Minnesota has built a formidable 2.5 game lead. The upcoming games in Week 8 offer the potential for that lead to grow even further, especially since GB has to take on the Bills (in Buffalo!).

Once again, the usual debaters are back. Once again, we send along the reminder to do your best to be charitable with whoever you debate in your own life. Representing your opponent’s view with grace and clarity will lead to more productive conversations.

Now that the PSA is out of the way, take a look at how the debaters address whether the Packers are still contenders in the NFC North:

The Purple Corner: Josh Frey (They still are!)
The Gold Corner: K. Joudry (No, sir!)

Onto the debate.

The Vikings, Packers, and the NFC North

KJ: I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t foresee Green Bay’s struggles. Or, at least, the extent of their struggles.

Moving on from Davante Adams – to my mind – made very little sense. In recent seasons, one of GB’s main issues was their lack of offensive weapons. Trading Adams was confusing, especially since the team also lost Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Doesn’t that just make the problem even worse? 

The subtractions led me to believe there’d be bumps in the road but not a huge struggle. Aaron Rodgers was still in town and the defense has several players who are capable of playing at an elite level. For these reasons, I didn’t think they’d sit at 3-4, but here we are.  

Their losses have come to the Vikings, Giants, Jets, and Commanders. Football experts would use the technical term for that outcome: yikes. 

A quick look at Pro Football Reference tells me that the Packers offense is 23rd in the NFL with a mere 18.3 points per game. Meanwhile, their defense has been underperforming; they stand at 15th overall by allowing an average of 20.9 points per game. 

Josh, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t allowing more points than one is scoring a bad approach to winning games?

JF: Allowing more points than you score certainly is a bold strategy, Cotton. After getting off to a 3-1 start to the season, it’s been a rather horrendous stretch over the past few weeks. For whatever reason, they continue to refuse to run the ball, rushing just 12 times with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon this week.

To your point, it seems that the problems have stretched beyond the offense, too. Particularly this week against the Commanders, the defensive struggles down the stretch once again exposed themselves. Remember, the Packers held a 14-3 lead in the first half. 

Washington converted 7 of 16 third downs on the day, and Green Bay shot themselves in the foot with nine penalties for a not-so-nice 69 yards. 

Something must give for them to turn this thing around, so my question for you is this: will they or will they not get this thing figured out?

KJ: I’ll admit to some uncertainty and trepidation, but allow me to lean toward a “no,” at least as it pertains to the division (they could plausibly snag a Wild Card spot). 

Should we consider the Packers a legit contender for the NFC North? As of right now, I’ll say we shouldn’t. Things don’t look great for Green Bay, a reality that many Vikings fans will gladly welcome. 

Their next opponent will be on the road in Buffalo. If I had to pick a single team, I’d probably go with the Bills for the best in the NFL. Perhaps Rodgers steps up and does something sensational, but the likelier outcome is dropping to 3-5. Since taking over for Mike McCarthy, Matt LaFleur has never lost more than 4 games. He’s likely to get to 5 losses without even surpassing the halfway mark of the 2022 season. 

Making matters even more daunting is that the Packers still have the Cowboys, Eagles, Rams, and, indeed, the Vikings following their Bills game. So, the schedule won’t be easy moving forward. There are at least 5 games remaining where they may reasonably be considered the underdog (though I’ll admit the Rams have also had some struggles). 

Finally, I’ll merely point out that GB has shown that we can’t make assumptions about how they’ll play. Should they be able to beat a poor Washington team that is playing their QB2? Of course, and yet they ended up losing. They should be able to beat the Titans and Dolphins – two of the mid-tier teams left on their schedule – but there is no guarantee. Perhaps they’ll still be able to take down the Lions and Bears. 

With all that said, perhaps I can kick it back to you with a similar question: do you think Green Bay will figure it out? If so, why? 

JF: I’ve yet to rule the Packers out in the NFC North for a couple reasons. Namely, I’ll remind everyone of the cautionary tale that is the 2016 season. 

The Minnesota Vikings jumped out to a 5-0 start–including a win over Green Bay. Meanwhile, the Packers seemed stuck in a rut with a 4-6 record through 11 weeks after getting blown out by Washington. After that, they went on to win each of their final six games to claim the NFC North title. They headed all the way to the NFCCG where they finally got knocked off by the Atlanta Falcons.

The Vikings, in contrast, stumbled to an 8-8 finish, missing the playoffs altogether. Historically, the Packers under Aaron Rodgers have a knack for getting hot at the right time to put together ridiculous runs to the playoffs, and the Vikings can fall off a cliff at any moment.

Of course, there can be no assumptions from this Packers team, especially heading into a Sunday Night Football matchup in Buffalo. That said, Green Bay certainly has talent around their roster. If they find a rhythm in that offense, they can get hot in a hurry down the stretch of the season.

We can’t exactly take the Vikings schedule moving forward lightly, either. They have a matchup with Kyler Murray this week which is sure to cause headaches for defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Then, there are still games against Buffalo, Dallas, New England, and both New York teams on the schedule. Additionally, the Bears and Lions on the road will be no pushovers. There aren’t too many easy wins on the schedule, so we shall soon see what this Vikings squad is truly made of.

KJ: Point taken. Minnesota does indeed face some challenges on their end of things. And, as you said, there can be no assumptions. This is a team that has fallen apart before, so we ought to avoid counting our purple chickens until they’ve hatched. 

Even still, I’ll try pressing my point yet again. 

The folks over at FiveThirtyEight give Minnesota an 88% chance of winning the NFC North. Those odds are pretty good, especially considering that Minnesota still has so much room to grow. It has been a flawed opening 6 games that has led to a 5-1 record. Just imagine what this team could look like if, say, Kirk Cousins starts producing at a more normal level or the defense finally brings it all to fruition. 

Green Bay has a 7% chance of taking the NFC North and a 24% chance of making the playoffs. Neither number is particularly inspiring. At 3-4, they’re closer to the Bears than they are the Vikings. 

Furthermore, it’s unclear how GB will fix their various issues. Who is Rodgers going to throw the ball to? The options on the trade market are somewhat limited, as you’ve suggested. One wonders if Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Sammy Watkins, Christian Watson, and Romeo Doubs can get it done. Maybe the rookies and the veterans can find a path forward, but a lot of folks have doubts. 

On defense, they’re struggling in a number of key areas. They’re tied for second-last in the NFL with a mere 5 turnovers. They have allowed the 5th-most rushing yards, leaving them vulnerable to getting stuck on the field. The most recent game featured the Commanders possessing the ball for more than 37 minutes. 

I’ll be curious to see how Buffalo decides to attack Joe Barry’s group, just as I’ll be wondering if Leslie Frazier finds a way to completely stifle the Packers offense. 

GB has a lot to fix and the season is fast approaching the midway point. Plus, the Packers will need to wait until Week 14 for their bye, so they need to figure this out on the fly. 

Do you have a sense for how the Packers might turn this around? 

JF: As funny as it sounds, the answer to Green Bay’s problems may lie in taking the ball out of Rodgers’ hands, especially in short yardage situations. This past week, Dillon and Jones combined to run the ball just 12 times. That simply is not enough, especially in a game where the Packers had a 14-3 lead at one point. 

Over the past three games – all losses – the Packers have faced situations of fewer than five yards to gain 40 times with Rodgers on the field. He’s passed the ball on 29 of them.

In the fourth quarter alone against the New York Giants, Rodgers passed on six of seven such occasions and failed to get first down yardage four times. In the process, they gifted New York extra time. The Giants proceeded to eliminate a 20-13 deficit and win the game 27-22.

Considering the Packers are averaging 4.6 yards per carry so far this season, it’s perplexing that Green Bay refuses to run the ball. In two of the three games they’ve won, they’ve piled up 203 rushing yards against the Bears and 199 against the Patriots. 

Four of their next six opponents heading into their bye rank among the bottom half of defenses in terms of yards per carry allowed. Green Bay needs to get the ball into the hands of Dillon and Jones far more often; if they do that, they could steal a few of these wins to get back on track.

That being said, they must win three of their next four games to remain in this race. It certainly won’t be an easy task. 

KJ: Right, so it’d be fair to say that the task in front of GB is a daunting one. If – as you suggest – the Packers commit to running the football and then do so effectively, it’s plausible they can start winning some games, allowing them to have a shot in the NFC North. The best way to defend a player as excellent as Josh Allen is ensure he never leaves the bench. GB can accomplish this goal by keeping its offense on the field by running the ball well. 

Finding success on the ground could then, in turn, make life easier for Green Bay’s receivers. Forcing defenses to commit more attention to defending the talented pair of RBs should (in theory) allow the WRs to find a touch more green grass. 

With that goal in mind, I’ll reiterate that I’m fascinated to see how things go in the upcoming Bills games. It’s on the road and in prime time, adding to the pressure that is already present. After 6 games, Buffalo has allowed a mere 457 yards on the ground. Opponents average 3.5 yards per attempt. The hope among Vikings fans is that a shift toward more running with Jones & Dillon will fall flat in Week 8. 

If the expected happens, the Packers will fall to 3-5. Minnesota needs to capitalize on their rival’s early struggles by ensuring they climb to 6-1. Doing so would mean they hold a 3.5 game lead in the division. That, in essence, would mean GB is almost completely out of the race for the North.

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