The Green Bay Packers are not a good football team, and don’t let a blowout of a fading, perfectly-matched Philadelphia Eagles team convince you otherwise. But here’s the thing, Aaron Rodgers’ Pack are just one of three not-good teams in the lackluster NFC North, which is led by a Detroit Lions team with a 7-4 record that should impress nobody except students of probability. And then there’s Minnesota, with its 6-5 record after a 5-0 start. It’s followed by the 5-6 Packers, pronounced dead 10 days ago but suddenly very much in the thick of the race and, dare I say, maybe the favorite?
After looking at the records, tiebreakers and remaining schedule, even the most ardent Packers denier has to admit that, at worst, Green Bay has a remarkably good shot despite being two back with five to play. Here’s how the rest of the season breaks down. (The tiebreaker for a two-team tie is head-to-head record followed by conference record. The three-team tiebreak is total record in games against the group.)
1. Detroit Lions (7-4 overall, 2-2 division, 2-1 three-way tiebreaker)
• at New Orleans, vs. Chicago, at New York Giants, at Dallas, vs. Green Bay
• Swept Minnesota, lost first Packers game
2. Minnesota Vikings (6-5 overall, 1-3 division, 1-2 tiebreaker)
• vs. Dallas, at Jacksonville, vs. Indianapolis, at Green Bay, vs. Chicago
• Swept by Detroit, won first Packers game
3. Green Bay Packers (5-6 overall, 2-1 division, 1-1 tiebreaker)
• vs. Houston, vs. Seattle, at Chicago, vs. Minnesota, at Detroit
• 1-0 vs. Lions, 0-1 vs. Vikings
Statements that’ll receive no argument: Detroit has the toughest schedule. Green Bay has the easiest schedule. Minnesota has a schedule that is manageable — but not so much for a team that’s on a 1-6 run. Thus, the Pack’s way to the playoffs is simple: Gain a game on Detroit at some point before Week 17 and pull even with the Vikings before beating them in Week 16. With that, they’d set up a de facto NFC North title game at Ford Field in the last game of the year. It’s that easy.
How do you make up the game on Detroit before the final game? It could come in the form of Green Bay going 4-0 and Detroit finishing 3-1, or, and this is the more realistic scenario, Green Bay going 3-1 and Detroit going 2-2 over the next four weeks. For a team that’s 7-4 and has trailed in the fourth quarter of every game this season, a 2-2 mark is no stretch. It’d be a regression toward the mean.
The schedule doesn’t do the Lions any favors. They play the second-highest scoring team in football, a division rival and two NFC East teams with a combined 18-3 record. The 2-2 might be a best-case scenario. Going 1-3 isn’t out of the question, especially with a 2-3 road record headed into three road games in which they should be an underdog for each.
Catching Minnesota could come as soon as Sunday night. If the Vikes lose to Dallas on Thursday and Green Bay beats Houston on Sunday, the teams are tied and all Green Bay has to do is beat the Vikes in Week 16 and finish with the same record, meaning Minnesota could actually gain a game on the Packers should they end up tied after this week. With their slump, record, projected tiebreakers (basically none) and Sam Bradford, the Vikings have to be considered the least likely to win the division.
Given all of this, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which 9-7, with wins over Minnesota and Detroit, doesn’t get the Packers into the playoffs. "OK, but they’re not going 9-7," you say. "They’re not a good football team. They are irrefutably bad." Sure, but what does that make Detroit and Minnesota? There’s no juggernaut playing in the North.
Aaron Rodgers is playing far better than he had in the last half of 2015 and first half of 2016 — he’s thrown 17 touchdown passes to just three interceptions in the last six weeks, finally looking like himself, or at least a shade of it, again. That the Packers are 2-4 in those six games, including two disconcerting blowout losses. But Houston, up on Sunday, is as good a matchup as Philly was Monday night. Seattle slates as a probable loss ,but you never know with the Seahawks — they could put up four points in a 9-of-33 passing game from Russell Wilson. No division game is ever a walkover, and the Bears would love nothing more than to end Green Bay’s season, but Green Bay will be the favorite there. And then the last two games are the games big-time quarterbacks are supposed to win, lack of rushing game and mediocre secondary be damned. It’s doable.
But, hey, if the Lions suddenly start playing the first three quarters like it’s the fourth, they could end the Packers playoff hopes before Week 16.
My bet is that the Lions spin into a free fall and give the Packers control of their own destiny in the next two weeks. It’s all on the table in the very-tight NFC North. In other words, it’s Green Bay’s division to win or lose.