GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers had played 11 consecutive weeks without a bye and were going up against a fellow NFC contender coming off one.
It seemed like a recipe for a buzz kill at Lambeau Field and the Las Vegas oddsmakers seemed to agree. By kickoff Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Rams were 1½-point favorites against a team that hasn’t lost at home this season.
So what happened? A coach who has yet to lose two games in a row led an effort that, while far from perfect, was more than enough to send the Packers into their off week on a happy note.
“We talked about emptying the tank and I think we’re at a point where everybody’s pretty exhausted,” Matt LaFleur said after his Packers never trailed in a 36-28 victory. “But it definitely feels good going into the bye week on a win.”
The victory leaves the Packers with a 9-3 record heading into the break. They have a 3½-game lead over second-place Minnesota (5-6) in the NFC North standings with five games remaining.
The division race, in other words, is essentially over. More importantly, LaFleur’s team has put itself in great shape in the race for a No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The only team with a better record than Green Bay is Arizona (9-2), and the Packers have the tiebreaker if they end up tied with the Cardinals.
Defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (8-3) is lingering, while Dallas and Los Angeles are both 7-4.
The bottom line is the Packers are in a terrific spot heading into the stretch run of the season. They’ve navigated a 12-week grind despite injuries to several key players and a schedule that became more challenging over the past month.
“I’d say that’s a pretty damned good start,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Green Bay went 3-2 during a difficult five-game stretch — at Arizona, at Kansas City, Seattle, at Minnesota, Los Angeles — and that output might have been better had Rodgers not missed the loss to the Chiefs on Nov. 7 after testing positive for COVID-19.
After their much-needed break, Green Bay’s final stretch of games looks favorable on paper: Chicago, at Baltimore, Cleveland, Minnesota and at Detroit. Going 4-1 during that closing run seems realistic and there’s a strong possibility that a 13-4 record would be enough to secure the top seed.
Any talk about projections and playoff seeding scenarios would lead to eye rolls from LaFleur, though he did admit that he’s pleased with what the Packers have done to this point of the season.
“I think, all things considered, we’ve battled through a lot of adversity certainly,” LaFleur said. “There’s room for improvement in all three phases, which is always exciting, and we know that there’s a lot of challenge left in front of us. When we’re back in this building, we have to attack it on a daily basis, which I think our guys embrace, and they take that to heart. We never look too far in front of us. We always try to focus on and stay as present as possible. Our guys have that mentality. And I think that’s the mentality that it takes to win games in this league.”
LaFleur alluded to it and he’s absolutely right: His team hasn’t come close to peaking. The Packers are still waiting for their offense and defense to be great in the same game and, as for special teams, that unit appears to be the team’s biggest liability.
But it says something when the offense stalls for the final 1½ quarters, the defense trades making big plays with giving up big plays and the Packers still control the game from start to finish against a quality opponent loaded with big-name players.
“We still haven’t played our best ball yet,” said cornerback Rasul Douglas, whose 33-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the third quarter helped build a 19-point cushion. “We’ve had sprinkles here and there but we haven’t completely played offense, defense, special teams, all of it at the same time. We still haven’t done it.”
Will they? It’s getting harder and harder to doubt a team that has an elite quarterback with playmakers around him, an opportunistic defense and good chemistry in the locker room. There’s still hope that injured starters such as left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexander — perhaps even outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith — will return after the bye and make an already talented roster even better.
LaFleur, now 9-0 after regular-season losses in his three seasons leading the Packers, was asked if he’ll take any time away during the bye.
“Oh yeah,” LaFleur said before adding that he’s looking forward to spending time with his wife and children and getting a little rest and relaxation.
He’s earned it and so have his players. It’s taken a tremendous effort to get to this point and the Packers should be proud while also realizing that the hardest part is still ahead of them.