GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur offered an apology to the fans after Sunday’s latest victory.
“I’m sure there was some high blood pressure going on throughout the entirety of the game, especially there at the end,” he said.
LaFleur has no reason to apologize. With a 25-22 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Packers are 4-1. It lacked the style points of many of Aaron Rodgers’ 130 career regular-season victories, but the grit and mental toughness of this team should bode well for the playoffs.
Assuming there are enough healthy bodies to get to the playoffs.
The Packers have been ransacked by injuries to start the season. It’s not the sheer number of injuries, which has been relatively manageable. Rather, it’s the caliber of those players. Of the team’s seven Pro Bowlers last season, four are out due to injuries. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari will be on the physically unable to perform list for at least one more week, and cornerback Jaire Alexander and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith are on injured reserve and might not return to action. Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins has missed the last three games so would have been an injured reserve candidate.
Nonetheless, the Packers have won four in a row.
This team brings to mind two other seasons of semi-recent vintage.
The first is the 2010 edition of the Packers. This is the glass-half-full viewpoint. That team lost the sixth-most games due to injuries, according to ManGamesLost.com, and were by far the most impacted team based on career quality of those injured players. That team won its last two games to get into the playoffs, then won three straight playoff road games. In the Super Bowl, the Packers lost Donald Driver and Charles Woodson yet beat the Steelers for the championship.
Because of the injuries, this team has built some formidable depth. Yosh Nijman has gone from the roster bubble at the start of training camp to a serviceable left tackle. When guard Lucas Patrick was felled by a concussion in Week 1, the future became now for Jon Runyan. Jenkins, the standout left guard the past two seasons, played so well at left tackle that he could get moved to right tackle for 2022. Cornerback Eric Stokes has been forced to sink or swim as the top corner; the early returns are encouraging.
“If you had told me it’d be Yosh, Runyan, Lucas Patrick, Royce (Newman) and Billy (Turner) as the starting five, I would have said, ‘Oof, I hope that turns out,’” Rodgers said. “But, man, those guys have played, they really have.”
The second is the 2016 team, which represents the glass-half-empty perspective. After a 4-6 start, Rodgers famously proclaimed the team would run the table. And it did, with six consecutive victories to close the regular season and two more in the playoffs to reach the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta. The Packers were out of gas and bodies, though. Green Bay’s defensive stopper against MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and premier receiver Julio Jones was overmatched cornerback LaDarius Gunter. Receiver Jordy Nelson played through broken ribs, receiver Davante Adams limped through a sprained ankle and running back Ty Montgomery exited with broken ribs. Defensive lineman Letroy Guion wound up finishing the game on the offensive line. In the least surprising championship game outcome ever, the Packers were routed 44-21.
Which path the rest of this season takes will depend on the injury report.
Green Bay’s offense should be getting back to full strength relatively soon. Jenkins, who returned to practice last week, could be back in the lineup this week. Big-play receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling must sit out one more game before he can return. Bakhtiari could start practicing next week. Once all hands are on deck, Green Bay’s inconsistent running game and sputtering red-zone attack should return to form.
Defensively, however, is where there are major – and perhaps insurmountable – problems. Great defenses can play coverage and rush the passer. Can the Packers play championship-caliber coverage if Alexander (and Kevin King) is unable to return? Can they help the secondary via their pass rush without Smith? Today’s NFL is all about the quarterbacks. In that light, if injuries to Alexander and Smith mean they can’t stop the likes of Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray in the playoffs, then the rest of this all-in season will be an entertaining waste of time.