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The Packers’ Hot Streak May Have Come Too Late To Save Their Season

Going into Week 12, the Green Bay Packers were in deep, deep trouble. They’d lost four games in a row, and five of their previous six — the first time either type of skid had happened to the franchise since late in the 2008 season. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings (our pet metric for determining each team’s quality), Green Bay was the ninth-worst team in the NFL, and it had a mere 6 percent probability of making the playoffs.

Since then, however, it’s hard to find any team running hotter than the Packers. Green Bay has won three straight — by an average margin of 17 points per game — and they’ve risen to 10th-best in Elo after a stunning 38-10 rout of the Seattle Seahawks on national TV Sunday afternoon. Over the past month of action, no team has improved its Elo rating as much as the Packers have. The only question now is whether this late charge will be enough to save Green Bay’s season.

Through 11 weeks, the 2016 Packers were looking like a team with an average passing attack and a terrible defense and special teams — no recipe for success in today’s NFL. In fact, Green Bay had been pretty mediocre in most phases of the game for a couple seasons at that point, despite the presence of future Hall of Fame QB Aaron Rodgers under center. Rodgers had one of the top two dozen or so passing seasons ever in 2014, but he’d slumped in 2015 without many of his usual receiving weapons, and he merely had a good — not great — start to 2016.

And the Packers desperately needed Rodgers to be great in 2016, because with an injury to Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews (among others), the team’s defense had slipped badly from its form of the previous few years. After giving up 42 points to Washington in Week 11, Green Bay had the NFL’s sixth-worst defense by expected points added,1 and it ranked fourth-worst against the pass in particular. The 34.2 total EPA below average (i.e., they allowed the equivalent of 34.2 more points through the air than the average defense would have) Green Bay’s pass D yielded against the Titans and Redskins in Weeks 10 and 11 represented the worst back-to-back performances against the pass by any team in the 2016 season.

The Packers had thrived with a poor defense in the past — they went 15-1 in 2011 despite having the league’s 13th-worst defense by EPA — but that was back when Rodgers was carrying the team with historic passing numbers. Without those, there was little reason to think a Green Bay turnaround was imminent.

But over the last three weeks, the Packers have rediscovered what made them perennial Super Bowl contenders. In spite of a nagging calf injury, Rodgers still has the NFL’s best Total QBR since Week 12, producing a league-best 12.6 EPA above average per game over that span. (It’s the team’s best three-game passing stretch since late in 2014.) And perhaps even more importantly, Green Bay’s defense has played far better over the past few games than it did all year long. With 6.2 EPA above average per game since Week 12, the team is having its best three-game defensive showing since the end of the 2015 season.

EPA PER-GAME RANKING
SEASON RECORD PASS OFF RUSH OFF PASS DEF RUSH DEF S/T
2016, weeks 12-14 3-0 1st 30th 4th 26th 9th
2016, weeks 1-11 4-6 12th 7th 29th 4th 31st
2015 10-6 18th 11th 8th 27th 12th
2014 12-4 2nd 11th 13th 9th 31st
How Green Bay turned it around

Rankings are among all 32 NFL teams.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Granted, the bulk of that defensive improvement came in a single game, against Seattle on Sunday. By holding the Seahawks’ passing offense to 24.9 EPA below its usual per-game output — including a staggering five interceptions of Russell Wilson — Green Bay had the fourth-best defensive outing against the pass by any team this season. It’s still an open question, however, whether that game was more of a fluke or a sign that this defense is finally coming around. Three of Wilson’s five picks were tipped, so Green Bay enjoyed some good fortune Sunday. And although the Packer D was improving in the two games leading up to its outburst versus Seattle, that meant playing “slightly below average” instead of “historically atrocious.”

Even if Rodgers is healthy enough, and even if the defense has straightened out its issues, this late-season push may simply be coming too late to salvage Green Bay’s playoff hopes. Our Elo simulations currently give the Packers a 30 percent chance of making the postseason, most of which comes from their hope of winning the NFC North (and not the wild card, for which Green Bay would need to leapfrog three teams instead of two). According to The New York Times’ playoff simulator, the Packers probably need to beat both the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions in the season’s final two weeks in order to make the playoffs — and even then, the postseason wouldn’t necessarily be assured.

If it doesn’t happen, Packer fans will find themselves looking back at Sunday’s rout of Seattle and wondering where that version of their team was all year — and why it couldn’t have emerged sooner.

CORRECTION: (Dec. 12, 4:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated Julius Peppers’ condition. Although Peppers is listed on the Packers’ injury report for Week 15 (http://www.packers.com/team/injury-report.html), the team said his presence on the list was “not injury related.”

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Footnotes

  1. Even after adjusting for the strength of opposing offenses faced.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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