Reviewing the Green Bay Packers at their bye:
Nine-game capsule: The Packers have put themselves in the thick of playoff contention after an unexpected and unsettling 2-3 start. Their final-play loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3, on what surely was the last call made by a replacement official for as long as the NFL exists, could have been a season-defining moment. Instead it has become an afterthought. (Unless and until it impacts the Packers' postseason standing, of course.) The Packers have reeled off four consecutive victories since an Oct. 7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. A slew of injuries, however, has changed the complexion of this team and suggests it might need to grind out victories like never before.
MVP: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the first to acknowledge he hasn't played at the same historic level he did last season. In his most recent game, last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Rodgers couldn't so much as complete 50 percent of his passes. But it would be difficult to identify a player more responsible for putting the Packers back on track. His six-touchdown performance against the Houston Texans, coming a week after the Colts loss, redirected the season. During the winning streak, he has 15 touchdown passes and one interception. That's a ratio of one touchdown pass for every six completions, which is actually higher than his completions-touchdown ratio last season (1:7.62). Finally, Rodgers has taken on a larger leadership role during the injury absence of cornerback Charles Woodson. He has the Packers exactly where they would hope to be in Week 10: With a good enough record to challenge for the NFC North title during their final seven games. Runner-up: Receiver James Jones, who has helped the Packers overcome injuries to other receivers by catching eight touchdown passes, tied for the most in the NFL, while not dropping a single pass thrown his way. Honorable mention: Receiver Randall Cobb, who has emerged with five touchdowns in the past three games, and leads the team with 45 receptions.
Biggest surprise: Tight end Jermichael Finley, once touted as a key to the Packers' high-flying hopes, has largely disappeared from the offense. He has averaged 9.3 yards on 29 catches and hasn't scored since Week 1. There would seem to be big plays available to tight ends in the Packers' offense, as evidenced by backup Tom Crabtree's scoring plays of 72 and 48 yards, but Finley isn't making them. He has dropped anywhere between four and seven passes, depending on the statistical service you reference, and has seen his playing time dwindle from 86 percent of the Packers' snaps in Week 1 to 50 percent in Week 9. He has no reported injuries and is still only 25 years old, which suggests his previous production can still be drawn out of him. At the moment, though, it doesn't appear the Packers have much confidence in Finley.
Stat to note: Through nine games, the Packers have lost 40 starts from players who either opened the summer atop the team's depth chart or replaced those who have been hurt. Some of those injuries have been short-term, but the Packers are looking at returning from their bye without four starting linebackers -- Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. As well, they won't have right tackle Bryan Bulaga, running back Cedric Benson, receiver Greg Jennings, and Woodson, at least not right away.
Bonus stat to note: The Packers' defense is on pace to shave 900 yards off the record-setting total of 4,796 passing yards it allowed last season. Moving Woodson to safety in the base defense, and injecting six rookies into the regular rotation, has given the defense new energy and bodes well for continued improvement in the second half.
Looking ahead: The Packers have the sixth-most difficult schedule remaining in the NFL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They have five division games remaining, including a potential title-clinching game Dec. 19 at the Chicago Bears, and will play two of their final three games on the road.