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Midseason report: Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The parallels to seasons past are apparent in Green Bay, where a third straight 1-2 start sent Packers' fans into a panic and prompted quarterback Aaron Rodgers to try to ease their concerns with a different five-letter word: R-E-L-A-X.

And then he put together one of the best stretches of his career to help the Packers do what they had done the previous two seasons: lift themselves up after another slow start.

So here they are, halfway through the season with a 5-3 record and a favorable second-half schedule with five of their final eight at home. And they're actually moderately healthy for a change.

All of that again makes them one of the favorites in the NFC.

Yet the overriding issue that has held them back since their Super Bowl XLV victory remains apparent: They have major shortcomings on defense that might again prevent them from a long playoff run.

Midseason MVP: Aaron Rodgers. A case -- even a strong one -- could be made for Jordy Nelson, who is on pace for 100 catches and nearly 1,500 yards, but Rodgers' command of the offense might be better than it has ever been. That was never more evident than in the comeback victory over the Dolphins in Week 6, when he threw the game-winning touchdown pass with three seconds left. Although his yardage total is down from his best seasons, he has 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions -- all three of which bounced off the hands of his intended receiver.

Biggest disappointment: Run defense. Back in May, coach Mike McCarthy promised the Packers' defense would better this year. He said to put it "in big letters." But the run defense has been worse. In fact, the worst. Through eight games, the Packers ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 153.5 yards per game. The loss of nose tackle B.J. Raji to a season-ending torn biceps in August was a blow, given that he was one of the few wide bodies the Packers retained on their defensive line. Their effort to get leaner and more athletic up front has failed them against the run.

Best moment: The fake spike. Not only was it one of the best moments of the season, Rodgers' fake-spike play against the Dolphins might go down as one of his best of all time. With the final seconds ticking away and the Packers in need of a touchdown without a timeout left, everyone at SunLife Stadium expected Rodgers to stop the clock. Instead, he surprised everyone -- everyone except receiver Davante Adams – and fired a quick pass to the rookie, who gained 12 yards and then got out of bounds with six seconds left. That set up the game-winning, 4-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless with three seconds remaining.

Worst moment: Week 3 in Detroit. It's hard to imagine a game starting much worse. In the Packers' 19-7 loss at Detroit in Week 3, running back Eddie Lacy fumbled on his second carry, and the Lions returned it for a touchdown. It was Lacy's first fumble since Week 1 of the 2013 season. In the second quarter, the Packers went to Lacy on first down from their own 1-yard line, and he got stuffed in the end zone for a safety. The Packers' offense gave up nearly as many points (nine) as their defense (10) in that disheartening loss.

Key to the second half: If the defense can't create takeaways, then the Packers might be staring at another early exit from the playoffs, assuming they get there. It's unrealistic at this point to expect their defense to make significant gains against the run, so they're going to have to rely heavily on winning the turnover battle, which has been the formula for success. But that's a dangerous way to live in the postseason because playoff teams tend to take of the ball better than the middle-to-bottom-tier teams.