Run the table was so 2016; Packers have less reason for optimism

GREEN BAY, Wis. – When Aaron Rodgers said two years ago that he thought the Green Bay Packers could run the table even though they sat at 4-6 with six games to play, his claim was not without merit.

The Packers quarterback had just gotten one of his weapons, tight end Jared Cook, back from an ankle injury. In the game before “run the table” became a thing, Cook caught six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in his first action since Week 3.

He also had Jordy Nelson in his comeback-player-of-the-year season, Davante Adams in his breakout season, a new weapon in Ty Montgomery’s switch to running back and an effective edge rusher in Nick Perry who was on the way to a career-best 11-sack season.

And the quarterback himself had broken out of a mini slump that spanned the end of 2015 and the start of 2016.

But this isn’t 2016 and a run to the NFC Championship Game, or even to a playoff berth, seems far more unlikely than it did two years ago.

The Packers find themselves in a similar spot -- 4-6-1 with five games to play. They know they must win out -- and get some help -- to even have a chance for a playoff spot.

But this time:

  • There’s no dynamic tight end. Jimmy Graham has two or fewer catches in four of his last five games and now has a broken left thumb that rendered him mostly ineffective in Sunday night’s loss at Minnesota.

  • The only reliable weapons Rodgers has on offense are Adams, who went over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career with five games still to play, and running back Aaron Jones, who leads the NFL in yards per rush (6.0).

  • The quarterback himself isn’t anywhere near as sharp. Game after game he has missed throws in key moments that used to be routine. There was the overthrown potential touchdown to Adams in Minnesota and another ball in the turf at the feet of a receiver on a dump-off pass for the second straight game.

  • And there’s rampant speculation about coach Mike McCarthy’s future.

No wonder Rodgers hasn’t made any proclamations or predictions this time around.

The playoffs seem like the ultimate reach.

“Yeah it seemed like that in ’16 as well,” Rodgers said. “Nobody thought we could do it, and then we came together in Philly, got the job done, came home and beat Houston, beat Seattle, went on the road and beat Chicago, came back home and beat Minnesota, went on the road and beat Detroit, you know?

"We’ve done it before. Just have to find a way. The way our defense played tonight, and with the injuries they have, to hold them to 24 points, we have to win this game. So offensively we gotta be a lot better. We all have to play better, myself included. We started off the game nice, you know? We had a couple good drives, we’re rolling there. Then we hit our unfortunate, typical lull, couldn’t get it going again.”

It’s all irrelevant if the Packers can’t find a way to win on the road. The next time they play away from Lambeau, in Week 15 at Chicago, 371 days will have passed since their last road win. They’re 0-6 on the road this season with two road games to play. Since 1990, only 10 of the 336 playoff teams were 2-6 or worse on the road in their playoff season. The 1994 Packers were among those 10.

What’s more, since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only eight teams were under .500 through 11 games and then went on to win out and make the playoffs. The 2016 Packers were the last to do so.

As of Monday, the Packers had a 13 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Still, it was business as usual on Monday for the Packers -- other than a rare Monday off after a loss for the players. Coach Mike McCarthy said he and his staff would correct the film from the loss at Minnesota as usual

But then he was asked if there’s anything positive -- like there was in 2016 -- that can be of use down the stretch.

“Just going through the run plan, obviously that’s a defensive front that’s excellent in Minnesota, [and] our yards per carry is the highest in that stadium in the last two years,” McCarthy said. “So that’s definitely a positive against those guys. I think we were 63 percent win of the run balance. So you build off those things. There’s always good things, and I’m just shocked I get to talk about something positive here. Thank you. But, yeah, that’s the reality, and also who we play and how they challenge us. Really, if I was going to be specific to an area, if our third down improves we’re clearly a touchdown or so better per game.”