GREEN BAY — Two months ago, the Green Bay Packers entered this season confident they could make a Super Bowl run.
Facing a crossroads, they pushed all their chips towards the mid-table this spring. General Manager Brian Gutekunst extended quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the richest contract in NFL history. He used his remaining salary cap to build what was supposed to be a dominating defense.
These were ingredients the Packers hoped would retain their spot at the top of the NFC, even after trading wide receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders.
“Every team has the same goal going into the season,” coach Matt LaFleur said Friday. “I think for some it’s more realistic than for others. I think we were one of those teams that really believed in it.
This belief is about sustaining life – at best – after Thursday night’s 27-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. The math just doesn’t match. At 4-7, losing six of their last seven games, the Packers have just six games left in the season to mount any kind of playoffs.
LaFleur said he’s not unaware of his team’s record, or the bottom of the standings he places his team. Late Thursday evening, he delivered a simple message to his players.
“It’s win or go home,” defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. “We just have to keep fighting.”
Even running the table might not be enough to save this season. They can’t finish better than 9-7, a big drop after three straight 13-win seasons. That could perch the Packers on the playoff bubble, but it would be a toss-up at best to determine if they landed in the bracket.
A year ago, six teams finished with nine wins. Only two received playoff berths: the Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1). The New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers all finished 9-8 and were knocked out of the playoffs.
The Packers’ odds of missing out on a playoff berth are higher at 9-8 because of the teams that have already beaten them. They would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker to the Washington Commanders 5-5 and, though likely to finish with more than nine wins, the New York Giants 7-2.
“I think you always have to be honest,” LaFleur said, “about where you are at, just to guide you. But definitely, yeah, I think we’re in a very tough spot. to our team is that every game is a one-game season from now on. Every game is absolutely critical, and they all are, but especially where we are today. There is no margin of error.
In hindsight, delaying the bye week might have been a mistake
In his reflection, LaFleur reflected on how his team went from Super Bowl favorites to this predicament. He mentioned off-the-cuff Friday how the Packers’ swoon began with their trip to London. The team entered its first game away from North America with a 3-1 record. There were visible cracks in their foundation, but the Packers were winning.
LaFleur had the option this offseason of accepting his team’s week off after his trip overseas or plodding through the season. He chose the latter, pushing the Packers goodbye in Week 14. That meant eight straight games after returning from Europe.
The Packers have won just one so far, with two remaining before they reach their bye week.
“I think anytime things aren’t going to the level you want,” LaFleur said, “you have to look at everything critically. Yeah, absolutely, I struggled with that. All you can do is to move forward and learn from every experience, good or bad. It’s a tough lesson, I would say, given where we are, but that was the decision I made at the time in this I thought was best for our team. Hard to say if it was the right decision.”
The decision was no doubt based on LaFleur’s belief that it would be a championship season. A Week 6 bye would have created a death march in the second half of the season as he expected the Packers to race to the playoffs. He chose to give his team a rest before the playoffs. Now, it looks like the Packers will have the whole offseason to rest.
It didn’t help that Rodgers suffered a thumb injury against the Giants. The Packers tried to rest during the week while Rodgers missed practices, usually on Wednesdays. In reality, the constant grind of a season didn’t allow for enough recovery time. LaFleur said his quarterback was healthy enough to play, noting Rodgers had perhaps his best game of the season last Sunday in a win over the Dallas Cowboys.
“I know he struggles through this,” LaFleur said. “He made some really good shots, then he missed a few. I think that’s the life of a quarterback in this league. You will never be perfect.
If the losses keep coming, focusing on developing young players could be the next step
The Packers could reach the point of their season when they turn a page. Once they’re officially eliminated, a time that could come prematurely given the hole they’re in, attention will likely turn to next season. The Packers are like most NFL teams, a collection of proven veterans and developing youngsters.
Building for the future often means giving in to youth.
The Packers might not be playing for the same goals they entered this season with, at least for much longer. LaFleur made it clear his team would win something every week, regardless of their record.
“I’m not saying it can’t happen,” LaFleur said, “but we’re going to have to play a lot better, and we’re going to have to coach a lot better, and really take it one game at a time. But I think you’re fighting always for something. Every one of those guys, myself, all the coaches, you always fight for your job. Always. Every time you go. It’s just the reality of the league we live in and are working.
“So that’s always going to be the mindset, whether you’re racing or not, you’re always fighting for your job.”