GREEN BAY, Wis. – They play only one more team currently with a winning record, and that team just lost one of the key members of its defense. They play only two more road games, and one of them is in Detroit. They could get back three All-Pro players, two of whom have either barely played or not played at all this season. And with one of the latest possible bye weeks, they should be as fresh as possible.
The Green Bay Packers have all that going for them as they return from their week off.
At 9-3, they’re currently in the No. 2 position in the NFC behind the Arizona Cardinals (10-2), and they have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cardinals because of their Oct. 28 win.
To say the Packers are in the best spot of any team in the NFC going into the final five weeks of the regular season might be a stretch, what with all their injury issues, including Aaron Rodgers’ fractured toe. But there are plenty of reasons to think they’re set up coming off their bye week and heading into Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
How does the return of a five-time All-Pro left tackle sound?
And David Bakhtiari, who has not played since tearing the ACL in his left knee last December, might not be the only standout the Packers get back in December.
A pair of second-team All-Pro defensive players from last season might be back, too. There’s optimism outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander will play again this season as well. Smith played 18 snaps in Week 1 and then was shut down to have back surgery. Alexander hasn’t played since he sustained a shoulder injury in Week 4.
Packers coach Matt LaFleur said Monday any of the three could “potentially” return to practice this week.
Some key players like tight end Robert Tonyan and offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins, both with torn ACLs, aren’t coming back this season. But if Bakhtiari, Smith and Alexander return, it would be a huge boost. And if they don’t, then look at the jobs their replacements have done. Yosh Nijman has held up better than anyone could have imagined at left tackle while Rashan Gary has emerged as a star pass-rusher, and Rasul Douglas went from Cardinals’ practice-squad player to big-play cornerback for the Packers.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a team that’s suffered this many injuries,” LaFleur said. “So, yeah, it is encouraging that we’re sitting where we are right now at 9-3 and having to battle through so much adversity and getting guys that maybe normally may not get as much playing time as they have, I think hopefully that will benefit us down the stretch.”
Week 13 bye
No one seemed thrilled about such a late bye week when the schedule came out, but it has had its benefits.
It gave Rodgers a chance to rest his fractured pinky toe and it meant the Packers would be as rested as any team in the league at this point in the season. Only the Colts, Dolphins, Eagles and Patriots have a later bye, in Week 14.
“You always want the bye to work to your advantage,” LaFleur said. “Hopefully it will allow some of our guys to get some much-needed rest, to recharge the battery and potentially get some of these guys that have been on IR or that have sustained injuries, to get them back in a better position to be close to 100%. I don’t think anybody is 100% at this time of the season, but certainly, you want your guys to be as fresh as possible.”
The Ravens, at 8-4, are the only one of the five remaining teams on the schedule with a winning record, and the news that they lost Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle on Sunday makes them that much less dangerous.
The Packers have the easiest remaining schedule by opponent winning percentage (.408) in the NFC. That is skewed heavily by the Lions (1-10-1), who the Packers visit to end the regular season against on Jan. 9.
Their other three opponents – Chicago, Cleveland and Minnesota – have a combined record of 15-21.
A defense, finally?
Remember when Rodgers said after the 2019 season opener, “We’ve got a defense?”
He might finally be right.
After defensive disappointments the past two seasons, the Packers rank fifth in fewest points allowed and seventh in fewest yards allowed under first-year coordinator Joe Barry.
That’s not to say there aren’t problem areas -- the red zone among them, where they rank 31st by allowing touchdowns on 71.9% of opponent drives inside the 20. But this appears to be the most complete defense the Packers have had under LaFleur.
“I'll take that,” Barry said. “Now, obviously, I want to improve in all areas, but the most important thing at the end of the day is limiting our opponent from putting points on the board, so that's been good.”
A special teams fix?
The Packers rank 29th in ESPN’s Football Power Index special teams rankings.
They’re probably lucky to be that high.
The return game has yielded few big plays -- ranking 29th in kickoff return average and 32nd in punt return average. While their new punter Corey Bojorquez ranks fourth in the league in net yard average, the field goal unit is a mess. Despite another missed field goal -- Mason Crosby’s ninth of the season -- the game before the bye, first-year coordinator Mo Drayton sounded optimistic a missed field goal won’t doom their season.
“We are encouraged,” Drayton said. “I physically see the operation getting better. It’s never OK to miss a kick. We all know that, we understand that, but there are improvements that we can physically see. It’s going to yield results, it’s yielding results. You’re supposed to celebrate every win because they’re hard to come by in the National Football League, but that last kick, it just dug at me a little bit and I really couldn’t celebrate the way I wanted to. But we’re going to get it.”