In all reality, the deflated Green Bay Packers (5-6-1) are just one loss away from flat-lining their 2013 season.
And it doesn't appear as if Aaron Rodgers is coming to the rescue this week, when the Atlanta Falcons visit what should be a frigid Lambeau Field.
Now over a month removed from fracturing his left collarbone, Rodgers still hasn't received clearance from the Packers medical staff. It remains unlikely that he will before Sunday's must-win tilt with the Falcons, putting the onus once again on a backup quarterback situation that hasn't produced a win over five tries since Rodgers went down.
Now 11 days removed being routed on Thanksgiving Day, the Packers should be as rested as they've been since the bye. There should be a sense of obvious urgency. And the weather, with temps that are likely to be in the low teens, should play right into the Packers hands.
But will any of it matter?
Here's five questions the Packers need to answer in Week 14.
1. Can the Packers Stop a Running Game?
For the last five weeks, that question has been answered with an emphatic "no." A top-five rushing outfit for the first seven games of the season, the Packers now rival the Chicago Bears as the NFL's worst against the run. That's obviously not good company. The Bears have allowed 504 rushing yards the last two weeks, while the Packers aren't far behind at 473. Coming in at 31st against the run since Rodgers' injury (only the Bears have been worse), Green Bay now ranks 26th overall (125.9 yards/game)—which would mark Dom Capers' worst ranking against the run since taking over in 2009. The Falcons may be 29th in rushing offense this season, but Atlanta has averaged over 130 yards on the ground over the last three weeks. Getting Steven Jackson healthy has made a world of difference. And don't think for a second that Jackson and the Falcons are hopeless of coming into Lambeau Field and dropping 150 or more rushing yards. The recent trends say Atlanta is more than capable of making the Packers run defense look silly again.
2. Is Eddie Lacy Due for a Big Day?
If the Falcons have been consistent at anything this season, it's been an inability to stop the run. Nine straight teams have rushed for more than 100 yards on Mike Nolan's 30th ranked run defense. Even when Nolan calls for eight men in the box, opposing offenses are running it right down the Falcons throat, mostly because Atlanta can't tackle a running back to save its life. The Packers must continue these ills on Sunday with Lacy and James Starks. For the most part, the Rodgers-less Packers have been competitive on offense only when the running game has pulled its own weight. The numbers spell that out: In the two games Green Bay rushed for over 100 yards since Rodgers' injury, the Packers scored 20 (Chicago) and 26 (Minnesota) points. In the three others, which saw Green Bay average just 59.3 rushing yards, the Packers scored a grand total of 36. To win with a backup quarterback under center, running the football is an absolute must. Surely, the Falcons understand this, too.
3. Have the Packers Learned How to Block and Tackle?
No matter how much the game evolves, blocking and tackling will still be at the heart of winning football. The Packers have stunk at both recently. The tape from Detroit's Thanksgiving thrashing should really be played at every defensive line clinic in the country. On every single snap, the Packers were mauled at the line of scrimmage by a hungry, more talented defensive line. For all the strides the offensive line has taken this season, Thursday was a significant step backwards. But if there's any silver lining for Sunday, it's that the Falcons don't possess many consistent pass rushers. Tackling has been an obvious problem for the Packers for most of the season, but also one that hasn't been close to fixed. In fact, Green Bay is now on pace to miss more tackles on defense and special teams than in any other season under Capers. They better have it figured out before Sunday. Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White are all physical runners with the football in their hands, and the freezing temps won't make it any easier to bring these big bodies down. The Falcons can rupture their way to a big day on offense if the Packers tackling is once again below par.
4. Will Pressuring Matt Ryan Solve the Defensive Problems?
The Falcons $100 million quarterback has received some outside heat this season, but none of that compares to the pressure he's dealt with from his own offensive line. In just the last two games, Ryan has taken 11 sacks and dealt with 48 instances of pressure. Even the elite quarterbacks struggle to deal with that kind of disruption. For the Packers, such pandemonium up front in Atlanta should present an opportunity to right the ship—if only slightly—on defense. As Brian Carriveau pointed out this week, the Packers haven't had much problem registering sacks this season, or in any season since Capers arrived. Those sacks just haven't translated into consistent defensive success. Sacks remain one of the game's most overrated statistics, because other pressures that don't result in sacks can be just as important as getting a quarterback on the ground. The Packers obviously still want sacks, but keeping Ryan under constant duress on Sunday is infinitely more important. The fastest way to fix a struggling secondary is through the defensive front dominating the line of scrimmage.
5. Can Matt Flynn Score Enough to Save the Season?
Boy, the novelty of Matt Flynn wore off in a hurry in Detroit. Granted, Flynn was operating from a collapsing pocket on every snap, and the Packers couldn't run the ball more than an inch. But you got your first real glimpse as to why the Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills all said quick goodbyes to Flynn within the calendar year. Flynn has never possessed a big arm, but even in the warm, controlled conditions of Ford Field, Flynn struggled to throw the football down field. His arm looks shot, and now he'll have to try cutting through the cold, harsh air of Green Bay on Sunday. Coach Mike McCarthy is rolling with Flynn because of his game experience and understanding of the offense, but Scott Tolzien could at least threaten defenses vertically. If you're Mike Nolan, what's stopping you from playing a safety in the box on almost every snap, much like Gunther Cunningham did in Detroit? Unless the Packers defense suddenly awakens from its slumber, Flynn will need to score at least 20 points to win. Color me skeptical.
Prediction: Atlanta 27, Green Bay 13 (8-4)
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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