A team once left for dead—and who really should be all but finished—now has the enviable opportunity of winning the last two games of a raucous 2013 season and guaranteeing both a divisional title and a home playoff game.
It's not the script the Green Bay Packers (7-6-1) hoped for back in September, but it's a scenario this team will take after the first 14 games produced a rollercoaster ride of entertainment and despair. Now, a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Lambeau Field will set up a Week 17 clash with the Chicago Bears that would decide the division champion.
Few inside or outside the Packers organization could have foreseen such an opportunity as recently as three weeks ago.
Once 5-2 and a clear-cut contender, Green Bay went five games (0-4-1) and 43 days between wins. The Packers lost back-to-back games by two touchdowns, tied the hapless Minnesota Vikings and then played one of their worst games in recent memory in the national spotlight of Thanksgiving. Yet here the Packers sit, with a chance to beat the Steelers and Bears and stamp their spot in the NFC playoffs.
Here's three questions the Packers need to answer in Week 16 Sunday:
1. How Will the Packers Play Ben Roethlisberger?
Veteran quarterbacks have historically had their way with Dom Capers and the Packers pass defense. Roethlisberger presents another test for that unit, and it could be a stern one considering how well the Super Bowl-winning quarterback is playing over the last five weeks. Since Week 11, Roethlisberger has 12 touchdowns passes against just one interception, and his passer rating of 106.4 is the sixth-best in the NFL. Overall, the Steelers are averaging 28.4 points and 346.2 yards with only two total turnovers over the last five games. This is an offense that is finally clicking late in the season, mostly because of strong quarterback play and the avoidance of big mistakes. The Packers will inevitably give up yards and a few big plays, but the current turnover streak—eight in the last three games—has to continue Sunday.
2. Who is the Real Matt Flynn?
Facing the bottom-ranked defenses of Minnesota (31st in points, 31st in yards), Atlanta (27th, 29th)and Dallas (26th, 32nd), Flynn produced big results and looked like a competent NFL quarterback. The one defense he faced that could play—from Detroit—manhandled him and the rest of the Green Bay offense. The Steelers defense might not be one of Dick LeBeau's greatest, but it's still more Detroit than Dallas. Pittsburgh is 15th in points (23.7), 11th in total yards (338.0) and 8th against the pass (224.2). Expect to see an extensive blitz package and zone coverage behind it from LeBeau. We should find out a lot about whether Flynn's recent success is mostly opponent driven or if he's actually making strides within the offense.
3. Can the Packers Run the Football?
No one statistic ever decides a game, but the Steelers have consistently lost this season when opponents have rushed for more than 100 yards. Eight teams have done it in 2013, and Pittsburgh is just 1-7 in those games. Here's the win-loss splits for the Steelers against the run: In six wins, Pittsburgh has allowed 79.8 rushing yards a game. In the eight losses, teams have averaged 142.5 yards. That's a striking difference. The Packers have followed a similar trend since Aaron Rodgers went down on Nov. 4. In the six games since, Green Bay is 2-0-1 when cracking 100 rushing yards, and 0-3 when held under 100. The Packers' splits are 152.7 rushing yards in the two wins and one tie, and 59.3 in the three losses. Sunday's outcome will very likely come down to whether the Packers can consistently win at the line of scrimmage on offense.
Prediction: Green Bay 23, Pittsburgh 21 (8-6)
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.