The Packers are at a crossroads. After Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, third-year backup Brett Hundley was thrust into action. The results from his three quarters against the Vikings and first start against the Saints were mixed at best. Hundley didn’t have the best pass protection, but he did have talented skill players. His accuracy was ultimately the real problem for the offense, since rookie running back Aaron Jones was phenomenal on the ground and the receivers were often in position to make plays. Hundley did make plays with his legs, but the offense has no chance of consistently moving the chains if he can’t accurately deliver the football.

While the offense is without its leader in Aaron Rodgers, the defense is without its leader in Morgan Burnett. Burnett’s absence isn’t the only problem on that side of the ball, even though he was the only missing starter. The defense hasn’t been able to put it all together despite an abundance of talent. They certainly aren’t the worst defense in the league, but they are near the bottom of many situational rankings such as third downs allowed (eighth-worst) and yards per play (10th worst). They are the worst defense in the league on fourth down, allowing opposing offenses to convert an astounding 86% of fourth downs. The pass rush has struggled to close the deal, ranking dead last in the league in sack percentage over the past three games and 27th overall.

With two weeks and a day to rest, it’s possible that Morgan Burnett returns, providing the defense their leader and best defensive back. Ahmad Brooks and Joe Thomas might return, which would strengthen depth at linebacker. Other players are further removed from injuries sustained in the past several weeks, perhaps most notably tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. With a bye week to prepare and some good film to study, and an overall healthier roster, it’s possible McCarthy and Dom Capers engineer a comeback similar to last season’s resurgence.

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It’s also possible that McCarthy, his staff, and his front office are exposed for being dependent on their Hall of Fame quarterback. The defense might simply not be able to get out of its rut, seemingly unable to get off the field whether the offense is passing or running the football. Rodgers had a hard enough time compensating for a poor defense, so even if Hundley puts it together on offense he’ll have his work cut out for him if the defense does not improve.

Though the season could unfold a countless number of ways, I will chart two scenarios. In one, the Packers come out of the bye week a different team from the mess we saw against the Saints. They win five of their next nine games, including a critical week 16 game against the Vikings, and take the division. In the other, the Packers are lucky to win against the hapless Browns and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The reality will likely fall between these two scenarios, but this exercise will help illustrate which variables will determine the Packers’ fate.

Packers Go 9-7 and Take NFC North

The Packers come out of their bye facing the Lions at home on Monday Night Football. On offense, Brett Hundley has had more time to practice with the starters and feels more comfortable with timing. Aided by a healthier offensive line, Hundley has more time to throw and screens are executed more cleanly. Hundley’s chemistry with the receivers looks more natural, his accuracy has improved, and he’s selling play action better. Jordy Nelson, Geronimo Allison, and Martellus Bennett all catch end zone strikes by Hundley. A late drive ends in a field goal after Aaron Jones rushes over 30 yards in that drive alone. The Packers beat the Lions at Lambeau 24-17 after the defense fends off a last-minute comeback attempt by Matthew Stafford, and things are looking up.

The momentum continues as the Packers defeat the Bears 21-20 in a week 10 thriller at Soldier Field. The game ends with a 4th quarter touchdown drive by Hundley, culminating in an end zone strike to Ty Montgomery. Hundley finds his groove and avoids an interception in his third start. The defense is able to close out the game after the Packers’ final touchdown, sniffing out a screen pass to Tarik Cohen before Trubisky gets sacked and then intercepted on a deep ball. 

The Packers’ next opponent, the Ravens, are riding the hot hand of Alex Collins, freshly promoted from the practice squad before his breakout game against the Dolphins. With Morgan Burnett back in action, Collins is kept in check out of the backfield. Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark eat up double teams on the inside. Nick Perry and Clay Matthews set the edge well, limiting the damage on the ground. Joe Flacco is still in concussion protocol, and Brett Hundley bests Ryan Mallett in a battle of backups as the latter is picked off twice and fumbles once. The Packers come out on top as the Ravens fall 27-21, with Aaron Jones ending with an absurd two rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown, earning yet another week of accolades and building a case for offensive rookie of the year. 

At this point, the Vikings lost close games against the Skins and and Rams after beating the Browns in week 8. The Vikings fall to 6-4 as the Packers improve to 7-3, and the Packers are suddenly full of enthusiasm. However, the Hundley-led Packers come down to Earth after being handed tough losses by the Steelers and the Buccaneers.

The game against Pittsburgh is a close one, with Aaron Jones narrowly losing the edge to the talented Le’Veon Bell. The Packers defense can’t contain Bell, with Josh Jones and Clinton-Dix whiffing on key tackles that allow Bell to run for two long touchdowns. Bad coverage rears its ugly head as JuJu Smith-Schuster breaks out after officially taking over for Martavis Bryant, with another missed tackle by Clinton-Dix allowing for a receiving touchdown. Though Antonio Brown doesn’t snag a touchdown pass, he does finish with over 150 receiving yards. A rushing touchdown by Hundley and touchdown strikes to Davante Adams and Lance Kendricks are not enough to overcome the Steelers’ potent offense, and the Packers lose 24-21. 

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The Buccaneers game is never as close, as early touchdowns passes by Jameis Winston to Mike Evans and O.J. Howard put the Packers behind early. The Packers largely abandon the run, though Aaron Jones still ends with 11 carries for 69 yards. Brett Hundley is forced to pass 31 times, and though pass protection holds up fairly well, coverage is tight the whole night and Hundley only completes 18 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions. The Packers end up losing 34-13, and they don’t manage to score until the second quarter. 

The Packers, fortunately, face the still-winless Browns in week 14. Brett Hundley puts the Packers up early with a touchdown on the opening drive, and the Packers ride Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery on the ground for most of the rest of the game. DeShone Kizer is the Browns’ starter at quarterback after being benched twice in the past six weeks, and gets benched once again after throwing three interceptions in the first half. Kevin Hogan adds a couple picks in the second half, including one returned for a touchdown, and Hue Jackson begins searching for colleges that might be looking for a new head coach. The Packers win 17-9, and they might as well have been on a bye week.

The Packers travel to Carolina in week 15, where a stout defense bottles up Hundley and keeps Aaron Jones to an earthly 56 yards on 13 carries. By now, the Packers have lost a few linebackers and the defense has trouble containing Jonathan Stewart, who doesn’t break off big runs but does enough to keep the chains moving. Christian McCaffrey demands attention from Morgan Burnett at inside linebacker, which means he isn’t available to spy Cam Newton. When the Packers try putting Blake Martinez on McCaffrey, Martinez becomes a liability in coverage. Ultimately McCaffrey ends with 6 receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown, and Newton adds two rushing touchdowns en route to a 30-19 Panthers victory. 

Sitting at 8-6, the Packers are now facing a critical game against the Vikings, who also sit at 8-6. Neither the Lions nor the Bears are in playoff contention, so this game could determine who takes the NFC North. Both teams are treating it as such.

Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have emerged as a formidable thunder-and-lightning tandem. However, Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery have also become a potent tandem. Case Keenum and Brett Hundley face off once again, but this time Hundley seems to have the upper edge after many weeks of experience since he was thrust onto the field in their first game. However, Minnesota’s defense holds the advantage over Green Bay’s defense. The game is closely matched between the two teams, and both teams must grind out tough yards over long drives. Special teams proves to be the difference maker, as Trevor Davis has a 40 yard kick return to begin the game, allowing Hundley to lead the offense to a field goal on the first drive. The Packers’ punter Justin Vogel is able to flip the field when Hundley is unable to lead the offense to a scoring opportunity, and the Packers’ punt coverage is excellent, as usual. The Packers eventually win the hard-fought battle 16-13.

The Packers aren’t out of the woods yet, and end up succumbing to a vengeful Lions team. However, luckily for them, the Vikings also lose their week 17 matchup against a bitter Bears team. The Packers are on their way to the playoffs, and rumors begin to swirl that Rodgers might be cleared by January. Whatever happens from here on out, Brett Hundley can be proud of leading the Packers to their ninth straight postseason berth.

Packers Go 6-10 and Miss The Playoffs

It’s not difficult to visualize this scenario. Players like Morgan Burnett, Ahmad Brooks, and Joe Thomas continue to linger on the injury report. Fresh injuries to the front seven continues to mute any semblance of a pass rush, and the Packers struggle to keep three healthy cornerbacks active on any given game day. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix continues his poor play, whether or not it’s due to some hidden injury. Josh Jones continues to struggle with missed tackles and poor discipline on play action. Montravius Adams and Vince Biegel, the Packers third- and fourth-round picks in the 2017 draft, continue to sit idle as they recover from offseason surgery. 

On offense, the offensive line fights to stay healthy. David Bahktiari and Bryan Bulaga both aggravate injuries after the bye. Lane Taylor misses extended action due to his leg injury, and Corey Linsley seems slowed with a back injury. Even if he had enough time to pass, which he doesn’t, Brett Hundley never significantly improves his accuracy. The potential of Aaron Jones is never fully realized as Brett Hundley’s poor passing causes opposing defenses to load the box, and McCarthy doesn’t get to run the football much as the Packers regularly fall behind early. The Packers are able to eke out a win against the Lions at Lambeau after a bye and against the Browns, but both victories are hard-earned. And they’re the only victories the Packers end up earning.

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Keys To Victory

Ultimately, the Packers need three things if they want a chance to make the playoffs:

  • Morgan Burnett must get healthy, and the team needs to stay healthy in general.
  • Brett Hundley needs to improve his passing accuracy.
  • Defense needs to get off the field.

There are many other variables in play, of course. There is no guarantee the Packers will win out if these three criteria are met. But if they want a chance to play in January, fulfilling these three criteria will be the first step.