Maybe the Green Bay Packers just hate being frontrunners. After all, the last time they were 8-6 after 14 games they won the Super Bowl. Based on their recent hot streak behind Aaron Rodgers' bid for a third MVP trophy in the last six seasons, don't be surprised if they're sneaking up on Lombardi once again. First, they might have to beat the Detroit Lions.
Second, every other team has to figure out how to beat them when they're underdogs.
On Monday night, the Packers got a little bit closer to making their eighth straight berth to the postseason. After the Washington Redskins fell to the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay moved up to being the six seed, which is especially surprising considering that a month ago the Packers were 4-6 and more concerned with just ending their four-game losing streak than any potential postseason appearance. The issue at the time was far and away their defense, which allowed at least 31 points in all four of those losses, a deficit that not even Rodgers can be expected to overcome.
Following a 42-24 loss to those very Redskins in Week 11 in which Rodgers was "out-slinged" by Kirk Cousins, things had to improve immediately or it was very possible that head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson could be the two most surprising new additions to the job market. Less impactful than his "R-E-L-A-X" speech, Rodgers laid it out pretty clearly after the loss:
"We put ourselves in a tough spot," Rodgers said. "We've got find a way to get a win next week and approach it one week at a time. That's all we've got right now."
That need for improvement was further complicated by the fact that Green Bay's next three opponents all had better records than they did. But they pulled off 27-13 road win over the currently-death-spiraling Philadelphia Eagles. Then a 21-13 win over the Houston Texans. And then most surprising of all, as three-point underdogs at home to the Seattle Seahawks, the Packers gave Pete Carroll a beating unlike he's felt since leaving USC; it had been five years since a team had beaten the Seahawks by more than 10 points, and then Green Bay went out and won by 28.
Following an unsurprising win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday (though still somewhat concerning given that the Matt Barkley-led Bears came dangerously close to the upset, tying the score at 27-27 with under two minutes to go), the Packers are certainly back. While Rodgers is still the key to everything and recently has played more like we're used to – 22 touchdowns, three interceptions, passer rating of 106.4 over the last nine games – it's the defense that's giving them an opportunity to win.
Through the first six weeks, Green Bay's run defense had allowed more than 60 rushing yards only once – 191 to the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL's leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott – and they were 4-2. But in every game since, they've allowed at least 80. Part of that has to come down to injuries.
Starting cornerback and 2015 first round pick Damarious Randall missed six games, his return coinciding with their current win streak; that being said, McCarthy benched Randall against Chicago as Barkley put up a career-high 362 yards. Linebacker Jake Ryan, second on the team in tackles, missed every defensive snap in Weeks 10 and 11 as the Packers allowed a combined 89 points to the Titans and Redskins. And though six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews has been seen more often on State Farm commercials with Rodgers this season than he has been in highlight reels, his presence must still mean something because he missed the majority of that losing streak and has been healthy for the entirety of this winning streak.
Put together, with the possible return this week of linebacker Nick Perry, Green Bay's leader in sacks this season, and you can see why the Packers might be the rest of the NFC's least-wanted team in the playoffs. A team that may be even more dangerous than the one that won the Super Bowl six years ago.
Back in 2010, Green Bay was on the opposite path to end the year. Instead of needing a winning streak to get to 8-6, that team lost three of four games to fall to the same record. They needed to win their last two games just to make the playoffs and had a tiebreaker advantage over the Giants and Buccaneers, both of whom had also finished 10-6. The Packers then traveled for every playoff game, beating the Eagles, Falcons, and Bears on the way to a 31-25 Super Bowl win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That team may be more talented than this one but this playoff field may be weaker. To run the gauntlet in 2016, the Packers may only need to get through the Cowboys and their rookie quarterback; or the Seahawks and Giants, two teams they already beat; or the Falcons, a team they lost to in the final minute.
There's still a very good chance that Green Bay will win the NFC North – all they have to do is win this week against the Minnesota Vikings, and then in Week 17 against the Lions – but that may only have partial significance to their postseason chances, since there's almost zero hope for them to get a bye week. What's really important is that the defense is healthy and the offense has perhaps the greatest player in the league and maybe even more weapons at Rodgers' disposal than he's has ever had: Jordy Nelson, who has bounced back to average 90 yards and a touchdown over his last eight games; Davante Adams, who is nearing his first 1,000-yard season; and new starting running back Ty Montgomery, who just put 162 rushing yards on Chicago with two touchdowns.
Winning the division isn't everything. The Packers won the division in four consecutive seasons after winning the Super Bowl in 2010 and failed to return in each of those tries. The Green Bay team you may actually want to fear is the one you don't expect to fear. The ones that started 4-6 and then start chomping away at your leads and before you know it, Rodgers is hoisting another trophy, showing up on your TV screens during ad breaks in 2017 at a pace unlike anything we've seen before.
Don't worry, Lions, losing the division isn't your biggest concern. But losing to the Packers certainly is.