Tom Oates: Packers have plenty left to play for
PACKERS COMMENTARY

Tom Oates: Packers have plenty left to play for

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GREEN BAY — It has been a storybook start for Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur.

Ultimately, however, LaFleur’s first Packers team won’t be judged on its 8-2 record to open the season. It’ll be judged on whether it can author a storybook finish.

Coming off their bye week, the Packers have positioned themselves well in the crowded NFC playoff chase, but that’s really all they’ve accomplished to date. Their performance from here on out is the only thing that matters.

As Packers fans have witnessed frequently over the years, in the NFL it’s all about who gets hot late in the season. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the starter, the Packers often dominated in November and December. They hit the playoffs in fine form in 2009, ’10, ’12, ’14 and ’16, eventually winning one Super Bowl and reaching the NFC title game on two other occasions.

The Packers have been impressive so far under LaFleur’s low-key leadership, but they haven’t gotten really hot. They haven’t dominated opponents. They haven’t gotten on a roll for an entire game much less a stretch of games.

For the record, the Packers consider that a good thing.

“Even though we’ve been finding ways to win and we’re sitting in a good spot right now, we haven’t played our best ball,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “That’s what we’re impressed with more than anything, that we can continue to work and start playing our best ball at this time of the year. Obviously, when the teams start playing their best ball in November and December, that’s what you want. Those teams are the ones that are tough to beat when it comes to playoff time.”

For the Packers to finish off the season strong, they’ll need to step up their game over the final six weeks. Starting with Sunday’s showdown with the San Francisco 49ers for the inside track on the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed, they’ll need to hit their stride.

It sounded Wednesday like Rodgers believes the Packers should set their sights on home-field advantage in the top-heavy NFC. But while securing the No. 1 seed is undoubtedly important, getting hot and staying hot is even more important.

“We’re all critical of ourselves,” nose tackle Tyler Lancaster said. “We all know we haven’t played perfectly. It’s an imperfect game, but we know we’ve got a lot more left in us. There is definitely a sense of urgency in the locker room.”

In addition to their record, the Packers have much going for them. They’re rested and refreshed after a late-season bye, they’re as healthy as any team in the NFL at this point in the season, they finally have a running game they can count on, their defense is among the league leaders in creating turnovers and their remaining schedule has tremendous opportunity with road games against fellow contenders San Francisco and Minnesota plus four games against teams that either are or will be out of the playoff hunt.

But while the Packers are playing well, playing well won’t be good enough. There are nine teams in playoff contention in the NFC, five of which are jockeying for a first-round bye. The Packers and 49ers are two of those teams, joined by Minnesota, New Orleans and Seattle. Though the 49ers, Saints and Seahawks have difficult remaining schedules, some of those teams are will get hot down the stretch, setting themselves up with a good playoff seed and sending them into the postseason on a roll.

Do the Packers have it in them to become the NFC’s hot team down the stretch?

“Absolutely,” Lancaster said. “We watched on film exactly what went wrong on a lot of plays throughout the season. We have not played our best game yet. We know that we’ve got so much left in the tank and we’re still building. Really, it’s just about bringing out that potential. I definitely think this team has another level. I’m excited to see what that is.”

So is LaFleur. He wouldn’t get into specifics, but he definitely feels there’s more in the tank.

“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in all three phases,” LaFleur said. “I just think more than anything, it’s just putting consistent football (together). I don’t think we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve all three phases have really put it together for all four quarters. I think there’s been glimpses in each phase.”

There have also been recurring problems in each phase. Pre-snap penalties have consistently put the offense in difficult third-down situations and LaFleur hasn’t had success marrying the emerging running game with the passing game now that wide receiver Davante Adams is back from injury. The defense has had enormous difficulty stopping the run and is allowing too many big plays, especially to tight ends over the middle.

Whether the coaches can fix those problems by tweaking schemes or the players simply improve their performance, the Packers need to do it now so they can hit the playoffs running.

“It feels like one of those years where you’ve just got to get in and any of those teams that are in position right now could make a move and get hot,” Rodgers said. “That’s what it’s all about, getting hot at the right time and being healthy.”

By virtue of their record and their robust health, the Packers have given themselves a terrific opportunity. Only they can take advantage of it.

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