In an NFL season marked by erratic performances, the Packers have earned the mark of being the league’s most consistent team, if not its best. They have done this in part by winning the season-long war of attrition. Green Bay is 11-3 and recently became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. It expects to welcome several key contributors back to the lineup soon. Several other NFC contenders have seen their performance levels slip in November and December: The Buccaneers were just shut out by the Saints, the Rams dropped three games in November, and the Cardinals just lost to—gasp!—the Lions. The Packers have their ugly, surprising loss, too, to the Saints, but that came in Week 1, a distant memory at this point. Another loss came in Week 9, to the Chiefs, with Jordan Love starting at quarterback—Green Bay’s performances in those games bear little resemblance to the way the team is currently playing.
The Packers’ steadiness has earned them a 79 percent chance at the no. 1 seed in the NFC for the playoffs, which comes with a first-round bye and home-field advantage. While the effect of home-field advantage has diminished, if not vanished, in recent years, playing a rested Packers team in Green Bay in January can’t sound good to NFC contenders from warmer climates like Tampa, Dallas, Glendale, Arizona, and Los Angeles. If you’re willing to overlook Week 1, Green Bay has been a relatively calm port in a haphazard storm this season, as long as Aaron Rodgers has played.
This hints at two conclusions. One, a month before the playoffs begin, Green Bay looks like the favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Two, Matt LaFleur has a strong case to win Coach of the Year.
For as long as Rodgers plays at an MVP-caliber level in Green Bay, it will be hard to suss out exactly how much credit LaFleur should get for Green Bay’s 37-9 record since he became head coach in 2019. Rodgers, clearly, is a key contributor to that success, but he’s also been revitalized by LaFleur’s offense. Rodgers also presents certain coaching challenges off the field, which LaFleur has seemed to navigate smoothly enough to prevent any issues from showing up on the field. His steady hand has stood out this season, as the Packers have not only achieved many highs but also managed to avoid the sporadic lows that have plagued so many other contenders.
This is despite the fact that the Packers have had to deal with more injury- and illness-related absences than most teams. They have the eighth-highest percentage of their salary cap committed to players currently on injured reserve, according to Spotrac. They were rated the second-most-injured team in the NFL, trailing only the Ravens, according to an ESPN analysis from earlier this month. The data used in that study, compiled by Man-Games Lost, factored in the number of injuries a team has faced as well as the importance of the players who have missed time.
Green Bay has been without its best two defensive players, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander, for much of the season. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari hasn’t played this season while recovering from an ACL surgery. Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins (who moved to tackle to fill in for Bakhtiari) tore his ACL in Week 11. Receivers Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have all missed games.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a team that’s suffered this many injuries, so it’s encouraging that we’re sitting at where we are right now,” LaFleur said in late November.
Those defensive absences were felt in last week’s game against Baltimore, when the Tyler Huntley–quarterbacked Ravens put up 30 points on the Packers. Green Bay’s defense struggled especially to contain tight end Mark Andrews, who went for 136 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches. Obviously, losing Rodgers for a game after he tested positive for COVID-19 curdled the Packers’ chances in their Week 9 matchup with the Chiefs, which they lost 13-7. But having one of the most injured rosters in football has not remotely derailed the Packers’ season.
That speaks to roster depth, a job well done by the front office, but also to coaching. The ability to compensate for the losses of key players is one of LaFleur’s greatest strengths. Overcoming absences is his superpower. Green Bay beat the Cardinals 24-21 in Week 8 without Adams, Lazard, and Valdes-Scantling, its top three receivers. The Packers’ defense ranks eighth in yards and 10th in points allowed, despite missing two key stars, with younger players like Rashan Gary (6.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, 21 quarterback hits) developing nicely.
LaFleur is 7-0 in games Adams has missed, evidence of the 42-year-old coach’s ability to scheme an offense that maximizes Green Bay’s offense even without its best non-Rodgers playmaker. When Adams is available, LaFleur has used creative designs like four-by-one formations to make it harder for opponents to double-cover his top receiver, but he’s also had success in scheming Green Bay’s skill position players open when Adams isn’t there to draw attention.
While other contenders like Tampa Bay are starting to feel the weight of attrition, the Packers seem set up to only get healthier. LaFleur said Tuesday that he does not anticipate that Bakhtiari or Alexander will play on Saturday against Cleveland, but Bakhtiari has returned to the 53-man roster and Alexander has started practicing, triggering a 21-day timer for him to return from the injured list. Smith, recovering from a back injury, is still not practicing despite the Packers having hoped he would return in Week 14, but he has two more weeks to come back and get reps in before the playoffs, not including a potential bye.
“Having to battle through so much adversity, and getting guys that normally might not get as much playing time as they have, I think hopefully that’ll benefit us down the stretch,” LaFleur said. “I do see an improvement with a lot of these guys that are coming into the game and stepping up, I think it’s a big-time credit to them as individuals but also to our coaches, getting guys ready to play. It’s a great credit to [general manager Brian Gutekunst] and his staff for providing us with players that have given us really good depth.”
It’s also a credit to a coach who has excelled in smoothing over those absences, and he may soon have the chance to see what he can do with the benefit of a full-strength roster.