The Green Bay Packers entered their bye week on a four game winning streak to go from 2-3 to 6-3. They are currently the 5th seed in the NFC and are 1.5 games behind Chicago for first place in the NFC North. Five out of their next seven games are against NFC North foes, so it will be a very tough stretch. The Packers have the talent to compete for a championship, but it will not be an easy road. The NFC is the superior conference to the AFC with the 49ers, Giants, Falcons, Bears and Packers all very talented teams that could win the Super Bowl. Here are the five biggest questions the Packers face heading down the final stretch of their season.
1. How will Clay Matthews' hamstring hold up?
Clay Matthews is a player that simply cannot be replaced. He, along with Aaron Rodgers, are the only two players on the Packers that you can say that about. The Packers have been able to survive many injuries this year, but if Matthews is not healthy they can kiss their Super Bowl hopes alive. He is tied for second in the NFL with nine sacks and leads the NFC in quarterback pressures. Matthews hurt his hamstring during Sunday's victory against Arizona and missed pretty much the enitre second half. Mike McCarthy said that he expects Matthews to "miss a couple of weeks". He did not specify whether that meant two, three or four. The next two games after the bye are road games in Detroit and in the Meadowlands to take on the Giants. Both have high powered offenses that the Packers would be hard pressed to stop without Matthews in there creating havoc. Matthew Stafford struggled early in the year and Eli Manning is in a slump now, but both of those quarterbacks are much better than the quarterbacks the Packers have played lately. Matthews has missed significant portions of training camp in 2009 and 2010 due to his hamstring and missed one regular season game in 2010 because of it. The Packers should wait until he is 100% healthy to play him because he has tried to play through hamstring injures before and he has not been the same player. I believe Matthews means more to his defense than any other player in the NFL means to his. If he misses the games in Detroit and New York the Packers will have a tough time winning those games.
2. Will Lack of Offensive Line Depth Hurt?
The Packers had kept their enitre offensive line intact for the whole season until Bryan Bulaga went down with what appears to be a serious hip injury in Sunday's victory over Arizona. It is unknown how long Bulaga will be out, but Mike McCarthy said they "were gathering more information", which is usually never good. T.J. Lang kicked out to right tackle to replace Bulaga and Evan Dietrich-Smith replaced Lang at left guard. The Packers did not miss a beat with those lineup changes and should be able to survive with them going forward. However, the problem will come if another Packers offensive lineman goes down with an injury. Their backup offensive linemen at this point are undrafted rookies Don Barclay and Greg Van Roten. It is safe to say they don't want them playing in any game. They just activated Derrick Sherrod of the PUP and he has a three week window to practice before they have to activate him, place him on injured reserve or release him. The Packers probably would have just put him on IR if Bulaga had not gotten hurt, so I doubt he can help much.
3. Can the Packers Run?
The Packers' inability to run the ball has been their Achilles heel for years now. It looked like they had solved that problem earlier this season with the addition of Cedric Benson. However, Benson went down with a Lisfranc foot injury in Week 5 against the Colts and the Packers have not run the ball the same since. Benson was placed on injured reserve with designation to return, so the Packers hope they can have him help later on in the season. Alex Green has shown explosiveness in Benson's place, but has been ineffective for the most part. Green has lacked vision and has missed too many holes. He has also had trouble running inside the tackles. James Starks got his first extensive action of the season against Arizona and ran for 61 yards on 17 carries. Starks has much better vision than Green and fits the one cut and go running style the Packers like better than Green. However, Starks fumbled vs. Arizona and was terrible in pass protection, while Green has excelled in pass pro. Green and Starks split carries against Arizona and the Packers ran for a season high 176 yards against a good defense, so hopefully they can build off that.
4. Can the Packers Stop Elite Offenses?
The Packers' defense has made major strides so far this season. They rank 11th in the NFL in points per game allowed (20.8), 12th in yards allowed (341.9), 20th in pass yards allowed (243.6), 10th in rushing yards allowed (98.30), 1st in sacks (28) and 4th in interceptions (10). This is a huge step forward from last season but they have not played very many great offenses. The Saints were by far the best offense they played and they struggled against them. These next two games will be a huge test against the Lions and the Giants. Again, whether or not they have Matthews is a huge factor. Will the young defensive backs in Casey Heyward, Davon House Jerron McMillian and MD Jennings continue to perform as they have? How can they get pressure if Matthews is out or has to play hurt? Can they avoid mix ups in zone coverage? We will see the answers to those questions.
5. How Will Greg Jennings Fit in the Offense?
The Packers have found their groove offensively without Greg Jennings, so it will be interesting to see what will happen when he returns. Who will lose playing time? They can't afford to take Randall Cobb off the field like they did when Jennings was healthy. Jordy Nelson is unlikely to lose much playing time, assuming he is healthy. James Jones does not deserve to lose any, although he probably will. Jermichael Finley could be the one to lose the most, as his snaps have already been cut into. However, Finley has been playing more in the traditional tight end spot rather than in the slot or out wide, so Jennings returning would not have an effect on his snaps at the tight end spot. Jennings playing in the slot with Cobb with Nelson and Jones on the outside would be very scary for a defense.