MINNEAPOLIS — There’s a great team somewhere inside this Green Bay Packers roster, perhaps one that’s even capable of emerging from a top-heavy NFC and giving the organization its first Super Bowl berth in more than a decade.
At least I think there is. It’s hard to be certain this team can be special because the season is 11 weeks old and the Packers haven’t authored those kind of complete performances that leave you walking away thinking, yep, this group has what it takes to win a championship.
There always seems to be something missing.
The Packers are 8-3 after a 34-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. They came out on the wrong end of what Matt LaFleur called “an emotional roller coaster” and the defeat, in and of itself, wasn’t catastrophic.
But it offered another example of a Green Bay team that can’t seem to put it all together. The offense had been struggling of late but put together arguably its best outing of the season Sunday. The defense, meanwhile, was a no-show against the Vikings after carrying the team for weeks.
And the special teams? Well, that may be the one area of the team that has become predictable: It consistently gets outplayed by its opponent week after week.
“We know for us to accomplish all our goals, we need all three phases firing at the highest level possible,” LaFleur said. “And it has been a little bit of that, a lot, and certainly that is good that you can find different ways to win games but ultimately we need everybody peaking at the right time and we haven’t been able to do that consistently within a game.”
Let’s get one valid excuse out of the way: Injuries to key players have played a role in keeping this team from reaching its potential. That situation may have gotten worse Sunday when jack-of-all-trades offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins sustained a knee injury early in the fourth quarter and was taken to the locker room on a cart.
Losing Jenkins for the season — or even an extended stretch — would be a big blow to a unit that has played all season without veteran left tackle David Bakhtiari.
But LaFleur doesn’t use injuries as a crutch and isn’t about to start now. If Jenkins is out, it’ll be the next man up.
The defense wasn’t at full strength Sunday but it’s been able to play at a high level most of the season despite missing important personnel. That wasn’t the case against the Vikings, who had a field day against the Green Bay secondary. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen were targeted 20 times by Kirk Cousins and combined for 251 yards on 16 catches.
Minnesota went 9 of 13 on third down and scored points on six of its nine possessions (four touchdowns, two field goals).
“We weren’t ourselves today,” veteran outside linebacker Preston Smith said. “We didn’t play up to our standards.”
A unit that was so good a week earlier in a shutout win over Seattle that Aaron Rodgers called it a “championship-level defense” was so bad Sunday that not even arguably the best performance of the season by the Packers quarterback could save it.
Rodgers finished 23 of 33 for 385 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a season-high rating of 148.4. He went 10 of 11 for 197 yards after halftime, finishing all three Green Bay drives with scoring passes.
It wasn’t enough.
“Our defense has been playing so good, (but) some days (you) have to outscore teams that get hot on offense,” Rodgers said. “We had an opportunity to score 40 points today, and when you’re playing an offense that’s hot, that has a hot quarterback, and stud receivers and a stud back, you’ve got to keep scoring.”
Or start scoring, as it turned out. Other than a kneel-down situation to run out the clock in the first half, the Green Bay offense scored touchdowns on its final four possessions of the game. But the first four possessions weren’t anywhere near as productive: field goal, punt, missed field goal, punt.
Still, the Packers overcame a 13-point deficit to take a 24-23 lead midway through the fourth quarter and at that point it was clear that whichever quarterback got the last chance with the ball likely would be the winner.
Cousins answered with a touchdown pass to Jefferson, Rodgers followed with a 75-yard bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and the ball was back in the Vikings’ court with 2 minutes, 8 seconds remaining.
Packers safety Darnell Savage had a chance to salvage an ugly day for the defense when he stepped in front of a deep ball intended for Jefferson. An interception there would have given Rodgers and Co. the ball in great field position with plenty of time left to drive for the go-ahead score.
Alas, this team doesn’t do complementary football. Savage couldn’t hang on to the would-be interception and the Vikings had a second chance. Two chunk plays later, they were in chip-shot field goal range for Greg Joseph to deliver the winner as time expired.
“We’re just not quite jelling the way we once have,” Packers wide receiver Davante Adams said. “So we’ve got to just figure out a way. It’s getting late but we definitely got to figure out a way to make it work.”
The Packers are still in great shape in the NFC North, up 2½ games on the Vikings with six to play. A win at home over the Los Angeles Rams next week would leave Green Bay in prime position to make a late-season push at a No. 1 seed.
But they’ll likely need a complete performance to beat the Rams, who are coming off a bye. And that’s a lot to ask from a Packers team that may end up stuck somewhere between good and great because it always seems to be lacking in one area.