Let's first get the good stuff out of the way, because there's certainly plenty for Packers fans to be excited about.
A 6-1 record, tops in the NFC North. A magician of a quarterback who might be the most talented and complete player to ever play the position. A rejuvenated defense holding opponents to less than 19 points per game and a special teams unit that Football Outsiders has ranked as one of the league's best.
Now time for the but.
Over the past month, the Packers have looked vulnerable. Sunday night's 29-10 loss to the Broncos obviously jumps out -- and for good reason. Not only was Aaron Rodgers held to a career low 77 yards, but Green Bay's defense also became the first all season to get torched by Peyton Manning's spaghetti arm.
What's most disconcerting, though, is that, if you look a bit deeper, Sunday night's loss was a long time coming. Three weeks earlier the Packers managed to score just 17 points against the tissue-thin 49ers. Two weeks earlier the explosive Rams front seven held Rodgers and Co. to just 24 points. The only reason Green Bay got up to 27 the following week was because it needed to keep pace with the season's worth of yards Philip Rivers was putting up against their defense.
All that led to Sunday's shellacking, and this week things don't get any easier for the Packers, who travel to Carolina to take on the undefeated Panthers.
The book's now out on Green Bay. The question is: Does it matter?
The Broncos' game plan last week was a relatively simple one. Replicating it won't be easy, but the theory behind it was.
For Denver, it started with the secondary. The Broncos' goal was to force Rodgers away from his primary look. Of course, not everyone has studs like Aqib Talib (the NFL's sixth-best cornerback, per Pro Football Focus) and Chris Harris (No. 4, via PFF) lining up on the outside. Denver held Rodgers' top receiver, Randall Cobb, to just 27 yards on six catches and Rodgers only attempted four passes of the more than 10 yards. His shorter attempts were all to blanketed receivers who had no room to run after the catch.
But that was only the first step. After all, no one is better than Rodgers at finding holes when they seemingly don't exist, taking what the defense gives him and creating plays. But all that starts with his ability to use his legs and get outside the pocket, and it's here where the Broncos and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips were brilliant.
We all know about Denver's bullish pass rush. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are two of the best, and the linebacker crew ain't bad either. The Broncos knew they'd be able to pressure Rodgers. Lots of teams break through Green Bay's leaky offensive line. But that's usually when Rodgers breaks outside and creates havoc.
Rodgers' passer rating outside the pocket is 124.8 (via PFF) -- which is precisely why Denver didn't allow him to break containment, instead electing to sacrifice a bit of its immediate pass rush. Both the front seven and the secondary knew that plays would likely take longer, and both units adjusted accordingly. The DBs stayed on their assignments. The pass rushers never ceased chasing Rodgers.
This clip, via PFF, is a great example of what that scheme looked like.
There's nowhere for Rodgers to go -- with the ball or his legs. And because the Packers don't run many pick plays or man-coverage beaters, all Denver's secondary had to worry about were their individual assignments.
That's the blueprint. Man coverage, and don't stop fighting until you hear the whistle blown. Keep Rodgers in the pocket, which you slowly collapse.
Most teams don't have the personnel to pull this off. Unfortunately for the Packers, their Week 7 opponent might.
The Mighty Panthers
It's against schemes like Denver's that the Packers most feel the bite of the Jordy Nelson injury. With him out of the lineup, Cobb becomes the only receiver on the roster who can consistently create space and plays. Last Sunday the Broncos were able to throw an elite corner against him in Harris. After that you'd think it'd be all uphill.
If you're not yet familiar with Josh Norman, well, you should be. The 27-year-old former fifth-round pick has emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the league. According to PFF, he is No. 1, or at least has been this year. Norman is tied for second in the NFL with four interceptions. Opposing QBs have a rating of 23.4 when targeting him.
In the past Carolina hasn't typically played man coverage, but because of Norman's brilliance they've elected to do so more this year. Plays like this are why.
The Panthers, who are second in defense according to Football Outsiders, also lean on veteran playmaker Charles Tillman on the outside, while Kawann Short (five sacks), Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis wreak havoc on the interior.
After missing time earlier in the season due to a concussion, Kuechly appears to be fully recovered (who needs brains, anyway, right?) and he has the speed to monitor and contain Rodgers. And Short, a 6'3, 315-pound behemoth, should have no problem collapsing that pocket as Rodgers sits back.
That's the defensive side of things, but Carolina's offense should also have Green Bay worried. The Panthers lean on a rushing attack led by the three-headed monster of Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and also quarterback Cam Newton. The trio of bulls is leading the league in rushing yards (144) per game, and is doing so by running behind the league's best center, Ryan Kalil.
Green Bay is allowing 124.4 rushing yards per game and is coming off a contest where they surrendered 160 yards on the ground and at times looked allergic to attacking the line.
It's hard to imagine Aaron Rodgers losing two games in a row, but the avenues for a Panthers win are there. Between Green Bay's vulnerabilities and Carolina's strengths, it's possible that, come Monday, the Panthers are 8-0 and in sole possession of the top seed in the NFC.
On the road again?
Does any of this matter? After all, even if the Packers were to lose on Sunday, they'd still be 6-2.
Here are the problems: Right now they're just a game ahead of the 5-2 Vikings. No one expects Minnesota to catch Green Bay. But if you're a Packers fan, wouldn't you prefer the team not play around, especially given their upcoming schedule and that the Packers and Vikings are still scheduled to face off twice this season?
Also, Green Bay's last four games this year are brutal: vs. Dallas, at Oakland, at Arizona, vs. Minnesota. Going 2-2 over that stretch would have to be considered a success.
It could also lead to the Packers falling behind both the Panthers and Cardinals, and losing home field in the playoffs. That might seem like a small issue now, but come January it could be the difference between playing in the Super Bowl and watching it from home.
For a team in championship-or-bust mode like the Packers, even the smallest of holes, and losing streaks, can be derailing. A couple of mid-season losses might not seem like a big deal now, but come January that could change.
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