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The Packers defense is killing their playoff hopes

It doesn’t matter what Aaron Rodgers does if the Green Bay defense can’t stop anyone.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After starting the season 4-2, the Green Bay Packers have lost three straight games. If not for the vortex of flawed teams known as the NFC North, they’d be behind the eight ball in 2016’s playoff race.

Instead, Green Bay is just a game back of a Detroit Lions team it has already beaten this fall, but the Packers’ prospects for a revival look grim. In the last three weeks, no team in the NFL has given up more points than their 37 per game. Only two teams — the Buccaneers and 49ers -- have allowed more their 6.5 yards per play. No matter how well Aaron Rodgers plays, he’s not going to be able to lead the Packers back to the Super Bowl if he’s constantly staring down a two-possession deficit.

On Sunday, that's pretty much all he did. A 4-5 Tennessee Titans team blew the doors off the Packer defense en route to a 21-0 first quarter lead. DeMarco Murray ran for a 75-yard touchdown in the Titans' first play of the game and then threw a touchdown pass less than seven minutes later. Marcus Mariota had what may have been his finest day as a professional quarterback, finding holes throughout the Green Bay secondary en route to a 295-yard, four-touchdown performance.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy chalked Sunday's loss up to correctable mistakes in his press conference Monday,

"I’m not worried about the football team. I’m just focused on the next step," he told reporters. "Twists and turns definitely weren’t handled well by us, but that was yesterday ... I’m into the now."

But while the Titans exploited the Packers' mistakes in a Week 11 victory, the team's problems were far from an aberration or anomaly.

The culprit is clear; Green Bay’s injury-riddled secondary may be the worst in the NFL, and now opposing coaches are exploiting this weakness to turn it into the team’s fatal flaw. Consider these statistics from the season as a whole and over the Packers’ past three winless weeks.

The Packers' NFL ranks in key defensive categories - 2016
Green Bay Defense Points allowed Red Zone TD% Yards per game Yards per play Passer rating Yards/pass attempt Pass yards
Full Season 24 23 10 22 29 29 16
Last three weeks 32 29 23 30 31 31 26

Few teams in the league have been as bad against the pass. In the past three weeks, the Packers have faced Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, and Mariota. On average, those quarterbacks walked off the field with a higher passer rating (121.7) than an in-his-prime, 2004 Peyton Manning (121.1).

What's even more frustrating for the Packers is that at least one player who could have stabilized the team's secondary departed Wisconsin as a free agent last summer. Casey Hayward's tenure in Green Bay was uneven. He was a legitimate defensive rookie of the year candidate in 2012 but battled injuries and ineffectiveness as the team's dime cornerback the following years.

Hayward signed a $15 million deal with the Chargers and has returned to the form that made him a promising young player four years ago. Green Bay opted to rely on players like veteran Sam Shields, second-year corners Damarious Randall, Ladarius Gunter, and Quinten Rollins, and longtime backup Demetri Goodson in his place. But Shields hasn't played since Week 1 due to a concussion, and Randall and Rollins have only played in 10 out of a possible 18 games this fall. With injuries slicing through the Green Bay depth chart, Hayward would have been a useful piece -- even with a cap hit of more than $5 million each year.

Other important players like Clay Matthews have also missed games and drained the Packers defense, but McCarthy isn't worried -- or at least refuses to acknowledge that he is.

"I'm a highly successful NFL head coach. I never looked at the ride as smooth. It's always bumpy. That's the joy of it," he said on Monday. "You need to feel good about the now. Personally, I enjoy these kind of moments."

If adversity is the motivator McCarthy needs, he's in luck. If the Packers can't turn their defense around, he'll get a healthy dose of it over these last seven weeks.