Once again it’s time to check in on that desolate land of fear and dread, Wisconsin, thanks to our friends over at Acme Packing Company.
1. What was the biggest deficiency in the Packers team during the four game losing streak? What was probably the biggest factor for the team losing its way in the weeds of the season?
During parts of that stretch and earlier in the season, the offense struggled to move the ball in the efficient manner it has for the majority of the Mike McCarthy/Aaron Rodgers era. Some of the blame falls on Rodgers himself, who too frequently missed on throws into the flat and over the middle -- de facto layups for a quarterback of his caliber -- leading to stalled drives and punts. At the same time, McCarthy had yet to fully adjust his approach to accommodate for the lack of a ground game and consistent deep threat. Those twin issues, along with a spate of injuries on both sides of the ball, led to the four-game slide.
Rodgers showed signs of breaking out of his funk during the second half of Week 11's matchup with Washington, a game which also saw McCarthy mix in more pre-snap motion and man-beating route concepts to help open up the passing game. However, by that point the team had dropped four in a row and put itself in a 4-6 hole. The idea that Green Bay would enter Week 17 as the division leader seemed completely unrealistic at the time.
2. Although the Packers have been hot in the past five games, the offenses they have played (Eagles, Texans, Seahawks, Bears and Vikings) have not been. It does lead to some questions about the defense, which was giving up far more points in previous engagements. Has the defense feasted off bad offenses or has there been appreciable improvements midseason to shore it up?
Saying the Green Bay defense "feasted" of late seems like a stretch. During the five-game span you mentioned, only one of those performances -- Week 13's 10-point outing against the Seahawks -- really classifies as impressive. That game saw the Packers hold the a Seahawks offense that entered the week ranked 13th in DVOA to just three points until late in the fourth quarter. Outside of that tilt, the defense mostly took advantage of inexperienced and underwhelming quarterbacks: Carson Wentz, Brock Osweiler, Matt Barkley and Sam Bradford.
Injuries have taken the bite out of the Packers defense. Top edge rusher Nick Perry only just returned last week from a hand injury, and Clay Matthews remains limited with a badly separated shoulder. Meanwhile, the secondary has played without No. 1 corner Sam Shields since Week 1 and both Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins have missed time with groin injuries.
So while the unit could improve if some of its key players regain health, that doesn't appear likely to happen before Sunday's NFC North-deciding clash.
3. On a similar note, can we really buy into this narrative that Aaron Rodgers has "turned it on again" or is it more of a matter of his defense not giving up so many big plays anymore?
There is some truth to that narrative, and the hot streak has occurred largely in spite of the defense. Rodgers has definitely played better over the last month than previously in 2016. His ball placement and decision-making have returned to the level of his MVP seasons, and the win column and box score reflect that change.
However, the Packers offense didn't stagnate earlier in the year solely due to Rodgers' slump. The receivers struggled to create separation consistently, and McCarthy didn't do enough during that time with the scheme to open up the passing game. Furthermore, Jordy Nelson needed much of the first month and change to get back into the swing of things after last season's ACL tear and Davante Adams didn't break out until near the end of October.
Once those things came together, Rodgers and the offense "turned it on again" as you described it.
4. Give us a breakdown on Ty Montgomery. He's helped to shore up the running game but I don't think many know about him just yet. What does he bring that is different from, say Eddie Lacy?
While Eddie Lacy could absorb 15-20 carries a game and still come up for more, Ty Montgomery has largely handled a more limited workload. The Packers use the converted wideout out of the backfield on the majority of their offensive snaps, but outside of Week 15's game against the Bears, he hasn't hit double digits in attempts. That forces the team to throw more frequently than they might have in past years.
At the same time, Montgomery's background as a receiver makes him an ideal weapon for an up-tempo, quick-passing attack like Green Bay's. He can run routes out of the backfield or motion out before the snap, forcing a linebacker into a coverage mismatch. The Packers have exploited this dynamic often during their winning streak.
5. How confident are Packers fans going into Sunday's game? Are we still holding out to have Mike McCarthy fired or what?
From my vantage point, Packers fans seem fairly confident about the team's chances this week. The showdown shares more than a passing resemblance to the one the two teams played at the end of the 2014 regular season, a game which Green Bay emerged victorious. Furthermore, both clubs can clinch a playoff berth before Sunday night's game even kicks off, which helps matters.
As for McCarthy, he may have put his job in jeopardy with the team's slow start (and stagnant offense), but the adjustments he has made over the second half of the season have re-solidified his place within the organization. The Packers may make some changes to the coaching staff based on how the rest of the season plays out, but I do not anticipate a new head coach coming to Green Bay.