After reaching the NFC Championship Game last year, there were the usual high expectations surrounding the Green Bay Packers.
After finishing 9-7 last season to post their first winning record since 2010, expectations were higher than normal for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Heading into Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field, however, both teams are limping to the finish line.
The Packers were 4-1 before Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone. They’ve won just one of their last six games with Brett Hundley orchestrating the offense and are clinging to scant playoff hopes at 5-6.
“It’s clear. We have to win,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”
With third-year quarterback Jameis Winston, the Buccaneers won two of their first three games before enduring a five-game losing streak.
The Buccaneers hope to get a lift with the return of Winston, who missed the past three games with an injured right (throwing) shoulder, though they did go 2-1 with Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Winston and his productive group of pass catchers will get an inviting matchup against Green Bay’s beleaguered pass defense. While Hundley has struggled during Green Bay’s slump, its secondary hasn’t been any better, with opposing quarterbacks averaging 304 passing yards the past five games. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger set seasons highs for completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns and led a last-second scoring drive to beat the Packers 31-28 on Sunday night.
Tampa Bay’s defense hasn’t been any better, mostly because it can’t get off the field other than by forcing turnovers. Last year, the Buccaneers had the NFL’s best third-down defense. This year, it owns the worst.
“It’s definitely been a problem,” said Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter, whose team is wrapping up a three-game road trip. “We were No. 1 in the NFL last year in third-down defense and we’re not No. 1 this year. We’re a little bit further back than that. We’ve had breakdowns at all three levels. We’ve had breakdowns at the rush. We haven’t been consistent to the rush. We’ve been inconsistent on the under coverage, and we’ve been inconsistent on the back end. You can point to inconsistencies in all three of those phases, and it’s just not a good combination. We’ve been working on it and we’ll continue to do that.”
Injuries have chewed up both teams. While Winston could return, Tampa Bay put two of its top offensive linemen, right tackle Demar Dotson and center Ali Marpet, on injured reserve Wednesday.
Moreover, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (hamstring), receiver DeSean Jackson (foot) and running back Doug Martin (concussion) were among six players who did not practice. Winston was a full participant.
For the Packers, two top defensive players who missed the Pittsburgh game, defensive tackle Kenny Clark (ankle) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews (groin), returned to practice, as did running back Aaron Jones (knee). Cornerback Kevin King, who has been bothered by a shoulder injury for months, did not practice. At 6-foot-3, he’d provide size against 6-5 Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans.
Rodgers remains on injured reserve for the Packers, though he could return to practice on Saturday. If the Packers can beat the Buccaneers on Sunday and the Browns next week to stay in the playoff chase, Rodgers could return to face Carolina on Dec. 17.
For that to happen, the Packers will need the type of performance Hundley delivered vs. Pittsburgh (three touchdowns, no turnovers) rather than the one the week before vs. Baltimore (no touchdowns, four turnovers in a shutout loss).
“Once he’s put it on film, you know he can do it again,” Koetter said.
Hundley will be attacking a defense that ranks fourth in takeaways and first in fumble recoveries but last in pass defense and sacks. The Bucs gave up 253 receiving yards and two touchdowns to Julio Jones in last week’s 34-20 loss at Atlanta.
Duplicating that success would put the Packers in position to keep their season alive for another week. At this point last year, the Packers also were 5-6. They won eight consecutive games to get to the NFC title game. Without Rodgers for at least two more games, the challenge is much more difficult in the rugged NFC.
“At this point, it’s kind of is a must-win game,” Packers receiver Davante Adams said. “We’ve dug ourselves into a hole, similar to last year. It’s really must win at this point, especially if you’re thinking about down the road and playoff hopes and all that stuff. We’ve got to win games. We can’t bank on other teams losing. You dig yourself a hole, you’ve got to get yourself out of it. At this point, it’s just winning games.”