Tom Oates: Packers know they need to keep improving to be successful down the stretch

Tom Oates: Packers know they need to keep improving to be successful down the stretch

Aaron Jones - Packers vs. Redskins

Green Bay running back Aaron Jones can't come up with the catch in the fourth quarter of the Packers' 20-15 win over Washington on Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The Packers jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, then scored six points the rest of the game.

GREEN BAY — Coming off two playoff-free seasons, the Green Bay Packers can't help but like their situation.

If the NFL regular season ended today, the Packers, who improved to a 10-3 record under first-year coach Matt LaFleur with a 20-15 victory over Washington Sunday at Lambeau Field, would be the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

How does that sound, David Bakhtiari?

"I think," the Packers offensive tackle said, "if you were to tell me last year that a first-year coach is going to come in here and put us in the No. 2 seed with three weeks left, would you guys take it being Packers fans? Absolutely. So why wouldn’t I be excited about that?"

Actually, it was hard to find anyone with the Packers who was excited after a second consecutive game in which they got off to a fast start but couldn't put away a struggling opponent and ended up in a one-score game in the fourth quarter. The defense played fairly well and the special teams contributed for a change Sunday, but the Packers continued to fight an offense that looks good at times but can't sustain it.

Against Washington, a three-win team with a hobbled rookie quarterback, Green Bay took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, then scored six points the rest of the game. In a 31-13 victory the week before over the two-win New York Giants, the Packers also scored two first-quarter touchdowns but needed two more in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.

This is not the way a team with Super Bowl aspirations is supposed to operate, especially with games against its three NFC North Division rivals — Chicago at home, Minnesota and Detroit on the road — coming up next and the playoffs after that. No wonder the Packers were more bothered than excited afterward.

"I just wanted to start out saying that although we are definitely happy we won, it felt like we left a lot out there today," LaFleur said. "But you've got to give Washington credit. ... They were coming off two wins in a row and they did a nice job of really not allowing us to function in all three phases at the level that we know we're capable of doing. But we've got three tough opponents coming up, starting with the Chicago Bears, and three NFC North opponents and we've got a lot to clean up in order to move forward to get to where we want to get to."

Where the Packers need to get to is finding some combination of consistency and balance on offense. Following a pattern they set in their early season games, they've been thriving lately when reading off LaFleur's game-opening script. When the script runs out, however, the offense loses direction.

Against Washington, the Packers were saved by running back Aaron Jones, who had 192 yards from scrimmage as Green Bay's pedestrian receiving corps — those not named Davante Adams, anyway — struggled to get much done. Against the Giants a week earlier, Jones was shut down but quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdown passes.

"It's hard to win in this league," offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "I can’t overstate that enough, but we need to clean things up and be better. We left a lot of yards, a lot of points (out there), made that thing a lot more difficult on ourselves than we should have. Obviously I’m happy we won, I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Give the win away.’ No, we want it. But we need to be better going into these next three weeks. These are big games and we need to improve and be cleaner against division opponents going forward."

The offense began its first season under LaFleur on an upward trajectory for eight games. Then it scored 11 points against the Los Angeles Chargers and it hasn't been the same since.

At least the Packers know they can't go on like this because Chicago is on a three-game roll and Minnesota likely will be playoff team. If the Packers can't put away New York and Washington, how can they expect to do it against those two?

"I wouldn't say I'm concerned," LaFleur said. "It was more or less we had a lot of short fields today and we didn't capitalize on those. We've got to take a look at the film critically and clean up whatever we need to clean up and make sure that our plan is tight and that our guys know what to do when they're out there. We've got to get better."

If LaFleur could successfully mesh the running game and the passing game, the Packers might really be onto something. So far, that hasn't happened. It could be that the receivers just aren't up to the task. Washington rushed the quarterback with three and four players and dropped the rest into coverage Sunday and Rodgers struggled to find receivers who were open.

"We’re finding different ways to win," Rodgers said. "It might be ugly at times to maybe some folks, but we ran the ball today for 180 yards or so and got Aaron Jones going. Different teams have thrown different things at us. I just think we need to be a little more consistent at times. I don’t think we had maybe the same type of flow after the first couple early drives with just the energy. We just missed on a couple things. We’ve got to clean some of that stuff up, but I wouldn’t mind winning ugly all the way to the Super Bowl."

Problem is, the way the Packers have been winning won't get them to the Super Bowl.

Photos: Green Bay Packers withstand late push from Washington Redskins

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