Packers raise level of game while playoff hopes plummet

If the NFL playoff tiebreaker system included moral victories and tough breaks, the Green Bay Packers might be in decent shape for January.

As it sits, they’re on the outside looking in, and barring an improbable combination of outcomes over the next five weeks, they’ll miss the postseason for the first time since 2008.

The season’s not over, as safety Morgan Burnett said after last Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh. There’s a lot left to see in these last five games.

He’s right. There’s quarterback Brett Hundley, for one. Hundley turned a corner in the 31-28 defeat, playing the best game of his career a week after he’d played his worst one. His three touchdown passes and 245 yards passing with no interceptions gave him a quarterback rating of 134.3, the third-highest in the league for Week 12.

Stats aside, Hundley showed strong leadership directing the 77-yard drive that tied the game late in the fourth quarter. The team believes in him, and the third-quarter TD bomb to Davante Adams was a nice sight for those on the fence about the reliability of his deep ball.

There are lingering issues defensively but also some outstanding individual performances. Linebacker Blake Martinez is having a great year. His interception, fumble recovery and 15 tackles amounted to a pretty fair night’s work at Heinz Field.

The defense, which had to deal with the league’s leading rusher (Le’Veon Bell), the league’s leading receiver (Antonio Brown) and a 14-year veteran QB with two Super Bowl rings (Ben Roethlisberger), forced three Pittsburgh turnovers while the Packers had none.

All together, at times last Sunday the Packers looked like a team that was starting to click and get hot, a team on the rise. Weird possibilities started creeping into your head.

In the end, there were lots of thrills and high points, just not enough. As Coach Mike McCarthy pointed out, they’re better than they were last week but their record isn’t.

At 5-6, they now would almost surely have to win their last five games to have a shot at getting into the postseason. Run the table, so to speak.

The odds of that aren’t great, unfortunately. Even a 4-1 finish, which would be impressive enough, won’t cut it.

The Packers trail Philadelphia (10-1), Minnesota (9-2), New Orleans (8-3), Carolina (8-3), the L.A. Rams (8-3), Seattle (7-4), Atlanta (7-4) and Detroit (6-5) in the playoff standings. They have the head-to-head tiebreaker edge over the Seahawks, but the Saints and Falcons have the edge over them, with the Panthers game pending.

There appear to be too many frogs to leap over for the Packers, who after playing Tampa Bay on Sunday will close out the season at Cleveland, at Carolina, home against Minnesota and at Detroit.

However it all shakes out, it isn’t likely they’ll be 14-point underdogs in any of those games, as they were going into Pittsburgh. They’re getting higher regard at the wagering houses, who waste no time getting out their betting lines and point spreads.

Before the Packers-Steelers kickoff, you could, if you were so moved, already place a bet on the Packers’ game this week against Tampa. The Bucs were a 1-point favorite at that time. After the game, the line changed; the Packers are now 2-point favorites.

After the encouraging showing last last Sunday, it’s hardly an irrational hope to beat the Bucs at Lambeau. It’s also not a reach to call the Cleveland game winnable.

That would put them at 7-6 going into Carolina, when you-know-who is eligible to come off injured reserve.

“Everything’s wait-and-see,” Jordy Nelson said. “We can’t take our foot off the pedal.”

Keeping it to the floor would be a good idea, too. At the least, last Sunday’s performance makes the waiting and seeing more interesting.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.