GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers extended their winning streak to four games Sunday at Lambeau Field, entering their bye with a 6-3 record that puts them squarely in the NFC's playoff race. You might not believe me, however, if I told you how.
The Packers lost three more starters to injury, one of which caused a reshuffling of their offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed less than 50 percent of his passes for only the fourth time in his career, saying afterward that his best play was a second-quarter fumble recovery. The Packers scored a touchdown when two receivers inadvertently flipped their assignments, and another came when backup tight end Tom Crabtree got behind the Arizona Cardinals' defense for the Packers' longest play of the season -- a 72-yard (!) catch-and-run that accounted for the final score of a 31-17 victory.
That turn of events in no way matches the blueprint this team has used in past success, and it wasn't what the Packers intended for 2012, either. But there are times in a season when it doesn't matter how or why you win. The Packers just completed one of those stretches, and here is the bottom line: Only five of the NFL's 32 teams have a better record than the Packers.
"We're finding ways to win," receiver James Jones said. Added defensive tackle Ryan Pickett: "We've got some fighters. We've got a lot of fighters. Guys are going down. Guys are stepping up. It shows we have a lot of character. We're not missing a beat. We can't wait to get all of our players back, but our guys are playing real good."
The Packers haven't missed a beat in terms of winning percentage, but they're clearly not functioning at the same level as in their Week 6 domination of the Houston Texans -- when this run of injuries largely began. Sunday, the Packers had receiver Jordy Nelson for less than a quarter before he departed with an ankle injury. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip) left in the second quarter, forcing T.J. Lang to move to right tackle and elevating Evan Dietrich-Smith to left guard. Linebacker Clay Matthews, meanwhile, appeared to injure his hamstring early in the game and departed for good in the third quarter.
Rodgers threw four touchdown passes, including a 13-yarder to Randall Cobb in the first quarter after Cobb and Donald Driver switched their assigned spots at the line. Overall, however, Rodgers completed only 14 of 30 passes and said: "I was just off today."
The offense couldn't manage a first down on its first four series of the second half, allowing the Cardinals to creep to within 24-17 after trailing 21-7 at halftime. But the Packers of late have been like a downhill stream, flowing wherever gravity will take them, and on Sunday they produced a play that for me was symbolic of this winning streak.
Rodgers had targeted Crabtree on only five passes over the Packers' first eight games, but on Sunday they put him in position to capitalize on a play they had been setting up all afternoon. The Packers set season highs with 176 rushing yards on 39 carries, a balance that caught the Cardinals' linebackers off guard when Rodgers faked a handoff to running back Alex Green on the final play of the third quarter.
The play-action allowed Crabtree, also lined up in the backfield, to slip past linebacker Paris Lenon on a seam route. Crabtree spent the next 45 yards looking over both shoulders for a Cardinals defender to catch him. None did, giving Crabtree the longest catch by a Packers tight end in 33 years.
"That's kind of my mentality, I guess," Crabtree said. "I'm not going to get many opportunities. When I do, take advantage of them. We have a lot of guys like that on the team."
There's no doubt about that, but at the same time, it's only fair to point out the Packers picked up half of their victories in this streak against the Cardinals, who have lost five consecutive games, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are now 1-7. My sense is the Packers realize they are fortunate to be have minimized the damage of what could have been a season-ending run of adversity. After all, here is the list of players who were unavailable to them at the end of Sunday's game: Bulaga, Matthews, Nelson, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Cedric Benson, Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry and John Kuhn.
"We're not ones to make excuses," Rodgers said. "But we'll be happy to get some of those guys back."
The Packers were much healthier, in fact, during their 2-3 start. They should be especially proud of their past month. But the season is about to get much tougher, with five of their six division games coming in a stretch that begins Nov. 18 at the Detroit Lions. I'm not convinced, and I don't think the Packers are either, that they can get where they want to go by replicating the past month. They won't get away with a completion percentage of less than 50 percent or needing a 72-yard touchdown from their backup tight end to clinch a game.
"We had some adversity earlier in the season," Rodgers said. "We've taken some heat and pulled us together. We went on the kind of run we needed to go on. We've had four big wins before the bye, and now we have to get healthy. We've got a lot of guys we can add back to the mix.
"We could really take off."
The Packers have given themselves a chance to have a chance. After the past month, they couldn't have asked for anything more.