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Silverstein: Packers never were on magical run, they were flawed team riding a long season

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GREEN BAY – Matt LaFleur got a lot of things wrong Sunday night – way too many in a must-win game to get into the playoffs – but he hit the nail on the head in his postgame conference when assessing the Week 18 failure at Lambeau Field.

“I think a lot of times when you have success, certain things can be covered up by winning games,” he said. “And I think everything has pretty much been exposed right now.”

The fact is the Packers were exposed all season long and too many people tried to buy into the ridiculous notion that beating the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings in consecutive games represented a magical turnaround from a 4-8 start.

It did nothing of the sort.

It was merely a stretch any mediocre team can reach during a marathon 17-game season.

Even bad teams play over their head at times.

The Chicago Bears, who finished with the worst record in the NFL, had a four-game stretch that included a victory over New England on the road, a 3-point loss to Miami, a 1-point loss to Detroit and a 3-point loss to Atlanta.

The Falcons, who finished 7-10, went through a stretch where they beat Seattle on the road, Cleveland at home, lost by 6 to Tampa Bay on the road and beat San Francisco.

The Las Vegas Raiders, who lost their final three games to finish 6-11, had a five-game stretch that included victories over Denver, Seattle, the Los Angeles Chargers and New England.

The long NFL season lends itself to ups and downs as teams deal with injuries, improved play from younger players and diminishing returns from older ones. Travel, Thursday games and the mental toll of playing 17 games creates anomalies like the Kansas City Chiefs losing to the Indianapolis Colts or the Philadelphia Eagles losing to the Washington Commanders or the San Francisco 49ers losing to the Atlanta Falcons.

Green Bay's late-season run was more mirage than destiny

The Packers’ four-game winning streak was never a sign they were ready to make noise in the playoffs.

It was part of the unpredictability of the NFL.

The Packers were better than the lowly Bears and Rams and still only beat them by a combined 21 points, which is nothing to celebrate. Then they caught the Miami Dolphins at exactly the right time, reeling after three consecutive losses – two played on the West Coast – against playoff-caliber teams (49ers, Chargers, Bills).

The Packers had a good defensive game plan, started to reap the benefits of Keisean Nixon as their kick returner and played a quarterback who was diagnosed with a concussion the day after he threw three interceptions.

All in all, a good win on the road, but the offense continued its struggles, settling for field goals on four of six scoring drives in a 26-20 victory.

The victory over Minnesota the following week was a thorough butt-kicking of their NFC rivals, but quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 159 yards and a touchdown. Aaron Jones rushed for 111 yards and AJ Dillon 41, but the Packers were up 14-3, having gained 14 total yards, thanks to a special teams and defensive touchdowns.

The Packers’ offense got worse as the season wore on and no one seemed to notice.

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It went 20-of-55 on third downs (36.4%) in the five games leading up to the season finale, down from (41.4%) in the previous 11 games. It scored one first-quarter touchdown during the four-game winning streak and averaged 329.5 yards per game, down from an average of 344.6 over the first 12 games.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a passer rating of 87.0 during the winning streak, down from a previous 92.8.

The Packers weren’t on a run as much as the odds were just righting themselves given their talent advantage over at least half the league. They had lost their top pass rusher, Rashan Gary, but they were getting healthier during their winning streak, getting linebacker De’Vondre Campbell back for all four games, receivers Romeo Doubs back for three and Randall Cobb back for all four. Left tackle David Bakhtiari came back for the Minnesota game.

The closest the Packers came to a signature win was the Vikings game, but it was far from complete. It was greatly the result of the Packers’ front four having a great day against Minnesota’s third-string center and backup right tackle, and Jaire Alexander playing out of his mind against Justin Jefferson.

There are several examples of real destiny in the Aaron Rodgers era

When you think of great runs the Packers have had in the Rodgers era, you think of 2010 when they went into New England and nearly pulled off the upset of their lives against the 11-2 Patriots with Matt Flynn at quarterback.

That was a signature performance. They destroyed the New York Giants the following week and then gutted out a 10-3 victory over a Lovie Smith-coached Chicago Bears team that was dead set on eliminating the Packers from the playoffs despite having the No. 1 seed locked up.

Or you think of the 2014 team that won seven of its last eight games, including a 26-21 masterpiece over the Patriots at Lambeau Field and back-to-back 50-point games.

Or you think of the 2016 team that won six straight to get into the playoffs, including a miracle comeback against the Chicago Bears at frozen Soldier Field in which Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for a 60-yard gain on third-and-11 with 31 seconds left to set up the winning field goal.

When the Packers took on the Lions in a win-and-get-in showdown Sunday night, the only momentum they had was from their defense and special teams. If you thought they were a team of destiny, you weren’t watching closely enough.

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The Lions couldn’t stop Mason Crosby, but they did shut down Nixon, thereby putting the burden on the other two units. The defense played well enough to win, especially given the Lions’ built-for-ruggedness offensive line, which wore down the Packers’ front in the fourth quarter.

But that offense looked every bit as ineffective as it had all season. Throw in a game plan that featured almost nothing that the Lions weren’t expecting, and the Packers showed that they weren’t a team destined for greater things.

They were a team riding one of those natural waves of an NFL season and when it came time to prove they were playoff worthy, they showed the league they were exactly the team they appeared to be before and during stretches of their four-game winning streak.

No one should have been surprised they lost Sunday.

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