GREEN BAY – There's a school of thought that come December in the NFL, teams are what they are.
They're going to do what they do, and play how they play. What you see is what you get.
But don't try telling NFL players and coaches they can't still improve over the regular season's final month. Four games is plenty of opportunity to get better in a number of areas, and Head Coach Matt LaFleur is certainly of that mindset with his Green Bay Packers.
"Really, in all three phases, there's a lot of room for growth," LaFleur said this week.
Specifically, he was talking about improving third-down efficiency on offense, cutting down on explosive plays allowed on defense, and finding a return game on special teams. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers reiterated the emphasis on third downs.
They're all tall tasks, and it's fair to ask if the Packers haven't fixed those issues over 12 games, how can anyone expect the last four games to make a difference? But the point is you never stop working to shore up your weaknesses. Teams don't just settle for "what they are," and the Packers won't either as they try to find a new peak during the stretch run.
The effort won't automatically produce different results. There's no guarantee the Packers will improve in those areas over the final month. But there's evidence it can happen, as recently as three years ago.
The Packers didn't just "run the table" back in 2016, they started doing the kinds of things they'd been trying to all season. Even after the first two wins of the streak, when the Packers had four regular-season games to go just like they do now, the uptick in their deficiencies really started showing up.
All the angst about finding a running game, for an offense that had produced just five rushing touchdowns through 12 games? The Packers rushed for six scores over their next three games and put up single-game rushing totals of 226 and 153 yards in two of the final four to close the regular season.
The need for turnovers from that defense? In Games 13 and 14, the Packers intercepted eight passes. Over a three-game stretch before the finale they recovered four fumbles after having gotten only three through the first 12 games.
Offensively, the Packers posted their two biggest total yardage outputs over the final four games that year. Defensively, a string of ugly starts at midseason morphed into allowing just six first-quarter points over the last four contests.
So, yes, things can get fixed, even in December. The Packers know they can put themselves in better position for a playoff push if they can start turning some trends the other way.
It should help that the first two of these last four regular-season games are at home, particularly after playing four of five on the road. It's always easier to improve on issues while playing at home (the 2016 team had three of four at home from Weeks 13-16 before the finale at Detroit), and both LaFleur and Rodgers pleaded out loud for the fans to create a true home-field advantage these next two weeks.
"We need that crowd as loud as possible," Rodgers said. "Get out there, get the tailgating going, get the PBR flowing, or the Leinie's or the Miller or whatever you choose, and let's get that thing roaring from kickoff."
LaFleur put it in the perfect context, with the Packers at 5-1 at Lambeau Field thus far in 2019.
"Just like our play," he said, "I think there's another level out there that we can get 'em to."
The implications of shoring up some weaknesses and taking advantage of home field these next two games are obvious. The Packers can put themselves in position to make the playoffs, potentially win the NFC North, and even possibly compete for a top-two seed and a first-round bye.
If the Packers can get their 10th victory this week, they'll be looking up at, at most, two other contenders record-wise, because the 10-2 Saints and 49ers play one another. The other 10-2 team, Seattle, has no picnic either, playing at the NFC West-rival Rams, who are 7-5 and trying to make a late run of their own.
Getting firmly into that top-seeds conversation starts with curing some of the team's ills. Growth and improvement in December are needed, and the rest could sprout from there.
"We'd love to be one of those top-two seeds and have a team come to us after a week break, but we have a long way to go until we get there," Rodgers said. "We have to get this one this week and then get to 10 (wins) and start talking about some of those things."