GREEN BAY – December football is here.
It starts Sunday, and it's when teams looking to play into January must start ramping up their games.
The Packers aren't heading into December on the right note. That's stating the obvious. The blowout loss in San Francisco has many outside 1265 Lombardi Ave. questioning whether the Packers belong in the discussion of the NFC's top teams.
They can't prove they do on Sunday against the 2-9 Giants. They can't prove it in any of their next three games, really, when they'll be facing teams looking up at Green Bay in the standings.
As such, they shouldn't concern themselves with trying to prove anything. The Packers fell flat in their biggest game of the season to date, so their focus should be on playing cleaner, more efficient football to be in better shape for when the next big game, or games, roll around.
Contrary to the opinions of frustrated fans, there is still time to improve.
"We're tied for the lead in the division, we still play each division opponent one more time, we're right in the mix where we want to be, playing meaningful games in December," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week. "This team has obviously a lot of goals. It starts with the (NFC) North and everything kind of opens up from there. The key is for us, we just have to stay healthy, but we have to play a little bit better in all three phases."
On offense, that means either starting games faster on the road, or figuring out how to get going from a slow start without the benefit of the home crowd. It also means getting the offense back to where it was when receiver Davante Adams was injured, and incorporating Adams into that rhythm.
On defense, that means taking the ball away and standing tall in the red zone. The Packers have given up so many big plays for so long now it's fair to question how much that tide can be stemmed.
But this defense has survived rough stretches by taking the ball away and forcing field goals. So far, the three previous times in 2019 the unit has come off a game it didn't generate a turnover, it responded with multiple takeaways. San Francisco was the fourth time the defense was blanked in the turnover category.
On special teams, punter JK Scott needs to find his early-season form and the return game needs to somehow support the offense. Minus-11 punt return yards for the season, and just one kickoff return all year longer than 27 yards, haven't benefited field position. A little help could go a long way.
There's work to be done, but the atmosphere is the right one to get it done.
As he has done every time the Packers have hit a bump in the road this season, Head Coach Matt LaFleur first pointed the finger at himself this week. That didn't exonerate anyone else. It set an example to follow.
"I think it allows everybody else to kind of see where the critique should start with, for ourselves," Rodgers said. "It should start with our own performance and our own preparation and execution. If the head coach is doing it and the leaders on the squad are doing it, then everybody should be doing it as well."
Rodgers reiterated how much he likes this locker room. No one is playing the blame game nor dividing the team. With the Packers having missed the playoffs the last two years, the locker room is full of young players who haven't been part of an NFL playoff push before, but Rodgers isn't concerned, saying "ignorance is bliss."
In other words, the veterans who understand the stakes better will put plenty of pressure on themselves, so the young and carefree provide the counterbalance the locker room needs.
Last but not least, for all the hand-wringing amongst fans and pundits about the debacle against the 49ers and what it means or shows, the players are looking at it as no more than one game. Some might call it denial, others would contend it's healthy.
Yes, the loss could be damaging to playoff seeding and circumstances down the road, but the Packers weren't going to beat anybody the way they played last week, so there's no reason to dwell on who the opponent was.
"I mean, we didn't just lose seven games in a row, so we can stop acting like it's the end of the world," said Adams, admonishing the media for all the doom-and-gloom questions. "Let's stop being dramatic."
Added veteran cornerback Tramon Williams: "We understood it was a game against a top-quality opponent, but that's in the bank now. We lost a game, we learned from it, we got to work."
An opportunity was lost, and no one is happy about it. But moving on is what this league is all about.
The Packers got their feet wet in September, found a bit of a rhythm in October, and took a step back in November with two dud performances.
As the calendar turns to December, the Packers must turn the page, too.