Nothing's comfortable in the NFC North for Packers

Division race looks long from decided

G Lucas Patrick, G Elgton Jenkins and T Billy Turner

GREEN BAY – It started as a day the Packers might give themselves some breathing room in the NFC North.

It ended with the feeling this division race is going the distance.

Even though the Packers stayed in first place at 5-2 thanks to the Bears' overtime loss to the Saints to drop Chicago to 5-3, nothing feels comfortable.

After the one-win Vikings powered through the Packers, 28-22 Sunday at Lambeau Field, it's clear nothing can be taken for granted.

Not that anyone had that mindset, but Head Coach Matt LaFleur's first division loss in 1½ seasons said everything about how problems that aren't fixed will get exploited, especially by the teams that know you best.

"There is never much margin for error in this league, period," LaFleur said.

The margin might be even smaller in four days against a San Francisco team that, despite taking one on the chin against NFC West rival Seattle, would love nothing better than to beat Green Bay the same way it did 9½ months ago – without having to throw the ball.

If, or how soon, the Packers can turn around their struggles against the run will be an ongoing storyline until something changes.

Offensively, there's reason to believe Sunday's 14 points through 57 minutes – after the two touchdowns were on the board by the middle of the second quarter – can be the anomaly.

While getting strong performances from Jamaal Williams and Davante Adams, the Packers were without three major players – left tackle David Bakhtiari, running back Aaron Jones and receiver Allen Lazard.

There's no telling yet whether any will be available for Thursday night out west, where quarterback Aaron Rodgers said the team needs to "exorcise some of those negative feelings" from 2019. But at some point the reinforcements are coming on that side of the ball.

"I love the effort that Jamaal's given us the last two weeks, but we're a better team when we're at full strength and having '33' and '13' back would be big jumps," Rodgers said, referring to Jones' and Lazard's jersey numbers.

"When we're at full strength, we're really tough I think."

The Packers need to clean up the penalties, though this was the first game those had really been a factor this season, and LaFleur said referee Alex Kemp's crew is among the most flag-happy in the league. They should have known to play more disciplined.

LaFleur also stressed the need for the defense to create some turnovers, and for the entire team to raise its energy level. Those two could go hand-in-hand, but turnovers mostly come from forcing the opponent to throw and getting after the quarterback, which won't happen unless the defense stops the run, so it's all intertwined.

"I do think the juice, if you will, of our football team isn't where it needed to be," LaFleur said. "You have to bring your own energy. Guys have got to dig deep sometimes to bring that out.

"We need to find the guys that are going to step up and be the leaders and be the people that are going to bring that positive energy to our football team, because if you don't have it, you just aren't going to be at your best. That's not an excuse, that's just reality."

The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings faced off in a Week 8 matchup on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.

So is the scramble that's on for the division. Obviously, the Packers and Bears are the current front-runners, but next week when the Lions and Vikings play each other, one could emerge as the next threat.

If the up-and-down, 3-4 Lions get the win, they have three straight games to follow against sub-.500 clubs. If the 2-5 Vikings win it, would anyone doubt their chances to eventually climb above .500 after posting two straight division wins?

"The division is tough," Rodgers said. "We won all six last year but that's pretty rare. That hasn't happened a whole lot in my time here. Just because there's so much parity and difficulty in playing teams."

The Packers were reminded of that on Sunday. They had just gone four straight weeks without a division game and now have three more without one before three of the last six will be NFC North tilts, two against the Bears.

"We just as a team need to find our footing completely on the both sides of the ball and hopefully start playing some more championship football like we did last year," Rodgers said.

"We've got to be more consistent across the board."

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