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Packers in tune with what lies ahead

QB Aaron Rodgers says the upcoming games will determine “what we’re playing for”


GREEN BAY – One week at a time is a cliché for a reason, because it's the only tried-and-true way to go about the business of the NFL.

But the Packers aren't ignorant of what lies ahead for them. Beginning with this Sunday's trip to Los Angeles to face the unbeaten Rams, the Packers not only play four of their next five games on the road, but three of those road tilts are against division champions from 2017, with New England next week and Minnesota ending the five-week run.

In between, there's a home date with a contending Miami club and then a trip to Seattle on a short week for a Thursday night game.

It's a gauntlet two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers can't remember having to navigate in his first 10 years as Green Bay's starter, but here it comes.r

"This is an important stretch in our season," Rodgers said after Tuesday's practice, in which he did not participate but is planning to work on Wednesday. "I'm not going to say it's going to define our season, but it's definitely going to shake things out when we get on the other side of this and get back home in six weeks, where we're at in the race and what we're playing for."

Make no mistake, Rodgers came right out and said the Packers "have to play a lot better than we have" in order to win in the coming weeks. They're right in the thick of things at 3-2-1, in second place in the NFC North, but just how seriously they'll be taken as a playoff contender could depend on the next month or so.

If Rodgers can get his full complement of veteran receivers back, that would help. Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison have missed multiple games with hamstring injuries. They were back on the practice field Tuesday, but no one was saying for certain they'd be playing Sunday in L.A.

While praise for rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown and the progress they've made is well-deserved – Rodgers went out of his way to recall the "fantastic catch" St. Brown made on a back-shoulder throw to help set up the walk-off field goal to beat San Francisco last Monday night – the Packers went into the season planning for Davante Adams, Cobb, Allison and tight end Jimmy Graham to be the top four targets in the passing game.

Adams leads the team with 557 receiving yards and six scores, while Cobb started the season with a 142-yard night that included the game-winning touchdown, and Allison averaged 72 yards per game the first four weeks before he went down. Meanwhile, Graham has been settling in, with 11 catches for 180 yards over the last two contests.

The veteran gang hasn't been all together since Week 3, but the reunion could pay dividends, especially if the Packers go up-tempo with the no-huddle to keep up with the Rams.

"(The rookies) filled those voids and helped us out the best they can," Allison said. "I think me and Randall, having (us) back will help us. There will be more maturity out there, and 12 can be more comfortable too with us.

"It's different when you have a veteran group out there, because in the no-huddle, it's more chemistry. You don't hesitate about getting things out. There's more flow to the no-huddle when you're in sync with everybody."

The veterans won't be pressured to take every snap, either, now that the rookies have found their footing a little bit. Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown each have a reception of 50-plus yards, and Valdes-Scantling topped 100 for the game last week vs. San Francisco.

With everyone available, it can make for a more rested, productive receiving corps as games wear on.

"It's going to be huge for us, and not just having us out there but having the younger guys be able to go in and have the confidence they'll be able to produce and know what's going on," Cobb said. "The experience they've had over the past few weeks will be huge for us moving forward."

But it's not just about the passing game. Rodgers and Head Coach Mike McCarthy have both mentioned this week the need to run the ball more, but the Packers have to avoid getting down multiple scores early to play that way. Three times in six games, Green Bay has trailed by 18 or more points at halftime.

"It would be nice to have some more balance there," Rodgers said. "We want to, we really do, but we have to start a little bit faster. We did last week, but we hit a big-time lull and couldn't hit a third down to save our lives. If we're not hitting third downs, then we're limiting our number of run opportunities."

The Packers had 17 points on the board in the first quarter against the 49ers and then began to stall. The long down-and-distances that have plagued them all year cropped up again due to penalties and negative plays, and Rodgers said the offense has now faced 22 snaps needing 11 or more yards on third down to move the chains, with half of those requiring 15 or more.

That's far too many, and more running attempts and production can help limit the third-and-longs as well as generate more first- and second-down opportunities for Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery to take some of the burden off Rodgers and the receivers.

It'll be easier said than done against a high-octane Rams offense that can take opponents out of their game plans quickly. But big-picture for the Packers, it's not just the Rams that matter but all the other challenges that await as well.

The time for the offense to find balance, find itself, and find its best is now.

"It's going to put a strain on us," Rodgers said of the upcoming slate, "but we'll see what the schedule is each week and prepare accordingly. These are the type of games, if you want to be a competitive team that's playing in January, you have to win some of these games."

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