From 1-2 to 9-3: How the Green Bay Packers Have Become a Super Bowl Contender

Left for dead by some after the first three weeks of the season, the Packers are one of the biggest contenders for the Lombardi Trophy this season. What's changed?

After Week 3, I wrote on the Packers' chances of reaching the playoffs given their 1-2 start.

It wasn’t good.

It was also on the heels of Aaron Rodgers making his famous “R-E-L-A-X” speech on his weekly radio show. The Packers then rattled off four wins in a row.

The Saints were a bump in the road for Green Bay, but the ship was righted again, and a win over the Patriots in Week 13 gave the Packers another four-game winning streak.

But how have the Packers gotten to this point, and are they the favorites to win the Super Bowl? Let’s pull up numberFire’s different categories of Net Expected Points (NEP) and find out.

Staying Focused on the Running Game

There’s no doubt the Packers looked rough during the first three weeks of the season running the ball. After Week 3, the team's Adjusted Rushing NEP - the number of points added or lost on the ground versus expectation, adjusted for strength of schedule - was -14.95 (-0.23 Rushing NEP per rush). That ranked 31st in the NFL. Since, you can see that the Packers rushing offense has improved dramatically:

OpponentAdjusted Rushing NEPPer Rush

While a lot of the numbers above hover the zero mark, keep in mind that running the football is far less efficient than passing it. Since Week 3, the Packers have slowly moved their way up the rushing offense rankings, and now come in at 17th in the league. While Eddie Lacy coughed up 18.05 Rushing NEP in the first three weeks of the season, he's been much improved since, playing roughly 13 points above expectation over the Packers' last nine games. That type of production from a high-volume back is difficult to find.

The running game is still a work in progress for the Packers, but it's improved dramatically since starting so poorly. That's been key.

Opening Up the Passing Offense

While Lacy is still gaining traction running the ball, he has become an essential part in the passing game in recent weeks. But before we get to two of Aaron Rodgers' newest weapons, let's look at the Packers' passing offense as a whole.

WeeksAdjusted Passing NEPPer Drop Back

The passing offense added very little to the team through the first three weeks of the season, as you can see from the NEP chart above. The big highlight was against the mediocre Jets passing defense, but as a whole, the passing offense was nowhere near Packers’ standards.

That all changed in Weeks 4 through 8. There was a slight bump in effectiveness for the passing offense, and that started to play a bigger, more positive role for the team, averaging 10.74 Passing NEP per game. The last four weeks have been even better, adding an average of 17.24 points, nearly three touchdowns above expectation, per game.

Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have been performing as good as anyone this year, but it’s the help of two other players that have really allowed the Packers to open up their offense: Eddie Lacy and Davante Adams.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Lacy saw the ball thrown his way a total of seven times. That's moved upwards though, as he saw 17 targets during Weeks 4 through 8 and another 15 over the last four games. Here are his advanced numbers on the year:

PlayerRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/Target
Eddie Lacy28.623923.280.73

In seeing just 39 targets so far on the season, Lacy has performed considerably well. His catch rate is 9th of the 31 running backs that have been targeted at least 30 times this year. More importantly, among this same group, Lacy's per target NEP has been better than any other running back in the NFL. In other words, no back has added more points for his team on a per target basis this season than Eddie Lacy.

But Lacy isn’t the only weapon Rodgers is making good use of lately -- Davante Adams has started to come into his own as well. His stats may not pop off the page in comparison to similarly targeted receivers, but the ability to use Adams within the offense has allowed Rodgers to pick and choose his matchups more than he was able to do earlier this season.

While Adams is a rookie, he currently ranks as the third-most targeted receiver within the Packers’ offense, seeing 13.9% of Rodgers’ passes. Through the first three weeks of the season, Adams only saw 10 targets. In the nine games since, he's seen 44.

PlayerRec NEPTargetsTarget NEPRec NEP/Target
Davante Adams35.725419.440.66

Among wideouts who have seen between 40 and 65 targets in their offenses, Adams’ numbers all rank in the top 10 of each major NEP category.

No Longer the Worst at Defending the Run

In the first five weeks of the season, the Packers rush defense according to numberFire’s power rankings was battling with the Bengals as the worst one in the NFL. After 12 games, that's no longer the case.

No, they're not elite, but a rise to 22nd in the rankings is a great improvement.

What Are Their Chances?

The Packers’ are showing progress in all areas that were weak in the first quarter of the season. After Week 3, the Packers only had a 7.7% chance winning their division and a 12.7% chance to make the playoffs.

After Week 13, the Packers’ outlook is much better, to say the least. They currently have a 64% chance to win their division, and are a no-brainer for the playoffs at 94.3%. Green Bay's currently slotted as the number-two seed in the NFC with four very winnable games left.

The division could still come down to their Week 17 matchup against the Lions, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that Vegas has made them the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. And the numberFire algorithms give them a 13.2% chance to win it all, the highest in the NFC and third-highest in the league.