Silver linings in short supply as Pack brace for Steelers

Eleven weeks into another season marred by injury, the throng of Green Bay Packers supporters can be found in one of a few different groups.

The optimistic fan, who laughs to forget, is thankful the Pack got their bad game out of the way last week.

The pessimist, who forgets to laugh, is told the Packers are two-touchdown underdogs this Sunday at Pittsburgh and says, “Is that all?”

Those of a rose-colored viewpoint see the Steelers game as winnable because the AFC is down this year; NFC teams are 26-16 in inter-conference games against the AFC. The Bears even handled these Steelers, for crying out loud.

Not only that, but the last time that the Packers were a two-touchdown underdog was in 2010, and we all remember how that season turned out.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy is an optimist, or at least he plays one in press conferences. He has no choice. When he announces the team’s commitment to Brett Hundley at quarterback until Aaron Rodgers returns, he’s only repeating the fact that that’s all they’ve got in the cabinet, and they’re not running out to the store for any more. It’s the hand he was dealt and not a situation that he or anyone else asked for.

The list of NFL coaches who turn out consistently contending teams irrespective of draft order, last year’s roster or this year’s injuries is short. Bill Belichick has managed to pull it off. Before him, there were rare guys like Bill Parcells and Vince Lombardi.

Most often, a head coach’s ability is seasonal, and in direct proportion to the talent on his roster. Jim Harbaugh was a borderline genius when San Francisco was stacked. After the good players were gone, Harbaugh became pretty ordinary. Then he left.

The most angry of Packer fans resent that the team doesn’t have one of the two or three greatest coaches of all time to smooth things out when their quarterback, who is also one of the two or three best of all time, goes out with an injury.

Frustration is understandable, this being another might-have-been installment of a Super Bowl run. Losing Jordy Nelson before the 2015 season was bad enough. The Packers without Rodgers are like a bike without pedals.

The last time the Packers played the Steelers, it was also without Rodgers. Pittsburgh won that game in 2013, but the Packers went on to make the playoffs anyway.

They finished 8-7-1 and won the division four years ago, but those numbers won’t cut it this time around — not with the way the Vikings are playing.

Minnesota’s 8-2 record has evoked questions of why the Packers can’t seem to get production out of a backup quarterback like the Vikings have with Case Keenum, a third-stringer.

Keenum had 24 NFL starts before this season, for one thing. He lost his first eight in a row with Houston, went 7-7 in two years with the Rams and landed in a good spot in Minnesota. Keenum has played well, but the Vikings’ fast start has been underwritten by their defense.

Hundley is still settling in and shouldn’t be tossed aside yet. But until he develops a better feel for the pocket, he’ll be regarded as no more than a backup in this league, at best.

The Packers are huge underdogs because the Steelers have won five in a row, they lead the AFC North by three games and they’re playing for a first-round bye in the playoffs. Under the lights of a national-television broadcast with everything to gain, Pittsburgh will be motivated.

Here, the optimist notes that even a loss to the Steelers wouldn’t necessarily spell the end for the Packers, if they can bounce back to beat Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

In the spirit of the holiday, the realist could then step in to give thanks for next year’s easier schedule and higher draft picks, acknowledge the unswerving support of the die-hard fans but conclude, grudgingly, that the pessimist may have a better point.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.