Well, the 2011 regular season is in the books, and on the defensive side of the ball it was not remotely pretty. By virtue of allowing an incomprehensible 575 net yards of offense to the Detroit Lions, including 502 net yards passing by Matthew Stafford, the Packers slipped to 32nd and last in the league in both total defense and pass defense. They edged out the New England Patriots by giving up 4,796 yards through the air, or a hair off 300 per game, and 411.8 yards of total offense every single game.
The defense did finish with a club-record 31 interceptions and recovered seven fumbles, which is the main reason why the defense finished 19th in points allowed (22.4/game) instead of dead last again. Incidentally, that's two more picks than touchdowns allowed, but the total of 29 passing TDs still parks the defense in a tie with San Diego for fifth-worst in football. (By virtue of those interceptions, the Packers somehow finished tied for ninth in opponents' passer rating, which just goes to show you how worthless the traditional passer rating statistic tends to be.)
But I did promise you a good thing in the title, and here it is. I believe--don't laugh--I believe that this defense can still be a championship one. Because they still do the one thing that was so crucial to the Packers' Super Bowl run a year ago. Go back to that six-game winning streak and you'll find the defense closing out the Bears, Eagles, Bears again and the Steelers when they had to protect a late lead. When they absolutely, positively had to make a play, the Packers always made one, usually an interception by Tramon Williams or Sam Shields or Nick Collins.
Now, there have been four games this year when the defense was placed in exactly that situation: late lead, game on the line, stop the final drive and we win. Those were in Week 1 against New Orleans, Week 9 at San Diego, Week 13 at New York and Week 17 vs. Detroit. In three of those four situations, the defense gave up yardage before rising to the occasion. A heroic goal-line stand ended the Saints game, an interception by Charlie Peprah the Chargers game, and Sam Shields' snaring a wayward pass finished off the Lions. In each case, the defense was facing a top-tier quarterback that had already thrown for a mile and a half against them (Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers and Stafford respectively), but was able to rise up and stop them when it really counted.
But what about the fourth game, you might say? Well, that contest saw Eli Manning complete five of eight passes for 66 yards, the last a two-yard touchdown to Hakeem Nicks. That was the only game in which the defense caved, allowing completions of 15, 15, 22 and 12 yards before the decisive two-yard score. So yes, it is possible for the defense to blow a late lead, and yes, it did come against a team the Packers are likely to face in the playoffs*. But what happened next? Aaron Rodgers happened. He drove the Packers 68 yards in four plays to win on a 30-yard field goal, in just 58 seconds. So even when the defense can't hack it, Rodgers and the offense will have their back if there's any time remaining.
It's not the kind of thing I'd put $100 on in Vegas, but based on the season to date and the Packers' history of protecting late leads, I'm confident heading into the playoffs that their defense will be able to step up when they're absolutely needed. The Packers have enough talent, especially in the secondary, that they should be able to eke out at least a win or two against good passing teams. And if they can't, one of the best offenses in football will be there and ready to pick up the slack.
*If New Orleans beats Detroit and New York defeats Atlanta in the wild-card round, as I expect, than New York would be coming to Green Bay for the divisional round.