With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, a wealth of skill position players on offense and a defense that makes up for its shortcomings by constantly taking the ball away, the Green Bay Packers may have been the NFL’s best team no matter what the circumstances.
Where would they be if second-year pro Marshall Newhouse hadn't stepped in for injured left tackle Chad Clifton and effectively protected Rodgers' blind side?
''By no means have I been any kind of savior,'' Newhouse said, shaking his head. ''Not in the least.''
Newhouse, a 2010 fifth-round pick from TCU, did not play a single regular-season snap as a rookie last year before landing on injured reserve with a back injury. Despite the lockout, he returned to camp in great shape and with better technique.
''I look at him now as a guy who really has a strong legitimate chance to be the left tackle of the future,'' Rodgers said this week on ESPN Radio. ''I think he has the personality makeup to do that, the athletic ability to do that, the feet and the smarts to be a very, very solid left tackle for us.''
Clifton, who began the season as the NFL's oldest starting left tackle at 35, suffered a hamstring injury Oct. 9 at Atlanta and hasn't played since. After returning to practice last week, coach Mike McCarthy said he wants him to play against the Lions to gauge where he is after such a long layoff.
McCarthy refused to divulge how many snaps he wants Clifton to play, and Clifton said he hasn't been told.
Newhouse, who has played primarily at left tackle but has stepped in at right tackle and right guard, has allowed eight sacks, seven quarterback hits and 36 pressures.
''He's played some good football for us,'' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. ''The number of sacks he's given up isn't necessarily acceptable; however, when you look at the body of work over the last 12 weeks that he's been playing for us, he's gone against some very good players and been competitive. It's not like he gets run over a whole lot.''
His biggest issue might be consistency. At Detroit on Thanksgiving, he didn't allow a sack, hit or pressure against Kyle Vanden Bosch; the following week against the New York Giants and Jason Pierre-Paul, he gave up one sack, three hits and five pressures. Against Kansas City's Tamba Hali on Dec. 18, he was charged with one sack and five pressures in the Packers' lone loss of the season; then on Christmas night, he shut down Chicago's Julius Peppers.
''The thing about him, he doesn't make the same mistake twice,'' offensive line coach James Campen said. ''He's been up and down a little bit in games with single plays — a sack, or two sacks — but those things don't always show the whole picture of what his development is.''
Last season, when Clifton was selected to his second Pro Bowl, he was charged with eight sacks, seven hits and 30 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Now, the Packers must see if Clifton can regain his form after such a long layoff.
''We'll be scrutinizing, we'll be looking at it pretty closely,'' Philbin said. ''He's missing 600, 700 (snaps) from this season, there's no question about it. There's no way we can replace those. But let's see if he looks like the guy who got about 10,000 in previous seasons.''
For his part, Clifton said feels like he's regaining his pre-injury form
''I just want to come out and play to the best of my ability — go out there and help the team,'' he said. ''I feel pretty good out there as far as the rust level. I feel like my pass sets are pretty good. Maybe the first couple days last week I might have been a little rusty but it's coming around.''
Clifton has one year remaining on his current contract, and because he turns 36 in June, this could be his final season. If McCarthy opts for experience — in 12 NFL seasons, Clifton has played in 164 career games, including 12 postseason games — in the playoffs, Newhouse could be headed back to the bench. Asked how he was preparing for that possibility, Newhouse replied, ''Quiet indifference.''
''I mean, it's so cliche, but I just want to win,'' Newhouse said. ''I know Cliff's a great lineman, and it's been great to play alongside him, play behind him. Whatever happens, happens, and I know whenever he's ready to go, we have to put our best five out there. We've got to keep Aaron healthy and we've got to go win games. Whatever that means, I'm all for it.''
Follow Associated Press writer Chris Jenkins on Twitter at twitter.com/ByChrisJenkins.