It’s hard to imagine quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing any better in the second half of the 2011 season than he did in the first half, but no one is writing off the possibility.

Within the locker room, there even seems to be some anticipation surrounding that thought.

“Just watch,” veteran receiver Donald Driver said. “Watch and see. He’ll be the first one to tell you he can always improve.”

OK, so he doesn’t rank first in the league in every category, just passer rating (125.7), completion percentage (71.5), touchdown passes (20) and average gain per attempt (9.92). He’s third in yards (2,372) and fourth in interceptions, with a whopping three in 239 attempts, so he’s got some work to do there.

Seriously, though, Rodgers isn’t one to compare himself to the rest of the league. He evaluates himself against, well, himself.

“This offseason, one of my goals was to decrease the space between a good game and a poor game,” Rodgers said.

Through the Packers’ 7-0 start, he appears to have accomplished that. He hasn’t posted a rating lower than 111.4, completed less than 62 percent of his passes, thrown for fewer than 297 yards or two touchdowns, nor thrown more than one interception in a game so far.

Strange as it sounds, he “sunk” to all of those depths at some point during the playoffs last winter, when he was recognized as the most dominant player on the planet.

His play so far in 2011 has MVP written all over it, but Rodgers quickly brushed off such talk on Wednesday as too early. Still, the effusive and seemingly endless praise is another example of how far he’s come since sitting in the green room at Radio City Music Hall in 2005 until the 24th pick of the first round.

That still drives him, believe it or not, 6½ years and one Super Bowl MVP award later.

“I still have a great memory,” Rodgers said. “The goals I set for myself change every year a little bit. I try to improve on the previous year and learn from the mistakes I made. When I got drafted, I had a chip on my shoulder, and I’ve still got it there. There’s a lot of motivation left in that chip.”

His teammates are blessed to be able to take advantage of that motivation and want to hold up their end of the bargain. The receivers acknowledged that if Rodgers can still improve, the rest of the offense certainly can, too, whether the unit is leading the league in points per game (32.9) or not.

“We don’t feel there are too many defenses that can stop us,” James Jones said. “When we get stopped we feel as an offense we stop ourselves. There’s penalties, dropped balls, miscommunication. We feel like we’re doing it to ourselves.”

Added Driver: “We can catch balls better, we can block better. There’s a lot of things you can do better as time goes on, and we know that’s going to happen the next nine weeks.”

Making similar progress on the defensive side would be even more valuable to the team’s fortunes.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy felt the defense moved forward over the bye week simply by getting healthier. On Wednesday, everyone on defense practiced at least on a limited basis except defensive end Mike Neal (knee), who could return to the practice field as soon as next week. Meanwhile, veteran offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) is still “multiple weeks away” from returning, according to McCarthy.

The list of full practice participants included a few defenders who have been banged up lately: safety Morgan Burnett (hand), linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) and cornerback Sam Shields (concussion).

Linebacker Clay Matthews (quad) was still limited in practice, but it’s also worth noting that cornerback Charles Woodson is not listed on the injury report for the first time in weeks.

“The first step is getting everybody to practice together,” McCarthy said. “That’s always the best solution when you hit some tough spots. We’re not far off from where we’ve been in the past, because at the end of the day it’s about giving up points. That’s really our No. 1 focus, points allowed.

“I look for us to definitely be better on defense.”

Nose tackle B.J. Raji suggested the defense needs more than the usual suspects, such as Matthews and Woodson, to emerge as playmakers in the second half.

“To be a good defense, you have to sometimes make plays that aren’t drawn up for you to make,” Raji said. “I think we have to do a better job at that.”

If they do, the No. 28 ranking in yards allowed should rise, as could the already impressive turnover total, which at 16 is tied for third in the league.

“Anytime you’re struggling and you’re winning, that’s a good sign,” Raji said. “It means you have a high ceiling, and it’s our job to reach it.”

Additional coverage - Nov. 2