Packers 2011: The Drive for Five
The Packers also are trying to emulate Lombardi's last Green Bay team by winning a second straight Super Bowl—and matching the Steelers' feat of doing that twice. Even reaching the big game two straight times is rare, but few in the NFL would be surprised if Mike McCarthy's team is still playing on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis. For one of the Observers, in fact, it's a given.
Artie: Before we start our brilliant NFL analysis, I've got this to say: Who the hell made up these schedules? Look at Atlanta, which some people are picking to win it all...
Frank: Including Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who rightly predicted the Packers and Steelers last year.
Artie: He's way off this time. Anyway, who set up the Falcons' schedule, the ghost of Lester Maddox? Why does the Pack have to play in Atlanta for a second straight year? This is like it was with Dallas in the '90s!
Frank: Well, they did win in the Georgia Dome in the playoffs after losing there narrowly during the season.
Artie: I'm not worried about winning there, but why don't the champions get some respect? What's more, the only northern team the Falcons play outdoors is Chicago, and it's in the opener! Look at their November and December—five games in their own dome, at Indianapolis in a dome, at New Orleans in a dome and outside in nice, comfortable Houston and Carolina. It's like they're retired and taking a tour of warm-weather spots.
Frank: They are in a division called “South.”
Artie: Meanwhile the Pack, after playing at San Diego on Nov. 6, has this second half: Five Lambeau Field games in increasing cold and whatever else, one indoor game at Detroit and two potential freezers at the Meadowlands and Kansas City.
Frank: Maybe the NFL thinks Brett Favre will join the Falcons, so the schedule has to be as comfy as the Vikings' was when he was there.
Artie: Another threat to the Pack is the Saints. Here's their schedule from Dec. 4 on: at home against Detroit (dome), at Tennessee (warm-ish), at Minnesota (dome), and finishing with two home games inside. They're retirees too!
Frank: I thought the specter of the Frozen Tundra was the Packers' ace in the hole. You can't revel in it and complain about it, too—or can you?
Artie: Why not? It's what fans do.
Frank: The Super Bowl champs stayed virtually intact and have regained the huge receiving threat of tight end Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant in the backfield.
Artie: Grant went out in the first game last year and Finley played only four games. So it's almost like getting two No. 1 draft picks who already have experience, ain'a?
Frank: I can't imagine anyone not picking the Packers to win the NFC North. The big caveat, as always, is injuries, but last year they had plenty of them and still went all the way.
Artie: And as a wild card, with all their playoff games away from Lambeau.
Frank: So there'll be no question of their belief in themselves. Yes, if an injury hit Aaron Rodgers, it would be real, real trouble.
Artie: But that's true of every other contender—the Saints with Drew Brees, the Falcons with Matt Ryan, the Eagles with Michael Vick.
Frank: In the Packers' third exhibition game they showed some porous pass defense, and against a Colts quarterback not named Peyton Manning.
Artie: Two things about that. The shortened training camp had an effect, and Dom Capers doesn't show any of his new wrinkles in the preseason, so as not to tip anyone off.
Frank: In this pass-happy league everyone gets lit up now and then. In the playoffs even the Bears moved the ball against them at times, and with that third-string QB.
Artie: The immortal Caleb Hanie.
Frank: Anyway, how about the question of who'll rush the passer besides Clay Matthews?
Artie: That was answered in the final exhibition by the undrafted rookie linebacker out of BYU, Vic So'oto. He was fabulous with a sack, a forced fumble and an interception for a touchdown. Technically, Erik Walden is the starting outside LB opposite Matthews, but Capers shuffles things almost every down. So'oto will see a lot of action. He's large for that position at about 6-3 and 260, and he can really play.
Frank: As for the Packers' offense...
Artie: It's really important to keep the starters on the offensive line healthy, but other than that, wow, this team is gonna score! Who's better than Rodgers in the NFC? Not Brees or Ryan, and certainly not Vick.
Frank: Detroit seems to be a popular pick this year—not to win the NFC North, but for a wild card spot.
Artie: That's not crazy, but the Lions lost their first-round running back, Mikel Leshoure of Illinois, for the season with an Achilles' tear, and the rookie defensive lineman, Nick Fairley of Auburn, has been hurt, too. He might not be playing much beside Ndamukong Suh, at least for a while.
Frank: Everyone's counting on the quarterback, Matthew Stafford, to last the full season after two years of shoulder problems. I heard someone on ESPN say, “Well, he never missed a game in high school or at Georgia.” So what? Why should he suddenly be invincible now?
Artie: Still, I'm picking the Lions for a wild card.
Frank: How about last year's division winners, the Bears?
Artie: No way. They cannot be that lucky two straight years. Their weaknesses, the receivers and offensive line, haven't changed a bit.
Frank: And the Vikings? Who can have confidence that Donovan McNabb will be a success, or even stay healthy?
Artie: Those purple guys will stink. And because this division could be pretty weak, that's six games that could be in the Pack's pockets.
Frank: Which would help get them the No. 1 seeding for the playoffs—playing at Lambeau, and only two wins needed to get back to the Super Bowl.
Artie: The Saints and Falcons have to play each other twice, not to mention a tough Tampa Bay team. And those NFC East teams always beat up on each other. I see a No. 1 next to the Pack's name in the playoff bracket.
Frank: Weather issues aside, the Packers' schedule includes some tough stretches.
Artie: Especially with three games in 11 days in November.
Frank: At least the first two are at home—the Vikings on Monday night, Nov. 14, and Tampa Bay six days later. But then there's a really short turnaround for Thanksgiving Day at Detroit.
Artie: And they lost there last December, 7-3, which dang near kept 'em out of the playoffs.
Frank: NFC North teams play all the teams in the NFC South and AFC West.
Artie: The only real dogs in those eight games look like Carolina and Denver. Kansas City is a tough place to play, and even Oakland figures to be improved.
Frank: By one statistic the schedule is just a little tougher than last year's. Going into 2010 the Packers' opponents had a combined 2009 record of 125-131, a .488 winning percentage. This year's opponents went 130-126 in 2010, a .508 percentage.
Artie: Those figures can get skewed because the division rivals count twice. A year ago Detroit was coming off a 2-14 record; now the Lions count as 6-10 twice.
Frank: Last year the Packers were facing six '09 playoff teams—Minnesota twice, Dallas, Philadelphia, the Jets and New England. This year they're facing only five playoff teams—Chicago twice, New Orleans, Atlanta and Kansas City.
Artie: But playoff teams from the previous year might turn out to be duds, like the Vikings and Cowboys in '10. And the inter-divisional stuff can be deceptive too; a year ago it looked imposing to face the NFC East, but the Pack went 3-1 and should have beaten Washington, too.
Frank: The Giants are back as one of the two "random" NFC matchups, along with St. Louis. But this time it'll be in New Jersey.
Artie: Big deal. Bring on the Giants, the Sopranos and anyone else.
A Beast in the East?
Frank: There was a lot of hype during training camp about the Eagles, who added some big names in the defensive backfield as well as former Packer Cullen Jenkins on the D-line and Vince Young as Vick's backup at quarterback.
Artie: But Young messed up a hamstring in the final exhibition game, and I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid on Vick or the Eagles as a “Dream Team.” Besides, there's always Andy Reid on the sidelines; he's a master at messing up clock management.
Frank: Vick played well last year, true, but in the playoff game against the Packers he had the game in his hands at the end and threw an interception.
Artie: Vick finally had moments when he could actually function in the pocket. But because of that, everyone's genuflecting to him? I think fantasy leagues play into this. He puts up great numbers because of his running, and so everyone gets all excited.
Frank: Maybe he'll live up to it...
Artie: No, he won't. And neither will Tony Romo. By the way, have I mentioned that Romo is…
Frank: “NOT a good quarterback!” Yes, we've heard that from you once or twice.
Why Not a Repeat?
Artie: So now the Packers face the alleged “jinx” that keeps a team from getting back to the Super Bowl. Too much is made of that, like it will never happen again.
Frank: True, it's been rare. The last time was when New England reached (and won) the Super Bowls capping the '03 and '04 seasons. But in the '90s it happened fairly often: The Packers in the '96 and '97 seasons, the Broncos in '97 and '98, the Cowboys in '92 and '93 and Buffalo's “four-peat” of '90 through '93.
Artie: I think teams that haven't repeated often were aging, or maybe were remarkably healthy the previous year, or maybe lost a lot of key guys to free agency. None of that applies to the Packers this time.
Frank: Agreed, but I still don't see a repeat for this reason: An awful lot of things have to go right on the field.
Artie: It's no cakewalk, that's for sure.
Frank: And as well as they played in the postseason, three of those four games came down to the end with the opponent in possession of the ball and a chance to win. I just think this time a break or two will go the other way. In fact, although I'm not ga-ga over Vick, I think he and the Eagles might prevail in a playoff game at Lambeau, as he and the Falcons did in January of '03.
Artie: I understand your doubts, but “needing some breaks” applies to everyone. And right now the Packers have too much talent, especially on offense. So why not pick them?
Frank: I'm taking San Diego in the Super Bowl simply because I had them there the last two years and I'm gonna keep doing it until I'm right.
Artie: That team can score a ton with Philip Rivers and his receivers. But they still have Norv Turner, one of the great playoff busts among coaches. We agree on most of the playoff teams, but one of your picks is crazy.
Frank: I wonder which...
Artie: No Dallas, no way! And have I mentioned why? Tony Romo is NOT...
Frank: Well, I'm pretty sure the Cowboys won't go 15-1, which is what The Sporting News predicts for the Packers.
Artie: I shouldn't let them out-predict me, so my gut tells me to go for 16-0. But rationally, I'll say 14-2, with the losses coming at San Diego and the Thanksgiving game.