Sunday’s dismantling of the Vikings was the Packers most enjoyable win in a long time. The game has already been adequately covered on this blog, so in an attempt to get Packers fans re-focused on the rest of the season, I thought I would take a look at the bigger picture in the NFC and try to figure out where the Packers fit and how they stack up against the other top teams in the conference.
I’ll start with a basic set of NFC power rankings. From there, I’ll break down the top six teams with a focus on how they match-up against the Packers. This is not a predictions piece (I learned my lesson the last time I tried to make predictions). Rather, it’s an examination of where the NFC stands right now, factors that could influence where it might be at the end of the season, and how the Packers might figure into the whole thing.
By now, the hangover from the win over the Vikings should have worn off. It’s time to get back to work.
NFC North Power Rankings
The Eagles sort of remind me of the 2009 Vikings. They have a quarterback that is exceeding expectations, an all-around threat in DeSean Jackson (kind of like Percy Harvin) an emerging receiver receiver in Jeremy Maclin (Sidney Rice) and a defense that plays well with a lead.
However, no matter how well he is playing, the wild card for the Eagles is still Vick. Can he stay healthy? He’s already missed three starts and has carried the ball 29 times since returning (that’s a lot of hits). Can he hold up in a close game? The Packers appear to have the right combination of offense and defense to always be in games. I am still not convinced that Vick is capable of leading a composed and methodical drive down the field late in a game to rally the Eagles to a win.
The Eagles might have the most weapons in the NFC, but they also had plenty of weapons last season. When the Cowboys shut down the big plays and forced the Eagles to try and sustain long drives in the playoffs, the Eagles folded. The same could happen this season. Then again, the Eagles could just as easily maintain their explosiveness all the way to the Super Bowl.
We will find out for sure who the second best team in the NFC is on Sunday, but for now I am giving the nod to the Packers because of the way they are winning. The Packers have won their last three games by a combined score of 85-10. The defense has allowed 10 points in the last 12 quarters while forcing seven turnovers. Aaron Rodgers has played himself into the MVP discussion. The Packers have outscored their opponents by 106 points.
Everybody is bemoaning the lack of a dominant team in the NFL. You cannot get much more dominant than 85-10 and a point differential of 106.
That said, the real test for the Packers defense has yet to come. This defense will come back down to earth a bit against the Falcons, the Patriots, and probably the Lions. They will get burned occasionally and give up points against these teams. We will find out for sure how good this defense is by the adjustments they make and how they pick themselves up after getting knocked down.
Jason Wilde said on Monday’s Green and Gold Today that the Packers were not overly exuberant after beating the Vikings. A few weeks ago, I wrote about “unquantifiable areas” that made Mike McCarthy a good coach. The Packers’ reaction to Sunday’s win is the perfect example of this.
It would have been acceptable if the Packers went crazy after winning Sunday, but they didn’t. McCarthy appears to have connected with this team and has them focused regardless of the circumstances. Because of this, I don’t anticipate a letdown from the Packers this Sunday and neither should the Falcons.
The Falcons are 18-1 at home with Matt Ryan as the quarterback and there has not been much of a secret to their success. The Falcons come at you with a couple of bruising running backs and then open things up with Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
The Packershave only allowed two receivers to go over 100 yards this season. The way Woodson/Williams/Shields/Collins/Peprah are going, I like the Packers’ chances of containing White and company. The Falcons also have a tendency to force the run even when it is not working. That puts the Falcons in a lot of third down situations, which they have been able to regularly convert, but might struggle a bit against a defense like the Packers.
Ryan also tends to force the ball to White (White has been targeted 116 times, tied for first in the NFL), so it will be interesting to see what happens if the Packers take White out of the game.
All in all, I like this matchup for the Packers. But I would like it a lot more if it was at Lambeau.
How can the defending Super Bowl champions fly under the radar? I am not sure, but the Saints have been one of the better teams in the league recently, and they have done it without getting much attention. Drew Brees is not throwing for 400 yards every game and the Saints are not dismantling opponents like they did last season, but this is still a scary team.
What could bring the Saints down is a schedule that has them playing four of their last six on the road, including a run against the Ravens, Falcons and Buccaneers to end the season.
The Saints have won four of their last five, with all four wins coming by double digits. They appear to be a team on the rise, and I still don’t feel like they have played their best football yet. Getting Reggie Bush back should provide another boost, but the Saints have to be a little concerned about their defense after giving up 300 yards passing to a wounded Matt Hasselbeck.
How do the Packers match up against the Saints? Sort of the same way they match up against the Falcons. If the game is at Lambeau, I like the Packers. If the game is not at Lambeau, it’s a tossup.
The Bucs play at the Ravens, home against the Falcons and at the Redskins the next three weeks. If they manage to go 2-1 over this stretch, this team might be for real. And if you believe that talented young teams improve as the season goes on, the Bucs — the youngest team in the NFL — might be for real.
The Bucs lack of a pass rush was concerning heading into last Sunday, but they managed six sacks against the 49ers. Sure, it was the 49ers, but if the Bucs manage to get a decent pass rush the rest of the way, they might be for real. Josh Freeman has blossomed into a playmaking quarterback in his second season, if he keeps it up, the Bucs might be for real.
Might be for real is the key phrase with the Bucs. In reality, the only reason the Packers should worry about playing the Bucs in the playoffs is if the game is in Tampa Bay. I don’t need to go over how poorly the Packers play in Tampa. However, I wasted a good 30 minutes at the office yesterday going over possible playoff scenarios, and it looks highly unlikely that the Packers will have to travel to Tampa for a playoff game.
Faithful Jersey Al reader “bill from jersey” thinks the Giants are frauds. He might be right, but are they worse than the Bears? Or the Redskins? Or the Bucs? Or whoever finishes second in the West? If the Giants miss the playoffs, it is going to be because two of those four teams made the playoffs (I’m assuming the Eagles win the East, which probably means they won’t).
While Bill thinks the Giants are frauds, I still think the Bears are frauds. Either the Bears or the Giants (or the Bucs) are going to fraud themselves out of the playoffs, and my money is on the Giants holding it together long enough to outlast the Bears (I probably just ensured that the Bears will win the Super Bowl).
Five of the Bears remaining seven games are against bona fide playoff contenders. The Giants have two games against bona fide playoff contenders (Eagles and Packers) and three against quasi contenders (Jaguars and Redskins twice).
Can the Bears rely on teams like the Eagles, Patriots and Jets to continue dropping Jay Cutler interceptions? Will Tom Brady or Michael Vick get hurt and miss the Bears game? That’s how this season has gone for the Bears so far, so who knows what could happen.
If the Bears continue to win ugly, there will definitely be a lockout next season. However, the lockout won’t happen because a new labor deal could not be reached. It will happen because nobody will ever want to watch football again after having to endure this Bears team reaching the playoffs.