The NFL playoffs stat this weekend and the Green Bay Packers will be resting comfortably and watching from home. They’re the NFC’s number two seed and have earned this week off and they’ll be watching the two NFC match up’s carefully to see who they’ll be hosting next Sunday at Lambeau Field.
The Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals are getting set to kick off soon as I write this on Saturday. On Sunday, the Detroit Lions will face the Dallas Cowboys at “Jerry World”. If the Cowboys defeat the Lions, the Packers will host Dallas and the winner of the Carolina-Arizona game will travel to Seattle to face the top seeded Seahawks. Should the Lions somehow pull out a tough road win in Dallas, the Packers will then host the winner of Carolina-Arizona.
This was a fun season in the NFL in that there were so many playoff spots and seedings still up in the air heading into week 17. The Packers had to beat the Lions to win the NFC North and earn the two seed or they would have otherwise been the sixth seed and playing at Dallas tomorrow. The Baltimore Ravens, who will face the Pittsburgh Steelers later today, needed to win their game and have the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers lose. The Cincinnati Bengals faced the Steelers with the winner securing the division title and the other a wild card team. This is what the NFL hoped for when they worked so hard to create parity and competitive balance as well as mandate a divisional match up for every team in week 17. Only after the Packers had already won 14 games in 2011 were they still able to afford to rest players in that last game, as was often customary throughout the league in seasons past.
For the second time in the last five seasons, we have a playoff team under .500. The Panthers won the NFC South with a big road win over the Atlanta Falcons and will host a game. While many of us thought that division would come down to the New Orleans Saints or the Falcons, the Panthers quietly stayed the course and won a huge game when they had to. The last sub-.500 team that made the postseason was the 2010 Seahawks. They hosted the defending-champion Saints and there’s likely few of us who remember how that game ended. Agree or disagree with a team under .500 getting into the postseason or hosting a game, but that’s the way it works and the NFL seems to love every bit of it.
Cory and I broke down the three potential foes the Packers could face next week on our latest No Huddle Radio podcast. If everything goes according to “how it should”, the Cowboys will be heading to Lambeau Field for the first time since 2010. Dallas was 8-0 on the road this season and won 12 games, good enough for the NFC’s third seed. The usuals stepped up and had a great season for the ‘Boys: Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and that outstanding offensive line. They present the toughest challenge of all options for the Packers. While Green Bay’s run defense has improved statistically, this would be the best offensive line they’ve faced all season long. Murray remains a huge weapon, despite a broken bone in his off hand. Any time the Packers have to account for a balanced attack like Dallas’s, it hasn’t been easy. The biggest factor in this one is going to be how effective the Packers offense can be against an average Dallas defense. Sounds easy enough and with a friendly crowd, they should be able to move the ball. But when they get in first and goal to go, then what? This has been an area where Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has debated with himself about what to do. I can tell you that a John Kuhn dive is both not going to work and really stir up those who don’t think McCarthy should be calling the offense anymore. I hope Mac remembers that he has Eddie Lacy and regardless of whether the defense knows he’s getting the ball on first down, give it to #27 and let him earn his bread.
The Packers faced the Panthers earlier this year and by virtue of how they got into the playoffs, I don’t foresee a huge difference in that match up, should it come down to their coming back to Lambeau Field. Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams would be healthy, but he’s still not enough to get a road win against this year’s Packers. The Cardinals are running with Ryan Lindley at quarterback and he’s their third option. At one point last week, Logan Thomas was going to be the starter. That ended after a few rough days at practice. Needless to say, Arizona is on borrowed time and even if the stars align and they’re headed to Lambeau, they simply won’t be able to score enough points to beat the Packers. And I’m talking about more than 10. Arizona’s defense has been as tough as nails this season but teams can’t win unless they’re scoring points.
You may be wondering “why a picture of Julius Peppers?”. That’s because he’s my Packers X-factor this postseason. He’s the guy this team needs to get more of during this second season. The assumption is that Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Lacy, Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels will add their usual level of contributions. It’s the middling guys like Peppers, Letroy Guion, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett that this team is going to need that something extra from. But none more than Peppers. Voted a playoff captain, he’s looked at as a leader and steadying force for this Packers team. His presence alone isn’t anything the opposition can ignore, whether they want to or not. Peppers has to find his mojo and get active. If he’s not getting sacks, he needs to get his hands up and in the throwing lanes. Occupying multiple guys and allowing the middle guys to clog holes and help in run support. Of course, one of those strip sack fumbles or pick sixes would be awfully nice too. But if you’re asking me who has to elevate his game this January, it’s Peppers.
This past week, it was announced that two Packers players were voted first-team All Pro’s. Aaron Rodgers and John Kuhn received the honor, while guard Josh Sitton fell just short. The narrative that has emerged from Rodgers’ selection is that this is a strong indicator of the support he likely has in the voting for Most Valuable Player. Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt was also voted first-team All Pro and is said to be Rodgers’ biggest competition for the honor. It would be Rodgers’ second MVP award and his first since 2011. The All-Pro honor is quite an honor for Rodgers, when you consider that New England’s Tom Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning are also having very good seasons. While they may not be lighting up the league as they have in the past, the voters always seem to have a soft spot for both. When you consider the slow start the Packers offense had and the terrible outing in Buffalo for Rodgers, his earning this accolade is a strong indication of the incredible expectations that he warrants from the media’s elite.
As for Rodgers, he isn’t expected to practice until the middle to end of next week. McCarthy said Rodgers will continue to get regular treatment on his injured left calf until he returns to the field. In the meantime, Rodgers as already begun his usual preparation for the upcoming opponents and the team has no reason to believe he won’t be fully ready when the Packers kick off at noon next Sunday. Just keep in mind that “fully ready” doesn’t necessarily mean “fully healthy”. It’s unlikely that Rodgers will return to full health until after the season, but he and the Packers hope he can at least make it through the games and be effective enough that Green Bay doesn’t have to limit their offensive game plan too much.
Enjoy wild card weekend and look for our continuous coverage of the divisional round during the week ahead!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: