Ordinarily a team entering the postseason with a record of 8-7-1 would not be expected to threaten many of the higher seeds. The Green Bay Packers enter this season’s playoffs as the winners of a very weak NFC North division which, at times this season, has felt like the one that none of the teams really wanted to win. But now that they have made the postseason, do not be surprised if Mike McCarthy has his men ready to make an assault on the big prize.
Having won their division, the Packers now have the chance to host the fifth seed San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field on a day that is expected to produce the coldest postseason encounter in NFL history. San Francisco, although used to playing on grass, have little experience of genuine cold weather football. This gives Green Bay a distinct advantage in this match up. Win this one and they are just two victories away from an appearance at the Met Life Stadium in February.
The Packers’ record is not a true reflection on the ability of their team, if they can keep all of their stars on the field. Aaron Rodgers has managed just nine starts this year, following his injury against Chicago in week 9. At this point of the year Green Bay were 5-2 and handily placed; when Rodgers returned (ironically against Chicago) in the week 17 decider, his side had managed a record of 2-5-1 in his absence. Had he been at the helm throughout the year, Green Bay may well have entered the postseason with a record more reflective of their potential.
Yet it has not just been the injury to Rodgers that has affected the Packers. Randall Cobb also made a comeback in week 17, after missing the majority of the season with a broken leg. Tight end Jermichael Finley managed just five starts before being placed on IR, whilst linebacker Clay Matthews has just 10 starts to his name. With Cobb and Matthews both likely to feature against the 49ers, Green Bay are getting back to near full strength at the right time and, importantly, could have some fresher players going into the crunch part of the season.
For the first time in recent seasons, the Packers also have a genuine dual threat offense. Eddie Lacy has produced a stunning rookie year; his 1178 yards have come at 4.1 yards per carry and included 11 touchdowns. This is despite limited action in the first two weeks of the season. Four 100 yard games, including 141 yards at 6.7 yards per attempt in the vital comeback win in Dallas, highlight his importance to the team. If he can stay fit to take the pressure off Aaron Rodgers then the Packers have a significantly improved chance offensively.
Another important factor to consider is experience. Of all the teams left in the NFC picture, it is the fourth seed Packers and sixth seed Saints that have the most experience. Whilst the Saints terrible road form combined with Arctic conditions in Philadelphia could leave Drew Brees and co. wanting, Rodgers experience of winning playoff games could prove crucial if they can win this week and then have to deal with road games. Rodgers knows how to win and, in a close game, this is often the important factor with the game on the wire. His experience could prove vital over Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Nick Foles and, in the first instance, Colin Kaepernick.
The Packers have a very difficult task ahead of them. But with the third ranked total offense (despite missing Rodgers, Cobb and Finley for large chunks of the season) they have a chance to progress. To do so their 25th ranked defense will need to step up, but playoff football can see those things happen. Over to you Aaron…..