Green Bay Packers

Midweek Musings: Assessing the Packers’ potential divisional opponents

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For the third straight year, the Green Bay Packers will have an extra week to prepare for their postseason journey.

By virtue of their 13-4 record (that still feels weird to type) and 8-3 record within the conference, the Packers own the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The road to the Super Bowl ventures through Lambeau Field, again.

It’ll surely be a quiet week of discussion about the Packers, as the NFC’s six other playoff teams trade body blows.

The Packers, meanwhile, can sit back and enjoy a welcomed respite for the next handful of days.

From now until Monday evening, there are two things to monitor: First, whether Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander, Billy Turner and Randall Cobb are able to return to practice; and second, which teams survive the wild card round.

The Packers know the won’t face the second-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the third-seeded Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round, which means a potential reunion with Mike McCarthy or revenge against Tom Brady will require another week of patience.

That leaves four potential divisional round opponents for the Packers, three of which are familiar: the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers.

The Packers faced all three of those NFC West opponents during the regular season and won all three games, two of which came down to the final play.

So who do the Packers want to see? And who do they want to avoid?

If the path of least resistance suits you, the Philadelphia Eagles are probably your ideal choice as a first opponent. 

The Eagles were among 2021’s biggest surprises. After finishing 2020 with a 4-11-1 record, Philadelphia bounced back in 2021 to win nine games and earn the NFC’s final seed.

Most worrisome about the Eagles is the rushing attack, which led the NFL in total yards this season.

That’s in large part to quarterback Jalen Hurts, who racked up 784 yards and 10 touchdowns this season on the ground.

Coincidentally, Hurts’ first true NFL action came last season against the Packers in Lambeau, when he provided a nice spark off the bench in relief of Carson Wentz.

While a nice story, it’s hard to envision the Eagles as a true threat to Green Bay. Philadelphia played six games against fellow playoff teams this season and lost them all.

If revenge is your thing, look no further than the San Francisco 49ers. 

It’s funny, the Packers owned the 49ers during their handful of playoff meetings in the 1990s (remember, Jerry Rice fumbled).

Then, in the 2010s, the script flipped and San Francisco became the road block for Green Bay.

Maybe now that we’re in a new decade, the Packers can again reverse course.

The 49ers have some high-end talent, between George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa and Fred Warner.

But San Francisco also has a quarterback with a significant thumb injury, and a secondary that’s ripe for the picking.

The Packers needed a miraculous final drive to beat the 49ers in Week 3. But don’t forget that Green Bay was ahead 17-0 in that game.

Could the 49ers’ star talent steal a game in Green Bay? Maybe, but it’s far more likely that their hampered quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, struggles in the cold, much like Jared Goff and his injured hand did a year ago.

Green Bay’s Week 8 win over the Arizona Cardinals is one of the 2021 season’s most memorable games, but there’s no reason to think a rematch would be as competitive.

Every team has injuries. The Cardinals, for example, were without JJ Watt and had a limited DeAndre Hopkins against the Packers.

But it cannot be overstated how undermanned the Packers were that day, with Davante Adams , Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard all unavailable, plus the continued absence of David Bakhtiari, Alexander and Smith.

Yet the Packers were able to control the clock (37:35 to 22:25) and force Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray into a pair of costly turnovers.

The Cardinals, ironically, are a much more effective road team than home. But Murray has also only played one game in “cold” temperatures in his three seasons, and it came last month against a hapless Chicago Bears team.

During his draft preparation, Murray was questioned because of hand size. That hasn’t been a detriment in warm climates or domes, but could be a factor at Lambeau.

That, coupled with a mediocre second half (Murray threw only 7 touchdowns and averaged 6.71 yards per attempt in his final six games), make it hard to envision a Cardinals win at Green Bay.

Which brings us to another meeting with the Los Angeles Rams, and a rematch of last year’s divisional round game. 

The Rams, in a sense, are like the 49ers: Their top-end talent matches up with any team. But they also have a mistake-prone quarterback, who’s also playing his worst football at the worst time.

Matthew Stafford recorded 41 touchdowns and over 4,800 yards, which is nothing to sneeze at. But his habit of ill-timed mistakes, to the shock of no Packers fan, has carried over from his days in Detroit.

Stafford has thrown eight interceptions in his last four games. He led the NFL with 17 across the entire season.

When L.A. came to Green Bay in November, it was Stafford’s pick-six to Rasul Douglas that served as the Packers’ dagger.

Teams quarterbacked by Stafford are 3-8 in Green Bay, dating back to his first season with the Lions. For two of those wins, the Packers were without the services of Aaron Rodgers (he left the 2018 finale after only a few snaps after suffering a concussion).

So sure, while Stafford has experience at Lambeau Field, I’d reference a quote from Marvel Comics’ Mad Titan: Can you consider experience a benefit when you’ve consistently failed?

Green Bay will be the prohibitive favorite against each of these opponents. While each has varying degrees of talent, it’ll take the perfect game to beat the Packers in Lambeau Field.

And I’m not sure any of these teams have it in them.

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