The Green Bay Packers missed the postseason for the first time since 2008 last year. What’s more, they failed to take home the NFC North crown for just the second time in the past seven seasons.
The Packers’ recent dominance atop their division and as contenders in the NFC has been well-documented, and the team made some necessary changes this offseason to help elevate a roster that has been overly-reliant on Aaron Rodgers. But a tough schedule and improved divisional foes represent roadblocks that will make taking home another NFC North title difficult–even after an active offseason.
Rodgers’ broken collarbone in 2017 exposed the Packers as a team in serious need of upgrading. Green Bay adjusted its coaching staff, bringing in Mike Pettine and Joe Philbin to coordinate the defense and offense, respectively, in the upcoming season. Meanwhile, Brian Gutekunst took over as General Manager, who retooled the defense through the draft and added key veteran free agents on both sides of the ball.
On paper, the roster–especially on defense–looks better than a year ago. And with arguably the best quarterback in the league leading the offense, why won’t regaining their spot atop the division be easy for the Packers?
The first problem is Green Bay’s 2018 opponents. Based on 2017 records, the Packers face the toughest slate in the entire NFL, with a combined opponent winning percentage of .539. While it’s impossible to know exactly how those teams will perform in a new season, it generally gives a good indication of the games’ difficulty.
Green Bay also has some brutal stretches on their 2018 slate. Coming out of their Week 7 Bye, the Packers play four of their next five games on the road. The one home game, Week 10 against a lowly Dolphins team, should be a win for Green Bay, but the four road contests could end up defining the team’s season.
They travel to Los Angeles in Week 8 to play the Rams, the highest-scoring team of 2017, then have to head to the opposite side of the country to play the Super Bowl runner-up Patriots. After returning to Lambeau to play the Dolphins, the Packers head back to the West Coast (on short rest) for a Thursday night matchup with Seattle, and then head to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in a key NFC North battle. Winning three of those five games would be no small feat, and could definitely impact whether Green Bay contends for a divisional championship.
The Packers will also face tough competition among their divisional opponents. The Vikings were runners up in the NFC last season and took home the NFC North banner with an impressive 13-3 campaign. Their offense exceeded expectations, and they added Kirk Cousins in the offseason to quarterback the team. While it will be hard for Cousins to match Case Keenum’s play from a year ago, the team’s strength still lies in its defense. Minnesota had the top ranked defensive unit in the NFL in both points per game and yards per game last season. Rodgers can single-handedly help balance the scales between Minnesota and Green Bay, but the Vikings will (rightfully) begin the year as the team to beat in the division.
Detroit turned in another underwhelming season in 2017, finishing 9-7 and second place in the North. They didn’t do much to get over the hump of mediocrity in the coming season, and could easily wind up in fourth place in the division in 2018. That’s because the Chicago Bears continue to add pieces that could allow them to make some noise in the coming year. New head coach Matt Nagy could help elevate the offense behind Mitch Trubisky, Jordan Howard, and new addition Allen Robinson at wide receiver. Meanwhile, the Bears have one of the NFL’s top defensive coordinators in Vic Fangio, who helped coach a top 1o defensive unit even as Chicago played to a 5-11 record. The Packers will have an early chance–Week 1 in primetime–to show the Bears that they’re still not ready to contend with Green Bay and Minnesota.
Finally, like every team in the NFL, the Packers will be banking on keeping key players healthy. There will inevitably be injuries in the upcoming season, and key contributors for Green Bay will likely miss games. But the Packers have to hope that their most indispensable pieces stay on the field. The team imploded without Rodgers last season, and saw similar offensive regression without Jordy Nelson in 2015. If the Packers were to lose someone like Rodgers or Davante Adams for significant time, it’s hard to imagine them contending. Injuries will happen, which will reveal whether Gutekunst and the front office brought in enough depth to keep the team afloat in spite of them.
Entering 2018, most reasonable guesses would have the Packers and Vikings contending for the NFC North title. Minnesota has a more proven top-to-bottom roster, especially on defense, but Green Bay boasts the league’s best quarterback. Reclaiming their familiar spot atop the division won’t be easy, but the Packers have the pieces in place to do just that.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .