Will Pack's 100th Season Be A Magical One?Posted:Sep 5th, 2018 3:08 pm
As we get set to embark on the Pack's 100th season, Packer fans find themselves in unfamiliar territory: dealing with a lot of unknowns about this year's team.
After a decade of stability, there's a new leadership model, with Mark Murphy the CEO and Mike McCarthy a senior VP, along with newly promoted VP Brian Gutekunst.
First, McCarthy. He has two new coordinators under him: one a comfortable old pair of slippers (Joe Philbin) and one a stylish new sport coat (Mike Pettine). When Philbin was around, the Packers' offense was at its most prolific. He's a brilliant football mind who is precisely who Aaron Rodgers needs to lean on right now. I ran into Matt Birk at KFAN a couple of weeks ago and he repeated the story he told me years ago: that Philbin was the best coach he ever had on any level. I believe he's the right guy to breathe life into the Pack's offense.
Pettine won me over in his opening press conference and it sounds like he accomplished the same thing with the players. His simpler approach to defense is proven, given his track record in New York. Now, obviously, you have to have players to make it work. And it looks like he'll be counting on a number of young, unproven guys to catch on quickly.
How far the Packers go this season will depend upon whether Pettine's unit can take a major step forward. There's no doubting the firepower on the other side of the ball. As long as Aaron Rodgers stay healthy, the Packers will be able to score on anybody. Much is made about the depth of the offensive line, but 31 other teams can say the same thing. There just aren't that many great tackles out there and the Pack need to have Bakhtiari and Bulaga stay upright.
While the running game is unproven, the trio of Williams, Montgomery and Jones will benefit from the prolific passing game--and will never have to face eight man fronts, as most strong running teams do. While Williams will get the bulk of the work early, I'm in the camp that says Aaron Jones will prove to be to electric to keep off the field and will be the primary back by the time the schedule turns frightening around Halloween.
The biggest concern defensively is the pass rush, where just four outside linebackers made the team, two of whom have found it difficult to stay on the field for 16 games, one who appears to be on the rise and one who has yet to prove he belongs. You have to think either the team will look to add a veteran here if they find one they like, or Pettine will count on the guys up front to assist. The strength of the unit is on the D-line and I'm excited to see Daniels, Clark, Wilkerson and Adams thrive under Pettine's direction.
To me, the biggest reason for optimism is the young cornerback group. There's reason to believe the first two picks, Alexander and Jackson are ready to step in and produce. Jackson was the league's highest rated corner in the preseason, while Alexander's snaps were more limited. There will be growing pains, as there are for all corners, but with veteran Tramon Williams back to school them in Pettine's system, Davon House on hand to provide depth and Kevin King poised to handle one of the outside spots, it's likely that we'll see much better play out of this group than we saw in 2017.
There are some question marks on special teams, with a rookie punter and long snapper, but Mason Crosby remains one of the league's most consistent kickers and the Pack appears to be committed to Trevor Davis on returns, which frees up guys like Alexander and Montgomery to concentrate on their A jobs and hopefully stay healthier.
The key to staying in the NFC North race will be getting off to a fast start. If the Packers don't lead the division after week 6, they'll be in deep trouble. The schedule is very favorable early--they'll likely be favored in their first six games leading into the bye. A 5-1 start seems possible, despite the fact that McCarthy's teams have generally gotten off to slower starts. Four of the first six are at home, with road games in Washington and Detroit. The Lions game may be toughest test leading into the bye, not counting the Vikings in week 2, but you gotta believe Rodgers will be up to that challenge.
While the Packers play home games and reasonable road games early, the Vikings have tough road tests: Green Bay, Philly and the Rams. A 3-3 start seems likely, giving the Pack an early lead in the division--something they'll need when the tables turn in November.
I can't remember a tougher stretch, on paper, than the one the Pack faces, beginning with a late afternoon road test at the Rams. They follow up with three road prime time games in the next four weeks against the Patriots, Seahawks and Vikings. That's a murderer's row (though the Seahawks may not look like the Seahawks this year) and it's why it's essential that the Packers get out of the gates quickly. If they lose three of those five games, they'll likely be sitting somewhere around 7-4 with five December games left.
As of right now, they'll likely be favored in their final five games: home games against the Cards, Falcons and Lions and road games at the Bears and Jets. I figure they'll slip up once and finish at 11-5, which may be good enough to reclaim the North. I have the Vikings finishing at 10-6 and claiming a wildcard spot.
Obviously, the Pack needs key players to stay healthy and all that, but look no further than the preseason MVP race: Rodgers is the favorite and most believe he will lead this team back to the postseason. Here are my playoff predictions:
AFC Division Winners: Pats, Steelers, Chargers, Texans
AFC Wildcards: Broncos, Jaguars
AFC Championship: Chargers over Pats
NFC Division Winners: Packers, Saints, Rams, Giants
NFC Widcards: Vikings, Eagles
NFC Championship: Packers over Saints
Super Bowl: Packers over Chargers
My Packers-Bears preview will be posted here on Friday morning. Don't forget: "Packer Preview" returns for a 23rd season on KFAN and iHeart Radio this Sunday. Tune in at 7am, or podcast it whenever you wake up. I'll be posting "Packer Review" podcasts on the morning after games which you'll find on this site or on iHeart and iTunes.