After a 15-1 season that ended in disappointment, the Green Bay Packers will be out to prove that they can perform in both the regular season and in the playoffs. And while it is too soon to predict anything for next year, we do know who the Packers will be playing next season and where they will be.
Here is an early evaluation of their opponents, as well as my own prediction that they can come away with a win.
The Packers will be facing their division Chicago Bears both home and away this year, as usual. While the Bears finished with an 8-8 record and missed out on the playoffs, much of this was due to the fact that their two biggest offensive weapons, Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, were lost for the season by Week 13.
In fact, the Bears started 7-3 with Cutler and Forte, and their offense was virtually anemic with Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown at quarterback later in the year. But with Cutler and Forte likely returning, this offense won't look like it did when the Packers played the Bears on Christmas Day.
The Bears have one of the greatest defenses in the league and an offense that can be somewhat pedestrian at times, particularly due to a leaky offensive line and a weak receiving corps.
However, they have performed well in the past two years when healthy, and for the most part, they have always given the Packers a close game.
The Packers will likely beat the Bears in Lambeau, but I certainly wouldn't rule out a Bears victory in Soldier Field.
The Packers swept the Lions this year, but the Lions gave them a good game in both meetings. On Thanksgiving, the Lions defense held the Packers offense for most of the first half, and while things got away from them in the second half, the Lions were able to keep the game close for the first three quarters, mostly with their defense.
On New Year's Day, it was their offense who kept the Lions in the game, matching the Packers score-for-score in a wild 45-41 loss at Lambeau.
The Lions finished 10-6 with a playoff berth and are certainly an improving team. While I think the Packers will win on their home turf, the Lions could easily win one at Ford Field, just like they did in 2010.
It's hard to believe that just two seasons ago, the Vikings were in the NFC Championship Game. Now they are coming off a horrible 3-13 season where they were largely uncompetitive for most of the year.
The Vikings lost a close one in the Metrodome to the Packers, but were blown away by the Pack on Monday Night Football in Lambeau. The Vikings have solid pieces on their team and will likely be selecting a high pick in the draft, which could give them another piece of the puzzle if they make the right choice.
However, I think the Vikings are in a rebuilding mode; they are starting a young quarterback, their receiving corps is not what it was three years ago and their defense is aging. This is a team that will likely be slightly better next year, but will still have its struggles.
In 2012, the Packers will sweep the Vikings for a third year in a row, giving them a 4-2 record within the division.
This will likely be a marquee game in 2012 as the Packers will face the Saints in Lambeau Field once again this year. Many thought this would be the NFC Championship Game in 2011, but both teams disappointed in the playoffs and lost to the Giants and 49ers, respectively.
Last time the Packers and Saints met, it was a 42-34 shootout in which the Packers won in a game that went down to a stop on 4th-and-1 in the final seconds. The Packers and Saints are two evenly-matched teams that both have explosive offenses that can score at will.
This year, however, both of their defenses stuggled at times.
The Packers and Saints is a toss-up to pick, but because the Packers will be playing on their home turf, I'm predicting a Packers win as an early pick.
In what could be another marquee game, the Packers will be facing the defending NFC Champions, the New York Giants, the very team that beat them in the playoffs just two weeks ago.
The Packers beat the Giants in the regular season in a close 38-35 game before falling to them in the playoffs. I have a feeling that the Packers will be out for revenge in this one, and will be determined to come away with a win.
Both the Giants and Packers are obviously talented teams, and while some believe the Giants are a more balanced team, they are a more inconsistent team, losing to the likes of the Redskins and Seahawks in the regular season, and losing four games in a row before going on their run at the end of the year.
I think that if the Packers play like they played during the 2011 regular season, they should come away with a win, even if they are on the visitor's turf.
They can't make the mistakes like they did the last time these two teams met and expect a win.
The Cardinals had a strong finish to their season, but their struggles early on kept them from being in any sort of true contention for the playoffs.
Like the Vikings, the Cardinals were a strong team just a few years ago, but with the retirement of Kurt Warner and with star players like Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle moving on, the Cardinals have fallen back in recent years.
The last time the Packers and Cardinals met in a meaningful game, it was a wild 51-45 shootout where the Cardinals beat the Packers in overtime to advance in the playoffs. However, with the performance of the Cardinals offense in recent years, I doubt that it will be a shootout.
Home or away, the Packers should win this one, but since it is at home, the Packers should have no trouble coming away with the win.
The Packers face the 49ers at home in 2012, a 49ers team that proved to surprise many on their way to a 13-3 record and hosting the NFC Championship Game.
This is an intriguing game and likely the toughest test the Packers will have coming out of the NFC West, so playing this one at home is definitely good news for the Packers.
The 49ers have a solid defense that has the potential of stopping Aaron Rodgers and the hot Packers offense. The only problem is that the 49ers offense, led by Alex Smith, can be inconsistent at times, so if the Packers break away to a big lead, can the 49ers match them point-for-point?
At this point, I'm going to go with the Packers since they are the home team, but the 49ers shouldn't be underestimated and could certainly come away with the win at Lambeau.
The Packers have had their way with the Seattle Seahawks in recent years, beating them 48-10 in their most recent meeting. They have also beaten them twice in the playoffs in the past decade.
The Packers and Seahawks had a bit of a rivalry when Mike Holmgren and Matt Hasselbeck were playing in Seattle, but since they have both moved on, this game will have a little less significance, especially since the Packers are the far better team.
The biggest obstacle for the Packers in this game will be the home field in Seattle, which can be extremely loud and intimidating. The "12th Man" of Seattle can certainly keep this a close game, but I still predict a win for the Packers.
The Packers routed the Rams in both of their last meetings, including last year's 24-3 win against the Rams in Lambeau. Still, the Rams are a team that could surprise some people next year, as they have some key talent that could help this team improve on their highly disappointing 2-14 record.
The Rams were expected by some to take the next step and win the NFC West this year, but they ended up taking a giant step back. Still, because they are getting new coaching and a high pick in the draft, it could spark this team to do better, especially when they have a promising young quarterback and an improving defense.
That being said, I would be very surprised to see the Rams beat the Packers, even in St. Louis. The Rams are still a rebuilding team and will likely have a hard time keeping up with the Packers in this one.
It almost looked like the Jaguars gave up this season after cutting David Garrard in the preseason and handing the starting position to Blaine Gabbert way too early.
The Jaguars are a team with some key talent that could win some games, but in Lambeau Field, I doubt that the Jaguars will stay very competitive with the Packers, especially if their young quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, has the same year next year as he had this year.
The Packers should easily beat the Jaguars, and it should be their easiest game of the AFC South.
The Titans are a team that nobody talked about all season long, yet they finished with a 9-7 record and nearly made the playoffs.
Tennessee is a team on the rise, and they could easily take advantage of a possibly Peyton Manning-less AFC South, but there is no doubt that the Packers will give them a run for their money in this game.
What could be notable about this game is the return of Matt Hasselbeck to Lambeau, who played many times in Green Bay after playing for them as a backup.
I like the Titans and think that they can have success in this league, though I do think the Packers will likely win this one, especially since they are playing at home.
This game will likely be the Packers' toughest game outside of their division. The Texans are a team that could have easily gotten to the Super Bowl had they not been hit with injuries late in the year.
But even with their injuries, they got to the playoffs and even won their first franchise playoff game.
This Texans team is rapidly on the rise, with a strong offense led by Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson in the air and Arian Foster on the ground. And their defense, which was one of the worst in the league in 2010, was one of the best in 2011.
The Texans have vastly improved in their talent, and I expect that Packers to have a hard time winning this game.
While it will be a close game and the Packers will certainly have a shot at winning it, I'm picking the Texans to pull out a close one in this matchup.
While I might have picked the Colts to at least make this a close game earlier in the year, the Packers may very likely win this one easily with Peyton Manning likely not being on the field for the Colts next year.
The Colts were a hapless 2-14 team this year and have the chance to select Andrew Luck in the draft this year, making it clear that they are ready to move on from Peyton Manning after a neck injury that kept him out of the 2011 season.
The Colts could certainly win, but it all depends on their quarterback situation. If Peyton Manning is somehow on the field and playing well, then it's a toss-up. But if Andrew Luck is on the field, it really depends on how his first year is going. If he has the normal rookie struggles, the Packers will probably come away with the win.
But if he starts out fast right out of the gate, the Packers could be in for a good game.
The Packers' toughest games this year might be within the division, as the NFC North has turned into one of the best divisions in football, with the Bears, Lions and Packers all being talented teams that could be primed for the playoffs.
In the NFC, the Packers play the weak NFC West, which could certainly bode well for them, especially since their most difficult matchup will be against San Francisco, and they will be playing that one at home.
The Saints and the Giants could both easily steal wins from the Packers as well, but I do expect the Packers to come away winning at least one of these games.
The AFC South is an intriguing division to face this year, as the Texans should be a great matchup against the Packers, and the Titans and Colts are teams that could go either way next year in terms of their performance.
My prediction for next year is that the Packers go 12-4, losing to the Bears, Lions and Texans and perhaps once more against either the 49ers, Saints, or Giants.