The Green Bay Packers face a very difficult schedule in 2013. According to Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers have the sixth toughest schedule in all of the NFL this upcoming season.
The Packers are also going to be facing six teams who made the playoffs last season, including the Minnesota Vikings twice.
I'm going to list eight games that I think will be pivotal for the Packers in 2013. Seven of those eight games are on the road. The Packers have been a very good team at home under Mike McCarthy over the last four years, as the team is a combined 28-4.
Things have been tougher on the road, as the Packers are 19-13 over that same period, which is still pretty good.
Still, you have to go at least .500 on the road, and you always want to beat a divisional opponent (home or on the road) more than anyone.
Let's take a look now at the eight games that will help determine the fate of the Packers in 2013.
579. That's all that defensive coordinator Dom Capers of the Packers needs to write on the blackboard before the opening game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. That's how many yards the Packers gave up to the 49ers in their 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff game loss last season in San Francisco.
The defense also allowed quarterback Colin Kaepernick to have 444 total yards just by himself. The read-option play killed the Pack that night. Over and over again.
That's one of the reasons the Packers drafted Datone Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. Jones had a lot of success against teams who utilized the read-option while he was at UCLA.
This opening game is a great test for the Packers to start the season. The Packers will be playing the NFC champions. They will be playing a team who beat them twice in 2012, once at Lambeau Field and once at Candlestick Park.
The Packers have a good enough offense to win this game, but the defense better be ready to play. Especially when it comes to defending the read-option, and also controlling the scrambling ability of Kaepernick while he dropping back to pass.
A loss here won't derail the 2013 season by any means, but a win would be a dynamic way to start the new campaign.
The Packers will get an opportunity to play the defending Super Bowl champions in Week 6, as they will travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens. The Ravens aren't quite the same team that won Super Bowl XLVII, thanks to the retirement of Ray Lewis, the trading away of Anquan Boldin and the loss of key players to free agency, but they still will be a difficult opponent to play. Especially on the road.
The Ravens still have Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco at quarterback, who had a great postseason in 2012, as he didn't throw one interception at all in the playoffs, while throwing 11 touchdown passes. When it was all said and done, Flacco had a 117.2 quarterback rating in the playoffs, as the Ravens won the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Losing against an AFC team is never as bad as losing a game against a NFC conference opponent, but a win against the NFL champs would be an excellent feather in the cap for the Packers.
Coaches always separate the NFL season into quarters, and a win in Baltimore would be a great way to start the second quarter of 2013.
It's always imperative to win divisional games in the NFL, and when you can steal a win on the the road, it's especially sweet. The Packers have won two straight NFC North titles and have gone 11-1 the last two seasons against the divisional opponents.
The only divisional loss for the Packers the last two years? It was against running back Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings on the last week of the regular season in 2012 in Minneapolis.
The rivalry will have a little more juice in it this year, as longtime Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings left the Packers via free agency to join the Vikings.
Jennings will definitely be the No. 1 passing option for the Vikings in 2013, and he will get some opportunities as most defenses play eight men in the box trying to stop the lethal running attack led by Peterson.
There's only one problem. Christian Ponder is the quarterback who will be throwing Jennings the ball. In two years in the NFL, Ponder has thrown 31 touchdown passes, compared to 25 picks. His quarterback rating is 77.1.
The quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) Jennings left behind in Green Bay has thrown 84 touchdown passes, compared to just 14 interceptions over those same two seasons. His quarterback rating average over the last two seasons is 115.3. Rodgers is also the highest rated passer in the history of the NFL (regular season).
Advantage Rodgers. By a big margin.
The key to this game will be stopping the reigning NFL MVP Peterson. "All Day" ran for 409 yards in two regular-season games last year, and then 99 more in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game in Green Bay.
To add to the drama, this game will be on Sunday Night Football on NBC.
Let's face it, the New York Giants have the Packers' number. Yes, I know, the Packers have beaten the G-Men twice in the past three years. Once in 2010 and once in 2011. But in the 2011 postseason, the 9-7 wild-card Giants shocked the 15-1 (and No. 1 seed) Packers at Lambeau Field 37-20.
Last year, the Packers were whipped 38-10 in New Jersey on a Sunday Night Football game. The game in 2013 will also be a game which will be announced by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on NBC on Sunday night.
The Packers were throttled in all areas last year in the game. The Packers couldn't defend the pass or stop the run. They couldn't protect Aaron Rodgers either, as he ran for his life most of the night and was sacked five times.
The four-touchdown loss was the low-point of the 2012 regular season for the Packers.
The Packers know how to win in New Jersey. They did just that in 2011. But it will be very difficult unless Rodgers has time to throw the ball and the defense plays solidly against the run and the pass.
The Giants have won two Super Bowls over the past six years, including Super Bowl XLVI just two years ago. That was the year after the Pack won Super Bowl XLV.
This game will be a huge test for the Packers as they get into the colder part of the NFL season.
The Packers always seem to play the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. The Packers have played a Thanksgiving game in Detroit 20 times over the years, with the Packers winning just eight of those games. That being said, the Packers have won three straight Thanksgiving games in Detroit under head coach Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy always seems to have the Packers ready to face the Lions. In seven seasons as head coach of the Pack, Green Bay has won 13 of 14 games against against the Lions under McCarthy.
The only loss the Packers suffered was when Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion in the first half of a game in Detroit in 2010.
The Lions were a wild-card team in the NFC playoffs in 2011, but slipped to 4-12 last season. It's hard to say what they might do in 2013, but the addition of running back Reggie Bush should help.
The big players for the Lions are quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Even when those two have big games against the Packers, Green Bay still has won. Why? The Lions can't stop Aaron Rodgers and the offense of the Packers.
The Lions might be getting some more heartburn this Thanksgiving, between the turkey, stuffing and Rodgers.
The game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Packers will be the third game the Pack will be playing on Sunday Night Football in 2013. Al and Cris better dress warm, as nights get a bit chilly in Green Bay in December.
The Falcons and Packers are among the favorites to win the NFC in 2013, along with the San Francisco 49ers, and perhaps the Seattle Seahawks.
This late-season game will be a big test for both teams as they will be trying to better their positions in terms of seeding in the NFC playoffs.
The Packers should have a big advantage with the weather conditions, but they should also remember the playoff game they lost to the Falcons in the 2002 postseason, when the Dirty Birds upset the Pack 27-7 in the first-ever playoff loss at home for the Packers in their history.
The Falcons have many offensive weapons led by quarterback Matt Ryan. He has two excellent wide receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, plus has the great Tony Gonzales at tight end. The Falcons added running back Steven Jackson in free agency as well.
The Packers and Aaron Rodgers can take advantage of the Atlanta defense though, as the Falcons were ranked just 24th in total defense in 2012.
This will be the type of game that will keep the logs in the fireplace burning hot on this early December night.
The Packers won Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, the then-new home of the Dallas Cowboys. It's a good thing the game wasn't played at Texas Stadium, the former home of the 'Boys, because the Packers never seemed to win there.
In fact, the last time the Packers won at game at Texas Stadium was in 1989. From 1993 (including the playoffs) until 2007, the Packers lost nine straight games in Big D.
This late-season game between the Packers and the Cowboys could be a very pivotal game for both teams as the NFC playoffs are right around the corner.
This game could come down to the play of the quarterbacks of each team. Both Tony Romo of the Cowboys and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers both received lucrative contract extensions this offseason.
Romo, a Burlington, Wisconsin native, is under extreme pressure to start producing for Dallas. The Cowboys have missed the playoffs for three straight years and have only won one playoff game with Romo as quarterback.
Rodgers, meanwhile, has taken the Packers to the playoffs for four straight years and had led them to a Super Bowl win. Right in the very stadium in which this game will be played. A game in which Rodgers was MVP.
I know who I like in this game.
It's very apropos that the longest rivalry in the NFL finishes the 2013 season playing against each other. The two teams have met 184 times in the regular season since 1921, with the Chicago Bears holding a slight 91-87-6 edge over the Packers.
Lately, however, the Packers have had the upper hand. The Packers have won six straight games between the two clubs. That was probably the main reason former head coach Lovie Smith lost his job this offseason.
The biggest reason the Packers have been the better team recently is because of the quarterback play.
Aaron Rodgers is 8-2 against the Bears in his career and has thrown 19 touchdown passes versus six interceptions for 2,486 yards in those 10 games. His overall quarterback rating is over 100 versus Chicago.
Meanwhile, Jay Cutler of the Bears just struggles against the Pack. Cutler is 1-6 against Green Bay as the starting quarterback of Chicago, and has thrown eight touchdown passes versus a whopping 16 picks for 1,435 yards. That averages out to a quarterback rating in the 50s.
Add to that, Rodgers and the Packers beat Cutler and da Bears 21-14 in the 2010 NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field. That was the game Cutler was forced out of the game due to a knee injury.
Bottom line, the Packers have won 15 out of their last 20 games at Soldier Field.
I see that trend continuing in the last game of the 2013 regular season, as long as it's Rodgers versus Cutler under center.