The Green Bay Packers open the 2013-14 season in a familiar territory, something many fans find unfortunate.
In just a few days, the team will take on the San Francisco 49ers on the road in a rematch of their 45-31 blowout loss in last season's playoffs. While the Packers will be considered Super Bowl contenders every year that superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes the field and stays healthy, a lot remains to be seen about this year's squad.
Go to any sports website that has posted NFL predictions over the past month, and you will find experts picking the Packers to finish anywhere from out of the playoffs to Super Bowl champions. A lot of these predictions hinge on two and a half situations.
The first, and most important scenario, is keeping No. 12 on the field.
Former teammate Charles Woodson said that if Rodgers hadn't played in the 15-1 season, the Packers might have won seven games.
That says it all.
Rodgers is by the far the most important piece to winning a championship. Rodgers has carried some awful Green Bay defenses, and his mobility has kept him alive at times. The shift on the offensive line this offseason was blown up when starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga went down for the season in the first week of training camp. If the Packers can keep Rodgers upright at a higher pace than last season, when they ranked 31st in the league in doing so, their chances of contending increase exponentially.
How will the Packers finish this season?
The second situation is the defense regaining its 2010-11 form that helped the team win a title. The Packers have made many efforts to get back to that place, but a combination of injuries and underperforming has prevented the ascent back to the top.
The hope is rookies like cornerback Micah Hyde and defensive end Datone Jones can add enough to the defense to put them over the top. Championship teams almost always have a shutdown defense. The Packers have never been known as such a group, but they generally create turnovers in bunches. Dom Capers will force an attack on the quarterback and get him to commit errors. It will be up to the secondary to capitalize on any chance they can.
The "half" factor I mentioned above comes with the running game.
Under Rodgers, the offense has been at or near the top of the league for the past five years. This has been accomplished with virtually no run game.
Even in the years Ryan Grant ran for more than 1,200 yards, many of the yards came after the team was ahead and he was running more than usual. This year could be different with rookies Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin in the mix.
The only reason it is not a determining factor to win a championship is because Rodgers and the offense have proven to be elite with or without a run game. However, if the Packers can pose a threat running the football, teams could be in for long Sundays trying to stop them.
Obviously, experts' predictions also reflect the other teams out there. The 49ers and Seattle Seahawks look to be powerhouses with strong defenses, while the Saints and Falcons will try to score in bunches, and you never know which NFC East team will make a run. The Packers have a difficult schedule, but if they can take care of their business on defense and protecting the quarterback, you can look for them to make a run.
A lot remains to be learned about this team. They could beat the 49ers in San Francisco this week and every analyst will jump on the Packers being underrated, or they could repeat the playoff performance and people will be ready to expect them to miss the playoffs. One thing is for sure, though. With Rodgers under center, anything can happen. Let's address this after this weekend.