The Green Bay Packers did not have an enviable schedule in the first three weeks of the 2013 season. After facing the Detroit Lions in Week 5, it eases up considerably through Week 17. But are there enough potential wins on the docket to get them to the playoffs?
In a nightmarish Groundhog Day situation, the Packers faced the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 for the second year in a row, only eight months after an ugly loss to them in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Feeling masochistic? You can re-watch the highlights here.
Though at the time the Week 1 loss felt like a blow, in retrospect, the Packers kept themselves in the game until the very end. Only then, with less than five minutes to go, did Green Bay have no answer to a one-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore that put the 'Niners ahead.
Next up was another playoff team, the Washington Redskins. Green Bay dominated early and, despite two late touchdown passes by Robert Griffin III, finished strong. Rodgers went off in that game, throwing for 480 yards and four touchdowns, and James Starks became the first 100-yard rusher for the Packers since early 2010.
Win. Things were looking pretty good.
Then, away against another 2012-13 Wild Card team, the Cincinnati Bengals. Again, through the clarity of hindsight, it seems easy to put Aaron Rodgers' lackluster performance into perspective as an anomaly. With a completion percentage of only 60 percent, twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and averaging just over five yards per attempt, maybe it was just an "off" day.
Nonetheless, it was a loss.
At the start of Week 5, Packers were 1-2 after a bye, the Lions were 3-1 and undefeated in the NFC North and Packer Nation was officially a little freaked out.
What's the biggest takeaway from Green Bay's 22-9 victory over Detroit?
Is it that Green Bay's defensive line—which had five sacks, seven tackles for a loss and limited Reggie Bush to just 44 yards—is finally succeeding in pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run?
Or is it more sobering? With the injuries to linebackers Clay Matthews (thumb), Brad Jones (hamstring) and Robert Francois (Achilles), will the D-line look worse than ever in Week 6? After Week 5, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had Green Bay's run defense ranked seventh overall.
With Ray Rice on the docket in Week 6, the Packers can't afford to lose depth on that line.
Maybe the take-home point from Green Bay's victory on Sunday is that the offense is firing on all cylinders. James Jones stacked up 127 yards on only four receptions, Jordy Nelson averaged almost 20 yards per catch, Jermichael Finley caught 100 percent of his targets and Eddie Lacy was just one yard shy of becoming the Packers' third 100-yard rusher in as many games.
Then again, maybe something strange is going on with Rodgers, who only put six of Green Bay's 22 points on the board and threw for just 88 yards in the first half, despite only being sacked once by the Lions.
In short, Green Bay has gotten off to a roller coaster start in 2013, performing well but falling short against a similarly inconsistent San Francisco team. They exploded against Washington, uncharacteristically fell apart on both sides of the ball in Cincinnati and played better defense than offense to beat Detroit.
Moreover, with the injuries sustained in Week 5, will it even be the same Green Bay squad facing off against the Ravens next Sunday?
Here's a look at the remaining games in the schedule that the Packers should be able to take, and the ones that might give them some trouble.
Probable wins: Browns (Week 7), Vikings (Weeks 8 and 12), Eagles (Week 10), Giants (Week 11), Falcons (Week 14) and Steelers (Week 16)
Green Bay has enough favorable matchups remaining this season against teams that were considered contenders when the schedule was drawn up, but have taken nosedives this season: the 0-5 New York Giants, the 0-4 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 1-4 Atlanta Falcons.
Meanwhile, the 2-3 Philadelphia Eagles are undefeated in their division—after facing the 1-3 Redskins and the winless Giants. Michael Vick's return from his hamstring injury is still undetermined, according to the team. Even if he plays Week 10, Vick has only thrown five touchdowns in as many games, and is completing just over half his passes.
Add to that two matchups against the rotating quarterback carousel that is the Minnesota Vikings, and it seems that the Packers finishing 10-6 is well within the realm of reason, even if they fall short against the Ravens, Cowboys or even the archrival Bears in one of their two meetings.
Possible losses: Ravens (Week 6), Bears (Weeks 9 and 17), Lions (Week 13) and Cowboys (Week 15)
In the above-predicted outcomes, the Packers would only need to beat the Bears once to finish 10-6. The last time the Bears swept the Packers was in 2007, before Rodgers became the starter.
The 2-3 Cowboys are a better team than their record suggests, almost beating the Broncos last Sunday night in a game where Tony Romo threw for a team-record 506 yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Packers vs. Lions round two will be an entirely different game with Calvin Johnson healthy.
The question that remains, however, is even if Green Bay does go 10-6, will that be enough to earn one of six NFC playoff spots?
Let's not forget that after five weeks, the conference still has an undefeated team in the New Orleans Saints, a 4-1 Seattle team that is to be feared at home and four 3-2 teams, two of which sit atop the Packers in their division.
Are those the six NFC playoff teams?
The Packers might have something to say about that.
However, that remains a possibility only if Green Bay's D-line can recover from injuries, stay strong against the run and continue to improve in the pass rush. On offense, the ground game needs to consistently produce 100-yard rushers, and Rodgers must find a rhythm.
He doesn't need to tie franchise records for yards as he did in Week 2. He doesn't need to throw the second-most touchdowns of the season, as he did in 2012. If he can get the ball to his receivers and use the run game to his advantage, his receivers have already shown they'll be there, ready to find the end zone.