The Green Bay Packers have lost some offensive weapons heading into the 2014 NFL season, but as long as superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers remains healthy, the defending NFC North champions should have a chance at a Super Bowl run.
Rodgers had missed just two games in five previous years as a starter, but in 2013, he sat out seven regular-season starts due to a broken collarbone. Although Green Bay struggled in his absence, it managed to hold on until his Week 17 return, where Rodgers led the team to a victory over the rival Chicago Bears.
An 8-7-1 record wasn't what the Packers had in mind, and the team fell in the wild-card round of the playoffs 23-20 to the San Francisco 49ers. But that just means there's room for improvement.
Even with lingering question marks on defense, the explosiveness of the passing game and a newly discovered balance with workhorse running back Eddie Lacy makes Green Bay a force to be reckoned with.
Wide receiver James Jones is now an Oakland Raider, and it's unlikely talented tight end Jermichael Finley will return. That still won't stop the Packers from putting plenty of points on the scoreboard. Head coach Mike McCarthy believes in Jarrett Boykin to fill the void left by Jones.
"I can't say enough about Boykin," said McCarthy, per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling. "The young man is a heck of a player, he's done it the right way, special teams, he's performed every opportunity he's given."
The NFC North figures to be a tough division, but the 2014 schedule outside those six games doesn't appear to be a cakewalk, either. Week 1 has the Packers squaring off with the Seattle Seahawks in what should be an epic clash, but the schedule does allow for just three road games and five home contests following the Week 9 bye.
Let's take a closer look at what lies ahead for Green Bay and analyze some of its most critical contests.
|1||Thursday, Sept. 4||at Seattle Seahawks||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|2||Sunday, Sept. 14||vs. New York Jets||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sunday, Sept. 21||at Detroit Lions||1 p.m.||Fox|
|4||Sunday, Sept. 28||at Chicago Bears||1 p.m.||Fox|
|5||Thursday, Oct. 2||vs. Minnesota Vikings||8:25 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Sunday, Oct. 12||at Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||Fox|
|7||Sunday, Oct. 19||vs. Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|8||Sunday, Oct. 26||at New Orleans Saints||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|10||Sunday, Nov. 9||vs. Chicago Bears||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|11||Sunday, Nov. 16||vs. Philadelphia Eagles||1 p.m.||Fox|
|12||Sunday, Nov. 23||at Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||Fox|
|13||Sunday, Nov. 30||vs. New England Patriots||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Monday, Dec. 8||vs. Atlanta Falcons||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|15||Sunday, Dec. 14||at Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||Fox|
|16||Sunday, Dec. 21||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||Fox|
|17||Sunday, Dec. 28||vs. Detroit Lions||1 p.m.||Fox|
The good news about having Lacy—the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year—is that the Pack have a bruising back to match the reputed physicality in the division. That should come in handy in giving the defense more rest, which will be necessary given the caliber of opponents on tap.
But rest isn't all this defense needs to improve. Coordinator Dom Capers simply hasn't gotten it done, yet the front office continues to keep him around in the hopes that he'll get it fixed based on his immense experience and stellar overall resume.
General manager Ted Thompson generally knows what he's doing, but going for defensive help in the first round of a loaded draft class is a risky proposition. Thompson has done just that in the past two years, and both Nick Perry and Datone Jones haven't panned out as surefire hits on the front seven.
Whatever happens on draft day, Green Bay has its work cut out even in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field. The Atlanta Falcons are gunning for a bounce-back campaign with Matt Ryan leading the charge and the return of freakish wideout Julio Jones in a late-season, Monday-night showdown.
Also paying a visit to Wisconsin will be the Philadelphia Eagles and coach Chip Kelly's uptempo, relentless offense. That's not even to mention Carolina Panthers dual-threat dynamo Cam Newton, who's complemented by a deep backfield and elite defense, along with living legend Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Squaring off against the NFC South is always tricky to gauge in terms of difficulty, because that division has never had a repeat champion. Then there's the AFC East, which has the preeminent power in New England but has other promising, younger teams capable of breaking out this coming season.
The so-called "easiest" game the Packers may have is at home against the New York Jets. However, Rex Ryan knows a little about confusing even elite QBs such as Rodgers, so that doesn't promise to be a simple test.
Given the scale of rivalries in the NFC North, it's appropriate to start there. A lot of exchanging players in free agency has gone on, too, as Bleacher Report Lead NFC North Writer Zach Kruse points out:
The four NFC North teams have signed 25 players in free agency. Nine of those have come from inside the division.— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) March 26, 2014
That makes predicting how this division will play out all the more difficult—as if it wasn't already, given the perpetual parity at play in the NFL.
Talented opposing passers in Chicago's Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions pose threats to a tenuous Packers secondary, which again could be bolstered in the draft. Ex-Bears All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers should be excited to get a crack at Chicago as a new member of the Packers.
Outside of the division, the marquee clashes are rather easy to determine.
Even more challenging is traveling to CenturyLink Field in Seattle to knock off the Seahawks—the reigning Lombardi Trophy bearers—in the season opener.
This matchup will feature some bad blood, since it's the first regular-season clash since 2012's infamous "Fail Mary," where ex-Seahawks receiver Golden Tate caught the game-winning touchdown pass—at least according to the replacement officials:
How will the Packers fare in 2014?
How Green Bay fares in the division will be the biggest indicator of its success in 2014. So much reshuffling of rosters has gone on, and what transpires in the draft should go a long way in determining who will rise superior from the NFC North.
Otherwise, the Packers are positioned for another great year. Retaining running back James Starks was key for depth purposes, and Rodgers still has Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to throw to. The chief concern is that Rodgers may be involved in a lot of shootouts on the schedule, so he'll have to protect himself while also making enough plays to ensure that his team returns to the postseason.
Another down year for the defense would likely signal Capers' departure, but even if that happens, Green Bay should still rattle off a 10-win season and enjoy at least one playoff victory.