5 Must-Watch Matchups on Green Bay Packers' 2014 Schedule
The Green Bay Packers' fanbase would consider every game of their 2014 season to be a must-watch—and indeed, with one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Aaron Rodgers, a rising star running back in Eddie Lacy, one of the NFL's most aggressive outside linebackers in Clay Matthews and the acquisition of former archrival Julius Peppers, there will be few dull moments this season.
But after turning an objective eye to the schedule, a handful of matchups stand out as absolute, cannot-miss television, and could have implications that would reverberate throughout Green Bay's entire season and potential playoff campaign.
It's too early for uneducated season record predictions, but as a whole, Green Bay has a manageable docket of opponents. However, the following five games and opponents are ones that have the potential to keep the Packers—and their fans—on their toes for four full quarters.
Whether they feature a bitter division rival, a score-settling rematch or a showcase of two of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, no one should miss the following five games.
Week 1 at Seahawks (Thursday Night Football)
Mike McCarthy has moved past the "Fail Mary" matchup against Seattle...and it's time everyone else did, too. There are countless reasons why Packers at Seahawks is a compelling season-opener, "Fail Mary" notwithstanding.
There are few matchups that would have been tougher for the Packers to open up their 2014 season than Seattle—the team with the second-best win percentage at home over the last decade, behind only Green Bay itself. They're defending Super Bowl champions, led by a mobile quarterback who also had the fourth-highest yards per attempt in 2013, with 8.25.
In the last few years, Green Bay's zone blitz defense has struggled to adapt to the rise of the read-option quarterback. In 2012, Russell Wilson led all quarterbacks in scrambles after dropping back to pass, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His squad beat the Packers in Week 3 of that season. (Yes, in the "Fail Mary." That's the last time we're mentioning it!)
In 2013, Colin Kaepernick had the second-most scrambles after dropbacks in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. He has beaten the Packers in the last three games he's played against them, dating back to the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs. Dom Capers is making offseason adjustments to better prepare Green Bay's defense for these kinds of opponents, and Week 1 in Seattle will be the first test of his success.
It's not a coincidence that the Seahawks and the 49ers also have two of the most hard-nosed defenses in the league, and wins aren't a quarterback stat. The Seattle defense gave Green Bay a fair share of trouble in 2012, and it looks to be in top form in Week 1 of the 2014 season.
Green Bay's receiving corps will square off against Richard Sherman, who, in spite of his antics, finished the 2013 season ranked the No. 6 corner in the league by Pro Football Focus, allowing receivers a catch rate of just 51.7 percent. And a little further back on the field, there's ball-hawking safety Earl Thomas, who had the second-most interceptions among safeties in 2013 with five.
Up front, Seattle's vaunted front seven will be a thorn in the sides of both Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy. It will use multiple pressure schemes to try and force Rodgers to hurry, much like it did when it embarrassed Drew Brees in Week 13 last season, holding him to just 147 yards.
Seattle defensive ends Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin can rush Rodgers on one play and stop the run on the next. At least Green Bay won't have to contend with Chris Clemons, who signed with Jacksonville this offseason.
Packers cornerback Sam Shields will have a chance to earn his recent payday against a healthy Sidney Rice, who should finally be a factor for Seattle in 2014. As for covering Percy Harvin in the slot, it will be interesting to see if Green Bay utilizes Casey Hayward as its cover corner, or perhaps puts Micah Hyde there as McCarthy attempts to use him on the field as a three-down player.
The Seahawks and the Packers are two of the youngest teams in the league, with a majority of players who were developed in-house. That's why looking back to previously-played games isn't as interesting as looking forward.
A budding rivalry is set to play out between these two teams for the foreseeable future, because as long as they each have Wilson and Rodgers behind center, they figure to meet in the NFC playoffs again...and again.
Week 13 vs. Patriots
The world had its first chance for a Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers showdown on December 19, 2010—and never got it, as Matt Flynn stepped in for the concussed Rodgers and nearly beat the Patriots in Foxborough.
Fast-forward four years later, and the schedule has aligned again. Barring no inopportune injuries, two of the greatest quarterbacks in the league today—possibly ever—will face off at Lambeau.
But as quarterbacks never share the field at the same time, this matchup is of course more about whether the Packers defense can stifle Brady, and likewise for the Patriots defense and Rodgers. These two teams were built so similarly for the last few years—high-octane passing attacks led by quarterbacks who audible frequently, a committee approach to the running back position, high red-zone conversion rates and middle-of-the-pack run defenses.
Both teams have evolved from those characteristics in the last season, but in a similar direction.
Green Bay and New England both have seen clear-cut emerging starters at the running back position in Eddie Lacy and Stevan Ridley, which should allow Rodgers and Brady more time in the pocket. The Packers' red-zone success decreased dramatically in 2013, dropping from a league-high 68.52 percent in 2012 to 50.72 in 2013, per TeamRankings.com. The drop was compounded by the loss of pass-catching tight end Jermichael Finley.
New England saw its' red-zone conversion rate fall in 2013, as well. After a success rate of 67.5 percent in 2012, the Patriots only converted 58.11 percent of their red-zone attempts in 2013—similarly a result of the absence of tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Another similarity: Green Bay's and New England's secondaries were both first and second in the league in interceptions in 2010 and 2011, and near the top in 2012. However, both fell sharply in 2013. The Patriots have tried to address the holes in their secondary this offseason by signing corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, while the Packers have re-signed Sam Shields and will presumably draft a safety in May.
How similar will these teams look by Week 13 of this season? What does a shootout between Brady and Rodgers actually look like? This should prove to be one of the Packers' most exciting games of the season
Week 10 vs. Bears (Sunday Night Football)
Packers versus Bears is always a must-watch matchup—but could this season's series be two of the best games in the history of the rivalry? It certainly feels that way. We're previewing the Week 10 Sunday Night Football game because it's in prime time, at home and immediately after Green Bay's Week 9 bye week, but the Week 4 matchup in Chicago will set the tone for this game.
There are always multiple storylines to track during any Packers-Bears game, and this season will be no different. 2013 was a year in which the Bears and Packers got back to their "Black and Blue Division" roots, after Shea McClellin sacked Aaron Rodgers and fractured his collarbone in Week 9.
Rodgers then came storming back in his Week 17 return to pass for 318 yards (161 of them to Jordy Nelson) and two touchdowns (both of them to Randall Cobb), including an improbable 48-yard bomb with 38 seconds on the clock to propel Green Bay into the postseason.
Green Bay famously pilfered Julius Peppers away from Chicago this offseason, and it will be nothing short of riveting to see him lined up opposite or on the same side as Clay Matthews, preparing to rush Jay Cutler. Those bone-crushing sacks Peppers used to deliver on Rodgers—like this one in the 2011 NFC Championship game—will be a sight to see coming from the other direction.
In yet another game next season, Green Bay's secondary will be an important factor, as the Packers will have the unenviable task of covering two of the NFL's top 10 receivers in 2013 in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Per Pro Football Focus, in primary coverage Tramon Williams allowed Marshall to complete 3-of-4 receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown in Week 9 last season, and Jeffery was 2-of-3 for 29 yards. In Week 17, Williams allowed Marshall another touchdown, as well as 2-of-2 receptions.
It will be interesting to see if the Packers continue to match Williams up against Marshall in 2014, or if Shields will be given that opportunity.
Something else to look for? Whether or not Chicago can improve its run defense in order to contain Eddie Lacy. The Bears experienced an epic slide in rushing defense in 2013, falling from No. 8 in the league in 2012 to No. 32 in 2013.
If they can't improve drastically in 2014, it might not matter how well Marshall and Jeffery play or if Cutler can stay on his feet.
Week 3 at Lions
The Packers and Lions split series in 2013 was comprised of two night-and-day games. In the first meeting, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers took advantage of Calvin Johnson's absence due to a knee injury, holding the Lions to 286 yards of total offense and sacking Matthew Stafford five times.
In the Week 13 meeting, it was Detroit that took advantage of Aaron Rodgers' absence, paying them back for those five sacks on Stafford back in Week 5 and then some, knocking Matt Flynn down seven times.
The Packers have a strong all-time head-to-head record against Detroit, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, with a 94-66-7 record. The Week 13 loss had snapped a five-game win streak dating back to November 24, 2011, and the Lions have only beaten the Packers twice in their last 17 contests.
But the Lions were a different team under Jim Schwartz, who inherited an 0-16 team in the 2008 season and, with 2009 draft selections Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew and 2010 first-round pick Ndamukong Suh, led the franchise to its first playoff appearance since 1999 in 2011. Now it's time to see what head coach Jim Caldwell can do.
If both these squads are healthy when they meet in Week 3, it will be the most accurate litmus test of how competitive the rivalry can be at its highest level. The days of Packers fans shrugging off the twice-yearly meetings with the Lions are over, because this is a team that could surprise Green Bay if it's not prepared.
The most intriguing potential matchups include Sam Shields and Tramon Williams squaring off against former Seattle foe Golden Tate, who will now have Stafford throwing to him, as well as the usual tall order of shadowing Johnson.
Lions safety James Ihedigbo, rather than Louis Delmas, will be giving Green Bay trouble over the top. Ihedigbo was part of the Super Bowl-winning Ravens team and finished the 2013 season with 101 tackles, three interceptions and 11 passes defended.
Detroit will be the first high-octane passing team the Packers face in 2014, after matchups against Seattle and the New York Jets. It will be the first real opportunity to compare the secondary, which the Packers will look to improve in the draft, to its 2013 iteration, when Green Bay finished 24th in the league in pass defense.
Week 8 at Saints (Sunday Night Football)
When Green Bay travels to New Orleans for its first Sunday Night Football game of the season—and third prime-time matchup—it will be a classic shootout between two of the league's best in Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. But don't underestimate how the Saints' flashy new defensive weapons could affect Green Bay's passing game.
New Orleans was the winner of the Jairus Byrd sweepstakes, and added cornerback Champ Bailey this offseason as well. Byrd was Pro Football Focus' eighth-ranked safety in 2013; in addition to his four interceptions, he allowed receivers a 50 percent catch rate into his coverage—and opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 35.0.
Meanwhile Bailey, who will likely be used as a slot corner, will make it his mission to shut down Randall Cobb.
Can the Saints really limit Rodgers' ability to connect with Jordy Nelson? Rodgers has a career passer rating of 104.9, and Nelson was the No. 2 receiver in the league in 2013 per Pro Football Focus rankings. Of course, New Orleans had the second-best pass defense in the NFL in 2013, and it's only improved this offseason.
Green Bay could have the upper hand in this matchup offensively, now that the Saints no longer have Darren Sproles. Sproles was the No. 7 running back in the NFL in 2013; Eddie Lacy was No. 4, per Pro Football Focus rankings.
In what could have been a fairly even matchup, Green Bay would seem to have the upper hand in the run game and the better receiving corps, while the Saints, with Jimmy Graham, edge the Packers out in tight ends—for now.
We'll see what pieces both the Packers and the Saints add in the draft, but even now, a Brees vs. Rodgers matchup in prime time will always make for good television.