When breaking down the schedule for NFL teams, many coaches and staffs like to break the season down into quarters, much like an actual game. In that sense, the Packers completed the first quarter of their season and stand at a reasonable 2-2. They have not set the world on fire like they did in the preseason but are still in good position as they begin quarter number two of the season.
The Packers have looked solid in some places (defensive line, cornerbacks) while they have struggled in others (offensive line, linebackers), but the fact of the matter is .500 football the rest of the way is not going to cut it in the NFC this season. Teams like the 49ers and Falcons look rejuvenated under their young head coaches, three teams are undefeated, and only six teams currently have losing records in the NFC.
There needs to be a stretch run where the Packers can distance themselves from the middle of the pack and take a shot at regaining the top spot in the NFC North. It will not be easy considering the Vikings are 5-0 and the Bears are 3-1, both ahead of the Packers, but if there was ever a "quarter" for the Packers to move up, the upcoming four games are it.
In week six, the Packers come home to visit the last-place Lions. As if it wasn't bad enough that the Packers have not lost to the Lions in Green Bay since 1991, the Packers are also coming off a bye week in which they have had an extra week to prepare for Jim Schwartz's ball club.
Making matters worse is the fact that Calvin Johnson suffered a knee injury and was not able to return in the Lions' week five loss to the Steelers and starting quarterback Matthew Stafford sat as well. Regardless of whether the Lions' two best offensive players suit up Sunday, the odds are with the Packers to take this game.
In the NFC North, the Vikings will take on the Baltimore Ravens at the Metrodome, in a battle of two top teams this season. The Ravens seem to have found their stride on offense while their defense has come alive once again through veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be a tough game for both teams, but it would not be a shock to see either team come out on top.
The Bears, coming off their bye week, meet up with the Falcons on Sunday Night Football in week six. The Falcons, fresh off their bye week, crushed the 49ers 45-10 last week and are on a roll as it stands. It will be a tough game for the Bears to win with the Falcons playing so well, so there's a chance the Packers could pick up a game on both teams.
In week seven the Packers travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns and, while road games are never sure things, the Browns are just 1-4 with a win over Buffalo to their name. The Browns rank last in the league against the run and have already given up eight rushing touchdowns. Brandon Jackson should be back for the Packers and join with Ryan Grant to get the ground game going again.
While the Packers are taking on the Browns, the Bears and Vikings will be taking on a pair of AFC opponents. The Vikings draw the Steelers in Pittsburgh and Troy Polamalu is expected to be back for the Steelers. While they are surviving without him, the dominant safety will help in shutting down Adrian Peterson and helping out in pass protection.
The Bears will take on the resurgent Bengals on the road in what suddenly looks like a good game as Carson Palmer and the Bengals are atop the AFC North with a 4-1 record. Clearly the Packers have the easiest game on the week seven schedule and should gain ground on at least one of their NFC North mates.
If the Packers are able to defeat both opponents over the next two weeks, they would stand at 4-2 heading into a week eight match-up with the Vikings. Assuming the Vikings drop one of their previous two games, the top of the NFC North could once again be on the line when the two teams meet. As much pressure as everyone thought was on Brett Favre in week four, the butterflies will really be floating around his stomach when he walks onto Lambeau Field.
The Packers are sure to make adjustments and play well against the Vikings. In my schedule breakdown, I noted how much added incentive there would be for the Packers if the Vikings won in week four. After a 30-23 defeat in the Metrodome, the Packers are going to want this game bad.
The Bears will host the Browns in week eight in what will probably be an easy victory.
Rounding out the second quarter for the NFC North contenders, the Bears will stay at home and take on the Arizona Cardinals in what looks to be a shootout. The Cardinals have been very inconsistent this season and it will be interesting to see which team steps on the field for Ken Whisenhunt.
The Vikings have their bye so the Packers have the potential to pick up a half a game on them when they travel to Tampa Bay to take on the struggling Buccaneers. The transition to Raheem Morris has not been smooth at all, and with quarterback problems as well as pass defense issues, the Packers should be favored on the road.
Two road games over the next four contests are never sure things, and with the way the offensive line has played, there is always the possibility of a slip-up against one of the three sub-.500 teams. The game against the Vikings will be huge because there's a chance for Minnesota to run away with the division if they can enter their bye week at 7-1 or 8-0.
In the "second quarter", the Packers will face teams with a combined record of 7-13, with five of those wins coming from the Vikings. The Bears' opponents currently have a combined record of 10-8 while the Vikings will take on a combined record of 8-6. Clearly the opportunity to get their name back in the running for NFC North is there. Not to say their hat is not in the ring for the North, but they should go 3-1 at worst over these next four games, making them 5-3 and in prime spot to make a late run at the division.
No NFL team is easy or a cupcake, but working the kinks out on defense will be easier against the 18th, 29th, and 30th ranked offenses in the league. Just as the bye week came at the right time for the Packers, it seems the easy part of the schedule is as well.