Green Bay Packers: Handicapping the Home Stretch
After a rousing stretch in which the Green Bay Packers won three games in 12 days, they enter the final portion of their schedule likely needing a 3-2 finish to assure an NFC wild card slot.
However, the schedule tightens up as the Packers clash with two tough AFC North opponents and the defending NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. Luckily, the Packers also draw the fading Bears and Seahawks.
Here is a look at how Green Bay's final five games will shake out:
Week 13: vs. Baltimore
This feels like a dangerous game for the Packers.
The Ravens are hungry as they fight for an AFC playoff spot and are coming off a big home win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of course they also needed overtime and a critical interception from third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon to escape with that victory.
Running back Ray Rice is dangerous both as a runner and receiver, and quarterback Joe Flacco is becoming more than just a caretaker on offense.
But it will likely be how the Packers' offense matches up with a stiff Baltimore defense that decides this contest.
I see a close game predicated on, you guess it, protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers from the Baltimore pass rush.
If they can give Rodgers a little time, the Ravens pass defense will be exposed as it has been for much of the season.
In my least confident pick of the bunch, I see Rodgers and his well-rested teammates making just enough plays to squeeze out a tight home victory.
Week 14: at Chicago
Poor Chicago Bears fans. They thought they had the strong-armed, cocksure quarterback the Bears have always lacked when Chicago traded for Jay Cutler.
But behind a suddenly porous and banged up defense, and with Cutler playing like Brett Favre circa 2005, the Bears are well on their way to earning the Denver Broncos an excellent first-round draft slot.
Barring a blizzard at Soldier Field, look for Aaron Rodgers to be the latest quarterback to carve up the Bears' pass defense and bump the Broncos up another draft pick or two in a double-digit win on the road.
Week 15: at Pittsburgh
A loss to the Ravens dropped the defending-champion Steelers to 6-5 and effectively put them on the ropes in terms of making the playoffs.
With upcoming cream puff games against Cleveland and Oakland, Pittsburgh will likely be sitting at 8-5 when the Packers arrive in town. However, in a conference where an 11-5 New England team missed the playoffs a year ago, the Steelers won't yet be patting themselves on the back heading into the playoffs.
(Side note: The Steelers are undefeated and haven't surrendered more than 17 points in a game with Polamalu in the lineup. They are a different team with him in the game.)
This Packers team still has too many breakdowns and makes too many mistakes to pick in Pittsburgh. The Steelers pull away late and drop the Pack to 9-5.
Week 16: vs. Seattle
Remember when the Walrus still roamed the Seattle sideline and playing the Seahawks meant a tough game?
Those days are as gone as Nirvana and the SuperSonics.
Half of that team is on injured reserve and the players that remain just aren't good enough for Seattle this year, even in the soft NFC West.
Without standout linebacker Lofa Tatupu and All-Pro tackle Walter Jones, and a dearth of explosive skill position players, Seattle doesn't have much that scares the opposition.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is still a solid pro, but receiver Nate Burleson and running backs Julius Jones and Justin Forsett would be backups on most teams.
Against a defense ravaged by injuries and backups stepping into starting roles, the Packers should have little trouble putting up points on the Seahawks.
While this is a team that lost to the previously winless Tampa Bay Bucs, it's hard to see anything but a decisive Packers victory here, especially with so much to play for.
I see 30-plus points and a recovery game after a very tough, physical three weeks of football against the Ravens, Bears, and Steelers.
Week 17: at Arizona
This game could be a bit of a crap-shoot with Arizona likely to have the NFC West locked up by Week 17.
That would be great news for Green Bay fans who fear an Al Harris-less secondary squaring off with Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin with a potential playoff spot at stake.
The Packers win this one by a touchdown, with Arizona resting a few of their regulars in the second half to freshen up for the playoffs.
However, if the Cards falter and need this game, get ready for a nerve-wracking shootout.
Because of the long layoff that serves as almost a second bye week leading into the matchup with the Ravens, along with a potentially meaningless Week 17 game with Arizona, I see the Packers peaking at the right time and finishing 11-5.
For a season that featured such midseason turmoil, hosting a playoff game would stand as an excellent turnaround for a roller-coaster season.
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