When the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers last February, the media dubbed them the favorites to repeat even before the last of the confetti fell on the makeshift bleachers at Cowboys Stadium. It was hard to disagree. They had a talented young quarterback, a loaded roster and leadership capable of making the team competitive every year.
A 13-0 start to the regular season did nothing to dispel that idea, not even a hiccup in a Week 15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. On Sunday, they play their first game of the postseason, hosting the New York Giants, a team that knows a thing or two about interrupting the inevitable. If Green Bay wins that one, they have to play two more games to repeat as champs.
Can they do it?
First, three reasons why they should be able to roll up another title, becoming the first back-to-back champs since the Patriots did it following the 2003 and 2004 season.
Not that anybody puts much stock in quarterback ratings anymore, but it is notable that Rodgers posted an NFL record 122.5 rating this season. He had another ratings record with 13 games with a 100-plus rating. It's sort of astonishing that four quarterbacks had more passing yards than Rodgers' 4,643. Only Drew Brees, a potential opponent in the NFC Championship, had more touchdown passes, 46 to Rodgers' 45. He also threw just six interceptions, a number bested by Alex Smith, another potential postseason opponent, who had five picks.
His counting stats aside, Rodgers was the best quarterback in the league according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) with a 56.2 percent rate. He leads an attack that can score at will. In a close game, even in a defensive stalemate, Rodgers and the Green Bay offense have the ability to score just enough points to win a game.
Yeah, I know. This is a football game, not a class action lawsuit. Precedent doesn't really matter on the gridiron. That said, people do call Green Bay "Title Town." The Packers own 13 NFL championships, more than any other team. A .644 winning playoff winning percentage is the best mark in NFL history as well. A Super Bowl win just feels inevitable.
But the Packers 50-plus year history doesn't matter this season. What may matter is the last four years. Some of the players on this Packers team were around when they made it to the NFC Championship game four years ago. And a lot more were on the team last season when they won the Super Bowl. Experience matters when it comes to handling big games.
Hounds for precedent might also point out that the New York Giants beat the Packers in the NFC Championship game following the 2007 season, the last time these two teams met in postseason play.
By almost any measure, Green Bay has a defense best described with an underwhelmed shrug of the shoulders. Nobody is going to confuse them with the Ravens. What they have done well thrive off of turnovers. The Packers led the NFL this season with 31 picks, seven more than the closest team. Compare that to Rodgers' six interceptions and factor in how easy it is for the offense to score points. It's a recipe that works.
Cornerback Charles Woodson's seven turnovers were tied with two others for the best in the league. Since joining the Packers in 2006, he has 37 interceptions, including nine that he has returned for touchdowns, for those times when the defense doesn't feel like letting Rodgers and Co. have all the fun. Woodson is one of four players on the team with four or more interceptions during the regular season.
Despite their dominance during the regular season, the sense of history, and the odds, a consecutive Super Bowl title is not as easy as it seems. The Packers have several issues they need to overcome in order to lay claim to the Lombardi Trophy.
Injuries hit the Packers' offensive tackles pretty hard this season. Their starting tackles, Chad Clifton on the lieft side and Bryan Bulaga on the right, are healthy. Maybe it was the rust from missing 10 games, but Clifton played poorly in his Week 17 return. According to Pro Football Focus, Clifton gave up a hurry, hit and a sack on his first the plays in Week 17. In the six games Clifton played this season, PFF gave him a negative grade in five of them. Bulaga played much better in pass protection, the only Green Bay tackle with a positive rating in pass protection this season, per PFF's stats.
Bulaga dealt with a knee injury, Clifton a hamstring this season. If either of those injuries flare up, Marshall Newhouse will replace them, and that should be a big worry. Newhouse was the worst ranked offensive tackle in the NFL this season, according to PFF, with a -40.6 rating. He was the third worst in pass protection.
The sight of James Jones dropping an easy pass in the Super Bowl last year probably slipped your mind with all the praise for Green Bay's aerial attack. Dropped passes continued to be a problem for the Packers this season. Their receivers dropped five passes in their Week 15 loss to the Chiefs. Donald Driver dropped eight passes in 54 targets. Jones dropped six in 54 targets. Tight end Jermichael Finley led all tight ends this season with 12 drops. If the more sure handed Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson are covered up, that could be a problem.
For as dynamic as the offense has been, the Packers' defense has underwhelmed. They allowed more total yards per game during the regular season, 411.6, than any other team in the league. Green Bay gave up 29 touchdowns in the regular season; only four teams allowed more.
Their best cornerback this season was Tramon Williams. He and Woodson were their only defensive backs with positive grades in coverage from PFF. Teams were not afraid to throw at them either. In a matchup of more immediate concern, Eli Manning completed seven of eight passes against Woodson, including a touchdown pass, in their narrow win in Week 13.
Compounding the problem, is the Packers lack of a pass rush. Their 29 regular season sacks was the same number as the Chiefs, Colts and Bills, the third-worst mark in the league. If the Packers found themselves in a shootout, say a Super Bowl matchup with New England, they might not have the edge.
For now, nothing suggests that the Packers can be stopped from repeating as Super Bowl champs. Cut through the hype of inevitability, and you can see some weaknesses rife for exploitation. Whether you're a Packer fan or not, it should at least make for some excellent football.