When Aaron Rodgers missed a portion of last season because of injury, it eliminated the Packers opportunity to earn a playoff bye. Rodgers beat the Bears in week 17 to earn the NFC North title, but Green Bay dropped a 23-20 decision at home to San Francisco in the Wild Card game.
With Rodgers healthy this year, Green Bay went 12-4 and earned the number two seed in the conference thanks, in part, to downing Detroit (30-20) in week 17.
Green Bay’s first playoff game will be at Lambeau (where the team is 8-0 straight up and has won by an average margin of 19 points) against either the Panthers, Cardinals, or Cowboys. Though all four of the Packers’ losses came on the road, we can still look at those games to find Green Bay’s vulnerabilities heading into the Divisional Playoffs.
In all four of the Packers’ losses, they have yielded significant yards on the ground. In three of the four setbacks, Rodgers has been limited to under six yards per pass attempt. While Green Bay’s rushing offense is in the top half of the league, Rodgers is the straw that stirs the drink. In order to beat the Packers, a team must run the ball, control the time of possession, and make Rodgers uncomfortable.
So who should the Packers be rooting for in the Wild Card round?
The Cardinals can’t run the ball and defend the pass poorly. The strength of their passing defense is interceptions – the Cardinals were seventh in the NFL with 18 – but Rodgers hasn’t thrown a pick at home all year. The Cardinals are pretty much the ideal matchup for Green Bay and would likely get crushed at Lambeau.
During a week 7 loss at Green Bay, the Panthers trailed 38-3 after three quarters (and wound up losing 38-17 after a couple of garbage time touchdowns). Carolina is finally starting to get healthy on offense, with running back Jonathan Stewart back at full speed, and fellow back DeAngelo Williams nearly there, so the Packers could have trouble stopping the Panthers’ run-first attack. But asking the team to reverse Green Bay’s utter dominance in the first matchup would be a tall order.
That leaves the Cowboys. While Dallas does not have an elite pass defense, they do have a top-notch running game and had the second-most takeaways in the league. If the Cowboys could control the ball on offense, force a fumble or two, and contain Rodgers (like they did Russell Wilson in week 6 and Andrew Luck in week 16), they would pose a real threat to Green Bay.
Verdict: Packer fans should be rooting for the Lions to upset the Cowboys come Sunday, otherwise Dallas is headed to Lambeau regardless of the outcome in the other game.
(Photo credit: Mike Morbeck (Flickr: Aaron Rodgers) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)