It’s easy for me to picture Aaron Rodgers hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl 56 on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in the Los Angeles area.
It’s also not difficult to imagine scenarios that extend the franchise’s title drought to 11 seasons, whether that sad ending comes Saturday, next weekend or three weeks from now with Rodgers and Co. on the doorstep of a championship.
Packers fans have every reason to be optimistic after their team dealt with a ton of adversity during the regular season and still earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But it’s understandable if that optimism is laced with caution heading into a divisional-round game against the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night at Lambeau Field because this isn’t your first rodeo. A bad game — shoot, a bad quarter — can result in a playoff exit and you don’t need me to provide a rundown of postseason heartbreak over the past decade-plus since the franchise added to its Titletown legacy.
Even this team, at 13-4 and led by a quarterback who has a great chance of being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the second consecutive season, is anything but an overwhelming favorite in a league driven by parity. Here are five things, in order of least concerning to most troubling, that could derail Green Bay’s chances of being the last one standing next month:
Potentially getting back on the field stars such as cornerback Jaire Alexander and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith after extended absences due to injury, along with veteran players such as wide receiver Randall Cobb and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, could be a great thing.
You want your best players on the field and any combination of those three returning — not to mention left tackle David Bahktiari — would be a boost not only physically but mentally.
The trick is finding the right amount of snaps for the guys who have had extended layoffs at a time in the season when it’s too late to experiment in an attempt to get them up to speed. Smith hasn’t played since the season opener Sept. 12 and Alexander has been out since Week 4.
Packers coach Matt LaFleur and his staff have had two weeks of practice to get a good read on how big of a workload each player can handle, but the coaches need to be willing to pull the plug during the game if something doesn’t seem right. Waiting until it’s too late could be costly.
Leader of the Pack
Speaking of LaFleur, here’s a chance for him to end a narrative that only will grow louder if the Packers lose one of their next two games.
LaFleur is 39-10 in the regular season, producing 13-win seasons in each of his first three seasons as a coach. Both of his first two seasons ended with a defeat in the NFC Championship Game and the expectations skyrocketed after his rookie campaign when the Packers advanced that far, which was an icing-on-the-cake situation for a franchise in transition, before a 37-20 drubbing at San Francisco.
The Packers were the No. 1 seed last season and dropped a 31-26 decision to the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If they come up short as the top seed two years in a row, that’s a lot of ammunition for anyone who believes LaFleur is a great regular-season coach who can’t get it done when it matters most.
LaFleur has a lot on his plate during games. As the one who calls plays on offense, he’ll need to do a good job of staying dedicated to the run game and making sure the Packers don’t become too pass-heavy against the 49ers and others. He’s been his own worst critic at times in postgame news conferences when it comes to achieving that desired balance.
Then there’s the matter of trusting his gut over what some computer is telling him. LaFleur is a big believer in analytics, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But taking the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and choosing to kick a field goal on fourth down late in the game against the Bucs last year was a questionable move at the time and remains that way.
LaFleur will have to be on top of his game this time around.
Armed and ready
The possibility that Rodgers will lay an egg seems unrealistic and isn’t a concern of mine.
I don’t buy into any talk that he can’t get it done in the postseason. Has he been as excellent in the playoffs as he’s been in the regular season during a brilliant career? No, but this is still a guy whose postseason production includes a completion percentage of 64.6 with 45 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 100.5.
There have been some duds along the way, but he was outstanding down the stretch this season and I’d be shocked if he was the biggest factor in an early exit.
That said, my concern is the 49ers have the personnel and scheme to make life difficult on Rodgers. If they can generate a consistent pass rush from a front four that includes Nick Bosa (questionable with a concussion), they could drop linebackers into coverage and close some windows for Rodgers. There’s really no reason to question an offensive line coached by Adam Stenavich that has been solid all season despite constantly shuffling pieces, but it’s safe to say Packers fans would feel a whole lot more comfortable if the group included Bahktiari (questionable), left guard Elgton Jenkins (out for the season) and right tackle Billy Turner all at 100%.
Not helping matters on offense is Green Bay’s biggest deep threat, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, is doubtful with a back injury. That will allow the 49ers to pay even more attention to All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams, Rodgers’ No. 1 target.
Plus, there’s this: Rodgers may need a lights-out performance at some point to make up for one or both of the areas I have yet to address.
I’ve come full circle on the Green Bay defense this season: not trusting it early, buying into it being championship-worthy around midseason and losing faith in it down the stretch.
Maybe the aforementioned returning pieces will provide a boost, keep everyone fresh and, best yet, make some big plays.
But San Francisco leads the NFL in rushing yards and the worst-case scenario for the Packers is that the 49ers grab an early lead and play keep away with long drives that eat up the clock. Rodgers watching — and freezing — on the sideline is no way to spend what could be his last game at Lambeau Field as a member of the organization.
Special delivery required
Even the most confident of Packers fans has to be a tiny bit concerned about the Packers’ special teams, which ranked dead last in longtime NFL scribe Rick Gosselin’s NFL rankings.
I’ll repeat something I said a few weeks back in the Open Jim mailbag: Mason Crosby is the least of my concerns within that unit. Yes, he’s had a down year and even a late-season surge was lacking in the kind of long conversions that convince you his struggles are behind him. But this is still a guy who has been clutch in the postseason, and I have confidence he’ll deliver when needed.
That trust doesn’t carry over to the rest of the special teams, however. Fans will be holding their breath on every punt return and waiting for the opponent to break off a big return of their own.
Even if the Packers avoid those kind of game-changing mistakes, does anyone have faith that this unit can make the type of impact play that can make the difference between winning and losing a close game? My hand certainly isn’t raised.
All those reasons to be nervous and yet I still think the Packers will find a way to squeak out a win over the 49ers at home. But who knows about what comes after that. The NFL is a week-to-week league, after all, even in the postseason.
Fave 5: Jim Polzin picks his favorite stories of 2021
Jim Polzin stepped into a new role in June, going from University of Wisconsin men’s basketball beat reporter to Lee Sports Wisconsin columnist.
Polzin wore both hats later that month when, on back-to-back days, he broke the news about seven seniors confronting coach Greg Gard in a secretly recorded meeting during the 2020-21 season and followed up with a column about how that recording had exposed cracks in the program’s foundation.
Neither one of those pieces made the list of Polzin’s favorite stories for 2021.
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