Early in the year many were starting to leave the Packers for dead, especially after the Seattle Screwjob stole a critical conference victory. At the same time, the Bears were rolling and looking like legitimate contenders for the NFC’s top seed in the playoffs. Oh how things have changed. Now the Packers look to wrap up the division with a win in Chicago while the Bears hope to hang on in the Wild Card race, if not take one last shot at closing the gap in the division.
The easy storyline going into the game this week is going to be the NFC North crown, it could be the game that decides the fate of the division after all, but a more important goal may be lurking in the background for the Green Bay Packers….sneaking into a first round bye. Normally a team does not want to focus on things like this until more immediate goals are taken care, in this case the division, But since the two goals dovetail nicely it is a good time to look at how a first round bye could happen for the Packers...and why it may be more important than winning the division.
In the past few years receiving a first round by has not proved to be much of a blessing. Peter King noted on Tuesday that in the past seven years teams with a first round bye (those in the 1 and 2 seed) have only won the Super Bowl twice. For a point of reference, that’s as many times a sixth seed has won the Super Bowl over that same time period. It seems that the Super Bowl victors have primarily come from teams that have gotten on a hot streak and played through that hot streak and not taking a break to rest up. It is a bit counter-intuitive a prospect really…you would think that a team would with less chances of losing in a single elimination tournament would be in a better position, but the results speak for themselves. Football players are creatures of habit, and the more that the habits can be repeated week in and week out the more that consistency can keep on keeping on. A bye week may throw off that routine.
Despite this interesting fact, there is an important reason why the Packers may want to have that first round bye, specifically to get the right matchups come the playoffs. Make no mistake about it, the Packers are one of the top three teams in the NFC right now and capable of beating anyone in the NFL, but there are two teams that could give the Packers lots of trouble should they meet up in the playoffs: the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants. I could also buy a compelling argument from those who think the Washington Redskins could be tough as well. After those two (maybe three) teams the rest of the field look pretty winnable. Anything can happen of course, but I like the Packers odds.
If the Packers can escape the first round, then there is a pretty good chance that one of the wild card teams may be able to beat one, or both, the Giants and the 49ers in the first round. You may think I’m dreaming on this one but look at the teams who are competing for that last spot. Three of the six in the running have either beaten – or come close to beating – the 49ers (the Rams, The Vikings, and the Seahawks). Two of the six have beaten the Giants as well (the Cowboys and the Redskins), in fact both of the teams that beaten the Giants have nearly beaten the Giants twice.
Moreover there are matchups that these potential wild card teams could bring that may cause problems for the Giants and the 49ers. For example, the Seahawks have not faced the Giants yet, but those tall physical corners could be a problem for the Giants receivers. Marshawn Lynch could also punish an overaggressive Giants defensive line that has shown problems handling the run. Similarly the attack used by the Redskins could provide enough options and big plays to frustrate the talented 49ers' defense, but also have a solid defense to contain the Niner offense and force them to play catch up.
The Packers can steal that first round bye if they win out and the 49ers lose one game. They could sneak into the first seed in the playoffs (which would very nice if one of those wild card teams do upset SF or NYG) if they win out and the Falcons lose two games. Both of these possibilities are long shots, but not as far out as you may imagine. The 49ers go on the road to New England this week and have been known to be an up and down team. After that the 49ers play at Seattle (always difficult for even the best teams) before finishing up the year against Carolina. The Falcons face the Giants this week before facing off against a wounded Lions team and finishing the year against the division rival Buccaneers.
Regardless of what the two teams above them do, the most important thing the Packers can dos take care of their own business….and that means winning in Chicago this week and securing a spot in the dance.