Yes, I am aware that Green Bay doesn't even lead the NFC North yet thanks to the tiebreaker. There are still six games left in the season, including a Week 13 bout with the Patriots at Lambeau and a sure-to-be-hyped Week 17 clash with Detroit. At the same time, it's hard to look at the performances that the Packers have put on over the past two weeks and wonder whether this team might have the makings of a real Super Bowl contender.
Vegas certainly thinks so; the Packers are second overall and tops in the NFC by Westgate's book, with 4-1 odds. Looking around the conference, it's difficult to find a particularly dominant team (a la Seattle of last year or Green Bay of the 2011 regular season.) The NFC South could field a playoff team with a sub-.500 record (at least the North avoided that ignominy last season) and the Pack are fresh off thumping (or rather, as has become the fashion, boat-racing) NFC East leader Philadelphia.
That leaves the NFC West, where Arizona, the owner of the league's best record, did Green Bay a favor by downing the Lions this past Sunday, an outcome that gave the Packers a quasi-share of the division lead. The Cardinals, however, face a brutal schedule over the last stretch, including two games versus Seattle, one versus San Francisco, a trip to St. Louis (perhaps the 2014's most inexplicable team) and the very solid Kansas City Chiefs. With the solid but unspectacular (even more so than Carson Palmer) Drew Stanton behind center, and a disappointing Andre Ellington in the backfield, Arizona will have to rely upon its stellar defense to shut down Jamaal Charles, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Roddy White and Julio Jones. Oh, and did I mention that four of the last six games on the Cards' slate are on the road? As it stands, Arizona holds a two-game lead over Green Bay, but its the aforementioned gauntlet (and the fact that Green Bay is hot and should be favored in the rest of its games this season), it's not altogether implausible that the NFC runs through Lambeau.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let's take a look at how Green Bay could accomplish two goals, both of which are entirely in its control: Winning the NFC North and securing a first-round bye. Luckily for us, Yahoo! Sports and ESPN have each released simulation machine that let us pick every outcome from here on out (excluding, for some odd reason, Week 12).
Level 1: Win the division, no bye
Playoff Scenario: If You Liked Flynn against Dallas, You'll Love Rodgers
Honestly, it's a bit difficult to find scenarios where Green Bay wins the division but doesn't get a bye. This, however, is one of them. Philadelphia responds to getting shellacked by the Packers - namely, by running the table. Their 13-3 record is enough to put them in the second spot beside Arizona, who understandably slips a bit over the last six games and drops a pair. Green Bay drops one game to New England but runs the table otherwise. The wild-card round on the NFC side holds a couple of made-for-primetime matchups: The Detroit Lions visiting New Orleans in the Superdome (a la 2012 playoffs) and Tony Romo's Cowboys voyage to the Frozen Tundra to take on Rodgers and company. Like I said, though, it's hard to see Philly going undefeated the rest of the way; if they match Green Bay's record down the stretch, Green Bay would get the edge in seeding based on head-to-head.
Level 2: Win the division, first-round bye
Playoff Scenario: Who Doesn't Want It The Least?
Green Bay runs the table except for a loss to New England, who captures the AFC's top seed with a 13-3 record. On Wild Card Weekend, Detroit travels to Philly and, in what can only be described as comical, 12-4 Dallas must go on the road to face the 6-10 Falcons, who make a late run of sorts by upending N'awlins in the Superdome, while Chicago plays spoiler to the Saints in an ultimately decisive Week 15 game. The Packers get to host either Philly, Dallas or Atlanta in the frigid confines of Lambeau. All set up well for a potential Super Bowl run.
Level 3: Win the division, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs
No, Aaron Rodgers has not been invincible at Lambeau in the playoffs, but the Packers have been unstoppable at home this season. As the weather turns colder and colder, making warm-weather and dome teams face subzero temperatures might play into Green Bay's hand.
Playoff Scenario: Wounded Birds
Once again, Green Bay doesn't need to run the table. They lose a close one to New England (and I think that 5-1 is a realistic expectation for the last six games.) Arizona, meanwhile, walks into the CLink and is narrowly edged by a reeling Seahawks team. They follow up that performance with a win over Atlanta, restoring expectations. Week 14, however, sees the Cards lose to the visiting Chiefs, and St. Louis deals a follow-up blow. Drew Stanton appears to quell concerns by beating the Seahawks - again - but a Week 17 loss to a desperate San Francisco group puts the team at 11-5, and behind the Packers. Dallas visits Philadelphia and Detroit heads to the Superdome. Green Bay can once again face either Dallas, Detroit or New Orleans at Lambeau in the divisional round. (And the Packers will, in this case, have home victories against two of those three teams.) Of course, if the Packers run the table from here on out and go 13-3, Green Bay needs for Arizona to lose three or more games to earn the #1 seed. That may sound like a lot of luck, but Green Bay should be favored in every remaining game of the regular season and Arizona plays four divisional games against teams that have collectively beaten the Broncos twice and have two Super Bowl appearances (and a ring) over the past two years.
These prognostications, of course, are very much preliminary. Green Bay still needs to focus on taking care of business on a week-by-week basis, and staying healthy while winning the division is, of course, of paramount importance. The hope is that the Packers will do that (and far more) in the coming weeks and months.