Last season, the Green Bay Packers needed to "run the table" and win six games in a row to ensure the team's eighth consecutive postseason appearance.
As eyes now turn to the 2017, with the league schedule released and the NFL draft upon us, a new table has been set for Aaron Rodgers and company to run. Are they up to the task?
Right now the Packers have the 20th-most difficult schedule in the NFL with an opponents’ 2016 winning percentage of .480. This will be virtually meaningless once the season gets started. assuming not every team will perform exactly as it did in 2016. Still, it does paint a bit of a picture for the Packers on the road ahead.
While game by game predictions of the schedule at this point in the calendar are futile, we can still turn an analytical eye towards their 16 game slate and see what exactly the Packers are up against and how rough the road to a tenth consecutive playoff appearance would be.
The season starts off with arguably two of the most difficult games of the season for Green Bay. They open at home against the Seattle Seahawks and while the Packers have handled Seattle at Lambeau Field the previous two games, never count out the Seahawks. Seattle has started slow in seasons past, but this still should give fans pause. Maybe it's those still healing scars from the NFC championship game almost three years ago.
The Packers then head on the road to open an opponent's brand new stadium in Week 2 for a second conservative year. Last year it was the divisional rival Minnesota Vikings and this year it is the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of last season's NFC championship game. The Packers will be thinking revenge but they will also be facing a fired up crowd and a Falcons team that will be eager to shake off a blown 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI.
Both of these games will test Green Bay’s secondary. As the most suspect spot on the Packers’ roster, all eyes will be on Damarious Randall, Quentin Rollins and the returning Davon House to see if they can improve on their dismal (and injury riddled) 2016.
From there Green Bay has very winnable back-to-back home games against the Cincinnati Bengals and arch nemesis Chicago Bears. The Bengals struggled late last year and have shown very few signs of improvement thus far this offseason, while the Bears are still in rebuild mode. This will also be the first time the Packers will (presumably) face Mike Glennon as the Bears quarterback. Will another meme be born following Smokin' Jay Cutler?
Green Bay then has back-to-back road games against the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings. Dallas will undoubtedly be out for blood after the Packers ended their season in the divisional round in dramatic fashion. Throw in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their second year and this game will be a handful for the Packers.
As for the Vikings, their collapse down the stretch last year helped the Packers take back the NFC North crown and they are the biggest question mark in the division right now. Which team (and which Sam Bradford, assuming Teddy Bridgewater is still out) shows up? The dominant team in the first five weeks of the 2016 season or the team that finished 3-8 in the remaining 11 weeks? Mike Zimmer's defense can give Rodgers fits but if the Vikings can't score then they'll have a tough time beating Green Bay.
The Packers face the New Orleans Saints at home before a Week 8 bye. Drew Brees will present another test for the secondary, so we should have a pretty good idea where they stand at the bye.
Speaking of the bye, a midseason off week is definitely welcome news for Packers players and coaches after they had a Week 4 bye last season.
The second half of the season is easier for the Packers as they play only four of their final nine games against teams that had a winning record in 2016: the Detroit Lions twice, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — who missed the 2016 postseason — and the Pittsburgh Steelers). Green Bay has Detroit at home out of the bye week, followed by a trip to Chicago the following week.
The Packers return home to face the Baltimore Ravens before heading on the road again to Heinz Field to play the Steelers on the Sunday night following Thanksgiving.
The game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh is the toughest of the remaining nine, although a trip to Charlotte to play the Carolina Panthers one week after playing the Cleveland Browns sets up a trouble spot for the Packers.
In fact when looking at the entire 16 game schedule, the game against the Panthers screams "trap game." The Panthers struggled mightily last season after a dominant 15-1 campaign in 2015, but Packers fans dismissing Cam Newton is as foolish as fans dismissing Rodgers after his own slow start in 2016. If you play with fire, you could get burned. The Panthers could of course struggle again, but Newton is the most dangerous quarterback in the league outside of Rodgers. It would be foolish to blow Carolina off if they are below .500 at this point and out of the playoff chase.
Of course, it also would not be a reach at all to think this game could have dramatic playoff implications. Carolina will have to leap frog the Falcons in the NFC South but with Atlanta having a new offensive coordinator it isn't beyond reason to think the Panthers could take back the top spot in the division if Newton and the defense bounce back. It’s possible the Panthers/Packers game could even decide NFC home field advantage. You heard it here first.
The Packers finish the season at home against the Vikings before wrapping it up at Ford Field for a second consecutive season. The NFC North crown has come down to Week 17 the past four seasons and it could again in 2017. The Packers would love to have the division wrapped up by then, but in the unpredictability of the NFL season who knows what events will unfold?
All in all, it's not a bad schedule at all for the Packers. The first few weeks are a little rough and five of their final eight are on the road (although mostly against inferior opponents, save the Steelers and *maybe* the Panthers). The farthest West they travel is Minnesota and Texas, and there are no wacky turnarounds since they play at home before their Thursday game as well as on the Thursday game itself.
For a team that was as beaten up as the Packers were last season, this schedule is sure to be popular with the training staff.
No one knows what the season really holds in store for Mike McCarthy and his team, but the path is set for the Packers' march to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
That's an image that Packers fans would cherish forever: Rodgers hoisting his second Lombardi trophy at the 50 yard line of the Vikings' new stadium.
The new table has been set. Time to run it.