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In a loaded NFC, can the Packers simply rely on Aaron Rodgers to compete for a title?

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Aaron Rodgers has carried sub-par teams to the playoffs, but he’s going to need his defense to pick up more of the slack in 2018.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-OTA
Aaron Rodgers has carried the Packers for years and it’s time for the defense to give his shoulders a rest.
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Aaron Rodgers must be watching LeBron James in these NBA Finals like the Spiderman pointing meme.

For years, Rodgers has had to carry a deeply flawed Packers team to the postseason, and every season he proved he was capable of it. When Green Bay actually has good defenses, the Packers go to NFC Championship Games and Super Bowls. When they don’t, it’s Wild Card losses and Divisional Round heartbreak.

It’s true that we already knew the Rodgers as Superman formula could only be so effective, but with the NFC as loaded as its ever been, would it even be enough for a playoff bid in 2018?

Last season, four of the top five teams in total efficiency were in the NFC according to the Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. All four had top-10 offenses to go with top-10 defenses. The Panthers and Falcons each had a top-10 unit on only one side of the ball, but neither had a bottom-10 unit. Importantly, though each were playoff teams, they weren’t division winners.

With the conference the way it is, in order for a team to be assured a home playoff game, it must have balance.

In 2017, Green Bay finished 20th in defensive DVOA, a relative feat considering how poor the offense was at times with Brett Hundley. But as I wrote during the season, it was the worst situational unit in the league. So even though their defense was statistically better than the Falcons, who won a road playoff game, not being able to get stops on third down or in the red zone would have been this team’s undoing.

Two years ago, we saw how far Rodgers, at the peak of his powers, can drag a team with Jordan Clarkson Dom Capers and George Hill LaDarius Gunter heavily involved. He went full cheat code mode and took the Packers all the way to the NFC Championship Game, dispatching the Cowboys nearly by himself in what might end up being his signature playoff performance.

But the NFC doesn’t look like that anymore. The Rams, who were the No. 2 team by DVOA last year, brought in Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Ndamukong Suh. The Saints who finished No. 1 in DVOA, bring lack a loaded offense that added Cameron Meredith.

The Eagles added Michael Bennett to a Super Bowl team and the Vikings added Kirk Cousins at the only position where Minnesota clearly could use an upgrade.

Even if Rodgers gives the Packers the football equivalent of 51/8/8 every game, is that enough given the other teams in the conference? It can be. That’s where Mike Pettine and this defense come in.

The stats around this defense and how many times it has cost the Packers in the playoffs are ubiquitous in Packers Nation. We all know them. We’ve all seen them. This defense has to be better. Has to. It’s an “if they’re not, the Packers might not even make the playoffs” kind of urgency level.

In 2014, the Packers were an avalanche of bad luck and some atrocious coaching away from the Super Bowl with the 16th-ranked defense in the league by DVOA. They were also the No. 1 offense in football. Considering how balanced that team was, with Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in their primes plus an MVP Rodgers performance, it feels like we can safely say 16th is the floor for how good this defense has to be.

The offense can’t be much better than that group, so in order to replicate that 12-win season in what was a very good NFC that year with Seattle, Dallas, and Philly, the defense has to be at least average.

If there’s one caveat in all of this, it would be Rodgers playing at a Run The TableTM level for 16 games, beating teams 35-31 every week and riding that all the way to February. That’s not out of the question, but it’s not a sustainable plan or a tenable one if there’s any level of injury.

Should the offense lag a little, as it did in 2015—a replication of which feels highly unlikely given the unique circumstances of that season—the defense would have to be a top-10 unit, as that defense was. Green Bay won just 10 games because Rodgers was uncharacteristically out of sync, the skill players were hurt or bad, and the offensive line battled injuries all season. But don’t forget, that was still the 11th offense in the league by efficiency.

The most likely outcome for this offense is a top-5 group, given how much balance it has and the evolution of Davante Adams with the addition of Jimmy Graham. The Packers might not need the 2nd-best defense in football like they had in 2010 to win another Super Bowl, but it can’t be any worse than average.

With the change at defensive coordinator, I’d argue a jump from 20 to 16 would have been doable without any changes to personnel. Instead, Brian Gutekunst went out and added several veteran pieces to the defense at key spots, while upgrading the secondary in a major way through the draft.

A defensive upgrade gives the offense more room for error, something that we know Rodgers doesn’t need, but that would be a welcome sight. And with the Rams trying to imitate their in-state basketball brothers and build the NFL’s version of the Warriors, Aaron Rodgers is going to need all the help he can get.