The 2018 Packers season hinges on two games. That’s it. Obviously they’ll have to win more than two total games, but two in particular look particularly crucial as we stand here less than two months from Week 1.
But let’s start here: Green Bay is going to lose games. In Mid-July, everyone is undefeated and all 32 teams think they can compete for a title, but every single one is going to lose games. It’s when teams lose those games (and obviously how many they lose) that ultimately matters.
To whom are you losing?
When you’re a playoff team, one expecting to contend for an NFC crown, that matters more than just about anything else because the expectation is double-digit wins. If the Packers are relatively healthy, or at least get 16 Aaron Rodgers games, history tells us they’re going to win 10 games.
We’ve heard before from the faces of this franchise, the goal is to win every home game and go .500 on the road. That’s 12 wins and a playoff spot. Most seasons that’s going to win the NFC North and probably contend for a first-round bye.
Green Bay lost two NFC Championship Games at least in part because they had to play them on the road. Making teams come to Lambeau will always be an essential part of the business plan.
To wit, there is the Week 14 game against the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers absolutely must win this game. The Falcons, like the Packers, will be fighting with fellow division powers for home playoff positioning. They want to overtake the Saints the same way the Packers will want to take down the Vikings. But this is a home game, in December, against a warm-weather dome team.
Coming out of the 2016 season, getting the home game with the Falcons appeared to be the pivot point of the NFC in the foreseeable future. As the conference loads up, that list now includes the Eagles, Saints, Rams and Vikings.
Beating the Falcons would give the Packers a critical head-to-head tiebreaker and could ensure the next playoff matchup rungs through Lambeau Field.
That leaves one other massive game on the schedule: Week 2 playing host to the aforementioned Vikings. There is likely no season if they don’t win this game. There are too many tough road games, too many obstacles on the Packers schedule and perhaps too tall a hill to climb going on the road in the NFC playoffs, for Green Bay to slip up at home against the team in the division they’re chasing.
There’s just no way around it. For aesthetics and confidence as much as NFC North standing, Green Bay has to win Week 2, full stop. Sending the message early, “We’re back and we’re coming,” not just to the Vikings but the rest of the NFC, could have ripple effects moving forward.
Going back to 2010, the Packers have faced the eventual NFC representative four times in the playoffs and took the mantle themselves, which means in the Aaron Rodgers era, it’s not hyperbole to say the road to the Super Bowl in the conference has consistently gone through the Packers.
The rest of the home schedule shouldn’t provide serious obstacles. The Bears, Bills, 49ers, Dolphins, Cardinals, and Lions hardly represent a murderer’s row of big-time teams. Five of those six teams picked in the top-12 of the most recent draft and I don’t care what hype machine is pumping up San Francisco, the Packers should absolutely handle them at home.
Beating the Vikings and Falcons would get them to eight wins with two monumental conference victories in their back pocket.
The road schedule is where the obstacles truly lie, making the home wins all the more essential to their success this season. Traveling to Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles, New England, Seattle on a short week, Minnesota, New York and Chicago doesn’t have many gimmes.
Washington and the Lions are going to be fighting for playoff spots. The Rams, Vikings and Patriots are all Super Bowl contenders. Seattle has been a horror show for the Packers despite their recent overall success against the Seahawks. That leaves the Bears and Jets are low-hanging fruit, though Chicago appears much improved from last season.
But even a wort-case scenario for a moderately healthy Packers team feels like splitting Washington/Lions and Bears/Jets. That’s 10 wins. Getting three of those four would almost assuredly punch their playoff ticket.
Winning the Vikings game at home would also making losing on the rose less injurious to their chances down the line. Clearly, sweeping Minnesota would be preferable and the Packers will get a mini-bye coming off the Thursday matchup with the Seahawks, but that’s a game the Vikings will be expected to win. Ditto for the Patriots and Rams road tilts.
Given the short week and their track record at home, the Seahawks will probably be Vegas favorites for that game, but other than those four, the Packers should feel like they’re supposed to win every other game on their schedule.
That’s 12 wins.
Beat the Vikings in Week 2 and the season will be out in front for the Packers with opportunities to punctuate their season coming against conference contenders. Lose, and the uphill battle in a treacherous NFC starts much sooner.