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Can the Packers catch the Saints and/or 49ers for a first-round bye in the playoffs?

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Green Bay’s 7-1 start wouldn’t nab them a first-round bye if the playoffs started today. Will that change by the end of the season? We dig into the schedules to find out.

Green Bay Packers v Kansas City Chiefs
With Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense rolling, just how good can they be?
Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

For a season that began overflowing with questions, the biggest question mark facing the 7-1 Green Bay Packers is how far they can take this run? We no longer have to face the nagging narrative about audibles or how well Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers are playing in the sandbox together. They’re sharing their toys.

Now, the more salient conversation centers around whether or not this a team capable of securing a first-round bye and making a Super Bowl. They are clear favorites in the NFC North, and near locks to make the playoffs short of major injuries. Of course, that can always scuttle a great season. No one has to remind Packers fans of that. With the season halfway gone, we can take a look at the remaining games to see where the Packers are likely to finish and how that affects their context for the postseason.

FiveThirtyEight loves the Packers through eight weeks, putting them third in the NFL in their traditional ELO rankings, behind only the Saints in the NFC. They project a 12-4 record in the NFC in an average season, behind the Saints and 49ers at 13-3. That is, importantly, not specific to this season as it stands right now, however.

If the Packers win all the games in which FiveThirtyEight’s ELO model has them favored, they’ll be 13-3. Using ESPN’s Football Power Index’s point model, the Packers are better on a neutral field than all but two of their remaining opponents, the same two FiveThirtyEight has favored over the Packers: the 49ers and Vikings. Those games happen to also be road games.

This may seem confusing. If their model says they should win 13 games, why are they only projected 12? An average season includes losses to inferior teams. Green Bay already has one of those this season. This team, as they’ve shown so far through half a season, would be a 12-win team in an average year against this schedule.

This season could be different because of how the specific matchups play out the rest of the year, and that’s the purpose of this examination.

To wit, ELO makes the 49ers just 1-point home favorites against the Packers and the Vikings 2-point favorites. In other words, they’re really close. And on a neutral field, FiveThirtyEight thinks Green Bay is the better team, building in the home-field advantage in that point spread.

Any fan would gladly accept a 13-3 season right? Here’s the problem: those same projections have the 49ers favored in all but two games the rest of the way — one of which is at New Orleans. That schedule includes a Week 17 date in Seattle where ELO has the 49ers as 0.5-point road favorites. Sure, that’s a coin flip, but by these rules, they win that game.

That puts them at 14-2. In order for the Packers to pass them, they’re going to have to beat them. And even that wouldn’t be enough to catch the Saints, who ELO has at a gaudy 15-1 if they win all the remaining games in which they’re favored.

This is the NFL, of course, and the games don’t tend to play out this way. In all likelihood these teams will combine for multiple losses that will leave us scratching our heads. On the other hand, there is a real possibility of a 2011 repeat where three 13-win teams come out of a conference and one has to play opening weekend of the playoffs. Getting the one seed with a 15-1 record didn’t help the Packers that season, but it did set up a matchup of those 13-win teams (coincidentally, the 49ers and Saints) in the divisional round.

In fact, the ELO model suggests there could be four 13-win teams, with Minnesota joining the fray. With uncertainties around Patrick Mahomes this week, the Vikings would be .5-point favorites and favored in every game the rest of the season except against Dallas, which is a PK. That game is in Dallas, so if we lean Cowboys, that’s 13 wins, and — get this — a Wild Card berth.

The ESPN model shakes out a little differently. Green Bay still ends up 13-3 in that version of the model with the Saints also sticking to 15-1. The 49ers would be favored in every game but one, leaving them 15-1 (as a No. 2 seed!) and the Vikings would pick up the extra loss against Kansas City, putting them at 12-4.

In short, it’s going to be crazy in the NFC.