The Green Bay Packers largely control their own future in terms of the NFC playoff race, as they can finish no worse than second in the NFC if they win their final six games. A division title and first-round bye is a great goal, but the team should have its sights set even higher: home-field advantage is very much a realistic goal at this point.
However, several other teams are in the hunt for the same. The 49ers — conveniently the Packers’ next opponent — join Seattle, New Orleans, and Minnesota as teams all within a game or two of the top spot in the conference. With the big meeting between the NFC’s top two teams coming up on Sunday night, our walkthrough this week asks our contributors the following question: which of those teams is the Packers’ biggest roadblock to earning the #1 seed and home-field advantage?
Here’s what our writers had to say.
Evan “Tex” Western: Seattle
The top seed in the NFC is fully up for grabs. The 49ers are the only team that could win out all of its remaining games in the 2019 season and lock in the top seed for the postseason with no outside help, but they are not the most concerning team to me due to the remaining schedules and their injuries. If the Packers were to win out, they could still be denied the top seed if one other team does the same: Seattle. Perhaps it is some leftover trauma from the 2014 playoffs, but going to Seattle in the postseason would terrify me, and Seattle being even with the Packers at 8-2 and one game back of San Francisco puts them right in striking distance of the NFC West lead.
The other NFC contenders have flaws that I believe the Packers can exploit. I believe the 49ers to be a paper tiger, having lost their only game so far against a quality team (Seattle) and facing a murderer’s row of quarterbacks in the final six games. Minnesota is hot on the Packers’ heels, but the Packers beat them once this season and would still hold the tiebreaker if they lose to Minnesota in week 16 but beat the Bears and Lions. The Saints also look beatable to me, particularly if a team can put pressure on Drew Brees.
But Russell Wilson is playing at an MVP level, and that type of quarterback play is an equalizer. With the Packers not facing Seattle in the regular season this year and Seattle facing a schedule that seems to set them up well down the stretch, I would be surprised if they do not win the NFC West and earn a first-round bye.
Paul Noonan: Minnesota
Don’t look now, but the Vikings have picked up their game since they last played Green Bay, and given how some other teams have fallen off a bit, they are probably the biggest pain in the butt remaining. They still have to travel to Seattle, but after that it’s pretty smooth sailing, especially considering the Chargers will have completely thrown in the towel. Kirk Cousins has shot up the charts to 5th in DVOA, and any early season drama between he and Stefon Diggs is long since over. Dalvin Cook remains sensational, and their defense is still good as well, currently 7th in DVOA.
They also finish the season with two home games against Green Bay and the floundering Chicago Bears. Minnesota is always annoying, and I fully expect them to keep up the trend.
Shawn Wagner: Minnesota
As Paul alluded to, the Vikings are a consistent pain and they are playing some of their best ball right now despite their first-half woes against Denver last weekend. With wins in six of their last seven games, the Vikings are hot and will be favored in at least three of their remaining five games. Minnesota has the opportunity to have two weeks to prepare for Seattle with the bye this week and will also get Green Bay at home. The Packers have not won in Minneapolis since 2015 and have been tough to watch against the run - an area the Vikings have found a lot of success with Cook this season. Green Bay also cannot count on the same struggles from Cousins as they saw in the teams’ last meeting.
Although the Packers have help with a tiebreaker, it is very possible that Minnesota wins out and takes home the divisional crown. If they do, the Vikings should own the top seed in the NFC and create a difficult road to the Super Bowl for any team in their path.
Mike Vieth: the Green Bay Packers
While I think the Packers have played fairly well so far, they can also be their worst enemy this year. It might just be me but I think they play up or down to the competition. They looked excellent in Oakland but have really played just well enough to beat whoever else they were playing. At the lower end of the spectrum, the Chargers game was an embarrassment and, without getting some favorable calls, the Lions game would be another loss. This will end up hurting them sooner rather than later.
The biggest thing to take away though is that I don’t think they’ve played a complete game yet. The season started with the defense rolling while the offense had to get in groove with Aaron Rodgers learning Matt LaFleur’s system. Then, it seemed the defense took a step back but the offense picked up the slack and has been rolling, for the most part, since.
Coming out of the bye, the NFC is wide open with five teams having a realistic shot at home field advantage. If the Packers can put together a string of games where the offense and defense both play to their abilities no one should stop them from the one seed. The Packers have the talent, the coaching and the swagger to win out, take control of the NFC and make the playoffs come through Green Bay. The question is, can they put it all together to make it happen or will they get in their own way and let a few more games slip through their fingers?
Kris Burke: Seattle
Much like Tex, I want no part of the Seattle Seahawks in the postseason and that more than likely has a lot to do with the way the 2014 season ended.
Russell Wilson is playing the best football of his career and should be one of, if not the, leading candidate for MVP. Lambeau Field seems to be his kryptonite and without the Packers playing Seattle in the regular season, Green Bay likely will need some help to keep ahead of the Seahawks who always seem to have Lady Luck on their sides.
San Francisco benefited from an easy early schedule. The Saints seem to struggle against the pass rush (which is now a Green Bay specialty) and the Vikings could fall apart if/when Kirk Cousins turns back into a pumpkin.
That leave the Seahawks and if the football gods could hinder them somehow, that’d be great.
Peter Bukowski: New Orleans
Regardless of what the records say, the Saints are the best team in the NFC and have the fewest landmines in the home stretch. They also get the 49ers at home in Week 14, play the Panthers twice, host the Colts, and have to play in Atlanta as well as at Tennessee.
To be sure, that’s not a cakewalk slate, especially after the Falcons surprisingly put it on Sean Payton’s team at the Superdome just a few weeks ago, divisional games can provide weird outcomes and Drew Brees outdoors is a thing, this is the team with the best shot to get to 14-2 or 13-3 with the tiebreaker.
San Francisco could legitimately fall to the Wild Card at this point, and it’s hard to see the Seahawks not dropping at least one more game. That leaves the unlikely Vikings win-out scenario as the only other realistic shot at prevent the Packers from getting that top spot. Of the top teams, the Saints feel the most likely to go 13-3, which should be good enough for the No. 1 seed.