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Three games that may come to define the Packers’ 2021 playoff hopes

A rematch of the NFC Divisional Round makes for a potentially pivotal game in the Packers’ playoff chase.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Rams v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Under a new format this upcoming NFL season, the Green Bay Packers face an 18-week regular-season schedule that will be particularly testy on the road.

With a number of road contests against playoff contenders and near-postseason qualifiers, it will be important for the Packers to make the most of their home-field advantage throughout the season. Looking ahead to the 2021 season, two of those home games specifically stand out and make up three of the more defining games of Green Bay’s quest to reach the playoffs once again, with or without Aaron Rodgers. Coincidentally, they are all expected to be later afternoon games in front of a wider national audience.

At New Orleans Saints, September 12th

Last year’s Week 3 shootout saw the Packers escape New Orleans with an exhilarating 37-30 victory. It was a catalyst game for Green Bay in reaching an early bye with momentum and a 4-0 record.

This could end up being an intriguing Week 1 game to watch for all NFL fans if it should feature two teams with brand new starting quarterbacks. The Saints figure to trot out Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston under center instead of Drew Brees, but the Superdome continues to be one of the toughest venues for opposing teams to play. If Jordan Love is the starter, what kind of impact will the noisy environment have on the first-time starter? This time around, it could be more of a tale of the defenses and which offense can move the ball enough to score.

Whoever is the Packers’ quarterback, Week 1 will set the tone for the team’s season, especially with a lighter schedule in the earlier part of the season. It will be up to the Packers to take advantage of ensuing games against the likes of Detroit, San Francisco, and Cincinnati before looking ahead to matchups against last year’s playoff teams in five of the next seven weeks. But the early momentum to fuel additional wins begins with picking up a big road win at the Saints.

vs. Los Angeles Rams, November 28th

Last winter’s divisional round matchup between Green Bay and Los Angeles may have been the first of many meaningful meetings between these two teams in the coming years. In the playoffs, the Rams really struggled to hit on big plays, averaging just 4.9 yards per play in the contest. Enter Matthew Stafford this season and the Rams are counting on the veteran quarterback to be the needle-mover missing from last year’s contending squad to create chunk plays. The Packers are very familiar with Stafford’s arm and on a team ready to complement him with weapons Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, as well as a stingy defense, the Rams appear poised for another playoff run.

For the Packers, this contest comes in Week 12, the final game before a very late bye week. Not only should this game factor into playoff positioning, but it will come at a time in which Green Bay may be facing a significant level of fatigue and injury in a run from mid-September to late November without an off week.

The bye week itself is fascinating and not ideal for the Packers in this matchup. Perhaps it will be a good thing that this game comes on the front end for Green Bay, as the team has lost the immediate game following the bye week each of the past four seasons; that makes a win versus the Rams all the more important. Conversely, the Rams will enter this game fresh off a bye of their own and have two weeks to prepare for the Packers.

The NFC West poses a serious challenge to the NFC North this season with Seattle, Arizona, and a mended San Francisco on the schedule. But a rested Los Angeles could be the toughest matchup of them all for Green Bay’s defense, even if the game is played at Lambeau Field.

vs. Cleveland Browns, December 25th

The final stretch of the season is daunting for Green Bay in that three of the final five games to close the season will come against the Packers’ NFC North rivals. Certainly, a divisional title will come down to the Packers’ performance in this slate, as well as a difficult road matchup with Baltimore. But sandwiched in the middle of the chaos is a Christmas Day date with Cleveland.

If the divisional games were not enough of a distraction to this game on the schedule, the holiday could provide another. The Packers own a 1-1 record on Christmas Day, playing both games against Chicago in 2005 and 2011. Usually, the Packers might have an advantage in the cold of December at home, but they will be taking the field against a Browns team from the Midwest and fresh off a playoff run last season. There is some grit to this Cleveland team that saw an improved season from Baker Mayfield a year ago, built a powerful defensive line that now includes Jadeveon Clowney, and boasts one of the league’s top rushing attacks for a sloppy field. Cleveland has formed itself into one of the AFC North’s top teams with a renewed sense of confidence and will be looking for a second straight trip to the postseason.

This is a dangerous game for Green Bay if it overlooks the Browns while looking ahead to Minnesota and Detroit, and one it cannot afford to let slip away.