Big win has Packers primed for playoff push
It happens every season. As the momentum builds, so does the bandwagon for the NFL's hottest team entering the final month of the regular season.
The Green Bay Packers are no exception.
Many national outlets, including ESPN and The Associated Press, have the Packers seated as the NFL's team to beat with four games remaining. A 26-21 win over the New England Patriots will do that, especially when picking up an eighth victory in nine games.
The win propelled the Packers to Bovada's odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl (7-to-2), jumping in front of the Patriots (15-4), Denver (17-4) and Seattle (13-2). Predictably, Aaron Rodgers now leads the MVP race with 1-to-3 odds ahead of Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (6-1) and Denver quarterback Peyton Manning (8-1).
They're still not at the top of the NFC quite yet. Arizona (9-3) holds that distinction for the moment based on its 7-2 conference record, though it has lost two of its past three games since Carson Palmer tore his left anterior cruciate ligament last month against St. Louis.
The Packers hold an advantage over the NFC's third 9-3 squad, Philadelphia, following a 53-20 beatdown Nov. 16 at Lambeau Field. The Eagles are playing behind backup quarterback Mark Sanchez, but that didn't stop them from embarrassing host Dallas 33-10 on Thanksgiving.
The final month of the regular season bodes well for the Packers on paper. The 22-26 combined record of their final four opponents is tied with Philadelphia for the second-easiest sledding for contending NFC teams with above .500 records.
They'll play NFC South-leading Atlanta on Monday night at Lambeau Field, where the Packers are undefeated this season. The Falcons' 5-7 record doesn't inspire much confidence. Neither does their 32nd-ranked defense that's giving up yards by the truckload.
Atlanta can put up points behind quarterback Matt Ryan and budding receiver Julio Jones. It just hasn't been able to stop anyone. The Falcons didn't have the most talented defense during their recent peak years, but coach Mike Smith was able to scheme around it. It hasn't clicked the past two seasons.
Their defense's biggest strength has been its penchant for turning over the football, something Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers rarely affords.
The torrid pace the Packers have been on since the bye week is the primary reason "Monday Night Football" analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden sees Green Bay continuing its winning ways in the battle of division leaders.
"I can't even tell you what I'm watching right here. This looks like a highlight tape. This is actual game film," Gruden said. "The Packers are going to be hard to stop. I'm going with Green Bay. I think Matty Ice is a hell of a quarterback, but good night, the way Green Bay is playing at home, it's scary."
If the Packers get past the Falcons, they still could be in for a challenging encounter at better-than-expected Buffalo (7-5), which has the league's fifth-best defense statistically and more sacks (48) than any other team. The Bills broke the emergency glass and signed the pseudo-retired Kyle Orton at the end of the preseason. He's 5-3 since usurping E.J. Manuel for the starting job in October.
Tampa Bay (2-10) shouldn't present much of a challenge, while the division could be on the line when the Lions (8-4) stroll into town for the regular-season finale. Detroit hasn't won in Wisconsin since 1991, but handed the Packers a demoralizing 19-7 defeat in Week 3.
Everyone seems to have learned something from the Packers' 26-21 win over the Patriots on Sunday, so what lesson did Green Bay take away from its most significant victory of the season?
"I think you can learn that if we get to the playoffs, that we'll probably see those guys again. They're a good opponent," cornerback Tramon Williams said with a smile.
"This is the type of win we're going to have to get. It's always been that way. You get to the playoffs and every game is going to be tight. There aren't going to be any runaways. You have to be able to stay in the game physically and most of all mentally. That's what it comes down to."
— Scott Venci contributed
Here's a look at the rest of the field of NFC teams in contention for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs:
vs. Kansas City (7-5)
at St. Louis (5-7)
vs. Seattle (8-4)
at San Francisco (7-5)
Bruce Arians' Cardinals win football games even if it's not always in the prettiest fashion. However, things have gotten a lot messier since losing Carson Palmer, who was having his best NFL season in almost a decade. His torn ACL came only days after signing a contract extension. The Cardinals have turned to journeyman Drew Stanton, who was 2-1 in place of Palmer earlier this season and is 1-2 in his most recent stint. For all of Atlanta's faults, it was able to force him into two interceptions in a 29-18 upset last weekend. To make matters worse, starting running back Andre Ellington reportedly is dealing with a significant hip pointer. It won't get any easier for Arizona with three division matchups on the horizon and a Chiefs team with plenty to play for.
vs. Seattle (8-4)
vs. Dallas (8-4)
at Washington (3-9)
at New York Giants (3-9)
The Eagles have recovered nicely since being run out of Lambeau Field, leading the NFL in total offense (438.2 yards per game) and passing (326.2 ypg). They quickly disposed of Tennessee before outsprinting Dallas on its field. Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense left many Cowboys defenders noticeably gassed to the point receiver Dez Bryant was trying to light a fire under them. If Philadelphia can sneak past Seattle and replicate its result against Dallas, it should be downhill against its NFC East brethren, both of whom are unraveling at the seams. Mark Sanchez isn't perfect, but he's been capable. The re-emergence of LeSean McCoy since Nick Foles broke his collarbone probably has given the offense its biggest jolt. Aside from a forgettable showing against Carolina, McCoy is averaging 5.3 yards per carry since Sanchez has taken over.
at Philadelphia (9-3)
vs. San Francisco (7-5)
at Arizona (9-3)
vs. St. Louis (5-7)
The Seahawks are the only team in the NFL that can say they're holding opponents to fewer than 300 yards of offense per game. The scariest part is they're playing their best football of the season. They made NFC South rivals Arizona and San Francisco look like JV teams in a pair of 19-3 victories the past two weeks. Colin Kaepernick was held to 121 passing yards and two interceptions. The 49ers rushed for 64 yards on 18 carries. The return of Bobby Wagner from a turf toe injury has helped, but Seattle's ability to shelve most of its midseason drama also has been a key. Russell Wilson has had a few down performances this season, but the Seahawks have been able to pick him up like in last month's 38-17 win over the Giants. He's thrown for more than 200 yards in only six of 14 games, but his rushing ability (91 carries for 679 yards and four touchdowns) adds to the NFL's top-performing rushing offense (168.6 yards per game). They face the toughest schedule of the bunch, but it could help them in the playoffs if they survive.
at Chicago (5-7)
at Philadelphia (9-3)
vs. Indianapolis (8-4)
at Washington (3-9)
Tony Romo wasn't himself as he struggled to locate receivers and threw off his back foot too often in compiling only 199 yards and two touchdowns in the Thanksgiving Day massacre. He's still having the best season in his nine years as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. The offense has established tight end Jason Witten and free-agent-to-be Dez Bryant as its primary options, but DeMarco Murray's breakthrough season has been a pleasant surprise. The 26-year-old back has carried the ball 288 times in 12 games, rushing for 1,427 yards and eight touchdowns. That could be a tough playoff matchup for the Packers. While it didn't show against the Eagles, former Lions coach Rod Marinelli has helped resurrect the Cowboys' defense after being the league's worst-ranked unit last season, but it still has its limitations following the loss of Sean Lee in training camp.
vs. Tampa Bay (2-10)
vs. Minnesota (5-7)
at Chicago (5-7)
at Green Bay (9-3)
The Lions remain one game behind the Packers, but they are in control of their destiny. The combined 21-27 record of their next three opponents is the most favorable of any of the prospective NFC playoff teams. Golden Tate is the best complementary piece Calvin Johnson has had on the perimeter. But, surprisingly, new coach Jim Caldwell and first-year offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have produced only the league's 17th-most productive offense (19.2 points per game). As the Packers discovered, however, Detroit's defensive front is flat-out scary. They're ranked second in total yards (300.9). The Ndamukong Suh-led run defense is allowing a paltry 65.9 yards per game and an average of 3.1 yards per carry, both league lows. Not surprisingly, NFL teams are testing Detroit's run defense a league-low 17.3 times per game. Detriot and Denver are the only teams that haven't allowed 1,000 rushing yards this season. Still, New England and quarterback Tom Brady dominated the Lions 34-9 in Foxborough before Detroit pieced things back together with a 34-17 win over Chicago on Thanksgiving.
San Francisco (7-5)
at Oakland (1-11)
at Seattle (8-4)
vs. San Diego (8-4)
vs. Arizona (9-3)
Good luck figuring out the 49ers. The only thing that seems certain is that San Francisco's brass is reportedly ready to part ways with Jim Harbaugh, who has led the team to three consecutive NFC championship games. Its blossoming offense has taken a step back this season with Colin Kaepernick's inconsistency and Frank Gore's decline. The 49ers rank 22nd in total offense (325.3 ypg) and 25th in scoring (19.2). The 49ers reeled off three consecutive wins over lackluster competition (New Orleans, New York Giants and Washington) before being met with a cold dose of reality. Kaepernick, fresh off a lucrative extension, had the most forgettable performance of his NFL career against Seattle. Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense is still among the league's best, sitting fourth in yards allowed (306.7 ypg) and against the pass (208.4). The 49ers get a very winnable matchup with their Bay Area counterparts before a rematch in Seattle and home games against the capable Chargers and Cardinals.