When the first odds for Super Bowl LI were reported earlier this week, the Green Bay Packers found themselves back near the top.
Just like last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
The Packers are annual favorites to win the Super Bowl, so long as they have franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Yet, over the past five seasons, Rodgers hasn’t been enough to return the Packers to the NFL's championship game.
They’ll have another legitimate chance in 2016. Will the end result be different? Beyond the obvious benefit of having Rodgers at quarterback, here are three reasons the Packers will win Super Bowl LI — and three reasons they won’t.
Three reasons the Packers will win the Super Bowl:
It’s alarming to look back at the hot takes in the wake of Packers receiver Jordy Nelson’s season-ending torn ACL last August. Almost universally, his absence was expected to be a significant hurdle, but far from the end of the team’s Super Bowl hopes. Boy, was that wrong.
After Nelson caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014, the loss of his production was enough to swivel the Packers offense. What may have hurt more was losing Nelson’s impact on the rest of the field. Defenses didn’t need to fear the deep pass, so they crowded the line of scrimmage and shut down Randall Cobb. Eddie Lacy faced more defenders in the box. Rodgers had to live without his most trusted target.
If Nelson can return as the player he was before reconstructive knee surgery — which is no guarantee — he will complete the Packers' puzzle on offense. The added dimension should allow the unit to recapture its explosiveness.
2. A potential top-five secondary
On the surface, it seems silly to suggest the Packers' secondary will be better next season than it was in 2015. Casey Hayward is a long shot to be re-signed, more likely to find a nice payday on the free-agent market. Hayward’s 933 snaps led all Packers cornerbacks last season, and he played well covering slot receivers.
But a secondary that finished sixth in the NFL defending the pass has a good chance of being even better in 2016, even without Hayward. Give general manager Ted Thompson credit for rapidly rebuilding a depleted position. The Packers ranked dead last in pass defense four years ago and 24th two years ago. In 2013, their safeties did not record an interception.
That was rock bottom. With each decision since, Thompson has improved the secondary.
He re-signed Sam Shields — a legitimate No. 1 cornerback — before free agency in 2014. He has found solid starters in safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and corner Damarious Randall with first-round picks in his past two drafts. Quinten Rollins, a second-round pick last year, seems poised to replace Hayward in the slot.
The unit also has veteran safety Morgan Burnett as well as Micah Hyde, a Swiss Army knife-type defensive back whose versatility gives defensive coordinator Dom Capers options.
It wouldn’t be a stretch for the Packers' pass defense to crack the top five in 2016, which would be significant. The last time it cracked the top five was 2010, which of course was their last Super Bowl title.
3. A cupcake schedule
In 2016, the NFC North will be matched against the NFC East and AFC South, playing opponents from the league’s two weakest divisions this past season. All four teams in the division figure to benefit, but none as much as the Packers.
The Packers will play the NFL’s easiest schedule in 2016. Their opponents combined for a 117-139 record in 2015, a .457 winning percentage that ranks 32nd in the league. True, the Dallas Cowboys (Tony Romo) and Indianapolis Colts (Andrew Luck) should be considerably better after their starting quarterbacks return from injury, but there are plenty of weaker opponents left.
The Packers will get the benefit of traveling to Jacksonville and Tennessee, two of the worst teams in the league (although the Jaguars might be on a slight uptick). Road trips to Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta also are much less daunting than what the Packers had to handle in November, when they traveled to AFC champion Denver and NFC champion Carolina in consecutive weeks.
Could an 8-0 road record be possible in 2016? Perhaps. What does that have to do with winning the Super Bowl? Quite a bit, actually.
You can’t win the game if you don’t get there. The Packers should have a very real chance of earning the NFC’s top seed, and the postseason home-field advantage that comes with it. That would go a long way to paving their path to Super Bowl LI.
Three reasons the Packers won’t win the Super Bowl:
1. No vertical threat at TE
The Packers' hole at tight end will be much less significant if Nelson returns as a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver. The offense has survived without a Rob Gronkowski — or even Jermichael Finely — at tight end.
But there seems to be a clear floor in regards to what contenders need from their top tight end. Since 2010, each of the 10 Super Bowl participants had a tight end average at least 11 yards per catch. Some were stars — Gronkowski, Finley. Some were not — the Seahawks' Luke Willson, the Giants' Jake Ballard. Collectively, they met the same yards-per-catch requirement.
Richard Rodgers, the Packers' second-year tight end, had the catches (58), yards (510) and even touchdowns (eight) to be a starting tight end in 2015. He fell woefully short of that 11-yards-per-catch benchmark, averaging 8.8 per reception. That’s not to pick on Rodgers alone. From Justin Perillo (9.3) to Andrew Quarless (7.8), none of the Packers' tight ends hit the 11-yard-per-catch mark.
A lack of playmaking from the tight end position likely was among the top reasons coach Mike McCarthy did not retain assistant Jerry Fontenot after the season, but position coaches don’t make players run faster. The NFL draft rarely is the best way to bolster the tight end position, with rookies needing time to adjust to the vast differences from the college game.
Without a free-agent splash — Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, perhaps? — it’s unlikely the tight end position will be much better in 2016.
2. A declining pass rush
With two Pro Bowlers, the Packers' receiver position looked like a strength one year ago. Quickly, it became a weakness. Things change fast in the NFL. Could the same thing happen to another team strength in 2016?
The Packers were among the NFL’s most productive pass rushes throughout 2015, ending the season tied for seventh with 43 sacks. That production fell in line with previous seasons. Except 2011, the Packers' sack total has ranked top 11 in the league every season under defensive coordinator Dom Capers. So it’s probably a stretch to foretell a precipitous drop.
But much of the Packers' pass rush in 2015 hinged on Julius Peppers defying the odds at age 35. Peppers turned back the clock with 10.5 sacks, earning his ninth trip to the Pro Bowl. It was Peppers’ first season with double-digit sacks since 2012, and it’s far from a guarantee he can repeat those numbers at age 36. Except for a few examples — Reggie White, Kevin Greene, Bruce Smith and Chris Doleman — double-digit sacks season are rare after age 35.
Behind Peppers, there are a lot of moving parts. Clay Matthews needs to return to outside linebacker, but he may be stuck on the inside next season. Nick Perry and Mike Neal are free agents. Jayrone Elliott is unproven. Datone Jones, a former first-round pick, has been underwhelming with eight sacks in three seasons.
So the Packers' pass-rush production could hinge on whether Peppers can defy Father Time one more season. Chances for success go down each year.
3. An uphill run
Eddie Lacy has every reason to get his career together over the next few months. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. More than stats, reputation and stature within the league, the Packers tailback has money on the line.
So it’s fair to expect Lacy once again will be the player he was in his first two seasons. But is it wise to predict it? That’s a different matter.
Lacy’s immaturity off the field wasn’t only seen when he arrived at training camp overweight and out of shape. He also was punished for missing curfew on the road before the Packers' game at Detroit, a division rival they’d lost to two weeks prior and needed a Hail Mary to beat. Lacy, 25, will need to make some lifestyle changes to get his career back on track.
If he does, the Packers once again will have a running game opposing defenses fear. Lacy is one of the league’s most talented running backs when he maintains his weight and conditioning, but lifestyle changes are never easy. Even with millions of dollars at stake, there’s no guarantee Lacy will break from his pattern.