As the NFL closes in on the halfway point of the regular season in Week 9, the Green Bay Packers are 7-1 and tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the largest divisional lead in the league at 3.5 games. With the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears losing winnable games in Week 8 and the Packers’ shorthanded road win in Arizona, is it too early to ask if Green Bay has the NFC North all but wrapped up?
The Packers have won back-to-back NFC North Championships by surprisingly comfortable margins in the first two seasons under head coach Matt LaFleur. Green Bay finished the regular season 13-3 in both years. They won the division by three games over a 10-6 Vikings team in 2019 and a five-game margin over the 8-8 Bears a season ago. Through eight weeks this season, the Packers have more wins than all three other teams in the division combined, a claim that no other NFL team can make.
Is there a scenario where either the Bears or the Vikings get hot (sorry, Lions), combined with a Green Bay collapse? Sure, but probably only if Aaron Rodgers were to get injured. The Packers have been as unlucky injury-wise as just about anyone else in the league. However, they have been able to weather the storm through several nail-biters, racking up much-needed wins in the process.
Examining each team’s schedules, Green Bay even has a leg up in that department. They have nine games remaining. Five are home contests, and four are on the road. Conversely, the Vikings (six away, four home) and Bears (five away, four home) will be on the road a lot. The immediate schedules for all three teams aren’t easy by any stretch either.
The Vikings have back-to-back road games in Weeks 9 and 10. They will travel from one coast to another to face the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Chargers, with a home game against the Packers waiting for them on Nov. 21. The Bears will travel to play an improving Pittsburgh Steelers team, followed by a home game against Baltimore and a road game against Detroit. The Lions are bound to win a game at some point. Tack on games against Arizona and at Lambeau immediately following that, and the Bears have their work cut out for them over the next month.
The Packers head to Kansas City this weekend. Then they get a home game against the Seattle Seahawks, a matchup in which something weird always happens. Traveling to Minnesota isn’t easy, and they’ll have the Los Angeles Rams waiting for them at Lambeau when they return after Thanksgiving.
With just 10 games left for Minnesota and nine for Chicago, it’s tough to see either team rattling off seven wins to get to 10 total for the season. It’s possible, especially if the Vikings’ offense finally gets rolling. But is Kirk Cousins really going to rally this team to an 8-2 record down the stretch?
Even if somehow Minnesota would get to an 11-6 record, that would likely require at least one win over Green Bay. And the Packers would have to stumble to a 4-5 record in their last nine games just to tie. As it currently stands, both FanDuel and Caesars Sportsbook have Green Bay’s current over/under win total set at 12.5 games. Minnesota’s number is set at 7.5, while Chicago checks in at 6.5 wins for the over/under. And, yes, Detroit’s number is at 1.5.
They won’t get complacent after just eight games, but the Packers’ cushion right now might allow them to be a bit more conservative as they gear up for the playoffs. Green Bay has several key contributors returning between now and the end of the regular season. Without a division rival nipping at their heels, the Packers’ front office might opt to allow guys like David Bakhtiari, Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith, and others to perhaps take an extra week in coming back. The urgency to win won’t be quite as high as it is in some other divisions.
The key for Green Bay will be to maximize their health as the calendar gets closer to 2022. The Packers have benefitted from a few bounces going their way (hello, Cincinnati Bengals kicker!). It’s probably unrealistic to see this team get to 14 or 15 wins in the regular season. However, if the team can get healthier, and bring players like Bakhtiari and Alexander back into the fold, 12 or 13 wins feels about right. That would put the division more than out of reach.
The Packers haven’t consistently played top-level football, so there’s still the hope for some cohesive, three-unit butt kickings on the horizon soon. Some stellar individual efforts and fortuitous pass routes that accidentally turn into run blocks and allow for game-clinching interceptions have undoubtedly helped Green Bay get to a 7-1 record. But the good news is that they don’t have to give any of those wins back. It might be just a tad early to start printing the 2021 NFC North Division Championship T-shirts, but NFLShop.com can probably at least start warming up the presses.