Green Bay Packers

The Importance Of the No. 1 Seed For Green Bay

Photo credit: William Glasheen (USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

The bye week for the Green Bay Packers got just a bit better when they watched the Minnesota Vikings find a way to lose to the previously winless Detroit Lions. Minnesota’s loss moved the Packers’ magic number to win the NFC North to two games. Winning the division title feels like a formality at this point, but Green Bay should focus on wrapping that up as soon as possible before setting their sights on the No. 1 seed in the NFC — and the all-important bye that comes with it.

While the Packers have had the division title all but wrapped up for almost a month now, Green Bay can officially don the NFC North champions hats and T-shirts as soon as this weekend if the Vikings lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night and the Packers beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The Vikings fell to 5-7 with the loss to the Lions, giving Green Bay a four-game lead in the division. They are tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ lead over the Atlanta Falcons for the largest division lead in the NFL.

An NFC North championship is all well and good. It would be the Packers’ third straight and eighth in 11 seasons. But the No. 1 seed in the NFC carries a new meaning in a 17-game season, especially for a team as banged up as Green Bay is. It’s been well documented that the Packers have had trouble getting over the hump in the NFC Championship game, losing four in the past seven seasons. But getting a bye has been big for Green Bay in that stretch. Only once have the Packers needed more than one win to get to the conference title game (2016, with wins over the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys). One more regular-season game will leave teams that much more banged up and tired. Therefore, a first-round bye will be even more critical this season than in the past.

Speaking of banged up, Green Bay has seen plenty of players miss significant time this year. Of those who have a chance to return, having extra time to make sure they’re as close to 100% can only be a positive. Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith could return before the end of the season. But even if they do, more time to get back into the fold is a benefit. Getting David Bakhtiari back for his first action of the 2021 season became more important with the loss of Elgton Jenkins. However, the focus for Bakhtiari isn’t a Week 16 game against the Cleveland Browns, it’s the playoffs. Mix in the threat of COVID forcing any player — especially those that are only “immunized” — into the protocol, and the fewer games you have to deal with that, the better.

Getting the No. 1 seed in the playoffs provides the benefits of playing at Lambeau Field, of course. But it could also help the Packers dodge a serious bullet in terms of seeding. If Green Bay can overtake the Arizona Cardinals for the top spot — which only involves tying the Cardinals, thanks to Rasul Douglas and his game-winning interception in Week 8 — that would move Arizona to the No. 2 seed, followed by Tampa Bay and Dallas. A lot could happen to shake up the standings, but the four division champs seem to be nearly set in stone. The Cowboys have certainly seemed to look like the shakiest of the bunch, but they should be able to hold off the Washington Football Team to lock down the No. 4 seed.

The odds aren’t currently in Green Bay’s favor to secure a bye, but Arizona has no cakewalk schedule down the stretch. The Cardinals will face three teams that could easily be in the playoffs: the Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, and Cowboys. The other two games are against the surging Lions (okay, maybe a stretch, but they’re still biting kneecaps) and a Week 18 game against the Seattle Seahawks, who are out of the mix but have never once played a normal game. The Packers have a road test in Baltimore in Week 14 and a Week 17 game against Minnesota that certainly won’t be easy, but Green Bay should be looking at a 4-1 record down the stretch. All that means is Tampa Bay losing one game, and Arizona scuffling twice.

Of course, the Packers can improve their chances by running the table, something they’ve certainly done before.

Whether Arizona or Tampa Bay lands in the No. 2 or No. 3 seed isn’t important to Green Bay, as long as the Packers sit at No. 1. The two biggest threats to Green Bay this postseason are the immortal Tom Brady (and sure, Lavonte David, Devin White, and Vita Vea), and the terrifying ability of Kyler Murray. Pitting them against each other in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 game would eliminate one, obviously, and mean that the Packers would only have to go through the winner to reach the Super Bowl. Sure, Green Bay would have to take care of a likely matchup with old friend Mike McCarthy first, but I don’t see Aaron Rodgers going out with a loss like that.

The Packers saw exactly what the Buccaneers were capable of last season. A whole generation of Green Bay fans have been soured by mobile quarterbacks running all over them in the playoffs, namely Colin Kaepernick and Michael Vick. The thought of Dak Prescott, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, or, heck, Taylor Heinicke coming into Lambeau Field and winning a playoff game doesn’t feel probable. A now-healthy Kyler Murray or a Tom Brady playing at an MVP level? Different story.

More than in perhaps any other season, the No. 1 seed carries extra importance this year. Securing that first-round bye might be one of the most significant factors in whether the Packers can finally get back over the hump and get back to the Super Bowl.

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Photo credit: William Glasheen (USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

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