The Green Bay Packers have been to back-to-back NFC Championship games, and they are the top seed in the NFC for a second-straight season. For all sorts of reasons, one question looms large for the Packers this year: If not now, then when?
In the 2019 postseason, Green Bay was coming off of a 13-3 record in Matt LaFleur’s first year. They received a bye as the No. 2 seed, the last year two teams in each conference received one. After the idle week, they tore through the Seattle Seahawks before getting demolished by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship. There was a sense that the 49ers would overwhelm Green Bay in that game — they did the same in the regular season that year as well.
During that regular-season matchup in 2019, San Francisco made easy work of Green Bay, winning 37-8. They did whatever they wanted to offensively and kept it simple because their defense was able to overwhelm the Packers. The rematch wasn’t much better in the NFC title game. San Francisco entered favored by more than a touchdown left with a 37-20 victory. The game wasn’t that close; the 49ers led 34-7 at the start of the fourth quarter.
It was supposed to be different last year. San Francisco wasn’t a concern because they were battered by injuries from the get-go. Green Bay ran over them in November, helping to exorcise some of the haunting memories from the year before. The Packers went on to earn the No. 1 seed after going 13-3 in LaFleur’s second season. For the first time in his career, Aaron Rodgers was playing an NFC Championship at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay had lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the regular season, 38-10. After gaining an early lead, the Buccaneers stepped on the gas, erased the deficit, and destroyed the Packers. The rematch took place months later in Lambeau Field against the hottest offense in football with the MVP at quarterback. It was closer than Green Bay’s loss in 2019, but ultimately Tom Brady and the Bucs were too much and eliminated the Packers on their home field.
Some pondered what might have been different with a full-capacity crowd. Others wondered if classic January weather in Wisconsin weather would have tipped the scales. None of it mattered. What did is that the Packers came up short again.
After another brilliant regular season, it has to be the year for the Packers. Again they had the only bye in the NFC. But unlike the last two years, they are getting heavy reinforcements.
David Bakhtiari and Josh Myers returned in Week 18 against the Detroit Lions, and all signs point towards Green Bay also getting back Randall Cobb, Jaire Alexander, and Za’Darius Smith on divisional round weekend. These aren’t filler names, these are All-Pros who have hardly played at all this season. Green Bay is getting healthy at the perfect time.
The offense is humming and, while the defense has been reeling a bit, getting a mix of super-cold weather, a week off, and Smith and Alexander’s returns will certainly help the cause. Green Bay didn’t have many major injuries in 2020. This year they’re getting most of those pieces the lost earlier back for the final push. All signs point towards Green Bay being the team to beat. If they don’t do it this year, then when? The road ahead doesn’t look as glamorous beyond the end of this season.
Green Bay will enter the offseason $37 million in the hole. Only the New Orleans Saints are projected to be in a worse cap situation than the Packers. Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, De’Vondre Campbell, Rasul Douglas, and others are all scheduled to be free agents. Rodgers’ future is foggy as well, although it’s hard to imagine him leaving the Packers at this point. Perhaps this postseason could factor into the decision, though. Considering the salary cap situation, this is setting up to be the Packer’s last, best chance to get over that final hurdle.
Last season, Tampa Bay entered the playoffs red hot. Even though they didn’t win their own division, they rolled through the NFC en route to a Super Bowl victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. This year, the Buccaneers are dealing with Chris Godwin‘s season-ending injury from a few weeks ago and Antonio Brown‘s abrupt departure after he quit on them mid-game.
The Arizona Cardinals not only leveled off but slipped many rungs down the ladder as the season came to a close. Matthew Stafford threw eight interceptions in the final four games as the Los Angeles Rams squandered the No. 2 seed in the final week. The Dallas Cowboys have stayed the course for the most part, but the offense still hasn’t fully figured out their late-season woes, and Michael Gallup‘s ACL tear didn’t help.
No team is clearly playing better than the Packers entering the postseason. Everything is lining up for them. While they still have to go out and get the job done, which is no easy task, this appears to be their best shot in years. If not now, when?