But right behind those crucial showdowns are those other games rounding out the schedule that are played against powerhouses from across the league.
This season is no different.
Six of those games – those against the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, and Pittsburgh Steelers – will have a significant impact on where the Packers finish.
Combined, those opponents produced 52 wins in 2012 and all could compete for division titles and have shots at the playoffs.
The Falcons, Ravens, and Redskins all won their respective divisions last year, while the Giants were second and the Steelers were third in their divisions. The Eagles, who are venturing into 2013 with a new coach, are a wild card among these opponents. Nobody is quite sure how this team with so much talent will respond to Chip Kelly, their new coach.
With that in mind, the Packers are no slouches either, which sets up intriguing match ups with these opponents. Considering that the Packers play the Redskins, Eagles, Falcons and Steelers in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field gives the Packers the home field edge, but that’s never a given. This is the NFL, after all, where it’s more about when you play opponents and not so much about who.
The Packers host the Redskins in week two of the season, a huge game in determining how fast the Packers get out of the gate. That’s an important factor, especially in light of the fact that Green Bay travels to San Francisco week one for a rematch of last year’s divisional tilt at the same venue.
We all know how that turned out.
I’m thinking the Packers will be a completely different team this season, especially on defense, and could come away with a big win against the 49ers. That would set up a great week two game versus the Redskins. If the Packers can shut down the running game of the Niners, they will have to do it again against Robert Griffin III and company. That’s a big challenge, but one that the Packers have to master early on in 2013 to have any chance of challenging for a North Division title.
The Packers travel to Baltimore to take on the world champions in week six. One can’t underscore the importance of this game. World champions. On the road.
If the Packers want to make a statement to the rest of the league in the first half of the season, this is the game to do it. Like they did against the Houston Texans last season on the road, the Packers need to come out and win this game decisively. With a run game that should be in full gear by this point of the season, the Packers could control the clock and use the pass to pick apart a Ravens defense that will be uniquely different from the one that helped win the Super Bowl.
Mid-November the Packers host the Philadelphia Eagles. It will be interesting to see where the Eagles are at this point. Will Michael Vick still be under center? Who will emerge as the leaders of this team? Will the offense be the dynamo that everyone thinks under Kelly? This might be one of those games that will be decided by which team has the most momentum at that point in the season. Injuries could also be a factor.
One week later, the Packers travel to New York to face the Giants – a nemeses that has provided enough pain for Packers fans. The last time the Packers were in New York, the Giants pasted them 38-10 … an embarrassment. It seems as though, for the most part, the Giants have had the Packers’ number the past few years. Mike McCarthy-led teams have not done well against Tom Coughlin and his crew. If the Packers can get out of New York with a win, that would be a huge feather in McCarthy’s cap and would go a long way in fueling the team for the stretch run.
That stretch run would include beating Atlanta and Pittsburgh at Lambeau Field, which is not an impossibility.
The Packers have played well against both teams, even in losses. Most notably, the Packers defeated the Falcons in the 2010 playoffs and followed that up with their epic Super Bowl XLV win over the Steelers.
Clearly, that was three years ago and both teams have changed radically … but so have the Packers.
If the defense is clicking late in the season, shutting down the Falcons’ passing game will be hinged on the ability to stop the run – namely a guy by the name of Steven Jackson. Playing Atlanta outside in December is huge. The elements should equalize the playing field and allow the Packers to play their game.
The same will go for the Steelers, though the elements won’t be as much of a factor, given that they play in much the same type of conditions. Beating the Steelers will mean slowing Ben Roethlisberger. They have done it in the past and should be up to the task one more time.
These are all winnable games, crucial games, important games.
To do it, the Packers must have an improved defense, a running game that will control the clock, and a passing game that will be based on the ability of receivers to run after the catch.
Throw in solid special teams and a kicker who can convert field goals consistently and the Packers should be competitive once again in 2013.
These are must-win games that will determine just where the team ends up in January.