Sunday, July 14, 2024

2021 NFL playoff picture: Where Packers stand in NFC, where they must improve, prediction for remaining games

The Packers have been a force ever since Matt LaFleur took over as head coach in 2019, going 13-3 and advancing to the NFC Championship Game in successive years. Now, entering Week 14, they’re on the brink of doing it all again, with hopes for an even grander finish. Despite all the offseason drama surrounding Aaron Rodgers and the stability of LaFleur’s championship-caliber roster, the Packers are once again among the NFC’s top contenders.

But where, exactly, do they sit in the current playoff picture? And how tough is their remaining schedule? What could they improve upon as they prepare to make another run? And where do we think they’ll end up? Below, find everything you need to know about the Packers’ postseason outlook, including a prediction for their 2021 finish:

Current playoff position

After 12 games and 13 weeks, the Packers (9-3) are sitting pretty near the top of the NFC. The Cardinals (10-2) currently own the No. 1 seed in the conference, but their remaining schedule isn’t a cakewalk (vs. Rams, at Lions, vs. Colts, at Cowboys, vs. Seahawks), and more importantly, one of their two losses this year came against Green Bay. The Packers’ other chief competition for the NFC’s top seed — and, thus, its only first-round postseason bye — is the Buccaneers (9-3), who have a lighter closing slate with four of their final five games against teams with losing records.

The No. 1 seed, then, is certainly not out of reach, but it’s also contingent on what happens in Arizona and, perhaps, Tampa Bay. The Cowboys (8-4) and Rams (8-4) are also technically still within reach of the NFC’s top spot but have much harder roads there. For Green Bay, it’s as simple as this: Keep pace with the Cardinals and Bucs, and the No. 1 seed will likely be theirs. If all three teams finish 2021 with the same record, the Packers will get the first-round bye thanks to tiebreakers.

If the Packers can’t nab the top seed, they’re at least all but guaranteed a top four seed as NFC North champions. The Vikings (5-7) and Bears (4-8) are multiple games out of first place, and SportsLine simulations already give Green Bay a 99.6% chance of winning the North.

Remaining schedule

The Packers have five games left in 2021:

14

vs. Bears (4-8)

15

at Ravens (8-4)

16 vs. Browns (6-6)
17 vs. Vikings (5-7)
18 at Lions (1-10-1)

Divisional games are always a bit more unpredictable, but Rodgers told us all loud and clear this year that he “owns” the Bears, and the numbers back that up. Matt Nagy and Co. may be desperate, and Justin Fields‘ return from a rib injury should give Chicago more upside offensively. But Week 14 still feels like a safe bet in Green Bay’s favor.

The Ravens could prove to be a tougher task the following week. Baltimore has struggled to consistently stand out over the last month or so, falling badly to the Bengals before Halloween, then winning some tight contests in between ugly losses to Miami and Pittsburgh. But Lamar Jackson can never be counted out, and the Ravens are equally motivated for playoff reasons.

The Browns could end up being the most desperate team on the Packers’ remaining schedule. They haven’t won back-to-back games since early October, and Baker Mayfield is perpetually banged up as the figurehead of their inefficient offense. But they’re not out of the AFC North race yet, and they still have Myles Garrett up front to rush the passer.

Before closing the year with the Lions, who are fresh off a motivating walk-off win but remain a team in transition, the Packers get the Vikings, who got the last laugh in an explosive Week 11 shootout between the rivals. Since then, Minnesota has lost both Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen, but they should be healthy by then. It remains to be seen if the Vikings will still be in playoff contention, however, and/or if Mike Zimmer is still patrolling the sidelines.

Areas for improvement

  • Health: This is maybe the biggest reason the Packers should be considered front-runners in the NFC. They’re bound to get healthier, and they’ve made it to this point without some of their biggest names, including All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, shutdown cornerback Jaire Alexander and top pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith. If/when those guys can return to the lineup, let alone full form, Green Bay should be both deadlier and deeper on both sides of the ball.
  • Red-zone defense: Joe Barry has worked wonders with the depth-tested defense in his first year as coordinator, but if Green Bay shores things up inside its own 20, the rest of the NFL is in for more trouble. Right now, the Packers are giving up touchdowns on nearly 72% of opponents’ drives in the red zone, which ranks 31st in the league. They can be better.
  • Kicking: Mason Crosby received Rodgers’ endorsement earlier this year, when he was beginning to struggle on a field goal team that’s easily the worst unit of the whole squad. But the 37-year-old veteran has been iffy all year, missing a whopping 10 kicks (nine FGs, one extra point). Green Bay can’t trust him in a pressure situation, and it wouldn’t be crazy if the team sought emergency replacements down the road.

Prediction

Remember when everyone was up in arms after Rodgers and Co. opened the year flat against the Saints? Or when A-Rod suddenly landed on COVID-19 reserve, leaving Jordan Love to drown against the Chiefs? Yes, those moments put small dents in their season, but none of them actually ruined them as title contenders, as LaFleur’s squad is once again primed to make serious noise out of — and possibly atop — the NFC.

In our eyes, the Packers should be stone-cold favorites in all but one of their remaining games. Maybe the Vikings will do something wild again in Week 17, but they may be out of the picture by then. Perhaps the Browns will get back on track and keep things close in a low-scoring affair. The Ravens certainly have the weapons to challenge, even though they’re down another big defender with Marlon Humphrey sidelined. In any event, it’s hard not to see Green Bay going 4-1 or even 5-0 to close the year, putting them at either 13-4 or 14-3.

That will definitely guarantee them the NFC North, but as for the No. 1 seed? Arizona deserves all the praise in the world for its breakout, but the Cardinals could easily drop one of the following matchups: vs. Rams, vs. Colts, at Cowboys, vs. Seahawks. The Bucs, meanwhile, are already a game behind Green Bay and could have a tough time beating the Bills and Saints in back-to-back weeks starting in Week 14. If you wanna know where our money’s at, it’s on the Packers surpassing the Cardinals (and staying ahead of Tampa Bay) to finish 2021 atop the entire NFC.

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