The memories from CenturyLink Field in January are still fresh in the minds of many in Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers were just an on-side kick recovery and a sideline heave away from reaching their second Super Bowl of the Aaron Rodgers era. Green Bay’s prolific offense, the highest scoring in the NFL last year, coughed up a 19-7 lead early in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship and couldn’t muster a single touchdown in the second half or overtime despite five Seattle turnovers.
On Sunday, the Packers begin their quest for their first Super Bowl title since 2011, and it's not expected to be an easy ride to Levi's Stadium on Feb. 7. In the NFC North, Green Bay will likely get some tough competition from the Detroit Lions, and the Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys are once again expected to contend and are hungry for a title. The AFC remains stacked with some elite teams like the defending champion New England Patriots and the burgeoning Indianapolis Colts. Meanwhile, Jordy Nelson is sidelined for the season with a torn ACL, and some key defensive players are gone from last season. Indeed, there is hard work ahead for Mike McCarthy's squad.
But there are plenty of reasons to believe the Packers will not only be in contention but outright win this year’s title. Here are three reasons that stand out:
Rodgers Is Dialed In
The reigning MVP recorded the fifth 4,000-yard season of his storied career last season and there’s no reason to believe his play will level off even with Nelson out for the year. Rodgers still has Randall Cobb, with talented receivers like Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, and rookie Ty Montgomery making up one of the most well-round corps in the league.
Rodgers is also the most efficient quarterback in the league, and rarely if ever do his mistakes cost Green Bay games. He’s averaged only 6.25 interceptions over the last four seasons, and since Rodgers took over as the regular starter in 2008 he’s tossed more than 10 interceptions only twice. And although he’s capable of dropping bombs down the field, Rodgers has the patience to complete a short pass down the middle to keep the offense moving rather than run the risk of a turnover.
With Chicago and Detroit’s defenses both on the downswing, especially the Lions after most of their starting defensive line left town via free agency, Rodgers won’t see much pressure in the NFC North. It wouldn't be surprising if Rodgers cruises through the regular season.
There might not be a more focused and determined quarterback in the NFL right now. At age 31, Rodgers is desperate to win another title.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix Ready For A Breakout Season
The exit of top defensive backs Tramon Williams and Davon House, a tandem that combined for 23 passes defensed and four interceptions a year ago, have caused enough of a stir to suggest Green Bay’s defense will take a step back this year.
But their departures will only serve as the time for second-year free safety Clinton-Dix to join the short list of elite defensive backs in the NFL. As a rookie he was second on the Packers with 94 total tackles, and came up with six passes defensed and one interception, serving as a run stopper in the open field and didn’t allow many big plays to go over his head. Clinton-Dix will anchor the Packers secondary and provide support to corners Casey Hayward and Sam Shields, with the underrated Mycah Hyde playing some nickelback and supporting Clinton-Dix at safety.
At some point the Packers will likely have rookies Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins play some important minutes both in the regular season and the playoffs, but that’s where Clinton-Dix comes up as the true leader of the squad helping the young players adjust to the pressure. Even at age 22, he has shown the skill and maturity to remind Lambeau fans of Nick Collins.
Defensive backs are often crucial for a playoff run, and Clinton-Dix's emergence might be the reason the Packers withstand their top competitors.
Underrated Pass Rush
Disrupting any NFL offense begins with the pass rush, and the Packers are set to improve a stellar group from last year. In 2014, Dom Capers' squad was tied for ninth in the league with 41 sacks, which went a long way to holding opposing passers to an 82.1 rating (No. 7 in the league).
While Green Bay lost some important veterans in the secondary, their pass rush went completely unscathed and the same group is back to terrorize the division and the rest of the NFL. Altogether, the Packers welcome back Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, and a solid group of linebackers in Nick Perry, Mike Neal, and Sam Barrington, and the return of nose tackle B.J. Raji after a year way with a serious injury.
Signs point to the front seven overachieving in 2015, which is cause for concern for the rest of the league.