The next NFC North team in our continuing preview of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2016 season is the Green Bay Packers, who are coming off a second-place finish in the division.
Last season was the first time since 2010 that the Packers didn’t win the NFC North, but they finished in second place to the Vikings and still made the playoffs with a 10-6 record. A major factor contributing to the lack of a division title was the loss of WR Jordy Nelson, who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in a preseason game. He is expected to be ready for the start of this season, though, giving QB Aaron Rodgers his best receiving weapon once again.
Not surprisingly without Nelson on the field, Rodgers’ passing numbers regressed last season compared to 2014. He threw for 3,821 yards and 31 touchdowns with 8 interceptions — numbers that many quarterbacks would like to put up but not the level that we’ve come to expect from Rodgers. No receivers really stepped up in Nelson’s absence, as veteran WR James Jones was the team’s leading receiver in terms of receiving yards, with 890 to go along with 8 touchdowns on 50 receptions. WR Randall Cobb’s 79 receptions were the most on the team; he had 829 yards and 6 touchdowns in his 15 starts. The running game was a bit of a mess, with RB Eddie Lacy ending the season as the team’s leading rusher, with 758 yards and 3 touchdowns in 12 starts. RB James Starks got the other four starts, putting up 601 yards overall for the season with 2 touchdowns. The defense ranked in the top half of the league, with 323 yards allowed.
Getting a healthy Nelson back on the field is like signing a big-name free-agent receiver. Having him out there with Cobb provides a nice 1-2 punch for Rodgers. The Packers signed TE Jared Cook in the offseason, and he should slot in as the No. 2 behind TE Richard Rodgers. If Rodgers, the quarterback, can have his full offensive attack on the field for the majority of the season, he shouldn’t have a problem getting back to the level of the 4,000-plus yard seasons we have come to expect from them. The offense will score points so if the defense can stay in th 10-15 range where they ranked last season, the Packers should be able to keep winning games.
The Packers’ schedule starts with a road game against the Jaguars, followed by a visit to the Vikings’ new stadium for the first regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium in a primetime battle on Sunday Night Football. Their first home game is in Week 3 against the Lions, which leads into an early bye for the Packers in Week 4. After the bye, the Packers get back-to-back home games against NFC East foes, the Giants and Cowboys, respectively. The Packers visit the Redskins for a Sunday night battle in Week 11 and host the Seahawks later on in Week 14. The campaign closes with three straight games against division rivals — at the Bears in Week 15, hosting the Vikings in Week 16 and visiting the Lions on New Year’s Day to end the season. The Packers have the easiest schedule in the league, based on their opponents’ combined .457 winning percentage from last season. While that doesn’t mean much, with as good as the Packers are, they should end up atop the NFC North for the fifth time in the last six seasons.