Every three years, the Green Bay Packers play games against four teams from one of the other divisions in the NFC. In 2017, it’s the NFC South, which boasts teams that played in the last two Super Bowls, the last two league MVPs, and the best and most versatile linebacker in the NFL.
It should be a grudge match, and a matter of pride, when the Packers meet up with the Falcons in Atlanta in week 2. This will be only the second game Atlanta has played since its overtime loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl and the first at their new stadium.
The Packers’ loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship game – still less than four months ago – was not a shock, but the one-sidedness of the affair was a disgrace. Green Bay was simply defenseless against Matt Ryan’s aerial attack. Ryan finished 27-of-38 for 392 yards, four touchdowns and a QB rating of 139.4. Had Atlanta not gone into a prevent defense for the last third of the game, it could have been a 500-yard passing day.
The Packers and Falcons have had some memorable games in the Aaron Rodgers-Matt Ryan era. The 2014 regular season matchup was a classic. Played on a Monday night at Lambeau Field in week 14, the Packers came in with the second-ranked offense against a No. 22 defense. Buoyed by a superior running attack, Green Bay escaped with a 43-37 win. Huge games by Ryan and Rodgers essentially nullified each other, but the Packers gained 179 yards on the ground – James Starks had 75 and Eddie Lacy had 73.
In 2011, Rodgers easily bested Ryan (396 to 167 passing yards) in a 25-14 regular season win. On their way to the Super Bowl in 2010, the underdog Packers drubbed the Falcons in the playoffs in Atlanta, 48-21. It’s been a great rivalry – though one in which Matt Ryan now seems to be gaining the upper hand over Rodgers.
Players to watch: Though Atlanta has several weapons in its passing attack, it’s Ryan to Julio Jones that makes this offense click. The two combined for 180 yards vs. Green Bay back in January. Ryan finished the regular season with a league-best quarterback rating of 117.1. For a while, he threatened Rodgers’ NFL-record 122.5 rating from 2011. At age 31, Ryan enters his 10th year in the league as the game’s top quarterback. It will be Ryan vs. Rodgers, mano a mano, come September!
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are finally having some success at building a legitimate playoff contender. After having a team with a winning record in 2010 (10-6), Tampa Bay went on a string of losing seasons, bottoming out in 2014 with a 2-14 record. But the Bucs reversed themselves in 2016, winding up with nine wins and seven losses.
When the Packers played them in 2014 in Florida, they came away with a comfortable 20-3 win. Since then, however, the Bucs have added some real star power at quarterback, receiver, and linebacker. Stacked with talented young players, Tampa Bay appears to be a team on the rise.
In April, Nick Wright of Fox Sports predicted that the Bucs will finish with the NFL’s best record (13-3) on the year. He’s got the Packers at 12-4. Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones has them, and the Falcons, at 10-6.
The Bucs do face the hurdle of traveling from Florida to Green Bay for a cold-weather contest on December 1.
Players to watch: The Bucs’ turnaround last year was in large part due to the improvement of quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston, the first pick of the 2015 draft – and a former Heisman Trophy winner – is both a running and passing threat. He had a decent year in 2016, going 345-of-567 for 4,090 yards, 28 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and a passer rating of 86.1. Mike Evans, an imposing 6’5” target is his go-to guy. Evans had 1,321 receiving yards last year, which ranked fourth in the league (Jordy Nelson was sixth at 1,257). Fans should also be watching linebacker Kwon Alexander. A steal in the fourth round in 2015, in only his second year he finished tied for fourth in in the NFL in tackles.
New Orleans Saints
Unlike Tampa Bay, the Saints appear to be a team that is aging and going downhill. After winning 13 games in both 2009 and 2011, the Saints have finished with a 7-9 record in four of the last five campaigns. The Saints’ fortunes have depended on quarterback Drew Brees since he joined the team in 2006, after five years in San Diego.
Brees simply fills the air with footballs. In the last six years, his lowest annual passing yardage was 4,870 – a number Aaron Rodgers has never even approached. Yes, Brees turned 38 in January, but he’s been virtually injury-free despite being a highly targeted NFL QB for the past 16 years.
While the Packers and Saints do not have an interesting rivalry, in their last meeting in 2014, Brees and his mates embarrassed the Packers to the tune of a 44-23 trouncing. In that contest, Brees was nearly impeccable: 27-of-32, 321 yards, three touchdowns, and a quarterback rating of 138.4. Rodgers, meanwhile, had one touchdown, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 93.7. They say Rodgers has a long memory, so one would hope he’ll have vengeance on his mind when the Saints show up in Green Bay in midseason.
Despite their spate of recent losing seasons, the Saints are an offensive dynamo. They easily finished the past season as the top team in both passing and overall offense. The New Orleans’ offense gained over 900 more yards than the Packers did in 2016.
Defensively, however, they ranked 27th overall, which suggests that a shootout might be at hand. This game will be a great test to see whether Green Bay has measurably improved their pass defense from their horrendous showing last season.
Player to watch: Drew Brees is the face and the only significant talent of the New Orleans Saints. Brees was 30th 0n the NFL’s list of the top 100 players in 2016. His only teammate on that list was defensive end Cameron Jordan, ranked 99th. Brees puts up yardage regardless of his receiving corps. In 2016, his top receiver was Brandin Cooks, who was traded to the Patriots in March. Brees is currently third on the all-time passing yardage list, fewer than 6,000 yards behind Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. He should therefore easily become the NFL’s all-time gunslingingest, pass flingingest quarterback if he plays just two more years. So sit back and enjoy the show when Brees trots onto Lambeau Field on October 22.
The Panthers took a huge fall last season, going from Super Bowl champions to a losing record of 6-10. Has 2015 league MVP Cam Newton flamed out or was last season a one-year aberration?
When the two team played in 2014, Green Bay ran off with an easy 38-17 win at home. However, the teams also chanced to meet in November 2015, with the Panthers prevailing 37-29. In that game, the Panthers outrushed the Packers, 130 to 71 yards, with Newton getting 57 of the total. Rodgers passed for a gaudy 369 yards, but only completed 25-of-48 passes. For the game, Rodgers wound up with a sub-par (for him) 96.6 quarterback rating.
This year the Packers travel to Carolina a week before Christmas.
Players to watch: Going into 2016, QB Newton was the top-rated player in the NFL – all eyes will be on him to see if he has a bounce-back season this year. Carolina also has a defensive superstar, linebacker Luke Kuechly, rated the seventh best NFL player going into 2016. Through his first five years as a pro, he’s a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team All Pro. And that, despite missing the final three games of last season. Kuechly is the complete athlete and linebacker. He’s led the league twice in tackles; his 12 career interceptions are the most by any linebacker in that time; he’s also recorded 43 passes defended and nine sacks.