The heartache of last season’s NFC Championship defeat is still causing plenty of hurt in the Green Bay Packers camp.
Take the positives from an excellent campaign, those on the outside say, but it’s hard for those that care the most to forget about what is now the fourth conference championship game loss in seven years.
It’s an excellent foundation on which to build for young head coach Matt LaFleur, however, as he seeks to end a decade-long run without a Super Bowl appearance, and it’s easy to forget just how good the Green and Gold were in 2020.
Once again, the Packers dominated the NFC and topped the NFC North with 13 victories and a win percentage of 81%, and despite the postseason blues once again befalling the team there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
That is, if Aaron Rodgers stays at the franchise, of course…
The quarterback has the bargaining chip of being crowned NFL MVP last season to his name, and the vultures are circling – not aided by the fact that the 37-year-old has not returned for the mandatory training camp.
It’s fair to say that relations between Rodgers and team management are at an all-time low, with that decision to kick in the dying embers of the NFC Championship game – and some debatable trade/cut decisions – angering the veteran.
It may be the case that he holds out in 2021, losing $35m of his personal fortune but negotiating himself a better trade position at the end of the campaign. It would leave LaFleur with no real choice but to select Jordan Love as his starting QB – a promising young talent, no doubt, but not yet of Rodgers’ ilk.
Unsurprisingly, Green Bay’s chances of dominating their division once more have taken a hit as a result, and they are now just the fourth favorite in the sportsbook odds to clinch the top seed in the conference overall. You can use a BetMGM promo code should you wish to place a wager on the Packers.
The question, perhaps, is which of the Packers’ opponents in the NFC are most likely to take advantage of the Rodgers situation?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A pretty ordinary regular season in 2020 was quickly forgotten as the Bucs showed their pedigree and class in the playoffs.
Ordinarily, the history books would suggest that Bruce Arians and his team will have their work cut out in repeating those heroics. They haven’t made consecutive playoff appearances in nearly two decades; it’s 28 years since the NFC produced consecutive winners of the Super Bowl and 17 years since the Patriots were the last franchise to win back-to-back editions of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
However, Tom Brady is no stranger to making history, and the Bus are in the incredibly advantageous position of having re-signed all 22 of their Super Bowl winning starters for the new season – the first time in the salary cap era that has happened.
They haven’t added too many new faces as a result, and so really the question is whether continuity over progression will be enough for the Bucs to replicate their 2020 achievements – remember, they ended up as the fifth seed in the NFC, so they may not reveal their full hand until the postseason once again.
With key coaching personnel also retained, and some of their main rivals in turmoil, it’s hard to look past a repeat for the Bucs in taking the spoils in the NFC Championship game.
Los Angeles Rams
Despite having to settle for a wildcard berth, the Los Angeles Rams gave a decent account of themselves in 2020 and were only downed in the divisional round by an inspired effort from the Packers.
Les Snead and Sean McVay would no doubt be targeting more of the same this time around, and his capture of Matthew Stafford – a clear upgrade on Jared Goff – gives the franchise the top-tier quarterback they have been looking for.
The fact that Leonard Floyd has also signed a new deal in LA helps, and in that sense, the Rams are firmly in ‘win now’ mode.
The likes of Jalen Ramsey are also on board, and it will be interesting to see what DeSean Jackson – in the wilderness for a couple of years – brings in his Los Angeles homecoming.
With a new quarterback in town and a fearsome defense, there’s no reason to think that the Rams could be another franchise to apply serious pressure on the Packers this term.
New Orleans Saints
Having outperformed the Bucs during the regular season, there were plenty who felt that the New Orleans Saints were the favorites heading into their divisional round showdown last season.
It wasn’t to be – the Saints went down 20-30 – but there were plenty of positive moments to take from the campaign.
The retirement of Drew Brees is nigh-on a disaster, but the signing of Jameis Winston – to compliment Taysom Hill – as something of a replacement will keep the Saints competitive.
But clearly, the Saints have taken a backward step with the loss of their star playmaker – something the Packers will experience if the Rodgers episode is not resolved, and it’s likely that their performances will regress as a consequence this season. It’s worth keeping an eye on them to gain a sense of what life for the Packers might look like in a post-Rodgers era.
San Francisco 49ers
The 2020 season was something of a write-off for the 49ers with starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and star edge rusher Nick Bosa, as well as several other starters, going down with injuries very early on.
But positive steps have been taken, with star offensive lineman Trent Williams inking a new deal and the draft selection of Trey Lance – a quarterback with sky-high potential.
It’s easy to forget how close the 49ers came to glory in the 2019 season, and most of the players that got them there are still around and, they hope, will be fully healthy once again for the upcoming season.