It’s here. Finally. Week one of the NFL season, with real, meaningful football being played TONIGHT.
(Go Cowboys!… eww.)
This preseason, you gave me your predictions and feelings about the Packers heading into the 2021 NFL season. The general consensus was that this is a Super Bowl or bust squad with the highest expectations we’ve seen in years.
It’s hard for me to disagree.
If last year’s expectations for the Packers were high, this year the standards are higher than they’ve possibly ever been in my life. This isn’t a 1997 or 2011 season where the high expectations were at least undercut by a months-old Super Bowl championship celebration.
No–this is a Packer team that is a decade removed from its last championship and is seeing its window with Aaron Rodgers snap shut. A team that has won a lot of regular season games, but has disappointed time after time in the postseason, particularly in championship game appearances.
Last year, I Predicted the Packers would return to the NFC Championship, but was hesitant to make any predictions beyond that.
This year, I’m picking the Packers to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. And if they make it there, they’ll have made it past the toughest competition they’ll face en route to a Super Bowl title, because both the Packers and their would-be rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are better, more well-rounded teams than anyone coming out of the AFC.
It has been 10 years since I last predicted the Packers to be the NFC’s Super Bowl representative before the season started. This year, there’s admittedly a sense of desperation to my prediction… after all, if not now, when?
But there is legitimate reason to see the Packers as one of two or three favorites in the NFL, beyond just blind homerism.
Aaron Rodgers returns to the Packers fresh off an MVP season and still with plenty to prove. He’s shown himself to be more efficient than ever in the Matt LaFleur offense, and has a deeper pool of skill position players to work with. So long as the offensive line holds up through the early part of the season until David Bakhtiari can return from injury, there’s no reason to believe this offense can’t be as effective as (or even better than) it was a season ago.
The Packers made great efforts to get back the vast majority of their key players from last year, as much as they could given the financial circumstances with a salary cap still lowered due to COVID-19. They’re going to be paying for it fiscally in 2022, but for this year, it’s about as all in as the ledger would allow for Brian Gutekunst and Russ Ball.
The competition outside of Tampa is not particularly frightening. The 49ers will be formidable again if they can stay healthy, but they still lack a quarterback. The Rams will be improved with Matthew Stafford taking over for Jared Goff and are outstanding at several key positions, but lack the all-around talent and depth of the Packers and Buccaneers. The NFC East is a joke, the NFC South is one team and the NFC North will bow to the green and gold yet again.
It has been a long time since I have had this level of confidence at this point in the calendar that the Packers can and should advance to the Super Bowl.
Anything less should be considered a massive disappointment.
I’ll be sprinkling some additional predictions throughout the rest of this column, but here’s how I see things working out:
13-4 record, with losses to Kansas City, Minnesota, Baltimore and some random unexpected team.
Appearance in the NFC Championship against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Appearance in the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs
Super Bowl championship
Who will be the Packers’ most improved player?
Who’s going to be the Packer to take the biggest step forward this year?
I’ve seen three popular candidates for this title throughout the summer: Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Odds are very strong the Packers’ most improved player will indeed be one of these three.
If I have to guess one, I’m picking Darnell Savage.
Savage will be seeing the most snaps of any of these players, and already has two years of starting experience under his belt. The second half of the 2020 season revealed Savage as a player with some significant playmaking potential.
While I get that it’s a bit lazy to compare every rangy free safety the Packers find to Nick Collins, it’s hard not to do it in this case. Their measurables are nearly identical, and they’ve seen very similar progression in the quality of their play (and even their statistics) in the first couple years.
We’ve seen a similar slow burn with Savage so far to the point where it really feels like he’s going to burst on to the scene as a superstar level safety sooner or later.
If he picks up where he left off in 2020 and improves at the same rate, he’s going to be a Pro Bowl player in 2021 and an All Pro in 2022.
I realize that’s setting the bar a bit high, but I feel like it’s reasonable, especially with Adrian Amos and Jaire Alexander also in the secondary doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
Wisconsin Beer of the Week
Fall is here, and with it comes malty Oktoberfests, pumpkin beers and thick stouts (or, if you’re like me, just more thick stouts than you’d already been drinking in the summer).
The latter is the category for our Beer of the Week this week: Warming Hut Memoirs from Humble Forager Brewery.
Humble Forager is doing some pretty incredible work with their pastry stouts and fruited sours. This release, coming in at 12 percent ABV, is THICK. It’s a stout body featuring chocolate and carmel malts, blended with roasted Georgia pecans, a dash of Korintje cinnamon, stacks of Ugandan vanilla beans and drizzles of Wisconsin Amish maple syrup.
Honestly this would be a great breakfast beer, but it also hits perfectly as an evening sipper. I intend to hold on to a couple to crack over the winter in the bitter cold to really give honor to its name.
A lot of pastry stouts are far too sweet for my liking, but Humble Forager strikes a nice balance with this one. Really excellent balance with the pecan flavor being most prominent. A lot of times when maple is used as an adjunct it sticks out way too much, but here it blends into the background among the other flavors so it doesn’t overwhelm.
I found this beer at my local Woodman’s, and Humble Forager has pretty good distribution across the state. Find this one, or any of their other tasty offerings!
Who will be the Packers’ most valuable player not named Aaron Rodgers?
This is a question I ask every year in the fan expectations survey I do for CheeseheadTV.
This year, the most common responses were Davante Adams, Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander.
Of those three, Adams would have to be my pick. He’s practically unguardable. He’s developed one of the greatest releases off the line of scrimmage of all time, runs remarkably crisp routes and has insanely reliable hands. He’s good for a ton of catches and yards every time he steps on the field.
The Adams/Rodgers connection is what transforms this offense from an efficient scheme to a lethal scoring threat every time they line up.
Alexander is one of the best at his position and Smith is an elite pass rusher, but when Rodgers and Adams are on, this offense is impossible to beat.
How will the Packers’ new-look defense perform?
The hiring of Joe Barry this offseason didn’t exactly excite a whole lot of Packer fans. And I have to say, I was a bit underwhelmed as well by the idea of hiring a retread on his third shot at a defensive coordinator position when there are probably plenty of young up-and-comers ready for a shot.
But there are a couple things that at least make me hopeful about Barry’s tenure.
One is that he’s a disciple of Vic Fangio, one of the best defensive minds of the NFL of the last two decades. Fangio has turned water into wine everywhere he’s gone with his defensive schemes. If the Packers were going to stick with the 3-4 philosophy (loosely, anyway, because who actually plays much base these days?), the Fangio system was probably the best choice to emulate.
The other is that players throughout the offseason have mentioned that they felt like the new defensive system allowed them some more flexibility, and that it put them in positions where they were more likely to succeed. You love hearing players raving about a defensive scheme while it’s being implemented.
I have no clue what’s going to happen with the Barry defense, but what I do know is this: the Mike Pettine defense was stale, soft and predictable. He wasn’t doing nearly enough to show offenses complicated looks, and players often seemed like they were playing out of position.
Barry is working with by far the most talented collection of players he’s ever had. Hopefully the third time is a charm.
Around the NFC North
Here we go once again around the NFC North leading into week one.
-The CHICAGO BEARS open their regular season on the road against the Los Angeles Rams in primetime on Sunday Night Football. An auspicious start to the season for a team that crabwalked backwards into the playoffs in 2020. The big story for the first portion of the Bears’ season is going to be how long it takes for them to switch from Andy Dalton to Justin Fields. Because really, the Bears’ ceiling with Dalton is probably eight wins. Who knows yet what the Bears have in Fields, but at least he doesn’t immediately put a cap to what they can achieve. Still, I’ll be more than happy to watch yet another Chicago Bears primetime dud to kick off the season. A tradition like no other!
-The DETROIT LIONS are also in a very familiar position to start the 2021 season: contention for the number one overall draft pick. Oddsmakers have the Lions right up there with teams like the Houston Texans and New York Jets as likely earners of the top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. They open at home against the San Francisco 49ers, who are looking to return to the height of their 2019 powers after a season waylaid by injuries. The only thing worth watching about the Lions this year is how long it takes new head coach Dan Campbell to run onto the field and assault a referee.
-The MINNESOTA VIKINGS are the odds-on favorite to challenge for a wild card spot behind the Packers in the NFC North… that is, if COVID doesn’t wreck their team first with stars like Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith and Sheldon Richardson all reportedly declining to get vaccinated. The Vikings still have too many weak spots on their team to be considered serious contenders, but they get to open up the season with a road trip to take on the cupcake Cincinnati Bengals so everyone can overreact to their dominance after a single week.
A new school year is underway
If you follow me on Twitter you may know that one of my side gigs is directing the theater program at my local high school. School is officially underway, students are back full time and it just feels so refreshing and *normal*, despite the continued presence of masks.
I’m looking forward to getting kicked off with our auditions for our first production of the season on Monday and hopefully welcoming a big class of freshmen who want to get involved.
More exciting for me was my three-year-old’s first day of preschool on Wednesday. He’s going three mornings a week for just a couple hours. It’ll be a perfect opportunity for him to get out and socialize, which is something we’ve really missed during the pandemic.
He’s my oldest, so it was definitely emotional leaving him behind as I walked out of the classroom. But what a great moment to see him running down the hall all excited when I returned.
Good luck to students and teachers of all ages in this new year!
Who will be the most surprisingly important or underrated Packer of 2021?
The easy answer to this question is always Adrian Amos, as it seems like the man’s greatness is always underappreciated.
But I want to take this question a bit deeper and look especially close at role players. Of the non-starters on the team or the players not expected to be on the field for the bulk of their unit’s snaps, who’s going to be the most important?
I have several thoughts here. One is Randall Cobb. His presence as a true slot receiver, a guy with a natural connection with the quarterback and a mentor to Amari Rodgers could prove crucial. He’s not being relied on as a key contributor, but helps fill out the depth of the receiving corps much better than another roster bubble guy would have. His experience, leadership and reliability could be a big deal in the locker room.
Another thought: TJ Slaton. The Packers have desperately needed another big man to help spell Kenny Clark. If Slaton can be the immovable monster the Packers hope he can be for even 15 to 20 snaps a game, that’s going to be a massive contribution to this team that desperately needs some more beef in the trenches on defense. The Packers didn’t do nearly enough for my liking to improve the defensive line this offseason, but if Slaton turns out to be a good player, that’s a huge addition.
Finally: Josiah Deguara. This man brings a ton of versatility to the table and the Packers really lost out on having a true H-Back for most of the year after he tore his ACL. Dominique Dafney emerged on the scene toward the end of the year, but having Deguara back is a big deal for what LaFleur wants to do with this offense. I’m excited to see him fully deployed.
Quick outlook for Packers vs. Saints
Look, the Packers are just better than the Saints, They were last year, and the Saints have only gotten substantially worse since then.
They have a turnover machine at quarterback, are missing their talented wide receiver (once again), and have lost a lot of key contributors since a year ago.
They don’t even get a true homefield advantage in this game, and are playing as a displaced football team.
The Packers should (and will) win without much drama, 41-20.
Tim Backes is a lifelong Packer fan and a contributor to CheeseheadTV. Follow him on Twitter @timbackes for his Packer takes, random musings and Untappd beer check-ins.