It's been a weird season so far in Green Bay. The Packers erased the otherwise dominant Texans and Bears by a combined score of 65-34, crushed the perennially pathetic Rams, squeaked past the Saints, sleepwalked through the Jaguars game but won anyway, were totally shut down by San Francisco and Seattle and gave up a magical comeback win to the surging Colts.
If you're looking for a pattern in that pile, don't bother. The Packers enter the second half at 5-3, which will get you a sure division lead in the AFC these days, but is only good for fifth overall in the NFC. Under Mike McCarthy, the Packers' second-half record has been 5-3 twice ('06, '10), 6-2 once ('07) and 7-1 twice ('09, '11). I'm predicting them to go 6-2 this year and finish 11-5. Here are my game-by-game predictions for how Green Bay's second half might look:
Packers vs. Cardinals: These two teams are currently tied for the league lead with twenty-six sacks. Oddly enough, they are also the two worst in the league at protecting their QBs; Aaron Rodgers has been sacked more times than any other QB, with 28 through eight games. Between John Skelton and Kevin Kolb, however, the Cardinals' signal-callers have absorbed 39 sacks. I don't expect Clay Matthews to dominate the Cardinals' backup offensive tackles, but this won't be a replay of the 2009 51-45 shootout. The Packers should pick up a win here, but it won't be pretty. Packers 24, Cardinals 16.
Packers at Lions: After a bye week, the Packers travel to Detroit, which had a poor start to the year but has been picking up speed recently. Calvin Johnson has been oddly quiet (for him) lately, but I can't see the Packers containing him without Charles Woodson. My gut feeling is a slow day for the offense, even against the Lions' toothless secondary. Lions 30, Packers 21.
Packers at Giants: Personally, I would love the Packers to score a dominating win against the team that has ended their season twice in the past five years. But just look at the Giants. A dominant defensive line, two superb wide receivers and two very good backups, a solid running back and a top-five quarterback are the headliners on a deep and strong roster. Even if the Packers get some of their walking wounded back soon, I can't see them overtopping the physical, precise Giants just yet, much as it pains me. Giants 35, Packers 34.
Packers vs. Vikings: Off a (predicted) two-game road losing streak, the Packers vent their fury at home on a slumping Vikings team. Adrian Peterson has been otherworldly coming back from an ACL tear, but he only runs up the middle anymore and that's where the Packers are strongest against the run. And I like the secondary's odds against an up-and-down Christian Ponder. Packers 33, Vikings 17.
Packers vs. Lions: The Packers have a home winning streak against the Lions that's older than Randall Cobb, and they're not going to give it up in 2012. The return of Charles Woodson, a great game from Rodgers and a prime-time matchup against a division rival combine to create a serious beating. Packers 42, Lions 20.
Packers at Bears: The Bears' defense is playing out of their minds right now. They have 23 sacks (3rd in NFL), 16 interceptions (t-1st), 11 forced fumbles (2nd) of which they have recovered seven (t-3rd), they're holding opponents to 14.3 points per game (2nd) and 316 yards (6th), and they have six defensive touchdowns (nobody else has more than three). The Bears' accustomed defensive stars--Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers--are all playing amazingly, and slot corner Tim Jennings has joined them (six picks, 13 passes defensed in seven games).
Having said all that, visions of the Packers destroying the Bears' offense in Week 2 are still dancing in my head, and Rodgers has shown he's capable of outplaying Jay Cutler when it counts. This one comes down to an effective running game, whether Alex Green or James Starks or someone else is providing it. I think the Packers squeak out another low-scoring game here, but nobody's playing Cover Two zone defense--the Rodgers-neutralizer--better than the Bears. Packers 20, Bears 14.
Packers vs. Titans: This one should be easy for two reasons: 1) Tennessee is an awful team, and 2) the Packers should be fighting for a playoff spot at this point. Even if they sweep the Bears, and it is very possible they'll split the series, the division will not be a lock at this stage. But either way, look at Tennessee: they lost by 21 to New England, by 28 to San Diego, by 24 to Houston and by 23 to Minnesota. What are the odds they'll put up much of a fight against Green Bay? Packers 40, Titans 23.
Packers at Vikings: This matchup hinges on playoff possibilities. If my predicted 10-5 Green Bay team comes to Minnesota with the division wrapped up or out of reach, or with a wild-card spot in the bag, McCarthy might choose to rest his starters as he did in '07 and '11 and let the Vikings coast (assuming they are out of contention). If the Packers have to fight to get into the playoffs, I like Rodgers over Ponder, the defense over Peterson and Clay Matthews over solid OT Matt Kalil. I think they'll still be fighting in Week 17, and thus I predict a victory. Packers 35, Vikings 24.
That would give Green Bay a 11-5 record and a wild-card playoff spot. My gut says that Chicago will still capture the division even with two losses against Green Bay, that the Lions will challenge for a playoff spot but ultimately fail, and that the Vikings will slump out of contention by mid-December.
Other Packers-related predictions:
-Alex Green will eventually find his way to three yards per carry, but he'll still lose his job to Cedric Benson when the latter comes back from the bye week.
-Davon House will only get better, but no clear starter will emerge at strong safety until Woodson returns.
-The Packers will not find an answer for opponents' zone defenses--keeping two safeties high and limiting the passing game--without an effective running game. They can move Randall Cobb around and throw it to him short all they want, but you have to run the ball in January to win.
-Greg Jennings will be underwhelming even after he returns, overshadowed in a receiving corps that is playing just as well without him as it did with him. The emergence of Cobb and James Jones opens the door for one of the Packers' most popular and successful players over the past six years to walk away.