If you listen to the national-level football pundits, the Packers are headed for greatness. Nine of sixteen ESPN analysts picked the Packers to win the Super Bowl a couple days ago, as did Peter King and New York Times football guru Andy Benoit. Bushels of bloggers, talking heads and sportswriters--including the Journal Sentinel's own Michael Hunt--have tapped the Packers to win a second world championship in three seasons. And as I put it earlier in the year, all that kind of talk gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies.
It's not that Green Bay doesn't have the pieces in place to win again. They have talent on the field; they're incredibly deep at wide receiver, tight end, on the defensive line and at all four linebacker positions. They have the reigning NFL MVP at quarterback, two very solid guards, a steadily improving right tackle, a safety-cum-cornerback who just keeps on going and a respectable special teams unit. They're heading into Year Seven in the same offensive scheme and Year 4 in the same defense, and despite the loss of Joe Philbin, the coaching staff appears as strong as ever.
But even with all that, there are still plenty of things that could derail the season entirely and leave Packer Nation wondering what happened. The best team on paper rarely wins the Super Bowl anymore; the last seven winners have included three wild-card teams and a 9-7 division champ. Only once, in 2009, did true regular-season dominance translate into a Super Bowl win. Even as deep and talented as they are, the Packers could still be derailed by any number of things. Here are my top four obstacles that Green Bay must overcome to win a second Super Bowl in three years.
1. Overconfidence, i.e. winning. This heads my list because I believe it is largely responsible for sinking the Packers last season. The 2010 Packers had nothing given to them; they played two must-win games just to get into the postseason as the lowest seed in the NFC. The 2011 Packers had the division sewn up in Week 13 and played four miserable games down the stretch. how the Packers play best as an underdog. This season, for motivational purposes if nothing else, they need to find a way to bring out their best when it counts most. Overconfidence will sink that goal as surely as it did last year. (I keep thinking of Batman vs. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, specifically the latter's immortal "Victory has defeated you!")
2. Injuries at key positions. Evan Dietrich-Smith is a decent swing center-guard inside, but the Packers have zero depth at offensive tackle. With a schedule filled with lethal edge rushers--Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jason Pierre-Paul, Aldon Smith, Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis spring to mind--the Packers will have absolutely no room for injury. One missed game could be catastrophic if undrafted free agent Don Barclay can't hold up. Ditto safety, ditto-ditto running back, ditto-ditto-ditto quarterback.
3. Another terrible defensive year. On paper, the Packers did everything they could to improve the defense. On the field, it may not work out. For all the expectations placed on them, Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy are still rookies and they will need time to adjust to the NFL. It may be midseason before either of them emerges as a credible pass-rushing threat; it may not happen at all. Tramon Williams appears to be healthy, but the corner spot opposite him is filled with holes; Jarrett Bush is physical but can't cover well, Casey Hayward can cover well but has speed limitations and is a rookie, Sam Shields can cover and is faster than wind but didn't tackle last year, and Davon House is everything but wrecked his shoulder three weeks ago. Strong safety is still a weakness and Desmond Bishop is out for the year. There is plenty of room for pessimism here.
4. A really tough schedule. The opening six games are no picnic. San Francisco and Chicago at home, Seattle on the road at hellish Qwest Field, then New Orleans at home again. The Packers have a break with the woeful Colts before heading to Houston to play the Texans. That is not an easy lineup; Green Bay could easily go 3-3 or 4-2 against it. After a four-week bye (one real bye, three games against St. Louis, Arizona and Jacksonville), the stretch run goes Lions, Giants, Vikings, Lions, Bears. I don't care what the strength-of-schedule says. To win the division, the Packers will be in a three-way dogfight with Detroit and Chicago until at least Week 16.
So where does that leave us? Are the Packers headed for the Big Game after all, even with everything they'll need to overcome?
That's up to Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, Charles Woodson and the other leaders on this team. It's up to the will of the injury gods. It's up to the coaches to outscheme and the players to outperform the guys on the other side of the field. Last year, Green Bay didn't have to pass through the crucible. This year, whether they win the division or sneak in as a wild-card, the Packers will be tested again and again by two very good teams in their own division. I think that the difficult path they'll walk will be good for the team; I think it can provide that spark, strip away any lingering sense of entitlement and bring out their best when their best is needed most. I believe they can rise to the occasion and meet the challenges with which they'll be presented. The story of the next six months will be whether they do.