I’m not talking about the injuries that have plagued the Green Bay Packers thus far, although the return of safety Atari Bigby and left tackle Chad Clifton to the staring lineup can only help, I’m talking about the schedule.
The Packers are about to go into what is shaping up as the easiest portion of their schedule. Take a quick look at the next seven weeks for the Packers, and there isn’t one unwinnable game on the docket, even for an underachieving team with a lot of warts.
The Packers toughest test of those seven weeks will come on November 1, when the Minnesota Vikings come to town. If the Packers can eliminate the penalties, turnovers and breakdowns in the secondary that plagued them against the Vikings in Minneapolis, they can certainly handle them in Lambeau Field.
The Packers next two opponents, the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, have a combined two wins this season. While Detroit can light it up on offense at times, the Lions defense is atrocious. This is not a gimme game like it used to be, but the Packers should beat the Lions. The Browns – well, let’s just say that they’d have a hard time lining up and beating USC on a good day.
After the Vikings game, the Packers travel to winless Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers haven’t been very good on offense or defense this season (think of the St. Louis Rams). The following two weeks will pose tougher tests, but both games are in Lambeau Field and both teams are hit and miss.
On November 15, the Dallas Cowboys come to town, followed on November 22 by the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams have looked alternately decent and terrible.
The Cowboys three wins this season have come over teams with a combined one win – Tampa Bay, Carolina and Kansas City. Dallas showed just how average they were yesterday by going to overtime before beating the winless Chiefs 26-20. If it hadn’t been for a career day by Miles Austin (250 yards, 2 touchdowns), the Cowboys may have lost in regulation. The two teams with winning records that the Cowboys did face this season – Denver and the New York Giants – both resulted in losses.
This isn’t the same Cowboys team of years past. They miss Terrell Owens playmaking ability and suddenly, DeMarcus Ware can’t get to the quarterback (Ware registered his first sack of the season on Sunday).
The 49ers are in a similar spot. After rocketing out of the gate with wins at Arizona and against Seattle, the 49ers fell back to earth against the Minnesota Vikings, suffering a 27-24 loss. After beating up on the winless Rams, the 49ers were worked by the Atlanta Falcons 45-10 on Sunday.
The recipe to beat San Francisco seems to have been established – pass early and often. The 49ers have a fast, aggressive defense built for stopping the run, but the Packers don’t run the ball. Outside of Frank Gore, who will be back from an injury when his team plays the Packers, the 49ers don’t have a true offensive weapon. If the defense can hold Gore in check, the Packers should roll.
Speaking of rolling, the Packers will travel to Detroit for Thanksgiving, where they haven’t lost in recent memory.
It’s very conceivable that the Packers could go on a 6-1 run over the next seven games, leaving them at a favorable 8-3 entering the meat of the schedule. Unless the wheels fall off in the next couple of weeks, the Packers should be favored in each one of these matchups, with the possible exception being the Vikings game. Each game is winnable.
Unfortunately for the Packers, that 6-1 run might be what they need to keep them in playoff contention going into December. The last five weeks of the season is a brutal stretch that includes Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Arizona.
10-6 is a reasonable expectation for a playoff team, this season. The next seven weeks will go a long way towards determining if the Packers are one or not, but the deck looks stacked in their favor.