NFL Picks: Packers Are Safe Bet to Win NFC North Again as Long as Rodgers Stays Healthy

Matthew Jordan

Thursday, July 23, 2015 8:51 PM GMT

The Green Bay Packers have won the NFC North four straight years for the first time in franchise history (including when it was NFC Central). Can Aaron Rodgers and Co. make it five? We project their exact division result on NFL odds.

Recapping Packers' 2014 Season
Last year, for the second season in a row, Green Bay had to play a winner-take-all game for the NFC North. They won that in Chicago in 2013 as Aaron Rodgers returned from missing half the season with a broken collarbone. The Packers hosted the Detroit Lions, who had the NFL's No. 2 defense, to close out the 2014 regular season. Green Bay won 30-20 despite Rodgers missing a bit of time with a calf injury. His calf seized up as he was scrambling and throwing a 4-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb with 2:24 left in the second quarter. Rodgers got treatment at halftime and missed the first series of the second half, in which the Packers went three-and-out, and returned with the game tied at 14. All Rodgers would do is lead a seven-play, 60-yard TD drive and the Packers wouldn't trail again. Rodgers was 11-for-13 for 129 yards and a touchdown after the injury. Overall, he was 17-for-22 for 226 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers.

Thanks in part to a Week 1 loss in Seattle, the Packers had to go to the Pacific Northwest for the NFC title game. And, boy, should they have won it. Green Bay led 19-7 with a little over two minutes left. Russell Wilson brought it within 19-14 at the 2:07 mark and then disaster struck as Packers tight end Brandon Bostick couldn't handle the ensuing onside kick. Seattle would take the lead on a 24-yard Marshawn Lynch TD run with 1:25 left. Mason Crosby sent the game into OT with a 48-yard field goal with 14 seconds left, but Green Bay never saw the ball in the extra session as the Seattle Seahawks won it on a 35-yard Wilson to Jermaine Kearse TD pass. Just a crushing loss. Bostick will never live that down -- he's gone now.

The Packers were dominant in going 8-0 at home during the regular season. Rodgers won his second NFL MVP Award. He completed 341-for-520 passes (65.6 percent) for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns with just five interceptions. That rating of 112.2 was second in the league, the TDs third and the interceptions were the fewest of any full-time starter.

Eddie Lacy ran for 1,139 yards and eight scores and Rodgers had the best duo of receivers in the NFL in Jordy Nelson (98 catches, 1,519 yard, 13 TDs) and Cobb (91 catches, 1,287  yards, 12 TDs). They became the first receiving duo in NFL history to register 90-plus catches, 1,200-plus receiving yards and 12-plus touchdowns in the same season. It's probably the best quartet of skill-position players in the NFL. Defensively, Green Bay was middle-of-the-pack (no pun intended).

 

Packers' Offseason Moves
The Green Bay Packers almost never make a big free-agent splash, Reggie White years ago notwithstanding. The Packers try to keep their own players and build through the draft. The Packers added no one of note in free agency but re-signed Cobb, offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga and defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion. Cobb was the big one as there were teams ready to throw big money at him. A year after missing 10 games because of a fractured leg, Cobb played in every game and was on the field for nearly 90 percent of the Packers' offensive snaps. Cobb has caught 75.2 percent of his targets since he entered the league in 2011, the highest rate in the NFL among receivers. Bulaga, a right tackle, returned after missing all of the 2013 season because of a knee injury to start all but one game in 2014.

As for Guion, he was suspended three regular-season games this week for an offseason arrest but will appeal. Guion is a projected starter at one of the two defensive end positions in coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. Notable among Green Bay's losses were linebacker A.J. Hawk, cornerback Tramon Williams and backup quarterback Matt Flynn. Either Scott Tolzien or 2015 draft pick Brett Hundley of UCLA will back up Rodgers.

 

Schedule Analysis
Green Bay's schedule is ranked as the 14th toughest in the NFL as its opponents were 136-120 last season for a winning percentage of .531. There are seven games against 2014 playoff teams. Interestingly, the Packers have started 1-2 each of the past three years and that could well happen again.

The Pack open in Chicago, a team they have owned in recent years, and are 5.5-point favorites. But then it's a Sunday night home game against NFC favorite Seattle and a Monday night home game against a good Kansas City team. October begins with a trip to San Francisco, which has had the Packers' number of late, followed by home games vs. St. Louis and San Diego before the bye.

Could Green Bay be 6-0 heading into its Week 8 game at Denver? That could be the only game this season in which the Packers are underdogs. That's followed by a trip to Carolina,  home vs. Detroit and at Minnesota. The Packers will host a Thanksgiving game for the first time since 1923 when they face the Bears and will retire Brett Favre's jersey that night. What an atmosphere that will be.

The season closes out at Detroit (another Thursday game), vs. Dallas, at Oakland, at Arizona and home to Minnesota. Those four straight division games, which begin and end with the Lions, is the first such four-game stretch for Green Bay since 2000.

NFL Free Picks: The Packers have a wins total of 11, with the 'over' a -120 favorite. They are -550 to make the playoffs and +350 not to. Green Bay's NFL odds to win the North are first at -275, second at +250, third at +1600 and last at +3300. I don't see the Packers going unbeaten at home again with that tough schedule. I actually think 11 wins will push. But I'll go 'under,' thinking 10-6 still will be good enough to win the North. This will be a playoff team barring a Rodgers injury.