Experts' Picks (Consensus: first)
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Packers have not won three straight division titles since 2002-04 but are poised to do so again in large part because Aaron Rodgers is in the prime of his career.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 Aaron Rodgers should be even more dangerous now that the Packers have better running options in the backfield. They still will stress the pass, but a balanced Packers team is still the best in this division.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 Aaron Rodgers holds the title as the game's best quarterback, giving Green Bay the best chance to win the division.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Packers need to protect Aaron Rodgers and improve their defense. If they do that, they'll be atop this division once again.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 A solid running game would be a huge boost for the Packers.|
Five things you need to know about the Packers:
1. Commitment to the run: Last season, opposing defenses often sat back in a two-deep safety look and dared the Packers to run, but they still couldn't run with much success. The Packers enter the season with the NFL's longest active streak without a 100-yard rusher in the regular season (43 games). After finishing 20th in the league in rushing yards per game last season, they drafted Eddie Lacy of Alabama in the second round and Johnathan Franklin of UCLA in the fourth with the hope that they can take some of the pressure off the passing game.
2. A new go-to guy: Injuries to Greg Jennings last season forced Rodgers to find a new go-to receiver, Randall Cobb. With Jennings now in Minnesota, expect Cobb to make a run at breaking the 80-catch mark he hit last season. Cobb can play any of the receiver positions and even lines up in the backfield at times, but he does his best work from the slot.
3. Defending the read option: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers dedicated at least a portion of almost every practice this offseason to working against the read-option offense that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick used to knock Green Bay out of the playoffs last season. The number 579 -- the 49ers' total yards in the playoff game -- is burned on the Packers' brains. With games against the 49ers and Washington Redskins to open the season, their work against the read option will be put to the test early.
4. Help for Matthews: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews posted 13 sacks last season despite missing four games because of a hamstring injury, but no other Packers player had more than 4½ sacks. That's part of the reason they drafted defensive end Datone Jones in the first round, but they also hope the return of outside linebacker Nick Perry, their 2012 first-round pick who played in only six games last season, will take some of the double-teams away from Matthews.
5. Friendly schedule: Last season, the Packers were one of only two teams with three straight road games (Houston being the other). This year, although the Packers have the sixth-most difficult schedule in the NFL based on their opponents' records from last season, they do not play consecutive road games all season. Other than back-to-back home games against Chicago in Week 9 and Philadelphia in Week 10, they have a road-home-road-home schedule throughout.
-- Rob Demovsky, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
Bryan Bulaga was slated to start at left tackle for the Packers this season, but a season-ending ACL injury may force fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari to start in his place. If Bakhtiari can't adjust to the NFL game quickly enough, Aaron Rodgers may find himself on the run this season.
In the NFL last season, quarterbacks were either sacked or put under duress on 22.0 percent of their total drop-backs. The Packers were below that average (20.5 percent) in their first nine games, all played with Bulaga. Following Bulaga's season-ending injury in Week 9, however, the Packers allowed pressure on 26.4 percent of their drop-backs.
The increase in pressure occurred even with opponents dialing back on the number of pass-rushers. The Packers faced four or fewer rushers on 72.5 percent of their drop-backs with Bulaga, but that rate increased to 82.5 percent after his injury. For comparison, that rate was the equivalent of the team that used such pressure most frequently last season.
Although Rodgers and the Packers found themselves under more pressure without Bulaga last season, the running game did benefit. The Packers averaged nearly a half a yard more per rush without Bulaga. On rushes to the right -- Bulaga's side last season -- the Packers averaged 3.9 yards with him and 4.4 yards without him.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
LB Clay Matthews (11.4 avg. AV since 2010)
Matthews is one of the most versatile linebackers near the line. He missed four games in 2012 but still was third among linebackers in sacks (13) and had a 73 percent stop rate versus the run (22nd among LBs).
-- Pro Football Reference