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Five reasons why the Packers could be a sleeper to reach Super Bowl

Looking for a promising Super Bowl dark horse in a season dominated by the Vikings, Colts and Saints?

Look no further than the banks of the Fox River in Green Bay, where the former Acme Packing Co. is a relatively quiet 8-4.

If the season ended today, the Packers would be in the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the top-heavy NFC. Whether they will win the Super Bowl remains to be seen. But they definitely can win the Super Bowl. In fact, we like their chances.

Green Bay has been one of the great statistical anomalies all season -- it has put up great performances in many of our Quality Stats, normally reliable indicators of onfield success.

Yet the Packers have struggled on the border of mediocrity for much of the season. Exactly one month ago, Green Bay was just 4-4 after suffering a humiliating 38-28 loss in Tampa, the only victory of the year for the Buccaneers.

But the loss appears to have been a wake-up call as bracing as the icy waters of the upper Michigan. Green Bay rolled over the Cowboys the following week and has won four straight. The Packers finish the season with three of their final four games on the road, including trips to face each of last year's Super Bowl contenders. So the road ahead is not easy. But an 11-5 record and a playoff appearance is well within reach.

If the Packers do reach the postseason, they'll be a tough out. In fact, here are five very good reasons Green Bay could unexpectedly reclaim its rightful place as TitleTown in the 2009 postseason.

1. The quarterback -- You can win in January without a running game. You can win in January without a shutdown cornerback. You can win in January without a big-time wide receiver.

But you can't win in January without strong play at quarterback. And Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers has been one of the most effective passers in the NFL all year. He's third with 8.1 yards per pass attempt. He's among the best in football with a 25-7 TD-INT ratio (one of his picks Monday night went off the hands of his own receiver) and he's fourth in the NFL with a 103.3 passer rating -- a better number than anything Brett Favre put up during his days at Lambeau.

The sack situation has also improved dramatically in recent weeks: Rodgers has still been taken down more than any other quarterback this year (45 times), but he's been sacked just four times in the past three weeks.

Most interestingly, Rodgers is the top-rated cold-weather quarterback in the NFL this year, trailing only domers Drew Brees (111.3) and Favre (108.5) and San Diego signal man Philip Rivers (104.9), who can take a dip in the Pacific after each January defeat.

As Rodgers showed Monday night, he can play well outdoors on a chilly evening, so he might just find the cozy confines of the New Orleans or Minnesota dome a welcome, stat-fattening change of pace in the postseason.

2. Victory in the passing battle -- It's one thing to pass well on offense. But the best teams in January win the passing battle on both sides of the ball. And right now, the Packers are among the very best in football when it comes time to win the passing battle -- the only battle in football that matters.

In fact, Green Bay is dominating the passing battle right now, with a +35.4 advantage in Passer Rating Differential. Only the mighty Saints are better (+48.6) and the Packers enjoy a comfortable advantage over the No. 3 team on the list, Indianapolis (+25.1).

The Vikings smoked the Packers twice this year by winning the passing battle, and they'll be favorites again should the two meet in January. But as we saw this Sunday in their loss to the Cardinals, the Vikings are very vulnerable on pass defense and it's reasonable to expect that Green Bay could finally exploit that weakness (24th in Defensive Passer Rating) in a third meeting of the season.

Bottom line: superior play in the passing game usually spells victory, and right now only the Saints are winning the passing battles more convincingly than the Packers.

3. No need for the bye -- Pigskin pundits insist on the inherent advantages of the playoff bye each and every winter, no matter how much evidence stacks up against their argument. On paper their conventional wisdom makes sense: you get a week to rest and it's one less game you need to win to reach the Super Bowl.

But since the NFL went to its new alignment in 2002, the bye week has lost its value. Three of the past four Super Bowl champions all played on wild-card weekend and you have to go all the way back to the 2003 Patriots to find a No. 1 seed that went on to win the Super Bowl.

Two recent Super Bowl champions, the 2005 Steelers and the 2007 Giants, did not play a single postseason game at home.

If the season ended today, the Packers would have to play all its postseason games on the road, but would open with a very winnable contest at Arizona. In fact, the two clubs could play two weeks in a row: Green Bay travels to Arizona for the season finale Jan. 3.

4. The myth of the dome -- The "advantage of the dome" is another common theme among the pigskin punditry each year. This year, we enter the stretch run with three dominant dome teams: the 12-0 Colts, the 12-0 Saints and the 10-2 Vikings. So, more than ever before, you'll hear a ceaseless string of pabulum this year about certain teams being "built for the dome" to the point you'll want to vomit on the ignorance.

The truth, however, is dome teams do not enjoy an advantage over other teams. In fact, dome teams suffer an obvious disadvantage in the playoffs -- at least, you know, if you actually look at the evidence and not the mythology.

Home teams have won nearly 70 percent of every playoff game since the merger (232-108; .682). But dome teams actually underperform at home (25-15; .600). This year's dome powers, meanwhile, have been three of the worst home playoff teams in football, despite the alleged advantages of the dome.

• The Vikings were a perennial conference champion when playing outdoors. But they've gone just 5-4 at home since moving into the Metrodome and have never returned to the Super Bowl.

• The Saints are one of the least successful playoff teams in football and have gone just 2-3 at the Superdome in the postseason.

• The Colts are 4-3 at home in the playoffs since moving indoors and their postseason failures are legendary.

These teams are all better than Green Bay right now. But playing at home in a dome does not give them an extra advantage. If anything, the dome is a handicap: it seems that outdoor teams prosper when they move out of the elements and into the cozy, climate-controlled comfort of a dome.

5. The Defensive Hogs -- Loyal Cold, Hard Football Facts readers know about the importance of defensive hogs. Teams that top the Defensive Hog Index do a lot of things well: They stop the run. They put pressure on the quarterback. And they get off the field on third down.

Given those capabilities, it's no surprise that the better teams in our Defensive Hog Index are an amazing 20-2 in the playoffs since we created the indicator in 2007, while the No. 1 team in DHI has gone on to win the Super Bowl both seasons (2007 Giants, 2008 Steelers).

And, right now, in the wake of their Monday night win, the Packers are No. 1 in the Defensive Hog Index (tied with Philadelphia). That's a very positive indicator of future success.

The Green Bay defense is just 12th in scoring (19.1 PPG). But it looks built for the playoffs: it's No. 3 against the run (3.58 YPA), No. 3 at forcing opponents into Negative Pass Plays (11.3 percent of dropbacks end in a sack or INT) and No. 6 in third down (stopping opponents on 65.6% of attempts).

The Ravens got a good look at the effectiveness of Green Bay's Defensive Hogs Monday night: Baltimore suffered six Negative Pass Plays on 39 dropbacks (15.4 percent) and was held to just 66 rushing yards on 21 attempts (3.1 YPA), though it did convert nearly half its third downs (6 of 13).

None of this means the Packers will be favorites to reach the Super Bowl. None of this means they'll even make the playoffs. There's still a lot of football to be played. But it does mean this: the Packers do a lot of things that usually lead to postseason success quite well and they will boast key advantages against almost any opponent in January.

So don't bet against the Acme Packing Co. just yet.

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