With 10 games remaining on their schedule, of course it's way premature and patently ridiculous to start speculating on the Green Bay Packers' chances to go through the regular season a perfect 16-0. And of course we're going to do it anyway. Premature speculation comes with the job when you cover the NFL these days.
Detroit's loss at home to the 49ers and Green Bay's 24-3 conquest of the visiting Rams left the 6-0 Packers as the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team this season, which at least makes for nice symmetry given that Mike McCarthy's guys are the defending Super Bowl champions. It's worth noting the 2007 Patriots and 2009 Colts didn't have that bit of mojo in their favor when they made their recent runs at perfection, nor did the 1972 Dolphins of 17-0 fame for that matter.
Remarkably enough given their long and storied franchise history, this is Green Bay's first 6-0 start since the 1965 season, the year before the Super Bowl era opened and also the last time the Packers were the NFL's last undefeated. But that record has always been a harbinger of ultimate success for the Packers, because all previous six times they've accomplished it, they've gone on to win the league championship that season (1929, 1930, 1931, 1944, 1962 and 1965).
Assessing the Packers' chances to run the table this season from the vantage point of mid-October doesn't seem quite so absurd when you consider they haven't lost a meaningful game since Week 15 of 2010, that Sunday night showdown in New England where the Patriots were fortunate to escape with a 31-27 victory against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers. Green Bay's 12-game winning streak (including playoffs) ties the longest streak in team history (set in 1961-62), no small feat for a franchise that boasts the coaching eras of Lambeau, Lombardi and Holmgren.
In the preseason I picked Green Bay to defend its Super Bowl title and earn a second consecutive ring, but chasing a perfect season in the process obviously would add an exponential degree of difficulty to the task. And that's before we even know if Green Bay would go for it, chasing history in the mode of the '07 Patriots, or shying away from perfection in late December like the '09 Colts. As you no doubt recall, neither story ended particularly well.
But here goes, a week-by-week assessment of the Packers' 10 remaining regular season games, broken down into the pros and cons of each particular situation: Why they will win one; and Why they might lose one. In a season in which Green Bay so far appears to be the league's clear-cut dominant team, the Packers' march to 16-0 might be the only real drama that 2011 produces.
Why they will win this one: Once upon a time not all that long ago, the Metrodome was the Packers' Teflon-coated house of horrors, but not any more. Green Bay has won three of its past five games in Minnesota, including last year's 31-3 destruction of the Vikings in Week 11. If anything, this year's trip to the dome by Green Bay shapes up even more ominously for Minnesota, which is 1-5, coming off its worst performance of the season in that 39-10 loss at Chicago on Sunday night, and contemplating a quarterback change from veteran Donovan McNabb to rookie Christian Ponder. The Bears beat the visiting Vikings by 29 points, and the Packers beat the Bears in Soldier Field by 10, so theoretically a 39-point beatdown is in store for Minnesota on Sunday afternoon.
Why they might lose this one: If the Vikings do pull the plug on their short-lived McNabb era and give Ponder his first career start, you never know what kind of spark it might supply to Minnesota's demoralized roster. And don't forget, the Vikings haven't played all that badly at home, building halftime leads of 17-0 and 20-0 against Tampa Bay and Detroit, respectively, before falling apart in the second half, and pounding Arizona 34-10, from start to finish.
Why they will win this one: Of course the Chargers have Philip Rivers and a formidable offense and can rack up points with any team in the league. But the reality is San Diego ranks only 13th in the NFL in points per game so far, at 24.0. The Packers are tops in the league in that department, at 32.8, and have won their six games by an average margin of almost two touchdowns (13.8). And I like Green Bay even more considering it is coming off its bye and has two weeks to prepare for the Chargers, who will face a short work week leading into their game against the Packers after playing at Kansas City the previous Monday night. This will be one of Green Bay's toughest challenges all season, but having the bye week break up this two-game road trip helps mitigate the difficulty.
Why they might lose this one: The Chargers are off to a hot start for a change at 4-1, and they're always that much tougher at home. No matter what happens with San Diego between now and Week 9, the Chargers will enter the Packers game 3-0 at Qualcomm Stadium this season, and they're 7-1 at home from Week 8 of last year on. And did we mention that anyone having anything to do with Green Bay has hated Qualcomm ever since the heavily favored Packers lost a Super Bowl there against Denver in January 1998?
Why they will win this one: By the time they hit the not-yet-frozen-tundra (at least I don't think) of Lambeau Field for this Monday night matchup against the Vikings, it will have been just two days shy of a month since the Packers played at home. They should be primed and ready for their third NFC North game of the season. The Vikings will no doubt have installed Ponder at quarterback by this point, and maybe he'll have his feet wet and be playing well by mid-November. But getting his first chance to experience Lambeau will still pose a significant hurdle to overcome.
Why they might lose this one: A win over Minnesota at Lambeau in Week 7 of last year started the Packers' current eight-game home winning streak, so maybe there's a case to be made for a Vikings' upset ending it, as a bookend of sorts. Green Bay has lost just one division home game in the four seasons since Rodgers took over as the team's starter in 2008, so perhaps the law of averages say the Packers are due. That lone loss? It came against Minnesota, in Brett Favre's wildly anticipated Lambeau homecoming in November 2009.
Why they will win this one: Six of Green Bay's final 10 games this season come against teams that currently have winning records, but that's OK, because the Packers usually rise to the occasion in that situation. Green Bay hasn't lost a game that Rodgers started against a winning team since Week 12 of last year, losing 20-17 at Atlanta. And the Packers have more than made up for that failure, beating the Falcons twice on the road since that late November loss. The Bucs have talent, but six of their first eight quarters on the road so far this season have been dreadful. They trailed 17-0 at halftime in Minnesota in Week 2 (before rallying to a 24-20 win), and got lambasted at San Francisco 48-3 in Week 5.
Why they might lose this one: Since Tampa Bay opened the Raheem Morris coaching era by going 1-12 to start the season in 2009, the Bucs have been 16-9 in their past 25 games, a .640 winning percentage. Included in that mark is a sterling 9-3 record on the road, proving that Tampa Bay doesn't wilt when it leaves the Florida heat. The Bucs have won the past two seasons in New Orleans, and they have proven they can hang around in games against superior teams, knocking them off with regularity.
Why they will win this one: No one in Green Bay is under any illusions about the Packers' Thanksgiving Day showdown in Detroit. It shapes up as what should be the toughest test of the regular season. Even though it won't be the matchup of 10-0 teams that we thought we might see, the Lions still figure to be breathing down the Packers' necks by the time this rare holiday football feast gets served up. But Green Bay has a little motivation, too, given the Packers haven't seen the Lions since losing 7-3 in Detroit in Week 14 of last season, a game in which Rodgers was knocked out of with a concussion in the second quarter. The Packers won't be looking past the Lions this time. They'll be looking for payback.
Why they might lose this one: Because the Lions are pretty darn good, that's why. They beat the Packers last year at Ford Field with Drew Stanton playing quarterback, so Matthew Stafford figures to be a significant upgrade. That Lions upset win started Detroit on what eventually became a nine-game regular season winning streak, and it helped change the dynamic of Jim Schwartz's club from the perennial losers they were in the last decade to the playoff contenders they are in 2011.
Why they will win this one: From everything I know about Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers, my hunch is the Packers will go for 16-0 if they get past the Lions and improve to 11-0. That makes this road game against the Giants where we really start to see Green Bay's commitment level to the pursuit of the perfect season. But with a Super Bowl ring already under their belts, why wouldn't the Packers go for such a unique slice of NFL history (which 19-0 would represent)? New York presents another difficult place to play, but as we've seen so far this season, the Giants can be thrown against (Washington's Rex Grossman had 305 yards passing, the Rams' Sam Bradford had 331, and Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst combined for 315). That should lead to some eye-opening production for Rodgers and Green Bay's multi-faceted passing game.
Why they might lose this one: The Giants are perhaps the NFL's streakiest team, and they can rise up and put on a superb performance when we least expect it. And how do you entirely dismiss the history Tom Coughlin's team has when it comes to facing down perfection? In 2007, the Giants nearly ended New England's perfect season with that Week 17 classic at the Meadowlands, and then five weeks later, New York got the job done with that mind-boggling Super Bowl upset of the Patriots in Arizona. We just might hear plenty about that game for the ages leading up to Green Bay-New York in Week 13.
Why they will win this one: The Raiders love to run the rock, and they can gouge people on the ground with a No. 2-ranked running game that averages 160 yards per game. Just ask the Jets how much damage Oakland can do to a proud and usually productive 3-4 defense. But Green Bay's rush defense has been a strength this season, with the 5th-ranked Packers giving up just 84 yards per game, so that helps negate the Raiders' best plan of attack. With Oakland now having quarterback issues in the wake of Jason Campbell's broken collarbone, it's tougher for me to imagine the Raiders coming into Lambeau and throwing effectively enough to out-score Rodgers and Co.
Why they might lose this one: The Raiders have grown in their resiliency in the past two seasons, winning five of their most recent eight road games dating to midseason of last year. And who knows, maybe the acquisition of quarterback Carson Palmer will be the godsend that Oakland just paid for. They will not be intimidated by the atmosphere at Lambeau Field, and Hue Jackson's team is already 2-1 on the road this season, losing only narrowly at Buffalo in that improbable Bills' comeback win in Week 2. The Raiders have grown a backbone, and this is around the time when the Packers will start getting every opponent's absolute best shot.
Why they will win this one: Though the Chiefs have shown some signs of life of late, winning two in a row after their dismal 0-3 start, I don't see Todd Haley's team staying in contention in the AFC West all season long. Green Bay simply has more offensive firepower than Kansas City can match, and it will provide the difference in this game. To wit: In passing for three touchdowns, 310 yards and a 119.6 rating against the Rams on Sunday, Rodgers became the first player in NFL history with a 110-plus passer rating in each of his first six games to start a season. That marks the third year in a row that Rodgers has had at least six such games, tying Steve Young's league record (1992-94) from 1970 on.
Why they might lose this one: This will be the Chiefs' Super Bowl, and that alone makes them dangerous. With Kansas City long since out of the playoff chase, and perhaps Haley's job in jeopardy by this point, the Chiefs will be a desperate team led by a coach who might have little left to lose. Sorry, but that's the best winning scenario I've got for K.C. in this one. I considered making it all about the Chiefs getting revenge on the Packers for Super Bowl I, but I couldn't talk myself into it.
Why they will win this one: The Packers will continue their holiday-laden schedule by playing host to the Bears on Christmas night at Lambeau, with the rest of the league having the day off. The Chicago-Green Bay traditional rivalry is unmatched in the NFL, but lately the real tradition has been a Packers win. And that trend will continue, giving Green Bay a fourth consecutive victory over the Bears in the same calendar year. How can that happen? Here's how: The Packers won 10-3 against the Bears at Lambeau in Week 17 of last season, on Jan. 2; Green Bay won again in the rematch in Chicago in the NFC title game, 21-14, on Jan. 23; and then was victorious a third time against the Bears in Week 3 of this season, 27-17. All that's left will be this Week 16 meeting, with Chicago likely in the role of late-season spoiler by then.
Why they might lose this one: Did you notice the margins in those three recent Packers-Bears games? Seven points, seven points, and 10 points. The Bears just play Green Bay tough, no matter where or when they meet. And if Chicago does indeed have nothing to play for but pride, what would boost the Bears' sense of self-worth more than beating their arch-rivals on the road to ruin the Packers' chance at perfection? Lovie Smith might just get another contract extension out of that one.
Why they will win this one: With the perfect season on the line, and only the Lions standing in the way of Green Bay joining the '07 Patriots among the ranks of 16-0 teams, the Packers will pull out all the stops and take their rest the following week when they get their well-deserved first-round playoff bye. The sense of history runs deep in Green Bay, and there won't be any Colts-like easing off the gas pedal from the Packers. The Lions may well need the game for their own playoff push or wild-card seeding preferences, but that'll just make victory all the sweeter for McCarthy and his players, who will come around to seeing back-to-back Super Bowl titles, with a perfect season as the nitecap, as a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment that forever cements their NFL legacies.
Why they might lose this one: Having lost at home to the Packers on Thanksgiving, the Lions would love nothing more than laying waste to Green Bay's dreams of perfection on New Year's Day at Lambeau. The Lions have that fearsome defensive front that could make for a very long game for Rodgers and Co., and the pressure of playing with so much at stake could get to the Packers, the way we saw it nearly get to Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots in Week 17 of 2007. Detroit might be playing for its season, and its first trip to the playoffs since 1999, and when it comes to motivation that might well trump the long-since-postseason-bound Packers taking their best shot at history.