GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers delivered the only quote that mattered during training camp.
“It’s Titletown,” the Green Bay Packers’ MVP quarterback said. “It’s championship or disappointment just about every year.”
For the past decade, there’s always been next year. Lose in the playoffs after a 15-win regular season? There’s always next year. Single-handedly destroyed by Colin Kaepernick? There’s always next year. Gag away the NFC Championship Game in Seattle? There’s always next year. Miss a hundred tackles on Larry Fitzgerald in overtime? There’s always next year. Get blown off the field with half the lineup out with injuries in the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta? There’s always next year. Get run off the run by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game? There’s always next year. Waste the opportunity of opportunities by losing at home in last year’s NFC Championship Game? There’s always next year.
Obviously, if Jordan Love is the starting quarterback and Allen Lazard the No. 1 receiver, next year could look a lot different than all those other next years.
“We’re going to enjoy this year for all that it has to offer, and each other, and I think that’s the right perspective to have when you get in this situation,” Rodgers said on Wednesday.
Here are 28 things to watch, starting with Sunday’s season-opening game against the New Orleans Saints through why Rodgers will exit Green Bay having put the “title” back in Titletown.
Packers-Saints Keys to the Game
Consider the absurdity of this statistical comparison: Over the last five seasons, Rodgers threw 24 interceptions. Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions with Tampa Bay in 2019, his final season as a starter. Winston will make his starting debut with the Saints on Sunday.
2. No Thomas
Winston will be throwing to a depleted receiver corps. Michael Thomas, who led the NFL in receptions in 2018 and 2019, is on the PUP list following ankle surgery. Third-year player Tre’Quan Smith was ruled out on Friday with a hamstring injury and placed on injured reserve.
Who does that leave? Preseason star Marquez Callaway, kick returner Deonte Harris, receiver-turned-lacrosse player Chris Hogan and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. None of the four were drafted. Callaway had 21 receptions as a rookie last year, Harris has 26 receptions in two seasons, Hogan has 216 receptions in nine seasons and Jordan has three receptions in two seasons. That’s 266 career receptions; Thomas had 274 receptions in 2018 and 2019, highlighted by an NFL-record 149 receptions in 2019.
“This Callaway kind has kind of burst onto the scene,” Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. “I know Mike isn't playing right now but the Callaway kid has proven that he can play.”
3. Good hands with Kamara
When the Packers edged the Saints last season, New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara was unstoppable. He caught 13-of-14 targets in the passing game and finished the night just shy of 200 total yards.
“He can do it all,” safety Adrian Amos said. “He does everything. The reason he’s tough to tackle is because he has that burst. He is powerful. He has great balance, great vision, and he has a burst that you don’t see coming. Everybody knows he’s fast, so I don’t like to say deceptively fast, but it’s a burst where you don’t think he’s about to accelerate and he does. He does a lot of things well like that.”
4. Protecting Winston
A big-time matchup will be Green Bay pass rushers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith (and Za’Darius Smith, if deemed healthy) vs. New Orleans offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. Armstead is one of the best left tackles in the NFL while Ramczyk was a first-round pick in 2017 out of Wisconsin via Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Last season, of 55 offensive tackles with 50 percent playing time, Armstead ranked sixth in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-protecting snap, and Ramczyk was 18th. It could be a long day in the Jacksonville sun for Green Bay’s pass rushers.
5. Protecting Rodgers
With a revamped offensive line, it’s possible the Packers are worse at four of five spots compared to last season. It would be a surprise if Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen didn’t throw the kitchen sink at the rookie duo of center Josh Myers and right guard Royce Newman to stress them mentally and physically.
“It can go so many different ways. They still have to cover a lot of good receivers out there,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “You do get a lot more pressure sometimes, you’ll void zones behind it, which can allow some guys to make plays down the field. I think it’s one of those risk-rewards for anybody. It’s funny looking at last year. They pressured us a lot, more than they ever have. You just have to get the flavor of the day as you move forward and get ready to adjust as the game goes on.”
6. Target practice
The Saints will be down a starter in the secondary with veteran cornerback Ken Crawley out with a hamstring injury. Third-round rookie Paulson Adebo figures to get the call opposite three-time Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore.
“Let’s make sure we all understand that no matter who you are, the best cornerbacks in our league, going up against Aaron Rodgers is no easy task, so certainly that's a challenge,” Allen said. “We've seen (Adebo) perform at a really high level throughout training camp, and so this isn't something where he's out there, where we're doing this by default. He's played really well and every opportunity that he's had, two in the preseason, I thought he performed really well. Hopefully, if he's called on out there to play, he'll do his job and we feel confident that he will be able to do that.”
7. X-factor on offense
For all the talk of Elgton Jenkins making the move to left tackle, it’s the one solid piece on the line, right tackle Billy Turner, who will have the biggest challenge.
Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan has 94 sacks in 10 seasons. Over the last four seasons, his 48 sacks rank second in the NFL. During that span, he is the only NFL defender to record at least 200 tackles, 45 sacks, 60 tackles for losses and 90 quarterback hits. He rushes almost exclusively from the defense’s left side, meaning a big opening test for Turner. He was up to the task last season, allowing merely two pressures out of 34 passing plays, according to Pro Football Focus.
8. X-factor on defense
Kamara sliced and diced the Packers’ linebackers in last year’s matchup. That’s not really a knock on those defenders. He has at least 81 receptions in each of his first four NFL seasons. He paced all running backs with 83 catches last season.
Enter De’Vondre Campbell, the latest fresh face at linebacker. At 6-foot-4, he’s built more for stopping tight ends but his arrival could help limit Kamara.
“He’s a very talented player, can do just about anything,” Campbell said on Friday. “He can catch it out of the backfield, he’s proved that he can be an every-down back, so he’s definitely a challenge. I think the best way to stop him is just to get as many hats to the ball. We’ve just got to swarm and play great team football.”
9. What this game means
Since the NFL went to a divisional format in 1978, 333 Week 1 winners reached the playoffs and 204 won division titles. Meanwhile, only 151 Week 1 losers qualified for the playoffs and 86 won division titles.
Last year, all eight division winners earned Week 1 victories, and 11 of the 14 playoff teams were Kickoff Weekend winners.
Sunday’s game will be one of 10 against teams that reached the playoffs last season, the most in the NFL.
10. Easiest part of schedule
Going on the road isn’t easy but playing at Cincinnati in Week 5, at Chicago in Week 6, hosting Washington in Week 7 and at Arizona on a short week in Week 8 amounts to the easiest stretch of games. And that isn’t easy.
11. Toughest part of schedule
That four-game stretch precedes the toughest four-game stretch. It’s not just opponents but how it’s laid out.
The challenge starts at Kansas City in Week 9 – at least the Packers will get a few extra days to rest and recharge coming off a Thursday in Arizona – Week 10 at home against Seattle (which will be coming off its bye), Week 11 at Minnesota and Week 12 at home against the Rams (which will be coming off their bye). Those four games will be huge headed into their Week 13 bye.
12. Game-by-game picks
at New Orleans, W. Detroit, W. at San Francisco, L. Pittsburgh, W.
at Cincinnati, W. at Chicago, W. Washington, W. at Arizona, W.
at Kansas City, L. Seattle, W. at Minnesota, W. L.A. Rams, L.
Chicago, W. at Baltimore, L. Cleveland, W. Minnesota, W. at Detroit, W.
There you go: 13-4, which will be good enough to win the NFC North. Will it be good enough to win homefield advantage? That’s why this game is so important.
13. Most Valuable Player
Well, duh, that’s Rodgers. I will say that I’ve considered David Bakhtiari to be the team’s second-most important player over the years. That was driven home in last year’s NFC Championship Game. With Turner shifted to left tackle and Rick Wagner inserted at right tackle, Rodgers was sacked five times. There’s no way that would have happened if the Packers had Bakhtiari at left tackle and Turner in his customary spot at right tackle.
With Bakhtiari out of action for at least the first six games and probably the first eight – it’s hard to imagine him being ready for Washington on one week of work, and then it’s a short turnaround for Arizona – Elgton Jenkins holds the mantle of Most Valuable Player Not Named Aaron Rodgers.
“I think it’s just a mentality, a way about him, very easy going,” Rodgers said of his confidence in Jenkins to protect the blind side. “I asked him, I don’t know, maybe a month ago, I said, ‘What do you feel most comfortable at?’ He said, ‘Shoot, it don’t matter.’ I said, ‘No, seriously, like is it left guard maybe?’ He played the most there. He said, ‘Nah, it don’t matter.’ That’s kind of the way he is. He’s just an easy-going guy. He’s played well at every position. He played right tackle for us, left guard and center and now left tackle. He’s a very versatile guy. I’m sure at some point he’s going to maybe focus on one position that might be able to be the most lucrative down the line. I think that’d be smart for a guy of his talent and ability, but he can do it all. He can play left tackle, he can play inside, he can play center. That’s a luxury that doesn’t happen around the league very often.”
14. Most Valuable Rookie
All second-round pick Josh Myers has to do is replace All-Pro center Corey Linsley. Linsley wasn’t just a good player but he was the brains behind the operation up front. Is Myers good enough physically? And is he sharp enough mentally given his lack of experience?
“I try and approach every game the same, even like I did in college, and look at it from every possible angle and make sure I know exactly what I’m going to get when I step out on the field,” Myers said on Wednesday. “That’s the same approach I’m taking now. I’m trying to be as prepared as humanly possible and doing whatever it takes to get to that level of prepared before the game starts.”
Update: Jones Loses Necklace Honoring Father After Second of Four Touchdowns
There was an important update to this story a few hours after Packers running back Aaron Jones completed a four-touchdown performance against Detroit.
15. Breakout performer
After three years of big plays and big inconsistency, Valdes-Scantling appears poised to have a breakout season. And just in time as he enters the fourth and final season of his rookie deal.
Everyone knows he’s a big-play threat. Last season, he led the NFL with 20.9 yards per reception – the top mark in the NFL over the past decade. He led the league with his six receptions of 40-plus yards. Drops, of course, have been an issue. He mostly eliminated that problem during training camp. If that trend continues, he’s going to get a big contract.
“I don’t really care,” he said. “I want to win a Super Bowl. So, that’s kind of the focus. All that other stuff will take care of itself when it’s supposed to. But that’s, eight, nine months from now. To even be having those conversations, who knows what’ll happen by then. I’m not a fortune teller or future speaker. So, I just focus on today.”
Here’s Why the Packers Will Win the Super Bowl
It’s Super Bowl or bust. Do or die. Win or go home. You name the cliché, everybody knows what’s at stake. Here’s why the Packers will overcome that pressure and win their first Super Bowl since 2020.
16. Stars everywhere
This team is loaded. Rodgers is the MVP. Davante Adams might be the best receiver in football. Bakhtiari might be the best offensive lineman in football. Jaire Alexander might be the best cornerback in football. The outside linebacker corps could be dynamic. Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are excellent. Kicker Mason Crosby is Mr. Reliable. And on it goes. There aren’t Pro Bowlers at every position but it’s a depth chart without a killer weakness.
“(Shoot), I get to play with one of the best – honestly, three of the best at their positions,” receiver Allen Lazard said. “You’ve got Aaron, Davante and Bakh. Just to be a part of a team with one of those guys is pretty incredible, let alone three. To be able to have one in my room is even more of a blessing.”
17. Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers is coming off a season in which he joined Steve Young as the only quarterbacks in 80 years to lead the NFL in completion percentage, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. His 121.5 passer rating was the second-best in NFL history, trailing only his 122.5 from his first MVP season of 2011. He has complete mastery of Matt LaFleur’s offense, an overwhelming group of weapons to get the ball and a locked-in focus to maximize this season.
“It’s about finding that muscle memory and those moments to be able to repeat those throws or those pocket movements to get to a platform to make a throw,” Rodgers said late in training camp. “I think that I’ve been accurate. A lot of that is due to my legs, which I talked extensively about last year. But having my legs underneath me has really meant a great deal to my ability to be consistent with my balance and my rhythm and my timing. And when all those things are kind of aligned, that’s when the accuracy comes. I think I’ve been pretty accurate. The other thing that needs probably continued attention is the guys that we’ve got.”
18. Davante Adams
Adams is coming off one of the great seasons in NFL history. He caught 115 passes for 1,374 yards and the 18 touchdowns. He became the only player in NFL history with 110-plus receptions and 18-plus touchdowns. Add in the playoffs, he scored 20 touchdowns over 16 games. Everybody knew where the ball was going; nobody could stop it. And it wasn’t as if the Packers were force-feeding Adams to the detriment of the offense. Passes to Adams were rewarded with a 136.9 passer rating (No. 1) and 78.8 percent completion rate (No. 3). He was voted the best receiver in the NFL by his peers.
“I’ve always believed in myself and knew that I was able to do that,” he said on Wednesday. “In college, I was able to put up monstrous numbers, lead the nation. I always knew it was there. It was just about doing it. Once I was healthy and being able to go actually do it, now it’s like, ‘All right, thank you for the kudos and everything, but this has been happening. The wheel’s been turning up here the whole time.’ So, it’s really not as much of a shock to me, I guess. The positive reinforcement is great, but there’s still a lot more out there that I know I can go do. So, when I get those congratulations, it’s more like, ‘Appreciate it, but just wait till next year.’ That’s the mindset.”
19. Aaron Jones
There are only 11 running backs in NFL history with a career average of at least 5.0 yards per carry. Five of them are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of the other six is Jones, who is coming off back-to-back seasons of 1,000 rushing yards and has emerged as one of the NFL’s top all-around running backs. Defenses that focus on Rodgers do so at their own peril.
20. Robert Tonyan
Tonyan is coming off the ultimate breakout season. After catching a total of 14 passes in 2018 and 2019, he scored 11 touchdowns in 2020. That tied Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce for most amount tight ends.
Tonyan caught 52 passes last season with another eight in the playoffs. That gave him a combined total of 60 receptions – the most for any receiver or tight end in the NFL without a drop, according to Pro Football Focus. No tight end since Dallas’ Jason Witten (77 receptions in 2015) caught more passes than Tonyan without a drop.
“He is a guy that has probably grown as much as anybody we’ve had,” LaFleur said. “He’s a guy that is consistently making catches out there at practice that are quite difficult and he makes it look easy. I’m really happy with his progress and I still think there’s another level out there for him, and he’s going to continue to work at it. I just think Bobby approaches it with the right mentality and he certainly puts the work in and that’s why you see the results. They’re a byproduct of all the hard work he’s put in.”
21. Elite offense
The Packers finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring last season. The key will be the play of the rookie linemen Myers and Newman. So long as they are good enough to start the season and grow throughout the year, and assuming Bakhtiari can return to dominance, this unit will be really humming for the stretch run.
Repeating their ridiculous situational success will be crucial, as well. Last season, they were No. 2 on third down and No. 1 in the red zone, with the 80 percent touchdown rate in the red zone perhaps the best in the NFL history.
“There’s a lot of onus on the guys who are making the bulk of that plan to keep coming with some great ideas,” Rodgers said. “The best thing is we’ve got great communication about the red zone and third down. (Quarterbacks coach Luke) Getsy does a lot of the third-down stuff as far as the initial ideas and Hack does the red zone. I thought they did a really nice job last year of mixing the simple with the schematically creative. It’s a matter of execution, too. We stayed out of a lot of the third-and-long stuff, which are low percentage across the entire league. Red zone just comes down to execution, and when you’ve got two guys that have double-digit touchdowns, it makes it difficult for defenses to try and figure out who they’re going to try and focus on in the red zone.”
22. Jaire Alexander
Alexander was absolutely dominant last season. While he had only one interception, he recorded two in the NFC Championship Game. According to Sports Info Solutions, Alexander gave up a paltry 40.6 percent completion rate for the season, the lowest in the NFL among starters. In his 17 games, he allowed 10 yards or less seven times. The end of the season was a master class on cornerback play. According to PFF, Alexander allowed 1-of-5 passing for 10 yards against Tennessee in Week 16, 3-of-5 passing for 7 yards against Chicago in Week 17, 1-of-3 passing for minus-3 yards in the divisional win over the Rams and 1-of-5 passing for 19 yards and the two picks against Tampa Bay.
He was voted a captain this week.
“I think you just watch how he prepares on a daily basis, the energy he brings out on the practice field,” LaFleur said. “I think what’s unique really about any leader is people have their own way of leading, and Ja is true to himself. I think he does a great job of kind of setting the tone out there for us. And obviously he’s a tremendous football player, but he’s a tremendous person and he’s going to be a great captain for us.”
23. Rashan Gary
For the Packers to take the next step, someone must take the next step in his career. In 2020, that was Tonyan and safety Darnell Savage. In 2021, it’s going to be third-year outside linebacker Rashan Gary.
Gary seems poised for a breakout season after collecting five sacks last year. Combined with the power of Za’Darius Smith (assuming he gets healthy) and the potential of a big bounce-back season for Preston Smith (he had a great camp), the Packers could have a killer pass rush.
“He’s pretty damned good,” outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said of Gary on Thursday. “I’m not going to lie, I just gave me goosebumps just talking about him. It’s just all coming together. Rashan’s (a) guy that it means something to him. Everything. He wants to be the best rusher, he wants to be the best stopping the run and he wants to be the best in the coverage. So, ultimately, he wants to be the best 3-4 linebacker in the NFL. And I love that. He’s a damned good player. Just telling him I can’t wait for this season to roll around. He is a – can’t cuss on here but he’s (expletive) damned good.”
24. Improved defense
There are no excuses on defense. As defensive tackle Kenny Clark put it: “Man, I think we’re a talented group. I think we’re a talented group. We’ve got a lot of great players on our defense. As long as we gel together and play together and play together as a defense, it’s going to reach its full potential. We’ve got more than enough talent on our defense.”
Remember, this is a unit that finished in the top 10 in points allowed in 2019 and top 10 in points allowed in 2020. With Barry lending a fresh perspective, the additions of first-round cornerback Eric Stokes, fifth-round defensive tackle TJ Slaton and the veteran Campbell, this could be a really good group. Cranking up the takeaways will be paramount after finishing a woeful 25th in that department last year.
“You look around at our defense and it’s a bunch of experience,” Alexander said. “It’s a bunch of dogs out there, as I like to say. We’ve got a bunch of dogs out there and, you know, the dogs gotta eat. On Sundays is when we eat. Mondays, Thursdays. If you’re a dog, you’re going to be a dog. If you’re a kitten, you’re going to be a kitten. And I don’t think nobody on our defense is a kitten. Yeah, that’s what I like about our defense.”
25. Matt LaFleur
LaFleur’s decision to kick a field goal late in the NFC Championship Game might wind up part of his football obituary but that’s one moment among a million moments in his two-plus seasons. All LaFleur has done is post back-to-back seasons of 13-3 and runs to the conference title game. Yes, he’s got Rodgers but LaFleur has to get some of the credit for Rodgers’ remarkable 2020 season.
“I’ve seen him continue to grow every single year,” Rodgers said. “Matt is such an interesting person. He’s such a perfectionist, and I can relate to that and have been around some great perfectionists over the years. Jeff Tedford was one at Cal, and he pushed me to be my best. But as perfectionists, we’re also very hard on ourselves. There’s a standard that we’ll never be able to meet. And understanding that in myself and wanting to not hold myself to a standard that doesn’t allow me to enjoy and have satisfaction in what I’ve accomplished, I’ve been trying to help him as much as I can to be a little gentler with himself because he’s such a smart, creative person. And he does a great job in front of the room.”
The big question entering this season isn’t about schematics and play-calling. It’s did he hire the right men to run the defense and special teams? If so, this could be 1996-style dominance.
26. The LaFleur Way
LaFleur’s teams take care of the football. It had a league-low 11 giveaways last season. It won the turnover battle 10 times last season, winning all 10 to extend his regular-season record to a lofty 19-0. Unfortunately, that stat went up in smoke against Tampa Bay.
LaFleur’s teams start fast. Last season, the Packers led the NFL with opening-drive scores and 73 opening-drive points. Incredibly, Rodgers threw nine touchdown passes on opening possessions. Field goal or touchdown, the Colts (10) were the only team to score on more opening possessions.
27. State of the NFC
The Packers were the best team in the NFC last season and there’s no reason why they can’t back that up by getting to the Super Bowl this season.
Repeating as Super Bowl champs is hard. With Tom Brady and every starter back for the Buccaneers, they’re set up to repeat but no team has done it since the Brady-led Patriots in 2003 and 2004. The Rams are a flashy pick with new quarterback Matthew Stafford, but Stafford’s never actually won anything. Is Jimmy Garoppolo or rookie Trey Lance good enough to win for San Francisco? Is Winston good enough to win for New Orleans? Is Russell Wilson still good enough to win for Seattle?
With a star-studded roster, there’s no reason why the Packers can’t finally push through after losing in NFC title games in 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2020.
Packers Are Team of Destiny
OK, let’s be clear. There is no such thing as a “team of destiny.” With that said …
28. The last dance
I’ll admit that part of the reason for picking the Packers to win the championship is the story. You might not like the “Last Dance” analogy because Rodgers isn’t Michael Jordan and Adams isn’t Scottie Pippen from a rings perspective. But the analogy fits in that the Packers have been very good for a very long time. And this might be the end of the line for the core group.
The Packers are about $50 million over next year’s salary cap. The easiest way to dig out of cap hell is to trade Rodgers, not re-sign Adams and cut some big contracts. So, if you don’t like “Last Dance,” we probably can agree on lower case “last dance.”
What a story it would be for Rodgers to walk triumphantly out of Lambeau Field to the cheers of 80,000 fans after winning the NFC Championship Game. What a story it would be for Rodgers and Adams and Marcedes Lewis to win the Super Bowl two weeks later. Now that would be a last dance.
The cool thing is the Packers aren’t running from the reality. Hence, Rodgers’ “championship or disappointment” line. Everyone is aware about the reality of next year.
“Legacy,” is what Adams is playing for. “Super Bowls, man. That’s really what it’s about. I know I’ve said it you guys before, I hold myself to a standard of having a bunch of touchdowns, a bunch of yards and a bunch of catches, because that’s what ultimately leads to us winning games. It’s not David Bakhtiari to go score. He can be as great as he wants, but unless I’m catching that ball and I’m getting in the end zone a bunch of times based off how much I’m relied on in this offense, we won’t be able to get it done unless I am holding myself to that high standard. I’m trying to make the film look good and the rest will take care of itself, Aaron will find me. Hopefully, with me getting across that line a few times and Aaron Jones and the rest of the team doing their jobs, we’ll have the Super Bowl. I just don’t want to leave this game without a ring and hopefully a couple of them.”