A spectacular Week Seventeen of the 2021 NFL season has passed, leaving many unanswered questions for the historic Week Eighteen. It is set to be the NFL’s second Week-Eighteen slate in the history of the entity, after the unrepeated but also unforgettable finish to the 1993 season. Yet, it might be as good a time as any to start looking into what this year’s playoffs have to offer.
The Green Bay Packers have enjoyed immense success in 2021, showing off a league-best 13-3 record. In addition, they are also considered frontrunners to win the Lombardi Trophy, and rightfully so. However, those who state that Matt LaFleur’s squad will face no headaches on the road to California are in denial. Meanwhile, so are those who consider a KC-led AFC bracket a strongly competitive field.
With the National Football League’s second-ever eighteenth week just around the corner, there is just one spot available in the NFC. As of today, Green Bay has guaranteed itself a home-field advantage and a first-round bye. Moreover, the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have also wrapped up titles in their respective divisions. Lastly, the Rams and the Cardinals, still in a clash for the top position in the West, have both punched their tickets to the Show, as have the Eagles.
Currently, the seventh and final berth is in San Francisco’s possession, with the Saints pushing to overtake the Niners. On Sunday, New Orleans needs a victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and for Sean McVay’s side to come out on top at home against the 49ers.
Seemingly, there is very little intrigue in the NFC as compared to the situation on the American side over the league’s Season Finale weekend. To utilize this paragraph as an introduction and transition, lest we forget to mention that many have used that lack of upcoming drama, as well as KC’s vulnerabilities versus the Bengals, as a piece of argumentation to prematurely proclaim the Packers “Conference Champions” and call the AFC bracket the “group of death”.
Upon deeper examination, quite the opposite seems more likely, but more on that will be mentioned later in this article.
Many clubs have apparently been exciting and efficient in the “older” conference in 2021. Arizona began the year with seven straight wins and the Rams have possibly the best QB-WR duo in the league in Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. In the meantime, the Bucs have been convincingly defending their Lombardi, while the Cowboys are showing shades on their last truly successful squad, the 2016 team that lost to GB in the Divisional Round.
However, there has been one team that has consistently proven and earned its title as the Best Team in the NFC, if not in the entire NFL entity. Although the Green Bay Packers entered the campaign with the fourth-toughest strength of schedule (per CBS Sports), most analysists expected them to win between 11 and 13 games, which seems to be the case as the year winds down.
Leading the team on the path to glory, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has once again put on an MVP-worthy performance. Despite being in the top half in passing attempts, Rodgers has the fourth-highest completion percentage amongst qualified passers at 68.6%. Furthermore, the 38-year-old Cali native leads professional football in touchdown percentage (6.8%) while boasting the lowest interception figure (0.8%, or just four INTs). Finally, the Rodgers-led air raid has been so prolific that it has helped the offense jump to 8th in yards per play, in spite of an abysmal running unit that ranks 20th. This 8th place offensively compares favorably and in a balanced ratio with the defensive group, which has allowed the 14th-fewest total yards.
Speaking of the defense, this unit has also held steady this year, despite some notable issues. Despite the club’s glaring woes against the rush (most conceded yards per carry), a serious improvement by the secondary has made up for those shortcomings. The Packers have surrendered the third-fewest net yards per rush (per Pro-Football Reference), the ninth-lowest collective passer rating, and the eight-lowest completion percentage (per NFL.com). Eric Stokes, in particular, is having a tremendous season as the team’s most active corner, facing 94 targets with a passer rating of merely 71.0. Overall, the defense has climbed from 17th to 14th in yards allowed per play.
This avid consistency has ultimately only stabilized the balance within the units of Green Bay’s roster. A balance that is stronger than what many teams have to offer not only in the NFC but in the whole NFL. For instance, the Chiefs’ defense tends to be very inconsistent and has in no way been as effective as the media claims. Also, the Rams’ running game is even worse than GB’s and TB’s defense against the run, which used to be the centerpiece of the unit, has faced a downfall, taking away an advantage the team had over GB.
It is very clear that the AFC has no team like the Packers – but Green Bay’s opponents are no easy task either.
Serious Threats on the Path
Despite being a far better team than both the Titans and the Chiefs, the Packers also clearly have a harder path to SoFi Stadium than whoever ends up as AFC champions. Firstly, there are just two teams in the entire American conference with at least eleven wins. For comparison, four NFC teams, outside of Green Bay, have a record of 11-5 or better.
Secondly, if the Chiefs manage to grab the No.1 spot after all, what awaits is a plethora of inconsistent and out-of-form teams. Tennessee, for instance, has won just three of their last six games after beginning the campaign 8-2. Derrick Henry’s return might be rumored to be a matter of time but the Titans’ real problem has occurred through the air. The air unit has a collective rating in the low-80.0 range. Despite an accurate showing by Ryan Tannehill, turnovers have been a noticeable issue – his TD/Int. ratio is 17-14.
The Titans’ defense has made steady improvements and has more than supported the offense in the quest for a first-round bye. Unfortunately, even if they end up first in the conference, Tennessee might not survive the situational environment of playoff football because of their recent form. The same goes for New England and Buffalo, although the latter club can be more confident being on a three-game winning streak. The Bengals are in the same boat as the Bills, but it seems like it would be difficult for both teams to go through a Wild Card matchup and then defeat the Chiefs at Arrowhead (if KC gets atop AFC).
Without knowing the first-round matchups and the potential lowest seed in the Divisional Round, it is apparent that the Chiefs will be solid favorites in every playoff showdown en route to Super Bowl LVI. However, if Tennessee wins the regular-season crown, then the experts’ anticipations of “playoff deathmatches” could become a reality.
Thirdly, The Rams, the Buccaneers, and the Cowboys all look like much tougher opposition to the top seed than anything in the AFC field. More specifically, Los Angeles has five wins in a row against its name, the defending champs have lost just once in seven games while Dallas has won five of its last eight games. Not only quality but also form is what gives all these teams hopes of competing with the high-flying Packers. In contrast, such strong contenders are absent in the AFC. Yet, as mentioned, the Titans as a top seed could make the race a little closer.
At the end of the day, the Green Bay Packers are, on paper, better than all three of the aforementioned clubs. They might very well still win the NFC. However, their adventure promises to be much more difficult than Kansas City’s, should the reigning two-time AFC champions overtake Tennessee.
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