Packers exit Week 8 in strong position for NFC's No. 1 seed
The Packers have the inside track for the NFC's top seed following Thursday night's upset of the Cardinals as well as the Buccaneers' surprising loss to the Saints.
The Green Bay Packers' mini-bye has concluded, and the week could not have gone much better for the team. At present, the Packers hold the inside track for the NFC's No. 1 seed following their victory over the Arizona Cardinals as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' loss to the New Orleans Saints. That combination of outcomes puts Green Bay atop the conference standings regardless of how Monday Night Football unfolds.
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With Week 8 nearly complete, which team offers the greatest challenge to the Packers for the NFC's No. 1 seed?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Because of the way the schedule shakes out, the Los Angeles Rams probably have the clearest path to the top seed among the non-Packers teams in the NFC. The Rams already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and have a chance to gain the same advantage over Green Bay in late November. And while Los Angeles technically trails the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West, the two teams will face off on Monday Night Football on Dec. 13. The Rams control where they finish in the conference standings.
But the Rams also can credibly lay claim to the title of the best team in the NFC. Their defense still ranks as one of the league's best, entering Week 8 at No. 4 in DVOA. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford's arrival has pushed the offense to new places in terms of scheme. While many of the trademark elements of Sean McVay's scheme remain — the wide-zone runs, the receiver leaks — Los Angeles has evolved to use more straight dropbacks and empty formations. The efficiency has returned to its highest levels since the team's Super Bowl run in 2018.
A lot can change between now and the kickoff of Week 12's Rams-Packers showdown. However, based on how the season has unfolded so far, that game will have massive ramifications for the entire conference.
Peter Bukowski: The Cowboys. Much like the Packers, they play in a terrible division and are likely to get to that 12 or 13-win threshold. FiveThirtyEight currently projects Green Bay with the best odds to get the one seed though the fourth best chance to actually win the Super Bowl. Their ELO rankings like the Cowboys, Rams, and Buccaneers all better, but that’s not the question.
The other part of this, as Jason notes, is the Packers actually get to play the Rams, at home, in a potential cold-weather game. That division only has good teams and they still have to play the 49ers twice, plus in Arizona and home for a Seahawks team that will have Russell Wilson back by then. They also get the Titans and Ravens out of conference.
If you asked me which team is the scariest for the Packers, the answer is still the Buccaneers, but they’re showing how top-heavy they are and will have an uphill climb to get the one.
What do you view as the Packers' biggest need and who could they realistically acquire before the trade deadline to address it?
JBH: When I wrote about the Packers' potential trade-deadline targets, they still had a healthy No. 1 tight end. Obviously, that changed on Thursday when Robert Tonyan suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Even if Tonyan didn't serve as the traditional "Y" tight end — that remains Marcedes Lewis' role — he lined up virtually everywhere, seeing work as in line (127 snaps), in the slot (93), and out wide (39). Not many players at his position can replicate that skill set, making his loss particularly concerning for Green Bay.
In the short run, the Packers will turn to 2020 third-round pick Josiah Deguara, who saw a season-high 16 offensive snaps, nine of which came in the fourth quarter following Tonyan's injury. But while the coaching staff remains high on Deguara's potential, he fits best into an H-back role with considerable backfield work rather than playing at the line of scrimmage every down.
To that end, the Packers could make a play for New York Giants tight end Evan Engram. While Engram hasn't historically provided much as a blocker, he can do just enough in that area to handle what Matt LaFleur and company would ask of him. More importantly, he can line up in all the different spots Tonyan did.
The Packers' have limited resources available for a trade, but Engram might not stretch them too thin. His contract expires at the end of the season and would only cost Green Bay a prorated amount of his $6 million case salary. The Giants have little to play for in 2021 and could fall to 2-6 if they lose to Kansas City Chiefs later tonight. With Engram unlikely to factor into his team's future, perhaps as little a mid-round draft pick could pry the tight end from New York.
PB: I like Jason’s answer here, but for the sake of having some fun, let’s go with Fletcher Cox. The Eagles beat the daylights out of the Lions this week and they’re only a game out of the 7-seed if the playoffs were today, but this is a young team that’s stuck figuring out how to approach the next year or two with some players like Cox, Brandon Graham and others aging out of their primes on a team nowhere near competing for anything in the NFC Least.
Cox would provide another massive body along the interior to help ease the burden of Kenny Clark. While he’s not the player he once was, Cox can still create interior disruption and bolster a run defense could that could use the bolstering.
What we're hearing/seeing
JBH: Shortly before the start of the season, The Leap reported that Urban Meyer's tenure as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach had already raised concerns around the league regarding his viability. In the months that followed, those issues have come to a boil, with Meyer's off-field behavior and the team's poor performance on the field reinforcing the notion that the long-time college coach might not fit in the pros.
Sunday provided the latest evidence that the Meyer experiment won't work, with the Jaguars losing to the Russell Wilson-less Seattle Seahawks by 24 points despite coming off a bye week. While Meyer has given no indication that he would step down during the season, his willingness to remain in a deteriorating situation — one largely of his own making — in 2022 and beyond remains an open question. If he or Jacksonville decides to sever ties, the team's search for a replacement would likely involve a Packers assistant.
As The Leap said in September, Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett remains well regarded by Jaguars ownership for his four years spent in Jacksonville. In particular, Hackett's work squeezing the most out of Blake Bortles during the team's run to the AFC Championship Game suggests he can build 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence into a top-flight quarterback.
The Packers, of course, have elevated Hackett's stature after back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances as well as LaFleur's praise for the coordinator throughout. Hackett interviewed for the Atlanta Falcons' head-coaching vacancy during the last hiring cycle and should garner more interest in 2022 if Green Bay continues on its current trajectory. Lawrence's presence ensures the Jaguars will have no shortage of applicants if they part with Meyer, but Hackett might have other options as well.
Regardless, the Packers should expect the rest of the NFL to start coming for Hackett and some of LaFleur's top assistants in the not-too-distant future.
PB: The Rasul Douglas signing looks inspired even if it probably should have happened in March. First the good: Not only did Douglas make the game-sealing interception Thursday night, but he has also played excellent football since joining the Packers. Among cornerbacks who have played 100 snaps, Douglas is 20th in grade among cornerbacks right behind Marlon Humphrey and Carlton Davis.
The bad: Had the Packers signed Douglas to a vet-minimum contract last March instead of Kevin King, they probably would have had the cap wiggle room to make the Stephon Gilmore trade work. Each boasted game-sealing interceptions in Week 8, but there’s just a bit of difference in the two overall.
Still, Douglas providing steady play right away brought stability to a position without much given the injuries to Jaire Alexander and King, while the rookie Eric Stokes gets his on-the-job training.
It doesn’t sound like Alexander will be back any time soon, which makes the decision by Brian Gutekunst and the Packers front office to go out and snag Douglas off the Cardinals practice squad even more impactful and raises real questions about who will be the starter in base when Alexander does get healthy.
JBH: Those that have followed the work Peter and I do already know we view football through an analytical lens. So much of what happens on the gridiron can escape detection by traditional scouting, and the numbers can often bring those nuances to the surface.
Analytics provide a tool to understand the sport, and context matters greatly when trying to understand the "how" and "why" of a given game or season. But just as those who only use film can miss important details, so can the analytics community when ignoring context. Case in point: the Packers' upset of the Cardinals on Thursday night.
The Packers traveled to the desert without their top three wide receivers, their All-Pro left tackle, their starting center, their premier pass rusher, their No. 1 cornerback, and their defensive coordinator, all on a short week with virtually no time to adjust. And they still pulled out the victory due in large part to Aaron Rodgers' ability to keep the offense on the tracks. He has certainly played better, but the raw numbers don't come close to capturing the quality of his performance.
The above comments ignore that context as though Thursday's game occurred under normal circumstances. Obviously, it did not, and remarks like those look ludicrous as a result.
PB: If Jason is going to drag some bad analysis, then so am I. The Justin Fields love fest has reached hilarious levels outside reality. For even the banalest plays, Bears fans are ready to hand him the gold jacket. I get it, the standards in Chicago are lower than their quarterback ratings, but get a grip, people.
My armchair psychologizing says this is about people in sports media — because they’re doing it too and not just Bears media — who liked Fields over, say, Zach Wilson, trying to confirm their priors. So nothing is his fault and every minor play is proof of concept.
Case in point: The Big Lead wrote a post with the social headline “Not many quarterbacks can make this throw that Justin Fields made. And as you can see, it’s a really good throw!
But there are 20 NFL quarterbacks who make that throw.
So just for fun I quote tweeted this old Brett Hundley clip making a similar throw and said only Hundley could make this play:
It’s OK to be excited, but we have to be honest and a lot of the Fields play just hasn’t been great, which is also OK because he’s a rookie and most rookies are bad. Every glimmer of hope doesn’t have to be taken out of context to push #thenarrative. Just let the kid play.