Living on the edge in Titletown, U.S.A.
Coach Mike McCarthy is flipping through a laminated binder the size and weight of a Denny's menu—his call sheet from last January's cardiac-arresting 26--20 NFC divisional-round loss to the Cardinals. After Aaron Rodgers tied that game with another truth-is-stranger-than-fiction Hail Mary, McCarthy approached his QB. "I'm thinking about going for two," he told Rodgers, whose expression conveyed skepticism. With Randall Cobb injured, the receiving corps was down to graybeard James Jones, second-year man Jared Abbrederis and seventh-round pick Jeff Janis. If Green Bay went for two, those wideouts would have been running a play they'd never practiced. The Pack kicked the extra point and lost in overtime.
Cobb, a huge part of that game plan, had been knocked out early with a bruised lung. "This is the page I wanted to be on," says McCarthy, pointing to a chunk of plays designed for number 18. "And this"—pointing to another—"is the page I had to live on."
On which page will Green Bay spend this season? Much of that will depend on the health of the men running under Rodgers's passes. Cobb is back. So too, it seemed, was Jordy Nelson, Rodgers's most effective deep threat. After a torn right ACL sidelined him for all of 2015, Nelson was on schedule to rejoin the team for training camp. Alas, a self-described "hiccup"—a minor off-season issue with his left knee—resulted in his being placed on the PUP list. Asked about the hiccup, Nelson is pleasant but vague: "We're doing good." No one appears overly concerned, and he's since been cleared to return.
After an injury-plagued sophomore season, No. 3 receiver Davante Adams was healthy and making plays in camp, where bad news about the receivers was offset by good: Janis broke a bone in his right hand just as speedster Ty Montgomery was returning from ankle surgery. A ravaged receiving corps, though, wasn't the only reason the Pack averaged 334.6 yards of total offense last season, 23rd in the league. Running back Eddie Lacy reported for camp looking like a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and never found his mojo. While he appeared more svelte this August, he's still a dozen or so pounds north of 234, the wishful number assigned to him on the roster. But he's moving well, and McCarthy professes to be happy.
He's less pleased with his tight ends, saying, "That's the group we really didn't get enough out of [in 2015]." Which is why GM Ted Thompson dipped a rare toe into the free-agency waters, bringing in 6'5", 254-pound Jared Cook, who immediately became the fastest, most athletic tight end on the roster. Cook underwent foot surgery in early June, but if he mends quickly, if Lacy can return to his '14 form, if Nelson can ditch his hiccups, this club will do serious damage to opposing defenses.
They'd better, goes the thinking among many impatient Cheeseheads. Matched against the vulnerable NFC East and AFC South, Green Bay plays the league's easiest schedule (on paper). Packers fans weren't mollified by a seventh straight playoff appearance. All they know is that they haven't won a Super Bowl in five seasons, and that Rodgers is 32. His window, they fear, is closing. ("I don't see that," says McCarthy. "The way [Rodgers] is playing right now, he's got at least six more years.")
During their run to Super Bowl XLV, Nelson notes, "we won three playoff games on the road and had some very fortunate things happen. A couple of years ago we had some very unfortunate things happen"—namely, a muffed onside kick late in the NFC title game. "You have to play your best football at the right time. And you have to get a little lucky." That, and stay a little healthier.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
For the past year and a half Clay Matthews(left) has been a good soldier and filled the perpetually iffy inside linebacker position in the Packers' defense. There he faced more blocks, took on more coverage assignments and enjoyed less glamour than he would have rushing off the edge. In 2016 he returns to his natural outside spot. But if Green Bay strategizes wisely—and coordinator Dom Capers usually does—then on critical passing downs Matthews will see plenty of action back inside. One of the founding fathers of the venerated zone-blitz, Capers often rushes his linebackers right up the middle. That's the shortest path to the quarterback—and if the pressure doesn't get home, a blitzer can at least obstruct the QB's line of vision. One of Capers's favorite blitzes is Fire X, where two inside 'backers crisscross their blitzes to confuse and re-angle blockers. And Matthews is the most dangerous Fire X blitzer in football.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 11--5
2015 Record: 10--6
SEPT. 11 atJAX
SEPT. 18 atMIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 vs.NYG [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 vs.DAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 20 vs.CHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 atATL
NOV. 6 vs.IND [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 atTEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 20 atWAS
NOV. 28 atPHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 vs.HOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 vs.SEA
DEC. 18 atCHI
DEC. 24 vs.MIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atDET [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER