For the Green Bay Packers, division championships and playoff berths are nice. However, as long as Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews are in the primes of their careers, every year is Super Bowl or bust.
The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 and were the favorites to get back to the Super Bowl in 2011 and 2012. The Packers enter 2013 flying well under the radar. The 49ers are the flavor of the day, as are the Seahawks. The Falcons finally won a playoff game. Sean Payton is back with the Saints and Robert Griffin III is making a rapid comeback after leading Washington's resurgence as a rookie last year.
If I were a betting man – which I'm not, since I'd rather donate my money to the MS Society than a Las Vegas bookie or Bovada – I wouldn't put down much money on the Packers, either. There are just too many questions.
Is Mike McCarthy a genius for his "Extreme Makeover: Offensive Line Edition," or was it akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic?
Can Nick Perry be an impact player at outside linebacker?
Can Datone Jones be an impact rookie at defensive end?
Is there a real safety opposite Morgan Burnett?
Is there enough athleticism and are the proper adjustments in place to stop running quarterbacks?
Can Jermichael Finley catch?
Can Mason Crosby hit a 45-yard field goal with the game on the line?
Can Jeremy Ross be trusted to field kicks?
That's a lot of questions, obviously, but it's not like the 49ers, Seahawks and Falcons are flawless juggernauts.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran circles around the Packers in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons, so preoccupied with Kaepernick, forgot about Frank Gore in the NFC Championship. But that was then; this is now. Defensive coordinators like Dom Capers have had all offseason to plot and scheme up ways to stop the read-option and pistol formation. Remember, Rodgers and the Packers' offense looked unstoppable during a record-setting 2011. Defenses adjusted, and the Packers wound up scoring 127 fewer points in 2012. Michael Crabtree's torn Achilles is a major blow to the offense, and losing safety Dashon Goldson puts a chink in the defensive armor.
As with Kaepernick, defensive coordinators have had the offseason to pick apart Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. As with the 49ers, the defense is outstanding – and looks better with the offseason additions of Antoine Winfield, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. But any offensive line with Breno Giacomini starting at right tackle is a sore spot, counting on Percy Harvin is a dicey proposition and a four-game suspension to Bruce Irvin is another strike against the organization.
The Falcons could wind up being the 2011 Packers: Great offense, no defense, no chance for a championship. The Falcons had the fifth-fewest sacks in the league last season with 29. Osi Umenyiora might be an upgrade over John Abraham, but not by much. They've gotten rid of two of their top three cornerbacks and will count on rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
The NFC pecking order entering training camp looks like Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and Atlanta, with the Giants, Saints and Redskins (all defense-impaired) the closest pursuers. The Vikings made the playoffs and added Desmond Bishop and Greg Jennings, the Bears are an unknown with a new coaching staff and the Lions have talent. No matter how you rank them today, that order surely will look different in September, October, November and, most importantly, the end of December and into the new year. Change is constant, injuries happen and the only thing that's expected is the unexpected.
The Injury Bug owes the Packers some favors. Rodgers is Rodgers, Matthews is Matthews, and Randall Cobb and Hayward are young stars. A new-look running game gives the offense options, the league's fourth-ranked pass rush should be improved, and the Packers know how to win the takeaway-giveaway battle. Yes, the Packers have questions. They also have the potential to find all the right answers.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.