Season Preview: Breaking down the schedule

It's a ritual. Every year when the schedule comes out, you look at it, break it down, and guess the final record. Those guesses hardly ever come true, however, because the only thing that's predictable in the NFL is its unpredictability. In the modern NFL, good teams fall and bad teams rise.

For what it's worth, the Packers are tied with Baltimore for the 13th hardest schedule in the league, with a combined opponents record of 130-126. Green Bay faces eight teams that finished better than .500 and six teams that reached the playoffs.

Whatever. None of that matters. Here's this year's schedule. All times are Central.

WEEK 1: AT CAROLINA, 8 P.M. MONDAY, SEPT. 13

A stern test to start the season with a game at the defending NFC champions. Had the Packers stopped the Eagles on fourth-and-26 (or had the Packers gone for it and converted on fourth-and-one or had Josh Bidwell punted the ball inside the 10 instead of kicking a touchback), then Green Bay would have played at Carolina for the NFC championship.

Key matchup: The Packers' stellar offensive line against Carolina's stellar defensive line.

History: Packers are 7-2 all-time against Carolina, including 4-1 away from Lambeau.

WEEK 2: HOME VS. CHICAGO, NOON SUNDAY, SEPT. 19

This is Green Bay's first taste of the Lovie Smith-led Bears. Smith's Rams defenses gave the Packers fits, and this Bears defense has the makings of being superb with rookie defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson lining up in front of standout linebacker Brian Urlacher. Probably not this year, though.

Key matchup: The Packers' blitzes vs. young Bears QB Rex Grossman.

History: Packers are 78-83-7 all-time against Chicago. Packers have won last seven in series, though.

WEEK 3: AT INDIANAPOLIS, 3:15 P.M. SUNDAY, SEPT. 26

Does it get any better than Brett Favre facing Peyton Manning? Favre was the NFL's best quarterback and Manning may be the NFL's best quarterback. Colts reached the AFC championship last season while the Packers should have reached the NFC championship.

Key matchup: The Packers' CBs against the Colts' WRs.

History: Series is tied 20-20-1. Packers are 8-12-1 when visiting Baltimore or Indianapolis. Last time at Indy, in 1997, the Packers lost to the 0-10 Colts 41-38.

WEEK 4: HOME VS. N.Y. GIANTS, NOON SUNDAY, OCT. 3

On paper, this is one of easier games of the season. The Giants were one of the league's worst teams last season, allowing them the chance to trade for Eli Manning. Could the Packers play the Manning brothers in back-to-back weeks, or will Kurt Warner remain the Giants' QB?

Key matchup: Packers RT Mark Tauscher vs. Giants LDE Michael Strahan.

History: Packers lead the series 29-21-2. Amazingly, only 12 of those games have been played in Green Bay. Packers won 14-6 in Giants' last Lambeau visit, in 1995.

WEEK 5: HOME VS. TENNESSEE, 8 P.M. MONDAY, OCT. 11

Let's hope the preseason meant nothing, because the Packers were handled by Tennessee. Brett Favre threw two interceptions in that game. The Titans have the type of physical defense that has spelled trouble for the Packers.

Key matchup: Former three-time MVP Favre vs. defending co-MVP Steve McNair.

History: In only matchup against the Titans, the Packers lost 26-20 on Dec. 16, 2001.

WEEK 6: AT DETROIT, NOON SUNDAY, OCT. 17

The Lions are a trendy pick to be a team that comes out of nowhere to contend for the playoffs. Third-year quarterback Joey Harrington finally has weapons, with second-year Charles Rogers, rookie first-round pick Roy Williams and free-agent Tai Streets at receiver and rookie first-round pick Kevin Jones at running back.

Key matchup: Packers DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila vs. Lions LT Jeff Backus.

History: Packers lead 76-61-6 but are just 3-7 in last 10 games in Detroit.

WEEK 7: HOME VS. DALLAS, 3:15 P.M. SUNDAY, OCT. 24

With Quincy Carter jettisoned, ageless (or ancient) Vinny Testaverde is the Cowboys' starting quarterback. Cowboys aren't the most talented team in the league, but with Bill Parcells' coaching, they are a formidable foe. Dallas' defense led the league last season.

Key matchup: Packers LT Chad Clifton and LG Marco Rivera vs. Cowboys RDE Greg Ellis and RDT La'Roi Glover.

History: Everyone knows the playoff history between the teams, with the Troy Aikman- and Emmitt Smith-led Cowboys knocking out the Packers three straight postseasons. Dallas leads the series 14-11. Packers have played Dallas in Green Bay just once in the last dozen years, with the Packers earning a satisfying rout, 45-17, in 1997.

WEEK 8: AT WASHINGTON, NOON SUNDAY, OCT. 31

On paper, this should be an easy win, but new Redskins coach Joe Gibbs changes everything. Gibbs has been out of football for about a decade. Does he still have it? He has the respect of his team, which couldn't be said of Steve Spurrier.

Key matchup: Packers RB Ahman Green vs. Redskins LB Lavar Arrington.

History: Packers lead series 15-13-1, including victories in 2001 and 2002.

BYE

WEEK 10: HOME VS. MINNESOTA, 3:15 P.M. SUNDAY, NOV. 14

Forget the Bears. Minnesota is Green Bay's biggest rival. Many experts say this is the year the Vikings pass Green Bay in the NFC North. If not for a miracle finish in Arizona last season, the Vikings would have won the division.

Key matchup: Packers OL Marco Rivera, Mike Flanagan and Mike Wahle vs. Vikings DTs Kevin Williams and Chris Hovan.

History: Series is tied 42-42-1. Teams have alternated wins in last seven meetings. Vikings won 30-25 at Lambeau Field in last year's season opener. The game wasn't nearly that close.

WEEK 11: AT HOUSTON, 7:30 P.M. SUNDAY, NOV. 21

This is Green Bay's first crack at the Texans. Like the Lions, Houston is a trendy pick to come out of nowhere and contend for an AFC playoff berth. With Davis Carr at quarterback, 1,000-yard rusher Domanick Davis at running back and Andre Johnson at receiver, Houston has some weapons.

Key matchup: Packers MLB Nick Barnett vs. Texans RB Davis.

History: First meeting

WEEK 12: HOME VS. ST. LOUIS, 8 P.M. MONDAY, NOV. 29

St. Louis' dome has been a house of horrors, so the Packers will be happy to get the Rams outside on a Monday night in November.

Key matchup: Packers CBs vs. Rams WRs Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.

History: Rams lead the series 44-40-2. Green Bay won the Rams' last trip to Lambeau, 17-7 in 1997.

WEEK 13: AT PHILADELPHIA, 3:15 P.M. SUNDAY, DEC. 5

The Packers outplayed the Eagles twice last season and lost both games. Ahman Green ran circles around the Eagles' defense in both games but the Packers failed to take advantage. This is a new Eagles team, with cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent gone but defensive end Jevon Kearse and wide receiver Terrell Owens in.

Key matchup: Packers CBs vs. Eagles WR Terrell Owens

History: Packers lead 24-12.

WEEK 14: HOME VS. DETROIT, NOON SUNDAY, DEC. 12

Steve Mariucci returns to Green Bay. By now, the young Lions have either gelled into a formidable outfit or have packed it in.

Key matchup: Packers QB Brett Favre vs. Lions QB Joey Harrington.

History: Packers lead 76-61-6, including 13 straight in Wisconsin.

WEEK 15: HOME VS. JACKSONVILLE, NOON SUNDAY, DEC. 19

A Florida team playing in Green Bay in December? Good luck. Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich played his college ball at Marshall in West Virginia, so the cold shouldn't faze him too much.

Key matchup: Packers MLB Nick Barnett vs. Jaguars RB Fred Taylor.

History: Packers lead 2-0 but have never hosted the Jaguars.

WEEK 16: AT MINNESOTA, 2 P.M. FRIDAY, DEC. 25

A Christmas game in the Metrodome. Merry bleepin' Christmas. A great present would be a division championship, and that very well could be at stake between the division's powerhouses.

Key matchup: Packers CBs vs. Vikings WR Randy Moss.

History: Series is tied 42-42-1. Packers are 3-9 in last 12 in Minnesota, but won last year and in 2000.

WEEK 17: AT CHICAGO, NOON SUNDAY, JAN. 2

With a season under new coach Lovie Smith and a world of experience for a young team, this Bears team should be a lot tougher than the team the Packers faced way back in September.

Key matchup: Packers interior line vs. Bears LB Brian Urlacher.

History: Packers are 78-83-7 all-time against Chicago. Packers amazingly have won last 10 in Chicago.


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