Right now, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans and the Giants are on top of their divisions. The Bears are 8-1 and the others are 6-3. The Cowboys, Eagles and Falcons are all 5-4. The Panthers are 4-4 and play tonight, so best case they are 5-4. Since there are only two wild card teams, the Packers need to catch at least two, if not three of those teams. Let us assume that the division leaders win their respective divisions, although, the Giants are bruised and battered and may fall back to the pack.
The 49ers, Rams and Vikes share the Packers 4-5 record, but the Packers have the tiebreaker on the Vikes, so let's toss them. The Niners and Packers play in a few weeks, so you can toss them out, because for Green Bay to contend, they have to beat San Fran straight up. The Rams have the tie breaker, so that could come back to haunt Green Bay.
In reality, it comes down to Dallas, Philly, Atlanta and maybe Carolina. Let's take a look at the schedules of the contending teams and see what we can expect and see if the Packers have a chance.
Dallas: Opponents – Indy, Tampa, at Giants, Saints, at Atlanta, Philly and the Lions.
Only the Lions and Bucs are what I would consider easy games. The Cowboys could easily lose five of these games. A 7-9 record is possible and no playoffs.
Philly: Opponents – Titans, at Indy, Carolina, at Washington, at Giants, at Dallas, Atlanta
The Eagles have a more favorable schedule. Indy, the Giants, Falcons and Carolina will be tough, but they can split those games. I have already assumed they will beat the Cowboys. I see them going 9-7 at worst. They hold the tiebreaker on the Packers because of their head to head victory. Eagles get a wild card berth.
Carolina: Opponents – Tampa, Rams, at Washington, at Philly, Giants, Pittsburgh, at Atlanta, at New Orleans
The Panthers are an up-and-down team and it is possible that they could run away with this schedule, but they could also only win three of these games without me batting an eye. Tampa, the Rams and the Skins are beatable, but the rest will be tough. Even money they go 8-8.
Atlanta: Opponents – at Baltimore, Saints, at Washington, at Tampa, Dallas, Carolina, at Philly
The Ravens, Saints and Philly are probably losses, so they will have to beat the Skins, Bucs, Cowboys and Panthers to go 9-7.
How about the Packers?
Green Bay: Opponents – Patriots, at Seattle, Jets, at Niners, Detroit, Vikings, at Bears.
The Patriots are down, after two straight losses, so three losses in a row is a reach. The Seahawks have squeaked out some close wins while their star players recover from injuries but are not unbeatable. The Jets are playing better than anyone expected. The Niners and Lions are games the Packers should win. Green Bay has proven they can beat the Vikings, and the Bears may be resting their starters in anticipation of the playoffs. 9-7 is possible.
The Packers are still vulnerable to a big passing attack, but do not face any of the NFL's elite passers. The Pats have Tom Brady who is as good as they come, but they are not a passing team. Seneca Wallace is a backup who is getting it done. Alex Smith is still learning. Jon Kitna, Brad Johnson and Rex Grossman are good but not up there with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Donovan McNabb. Chad Pennington is doing enough to win some games. The weather will help Green Bay when the Jets, Lions and Vikings come to town. The weather is miserable here today, mid 30's and rainy, so that may help this Sunday when the Patriots come to town. The forecast is for a high of 42, low of 26, so who knows?
The downside is that the Packers may lose the next two games and have to win the last five to do it. Either way, the season will end up better than I ever expected. Even if the Packers lose out and go 4-12, they have improved enough to gain some semblance of respect. The record may not be any better, but the team is.
The playoffs seem like a longshot for Green Bay right now, but the team is playing well enough to win the remaining seven games, assuming they play like they did against the Vikings and not like they did versus the Bills. If they can protect the ball and fix the pass coverage issues that have plagued them, then Packer Fans will have something to hope for.
Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.