With Intangibles, Packers Could Be the Saints

Their coaches are similar and their rosters are similar. Now, what do the Packers have to do to follow in the Saints' championship footsteps in 2010? Our Matt Tevsh offers three factors that could make the Packers champions next season.

Look at the rosters of the champion New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers and outside of maybe the offensive line, the difference between the two teams is practically negligible.

Both have strikingly similar head coaches based on age, background, style and guts. (How about those onside kick calls by Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy that dramatically turned around playoff games for both teams?)

Both have superbly gifted and consistent quarterbacks throwing to some of the best offensive weapons in the NFL. (How about Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers combining to throw touchdowns to 19 different receivers last season?)

And both have opportunistic, sound defenses if not yet dominant, led by crafty veteran coordinators. (Did anyone have a bigger impact as a coach in 2009 than either Gregg Williams or Dom Capers?)

Perhaps the world of online gambling, as good an indicator of perception as any, tells the story of just how close the Packers might be to becoming the Saints in 2010. As was told in a story on Packer Report on Tuesday, Bodog.com has the Packers at 12-to-1 odds to win the Super Bowl next season. The Saints, days after their 31-17 victory over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, are just a fraction better of a bet at 10-to-1. Various other sites have the Saints at 8-to-1, but generally, the Packers are among the top five or six teams favored to win Super Bowl XLV.

As similar as the Saints and Packers appear based on odds, rosters and statistics, it takes intangibles to win a championship. Perhaps the Packers can learn from the Saints this past season and do these three things to get back to the top:

1. Get back the home-field advantage, or at the least earn a bye in the playoffs

The Superdome was the best home-field advantage in the NFL last season. Feeding off the promise of previous seasons, New Orleans rallied around its football team as a beacon of hope out of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Saints fans cheered their hearts out.

The Saints took advantage. A 13-0 start gave them the inside track on a bye for the playoffs. Though they stumbled in their final two regular season home games, they had clinched a coveted divisional-round spot with three games remaining.

But for a few exceptions, a playoff bye gives a team a huge edge on the way to a championship. Only nine of 40 Super Bowl teams (since 1990 when the NFL adopted its current playoff format) have made it to the big game after having to play in a first-round game. Only five have won the Super Bowl.

The Packers failed to make it out of the first round this past season, albeit on the road in Arizona. But since the mid-1990s, a more alarming loss is the demise of the Lambeau Field mystique. The Packers have been far less dominant at home including in the playoffs where they have won just two of their last five games. Before that, they were 13-0 at home in the postseason.

The Packers' last two Super Bowl appearances (1996 and 1997) came on the strength of byes. Only once in eight appearances in the wild-card playoff round have the Packers been able to advance as far as the NFC Championship game (1995).

Earning one of the top two NFC seeds next season will be a difficult task for the Packers considering their schedule, but tougher opponents and an 11-5 season might just give the home crowd something to rally around.

2. Find an X-factor

Jermichael Finley still could be that guy for the Packers in 2010, but his performance against the Cardinals in the playoffs (six catches, 159 yards) makes him a marked man. Therefore, the Packers might need to look elsewhere to instill the fear factor in their opponents.

Special teams can provide that answer. Not since the days of Allen Rossum early last decade have the Packers had a real threat in the return game. Will Blackmon has shown flashes, but injuries have always been a problem for the four-year veteran. And GM Ted Thompson has struck out in the draft trying to find such a player.

When the Packers can find a legitimate threat to take back punts and kicks, not relying always on their offense and defense for momentum-changing plays, they will find balance. In turn, they will take pressure off their offense and defense on those days when either unit may not be making the grade.

The Saints have perhaps the league's biggest X-factor in Reggie Bush. Some might call Bush a bust based on his statistics and his No. 2 overall selection in the 2006 draft, but no one questions his explosive ability. With or without the ball in his hands, Bush is as dynamic as they come. Opposing defenses have to account for him, which makes the Saints' offense and special teams a nightmare to prepare for.

Think Rodgers would mind a back like Bush out of the backfield to dump the ball to? To get rid of the ball and avoid sacks? Brandon Jackson and Ahman Green may pick up the blitz well, but neither offers the Packers much more than a blocker in a third-down role.

3. Continue to grind that toughness groove

McCarthy came to Green Bay in 2006 with what Thompson said was a "Pittsburgh macho" persona, but until this past season, the Packers never practiced what their coach preached. Rarely did they control the line of scrimmage or establish a strong running game like McCarthy had promised. And in cold-weather games, where they should have an advantage as a Midwestern team, they seemed to be at a disadvantage.

There were signs late in 2009, however, that the Packers became a little tougher, that their personality was changing. Left for dead at 4-4 after a loss to the 0-7 Buccaneers on Nov. 8, they rebounded to win seven of eight games and qualify for the playoffs. In the process, they gained confidence, showed signs of life in their running game, and even went toe-to-toe with physical teams in cold-weather games. For the first time under McCarthy, the young Packers had a swagger they had been lacking, even during the run to the NFC Championship in 2007.

The adversity the Packers faced last season can only help in 2010. After four years, McCarthy has a team more closely molded in his image than ever before.

The Saints had that with Payton last season. Known for his bold play-calling and putting the defense in the hands of a proven coordinator, Payton broke through. Perhaps McCarthy can do the same next season.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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