A Super Season Hinges on a Speedy Start

There's lots of optimism surrounding the '15 Packers--they're a popular Super Bowl pick by many of the national talking heads and it's easy to understand why. But if the Pack is to remain a viable Super Bowl contender, they need to prove it early.

After dismal 1-2 starts the past three years, the team cannot afford another one if they want the NFC playoffs to roll through Lambeau. The schedule is set up in their favor, with four of the first six at home. The two road games are against teams that are favored to be selecting in the top five of next spring's draft. In my opinion, they can afford nothing less than a 5-1 start to remain on track. They'll be favored in all six, so it's not an unreasonable goal.

The next six games feature four road games, two against playoff hopefuls Denver and Carolina, and two against the other divisional playoff hopefuls: Minnesota and Detroit. Win the two home games and split the four road games and the Pack is 9-3 at the three quarter pole.

The cold weather final quarter features warm weather road games in Oakland and Arizona, bookended by home games against the Cowboys and Vikings. Again, win the home games and split the road games and the Pack finishes at 12-4, likely good enough for the #1 seed in the NFC.

So what needs to happen for all of this to come to pass? Other than health to most if not all of the key guys? Let's start on defense. I think the back end will be improved with the strong starts for the young corners and a second year step for Clinton Dix. The D-line should be better with the return of Raji and with Mike Daniels out to prove he's worth big bucks in his new deal. The questions remain at inside linebacker, where Sam Barrington needs to prove he's an upgrade over Hawk, and not another liability in the passing game.

Maybe Jake Ryan shows enough to earn more playing time and he becomes an upgrade in the middle. For now Clay Matthews will work inside in the base, which should help the run defense, which will be tested mightily early--playing without the suspended Guion and trying to stop Forte, Lynch and Charles while he's gone. If Mike Pennel can step in and do a good job, it will be a very good sign for this defense.

To get to 12-4 the Pack will also need to get much improved play on special teams. Outside of Crosby, these units were a disaster last year, resulting in a change at the top (enter Ron Zook) and a mass change in personnel. Ty Montgomery could give the return game some juice, but the coverage units need to get buttoned up. I'm already worried about Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks' explosive rookie who looks like he might be what Percy Harvin tried to tell us he was.

Offensively, all 11 starters returned from last season until Nelson went down. The unit loses its explosiveness and the natural chemistry that he and Rodgers had, but #12 will spread it around in his absence and Adams and Rodgers are poised to jump on the opportunity that awaits them. Having James Jones as a security blanket on third downs and in the red zone will also take away some of the sting of losing Nelson.

When Mike McCarthy decided to hand the play calling duties to Tom Clement, he believed he could have an impact on the other two units, during weekly preparation and on game day. It's the most significant change for this team from 2014 to 2015 and I believe it will pay dividends. The offense will continue to hum and the defense and special teams will benefit from his attention to what they're doing.

Here are my playoff picks:

NFC Division Winners: Packers, Eagles, Seahawks and Falcons

NFC Wildcards: Cardinals, Cowboys

AFC Division Winners: Bengals, Dolphins, Chiefs, Colts

AFC Wildcards: Ravens, Patriots

NFC Title Game: Packers over Seahawks

AFC Title Game: Colts over Ravens

Super Bowl L: Packers over Colts

Now, on to opening week. The Pack opens in Chicago for the first time in 34 years and the recent dominance over their oldest rivals should continue. Rodgers is 12-3 over the Bears, with one of those losses coming thanks to the broken collarbone. He owns the Bears and given the state of the Minnows of the Midway these days, he will continue to own them this season.

John Fox takes over a team in transition, one that wishes it could move on from Jay Cutler, and one whose defense is not built to play the way he wants to play and needs a complete overhaul. Jared Allen moves from defensive end to outside linebacker and it should be interesting to see how he's adapting. Cutler has yet to practice with new #1 receiver Alshon Jeffery, who's been limited in practice this week but might try to play. Free agent addition Eddie Royal is also less than 100%.

The defense will focus on trying to stop Matt Forte on the ground and tight end Marcellus Bennett through the air. With the suspensions on the Pack's defensive line and the suspect play of Barrington, the Bears will see if they can move the chains, extend drives and Keep Rodgers and the Packers' offense off the field. The only Packer not practicing this week is Morgan Burnett, who's nursing a calf strain. Sean Richardson may need to be much more than a special teams ace in week one.

The Pack should be able to move the ball effortlessly against a below average defense, with Eddie Lacy getting lots of work. We'll be keeping an eye on Randall Cobb's shoulder. Signs point to him playing, but I wouldn't mind seeing him take one more week to get healthy and get ready for the Seahawks next week. The Pack can get past Chicago without him.

Meeting #191 in the series goes the Pack's way:

Packers 31 Bears 17

Reminder: "Packer Preview" returns for a 20th season this Sunday, 7am-8am on the home of the Vikings, KFAN. Listen at 100.3 the Fan, one of our network affiliates, or on iHeartRadio. Feel free to sleep in and podcast it at "Fan on Demand" at kfan.com or on iTunes.

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