Gazing Into My Crystal Ball as the 2021 Season Dawns

The 2021 season is finally upon us; the summer of our discontent is behind us, Aaron Rodgers is back and it's apparent that anything less than a Super Bowl title will ensure that his 17th season in Green Bay will be his last.

So let's get set to enjoy this Last Dance season for what it is: a chance to watch a maestro lead the most explosive offense in the league, while hoping that the defense and special teams can reach another level and get this team to LA in early February (though you could argue the defense did all we could ask against Brady and the Bucs, outside of #20).

The initial 53 man roster held few surprises; the biggest being the release of punter JK Scott and the trade for his replacement, Corey Bojorquez. This has to be seen as a major upgrade: Scott's inconsistent play was maddening and Bojorquez was among the league's best in Buffalo and almost pushed Johnny Hecker out the door in LA, before the Rams decided to keep their longtime ace for another year. The only concern is how quickly he can earn Mason Crosby's trust as his holder.

I was surprised that the Pack kept six edge rushers and only four safeties. Makes me worried that Za'Darius Smith's back injury is more serious than has been reported. I think the two rookies on the D-line, TJ Slaton and the undrafted Jack Heflin are going to compete for playing time for a unit that needs a talent infusion beyond Kenny Clark.

I'm still a little concerned about depth at cornerback, but most fan bases will be singing the same tune. I think Kevin King will start strong, knowing that there's a #1 pick waiting for his chance, but ultimately an injury will force him to the sidelines and Eric Stokes will need to step right in. Sounds like Jaire Alexander will play some in the slot, depending on the matchup, so Stokes may be counted on earlier than we think.

The only roster surprise for me on the offensive side was the release of Ben Braden, in favor of Jake Hansen. After all the raving from the coaches, it seemed like Braden had a shot at starting. I figured Hansen's snapping mistakes against the Bills cost him a spot, but he had graded out well throughout the preseason.

OK, so how we feeling about this roster? Offensively, the only question, and it's a big one, is how the offensive line performs without David Bakhtiari through the first half of the season and with two rookies in the starting lineup. The remarkable Elgton Jenkins has looked fantastic at left tackle in the preseason, but the jury's out till we see how he handles the premier pass rushers he'll face week in and week out. There's bound to be a learning curve for rookie Josh Myers at center, though Aaron Rodgers is a big fan. Gutey may have hit on another fourth rounder: Royce Newman was PFF's highest graded O-lineman in the league in the preseason...not highest graded rookie, highest graded lineman. He may grab the right guard job on day one.

If the line does its job, this offense should be better than last year's top scoring unit. Yes, the team will miss Jamaal Williams both on the field and in the locker room, but it's hard to see them taking a step backward with AJ Dillon and Kylin Hill. I think MVS is sitting on a breakout season. By all accounts, he looks like a different player heading into '21. We saw him step up in the playoffs. Now, in a contract year, he's poised to earn a fat contract if he can reduce his penchant for dropping easy passes (Something Davante Adams figured out in his third season). Adding Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers, along with getting back Josiah Deguara will give Matt LaFleur a wider canvass to paint his offensive magic this season.

The biggest question about this team is how Joe Barry will lead his defense and whether we'll see him take advantage of the talent on that side of the ball. If Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage make third year leaps, as expected, Alexander continues to play at an all pro level and if the Pack finds capable help alongside Clark on the defensive line, this defense should hold up its end of the bargain. I think the combination of Krys Barnes and De'Vondre Campbell gives this defense its best inside linebacker duo in a long time--it's still the biggest question mark on that side of the ball, but I'm optimistic.

Now, let's get the season predictions out of the way. As usual, I'll attack the Pack's schedule by quarter. We now know that the season will kick off in Jacksonville, with the Saints unable to play at home for a while. It will be hot and muggy and Rodgers has a career 3-4 record in Flordia, but it will also be full of Packer fans. No Brees means no problem. The Packers open with a win and then handle the hapless Lions at Lambeau the following Monday night. We have no idea who will be playing QB for the Niners in week 3 on Sunday night, but it will be a difficult road test either way against that defense, especially on a short week. The Pack suffers its first loss. They bounce back in week 4 at home against a tough Steelers team that will keep it close. 3-1 after Quarter 1.

The second quarter features three road games, starting out at Cincinnati and Chicago. Win and win. The lone home game is against Washington, when the Pack will be wearing those fresh throwbacks. The WFT has a legit defense and I can see this one being too close for comfort, but the Pack will run their win streak to four and will sit at 6-1. Then comes a Thursday night road game in Arizona. The Cards are likely an 8-8 team, but they'll be toughened up playing in the league's best division and Kyler Murray has some magic to him when the lights are bright. The Pack stubs its toe and falls to 6-2.

Quarter number three is the toughest on the schedule, and hopefully Bakhtiari will be back to strengthen the line against this competition. It opens in Kansas City and this time it's likely Patrick Mahomes will play, so I'll take the Chiefs. The Pack will bounce back at home against the Seahawks. I figure they're bound to lose a game in the division, so I'll give it to the Vikings at US Bank. The Rams and old friend Matthew Stafford visit Lambeau on Thanksgiving weekend and the Packers will take care of a team that will struggle to run the ball all season. So they're 8-4 heading into the bye week.

The final five games include divisional home games against the Bears and Vikings--those are wins. Christmas Day at home against the Browns? I think Cleveland has a good shot at the Super Bowl, but they're not putting coal in our stockings. The season ends in Detroit and that's a win, so I have the Pack at 12-4 with the December road game in Baltimore remaining. This is the toughest for me to forecast, but ultimately I think the Ravens have a shot at home with that defense and the always dangerous Lamar Jackson.

So it shakes out at 12-5 and NFC North champs once again. Maybe they handle either Arizona or Baltimore and get to 13 wins. The record won't be as good as the last two seasons, but facing the league's top two divisions makes things a lot tougher.

Here's how the rest of the playoff teams shake out:

Division champs: Pack, Bucs, 49ers, WFT, Bills, Browns, Titans, Chiefs

Wildcards: Rams, Seahawks, Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers, Patriots

Championship games: Pack vs. 49ers, Bills vs. Browns

Super Bowl: Packers over Bills

I mean, it's the Last Dance. How did you think it was going to end?

Reminder: "Packer Preview" returns for a 26th season on the home of the Vikings KFAN, Sundays at 7am, beginning September 12th. Or listen to the podcast whenever you wake up on the iHeart app or iTunes.

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