Green Bay Packers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers went 13-3 and went to the NFC Championship last year, but they weren’t as good as that suggests. For one, their point differential of +63 is not only more in line with a 9-10 win team than a 13 win team, but it’s also the lowest point differential ever for a team with 13 or more wins. That’s despite the fact that the Packers had a +12 turnover margin, something they won’t necessarily be able to count on going forward, given how unpredictable turnovers are week-to-week and year-to-year. 

With a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers under center who rarely turns it over, the Packers are always going to have a better chance to win the turnover battle than the average team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be at +12 again. In fact, the Packers are just +10 in turnover margin in their previous 4 seasons combined. For a team that went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2019, even a slight difference in turnover margin could have affected their win total by at least a couple games.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Packers ranked 14th at +1.15%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 35.69% and their defense ranking 12th in first down rate allowed at 34.54%. That’s actually not far off from 2018, when the Packers ranked 20th in first down rate differential at -0.81%, with their offense ranking 16th in first down rate at 36.16% and their defense ranking 16th in first down rate allowed at 36.97%, in a season in which they ended up at just 6-9-1. The Packers aren’t necessarily going to regress that much in terms of win total in 2020, but they figure to have a hard time winning as many games as last season if they don’t significantly improve their level of play.

Perhaps most concerningly for the Packers last season was how they fared against the NFC’s top team the San Francisco 49ers, who beat them twice by scores of 37-8 and 37-20, doing so the second time in the NFC Championship, en route to a Super Bowl appearance. The Packers may have won the same amount of games as the 49ers last season, but those two games showed they have a long way to go to catch the top team in the conference.

Aaron Rodgers still played at a high level in 2019, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he’s now going into his age 37 season and, if you look at his recent history, it’s clear he’s at least somewhat past his prime, finishing outside of the top-5 quarterbacks on PFF in 4 of the past 5 seasons, including each of the past three seasons. Over those past three seasons, Rodgers has completed just 62.6% of his passes and averaged 7.21 yards per attempt, down from career averages of 64.6% and 7.75. 

His 67/12 TD/INT ratio over the past three seasons is still very impressive, but his passing touchdown totals of 25 and 26 over the past two seasons are the two lowest single season totals of his career in a full season and his interception rate has been kept low by being overly conservative with the ball, with an average of 2.92 throwaways per game over the past 3 seasons, including a league leading 98 throwaways over the past two seasons. Rodgers’ 0.9% interception rate over the past 3 seasons is less impressive when you realize he’s thrown 8.1% of his passes out of play over that stretch. Obviously you don’t want your quarterback forcing things too often, but it’s hard to consistently sustain drives when you throw that many passes out of play and, with as much throwing ability as Rodgers has, he should be more willing to throw into tight windows.

Rodgers should still remain an above average quarterback at the very least in 2020, but his best days are likely behind him and even the Packers seem to be thinking about life without him, trading up to use the 26th overall pick on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. Love drew some comparisons to Patrick Mahomes as a prospect, but that’s hardly a guarantee he ever develops like Mahomes, so the Packers are taking a big risk using a first round pick on him rather than someone who can help the team win now. The same could be said of taking Aaron Rodgers originally back in 2005, but Rodgers fell into the Packers’ lap, while Love was traded up for, and the Packers actually fell to 4-12 the season after taking Rodgers. 

That’s not necessarily going to happen again in 2020, but it’s clear that the Love selection was about the long-term, not the short-term. Now the clock starts to tick for Rodgers, who is guaranteed 43.55 million over the next two seasons, but theoretically could be traded at any point if the Packers like how Love is developing behind the scenes. Realistically, I would expect Rodgers to be elsewhere by the 2022 season because the Packers will want to evaluate Love under center before deciding whether or not to pick up his 5th year option for 2024, a decision they’ll have to make after the 2022 season. For now, Rodgers is a good but declining quarterback at the helm of a team that is solid, but not nearly as good as their record last season suggests.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Part of the problem for Rodgers over the past few years has been his receiving corps, as he’s lacked a consistent pass catcher aside from Davante Adams. In that sense, it’s understandable that Rodgers would throw so many balls out of play entirely, but his offensive line is giving him plenty of time to throw, so he needs to do a better job of trying to throw guys open. Rodgers’ need for receiver help just makes the Packers’ decision to use their first round pick on a replacement for him instead all the more questionable and, on top of that, the Packers didn’t make any free agent additions outside of taking a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar flyer on Devin Funchess. 

Funchess was limited to a 44/549/4 slash line in 2018 and missed all but one game with injury last season, but his 63/840/8 slash line in 2017 shows his upside, he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, and he is still relatively young in his age 26 season. Funchess was signed to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency by the Colts just last off-season before his injury-ruined 2019 campaign, so the Packers are getting a good value by getting him for a fraction of that price.

Marques Valdez-Scantling (542 snaps), Geronimo Allison (638 snaps), and Allen Lazard (479 snaps) all saw significant action behind Adams last season, but Valdez-Scantling and Allison both struggled mightily, finishing 92nd and 97th respectively out of 101 qualifying wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, so Funchess has a good chance to earn playing time in three wide receiver sets with Adams and likely Allen Lazard, a 2018 undrafted free agent who flashed with 1.62 yards per route run in the first significant action of his career in 2019. Lazard is still very raw and unproven, but he likely has more upside than any of the Packers’ other options, with Allison signing with the Lions this off-season and Valdes-Scantling underwhelming on 1,233 career snaps (1.28 yards per route run) since the Packers took him in the 5th round in 2018.

Adams is still their only reliable pass catcher and should remain their top pass catcher. He “only” had a 83/997/5 slash line last season, but he was limited to 678 snaps in 12 games by injury and was very effective on a per snap basis, ranking 6th among wide receivers in yards per route run (2.33) and 10th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade. Adams has only topped 1000 yards in 1 of his 6 seasons in the league, but he’s come within 3 yards of 1000 in 2 of those seasons and has only been the clear cut #1 option with a healthy Aaron Rodgers over the past 2 seasons. His 111/1386/13 slash line in 2018 shows the kind of upside he has when he and Rodgers are healthy and, overall, Adams has finished in the top-13 among wide receivers on PFF in each of the past three seasons. Without other reliable options in this passing game, Adams figures to be one of the most targeted receivers in the league this season.

Tight end is also a position of concern. Last year starter’s Jimmy Graham is gone and, even though he struggled, finishing 36th out of 44 qualifying tight ends on 622 snaps on PFF, the Packers don’t have a proven replacement for him. Marcedes Lewis remains as a dominant blocking tight end, but he’s going into his age 36 season and has caught just 18 passes over the past two seasons, so he’s basically a 6th offensive lineman more than anything at this point in his career. 

Robert Tonyan played 193 snaps last season and caught 10 passes, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 260 nondescript snaps in his career and is hardly a reliable option. Instead, it’s more likely that 2019 3rd round pick Jace Sternberger opens the year as the primary pass catching tight end, but he was limited to 60 snaps in 5 games as a rookie due to injury and ineffectiveness and didn’t catch a single pass in the regular season, so he’s obviously a projection to a much bigger role. The Packers also used a 3rd round pick on Josiah Deguara in this year’s draft and he could be in the mix for playing time as well. This offense will likely struggle to find a consistent 2nd option in the passing game again, but there is a little bit more talent than last year.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Without a consistent #2 passing option last season, running back Aaron Jones actually ranked 2nd on the team with 68 targets and he turned those into a 49/474/3 slash line. With not much changing this off-season, Jones figures to be relied on heavily in the passing game again. Jones also was very involved as a runner, rushing for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns on 236 carries (4.59 YPC), and, overall, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back on the season.

A 5th round pick in 2017, Jones had always shown this kind of potential prior to last season. His 4.30 yards per target on 53 targets prior to last season was unimpressive, but he’s hardly the first running back to improve his passing down abilities after a couple years in the league, and he’s always shown promise as a runner, rushing for 5.50 YPC on 214 carries prior to breaking out in a bigger role in 2019. Jones is technically a one-year wonder and his history of conditioning and durability problems are still worth mentioning, but it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see him repeat his strong 2019 season.

The question now becomes whether or not the Packers will lock Jones up long-term, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. The Packers used a 2nd round pick (62nd overall) on Boston College running back AJ Dillon, at the expense of potentially adding a wide receiver or help on defense, and, while the Packers like to rotate running backs, giving #2 back Jamaal Williams 146 touches last season, Dillon’s draft slot suggests the Packers view him as a long-term lead back, which probably makes it unlikely they’ll break the bank to keep Jones off the open market.

In the short-term, Dillon is more of a threat to Jamaal Williams’ role than to Jones’ in 2020. A 4th round pick in 2017, Williams has been underwhelming overall in his career, averaging 3.88 yards per carry and 6.04 yards per target, but he wasn’t bad last season, rushing for 4.30 YPC and 1 touchdown on 107 carries and putting up a 39/253/5 slash line on 45 targets, while earning PFF’s 11th ranked running back grade overall, so there’s no guarantee Dillon is able to beat him out for the #2 role as a rookie. This is a deep backfield, but Jones remains the clear cut lead back after an impressive 2019 season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Rodgers’ offensive line gives him plenty of time to throw, as even though Rodgers ranked 6th in the NFL with 2.92 seconds per dropback last season, he was still pressured on a below average 34.5% of his dropbacks. That was also the case in 2018, when he held the ball 2.95 seconds per dropback (5th in the NFL), but was pressured on a below average 33.0% of his dropbacks. Given that, he should have enough time to be able to throw guys open down the field.

Overall, the Packers ranked 1st among offensive lines on Pro Football Focus in pass protecting grade in 2018 and 4th in 2019 and they also fared well as run blockers in 2019, ranking 6th in that aspect. The Packers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency and he was PFF’s 13th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts last season, but he’s not as big of a loss as it would seem, as he can either be replaced by free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner or by pushing right guard Billy Turner out to right tackle and replacing him at right guard with experienced reserve Lane Taylor.

Taylor opened last season as the Packers’ starting left guard, where he had earned solid grades over 45 starts over the previous 3 seasons, but went down for the season with an injury after week 2 and second round rookie Elgton Jenkins, who finished 20th among guards on PFF in 14 starts his absence, seems to have locked that job down permanently. Taylor is now going into his age 31 season, but he’s an experienced starter who finished 29th among guards on PFF as recently as 2018, so if he does make it back into the starting lineup at right guard with Turner moving to right tackle, he should continue being at least a serviceable starter.

Turner playing right tackle is not a guarantee however, as he’s been a solid starting guard over the past two seasons, including a 30th ranked finish among guards on PFF in 16 starts in last season, but generally he hasn’t been as good in his 5 career starts at tackle, while free agent acquisition Ricky Wagner earned an average or better grade at right tackle in 5 straight seasons (73 starts) prior to falling to 66th out of 89 qualifiers in 12 starts last season, including a pair of seasons in the top-19 among offensive tackles (2014 and 2017). Wagner’s age is a concern in his age 31 season, but even if his best days are behind him, he could still have some bounce back potential to be a serviceable starter. I would trust him more than Turner given their histories, but it’s really possible any two of Lane Taylor, Billy Turner, and Ricky Wagner will start on the right side this season.

Along with Elgton Jenkins being locked in at left guard, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley are also locked in as starters. They’ve been fixtures at their respective spots over the years and have both played at a high level. Bakhtiari has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league (106 starts), including 4 straight seasons in the top-11 among offensive tackles, while Linsley has finished with at least an average grade in all 6 seasons in the league (86 starts), including a pair of seasons in the top-7 (2014 and 2018) and a 14th ranked finish in 2019. Both are still in their primes in their age 29 seasons, so I would expect more of the same from both this season. Even with some uncertainty on the right side, this is a talented offensive line and they have three at least capable starters for two spots on that right side.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Packers went on a big defensive spending spree last off-season, signing three outside defensive free agents to contracts worth at least 9 million annually, including a pair of edge defenders in Za’Darius Smith (4 years/66 million) and Preston Smith (4 years/52 million). Overall, the spending spree didn’t achieve the goal of making this a top flight defense, as they only improved from a 16th ranked first down rate allowed of 36.97% in 2018 to a 12th ranked first down rate allowed of 34.54% in 2019, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the free agent class and the signing of Za’Darius Smith obviously proved to be a smart move in year one, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked edge defender on the season and was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Za’Darius Smith saw his snap count increase in each of his first 4 seasons in the league with the Ravens prior to joining the Packers last season, from 407 as a rookie to 691 in 2018, and he developed into a good pass rusher as well, with a 10.5% pressure rate over those 4 seasons and 8.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate as PFF’s 15th ranked edge defender in pass rush grade in 2018, but Smith’s 2019 season was still a huge leap forward. 

Playing a career high 872 snaps, Smith totaled 13.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a ridiculous 17.1% pressure rate, while taking a big step forward against the run, something he struggled with in Baltimore. Smith is a one-year wonder as a top level player and may struggle to repeat his career best season, but he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season and even if he regresses a little bit he should still be among the best players in the league at his position, at least as a pass rusher.

Preston Smith wasn’t as good of a signing. He had an impressive sack total with 12, but wasn’t as good as that suggests, as he benefited significantly from Za’Darius being consistently disruptive opposite him and finished as just PFF’s 59th ranked edge defender overall. Smith only had 4 sacks in 2018, but actually finished significantly better on PFF, ranking 22nd among edge defenders, finishing with a 11.3% pressure rate, and playing well against the run. That remains his highest graded season in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s unlikely to ever become a dominant player, but he should remain at least a slightly above average starter.

The Packers also used a first round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on Rashan Gary, who primarily played on the edge as a rookie. He was limited to just 244 mediocre snaps though and the Packers are obviously going to be expecting more from him in his second season in the league. Not only is he a former high draft pick, but with top edge reserve Kyler Fackrell (415 snaps in 2019) no longer with the team and no other obvious option on the roster, Gary will be needed for a significant reserve role on the edge.

Gary will primarily play on the edge in base packages and he may also see some action as a situational pass rusher on the interior in sub packages at 6-4 277, if he can show he’s one of the Packers’ four best rushers. A boom or bust prospect coming out of the draft, Gary has a questionable future after a down rookie year, but could easily take a step forward and become a good rotational 3rd edge defender. Za’Darius Smith elevates this position group significantly by himself and it’s a solid group overall.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Regardless of how much Rashan Gary sees action on the interior in passing situations, Kenny Clark will still be the top interior pass rusher and their top interior defender overall. A first round pick in 2016, Clark had a solid rookie year and then broke out as one of the top interior defenders in the league over the past three seasons, finishing in the top-13 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. Also a strong run stuffer, Clark has totaled 16.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.9% pressure rate over the past three seasons and, still not even 25 until October, it’s possible he could keep getting better. Even if he has peaked, he should remain one of the top players at his position for years to come if he can continue avoiding injuries (just 4 games missed in his career).

For the first three years of his career, Clark played inside with Mike Daniels in passing situations and they were one of the better pass rushing duos in the league, even as recently as 2018, when Daniels had a 13.7% pressure rate. However, Daniels was let go in a cost cutting move last off-season and they lacked a consistent #2 interior rusher without him, which hurt this defense. Dean Lowry ranked second at the position in snaps with 637 and was an above average run stopper, but he hardly got any pass rush, with 0 sacks, 2 hits, and a 6.3% pressure rate all season. A 2016 4th round pick who has averaged 609 snaps per game over the past three seasons, last season was largely par for the course for Lowry. He’ll likely still have a big role, but he’s not the interior pass rusher they need.

Tyler Lancaster (381 snaps), Montravius Adams (187 snaps), Keke Kingsley (94 snaps) all saw action last season too, but they combined for just a 2.1% pressure rate and didn’t play well in general. All three remain though and could see similar roles. Kingsley is a 2019 5th round pick who barely played as a rookie, Adams has played just 465 snaps total since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017, while Lancaster, probably the best by default, has shown some promise as a run stopper in 2 seasons (653 snaps) since going undrafted in 2018. He’ll probably be the primary starter in base packages with Clark and Lowry, with Gary likely working as a situational interior rusher with some regularity and Adams and Kingsley providing deep reserves. This is a generally underwhelming group, but Clark elevates this group significantly by himself.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with the loss of Mike Daniels last off-season, another reason why the Packers’ defense didn’t improve drastically from 2018 to 2019 despite key off-season additions is that they got a significantly down year from every down off ball linebacker Blake Martinez, as he finished 58th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 17th the season before. Martinez especially struggled against the run, finishing 79th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in that aspect, but he struggled in coverage as well. 

Despite his down contract year, Martinez got 10.25 million annually from the Giants in free agency this off-season, and the Packers will replace him with free agent acquisition Christian Kirksey. A 3rd round pick of the Browns in 2014, Kirksey was a solid player in his first 4 seasons in the league, playing part-time in his first two seasons and then every down in 32 starts in the next two seasons, topping out 28th among off ball linebackers as a part-time player in 2015 and 35th as a full-time player in 2016. However, injuries have limited him to 586 snaps in 9 games over the past 2 seasons, so, even though he’s still only in his age 28 season, he has a somewhat uncertain future. If he isn’t a diminished player after the injuries and can stay on the field, he should be a solid starter, but he was a risky signing on a 2-year, 13 million dollar deal that pays him 7 million for 2020.

The Packers frequently use three safeties at the same time with one of them lining up near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, especially in sub packages, so they don’t have much need for other off ball linebackers besides Kirksey, but their lack of depth is concerning, especially given Kirksey’s injury history. BJ Goodson (254 snaps) and Oren Burks (57 snaps) were the only other true off ball linebackers to see any action last season and Goodson is no longer with the team, which will likely force Burks into a nominal starting role in base packages. 

They won’t need much from Burks in that role, but he’s struggled mightily on 183 career snaps since the Packers took him in the 3rd round in 2018, so he could easily continue struggling, and the Packers’ only other possible alternative is 2019 7th round pick Ty Summers, who didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie. As much as the Packers were criticized for taking Jordan Love over a wide receiver, the Packers probably would have been better off using the 27th overall pick on off ball linebacker Patrick Queen, who went one pick later, rather than taking a quarterback or a wide receiver. Without a significant investment at the position in the draft, the Packers will really need to hope Kirksey can avoid a third straight injury plagued season because they will have the worst linebacking corps in the NFL without him.

Grade: D

Secondary

Along with the two Smithes on the edge that they added last off-season on big free agent deals, the Packers also added safety Adrian Amos from the divisional rival Bears on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money, but it’s arguably a bargain when you compare him to similar safeties, as Amos made 56 starts in 4 seasons in Chicago and earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including a 3rd ranked finish in 2017 and a 10th ranked finish in 2018. 

Amos didn’t disappoint in his first season in Green Bay, finishing 17th among safeties on PFF, and, still in his age 27 season without much injury history (4 of 80 possible games missed in 5 seasons in the league), Amos is likely to continue playing at a similarly high level in 2020. He’ll continue starting in base packages next to Darnell Savage, who was also added last off-season in a significant investment, going 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he also didn’t disappoint, making 14 starts and earning a slightly above average grade on PFF (44th overall). Now going into his second season in the league, with a high upside, he could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league.

The Packers also used a first round pick in 2018 on a defensive back, taking Jaire Alexander 18th overall. Despite his youth and inexperience, he’s been the Packers’ top cornerback in two seasons in the league (27 starts), finishing 32nd among cornerbacks in 2018 and 26th in 2019. Still only in his age 23 season in his 3rd season in the league, he could easily keep getting better and develop into one of the top cornerbacks in the league a few years down the line.

The only questionable one of the Packers’ four every down secondary starters is #2 cornerback Kevin King. King was drafted high in the 2nd round in 2017 (33rd overall), but he missed more games than he played in his first 2 seasons (17 of 32 games missed) and, while he stayed relatively healthy last season (805 snaps in 15 games), he was pretty underwhelming, finishing 72nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Still only going into his age 25 season, King has upside, but there’s no guarantee he’ll improve or even stay healthy.

Reserve roles are also up for grabs and there should be plenty of reserve snaps to go around, given how often the Packers are in sub packages. Tramon Williams played 761 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last year and excelled on the slot, but wasn’t brought back ahead of his age 37 season. Chandon Sullivan flashed on 350 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, after going undrafted in 2018, playing both on the slot and some safety. Josh Jackson also saw snaps as a hybrid player last season and, though he only played 102 snaps last season after struggling on 721 snaps as a rookie (102nd out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks), he’s a 2018 2nd round pick who still has some upside, so he could easily earn a role. Bringing back Tramon Williams is also an option, though he’d also be a question mark even his advanced age.

Sullivan and/or Jackson could also see some action at safety, where Will Redmond (271 snaps) and Raven Greene (70 snaps) also remain as reserves. Redmond and Greene have struggled throughout their careers, Redmond on 276 snaps since going in the 3rd round in 2016 and Greene on 115 snaps since going undrafted in 2018, but they should be in the mix for snaps for lack of another option. The Packers have some talented players in this secondary, but their questionable depth is a concern, especially given how often they’re in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Packers were not as good as their record in 2019 and don’t seem to be noticeably more talented than last season, failing to address significant needs in the receiving corps and at linebacker. They won’t need to win 13 games to win the NFC North again and they’ll definitely remain in the mix for a wild card spot even if they can’t win the division for the second straight season, but I would put New Orleans, San Francisco, and even Dallas and possibly Tampa Bay ahead of the Packers right now. Given that, it’s going to be a tough path out of the NFC to a Super Bowl appearance. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 78.50

Defensive Score: 73.73

Total Score: 76.12 (1st in NFC North)

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Like the Chiefs/Titans matchup in the AFC Championship, this NFC Championship matchup between the 49ers and the Packers is a rematch of a regular season game. Unlike the first Chiefs/Titans matchup, which few would have predicted would be an AFC Championship preview, the first 49ers/Packers matchup was an obvious potential NFC Championship preview, with the 49ers entering at 9-1 and the Packers entering at 8-2 in a game that wound up deciding the #1 seed in the NFC. 

Despite both teams having strong records, the first matchup was not close at all, with the 49ers winning at home by a final score of 37-8 in a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 15.87%. Favored by just a field goal the first time around, the 49ers are now 7.5-point home favorites in the rematch, as bettors remember the week 12 blowout well. History suggests that these rematches don’t always go the same way, however, and in fact in non-divisional same-site post-season rematches, the team that lost the first time is actually 33-20 ATS over the past 30 seasons. 

That being said, I think there is good reason to expect that the 49ers should win fairly easily again. Even though these teams have the same record, the 49ers had a much stronger season, holding the edge in the regular season in first down rate differential at +5.29% to +1.15% and in point differential at +169 to +63. The Packers’ point differential was the worst ever by a team that finished with 13 wins or more and ranked just 9th in the NFL, compared to 3rd for the 49ers. In first down rate differential, the difference was even more pronounced, with the 49ers ranking 2nd and the Packers ranking 14th. While the Packers are 9-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, the 49ers are just 5-3 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, winning 9 of their 14 games by more than 8 points, as opposed to just 5 for the Packers. 

That’s despite the fact that the 49ers were missing their top edge rusher Dee Ford and their top linebacker Kwon Alexander for most of the second half of the season. Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9 and was inactive for the Packers game. Neither one is at 100% this week, but having both back in the lineup is significant. The 49ers allowed just a 24.67% first down rate in their first 7 games of the season with Alexander and Ford healthy, which would have been easily the best in the NFL if they kept it up all season. 

The 49ers had a relatively easy schedule over that stretch, but their strength of schedule suggested they should have allowed a 34.56% first down rate over those 7 games, so they performed significantly better than average. Last week, with Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers held a Vikings offense that finished 11th in the NFL in first down rate (higher than the Packers who finished 16th) to just 7 first downs and a 17.78% first down rate. This is the healthiest the 49ers have been since their dominant start and they are playing like it. 

The Packers are basically at full strength as well, but that’s been the case for most of the season. Meanwhile, in addition to the 49ers having Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers will also have tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel at full strength, which they didn’t have in the first matchup and, while they’re missing center Weston Richburg, they will have left tackle Joe Staley this time around, which is more important, especially since backup center Ben Garland has filled in well for Richburg. I’m hoping this line will fall to a touchdown before gametime, but I like the 49ers for a smaller bet even if it stays at 7.5.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Green Bay Packers 16

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Packers won 13 games and got a first round bye in the NFC, but they didn’t play as well as their record suggests, barely pulling out some close victories. They went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and 4-0 in games decided by 5 points or fewer and ranked just 9th in the NFL in point differential at +63, the worst ever point differential by a team with 13 or more wins. Fortunately for the Packers, they open the post-season at home, where they are 43-22 ATS since 2011 in games that Aaron Rodgers starts and finishes, and they play a Seattle team that is also not as good as their record.

The Seahawks won 11 games, but just one by more than a touchdown and had a +6 point differential that is 14th in the NFL and 3rd worst ever by a team with 11 or more wins. While the Packers are around a 10 or 11 win caliber team that won 13 games because of close wins, the Seahawks are around an 8 or 9 win caliber team that won 11 games because of close wins. Two of the Seahawks’ wins came because the other team shanked makeable field goals that would have ended the game. If not for those two misses, the Seahawks easily could have missed the post-season entirely. They won their opening round playoff game in Philadelphia, but likely would have lost had Carson Wentz not gotten hurt in the first quarter, as the Josh McCown led Eagles got inside the Seahawks’ 30-yard line five times, but managed just three field goals and two failed 4th downs in a 17-9 loss. 

The Seahawks also are in much worse injury shape than the Packers. While the Packers are as healthy as any team left in the playoffs, the Seahawks are without linebacker Mychal Kendricks, running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, left guard Mike Iupati, and possibly defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, left tackle Duane Brown, and backup left tackle George Fant. Despite their injury situation and the Packers’ significant edge in point differential and first down rate differential (+1.15% vs. -1.17%), the Seahawks are only 4-point underdogs in this game in Lambeau, where the Packers are very tough to beat with Aaron Rodgers under center. I have this line calculated at Green Bay -7.5, so we’re getting great line value with the Packers at -4. This is my biggest play this week.

Green Bay Packers 31 Seattle Seahawks 23

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -4

Confidence: High

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (12-3) at Detroit Lions (3-11-1)

It’s hard to believe there was a time when the Lions were 2-0-1. In fact, when the Lions and Packers met the first time back in week 6, the Lions could have taken over the division lead had they prevailed in a game that ended up being a 1-point loss. Even as late as week 10, the Lions were still in playoff contention at 3-4-1, but quarterback Matt Stafford injured his back and ended up missing the remainder of the season. As a result, the wheels have fallen off for this team. With one of the worst backup quarterback situations in the league, the Lions have lost all 7 games since Stafford went down, dropping them to 3-11-1 on the season.

The Lions ranked 15th in the NFL in first down rate differential at 36.75% at the time Stafford went down, but have managed just a 30.96% first down rate in their past 7 games without him, most equivalent to the 31st ranked Jaguars on the season. With a defense that ranks 26th in the NFL on the season with a 38.10% first down rate allowed, the Lions are undoubtedly one of the worst few teams in the league. They currently rank just 29th in my roster rankings. 

The Packers, meanwhile, are at the opposite end of the spectrum, able to lock up a first round bye in the NFC with a win in this game. However, they’re not quite as good as their record suggests. A lot of their wins have been close, with 7 of 12 games coming by one score or fewer and an average margin of victory of 9.25 points per game. On the flip side, two of their three losses have come by 15 points or fewer, giving them a point differential of +60 that ranks 9th in the NFL, suggesting they’ve played more like a 10-5 team this season. This spread requires them to win by 13 or more points on the road, so their inability to blow teams out this season is very relevant. They could still blowout a hapless Lions team, so I definitely don’t want to bet on the Lions, but I am taking them for pick ‘em purposes, though this is more of a fade of a slightly overrated Packers team than anything.

Green Bay Packers 27 Detroit Lions 16

Pick against the spread: Detroit +12.5

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (11-3) at Minnesota Vikings (10-4)

The Packers have a one game lead over the Vikings in the NFC North and they won the previous matchup between these two teams back in week 2, but the Vikings have been the more impressive team on the season. While 7 of the Packers’ 11 wins have come by one score or fewer, the Vikings have just 2 wins by one score or less. As a result, the Vikings have a significant edge in point differential at +119 to +47 and in first down rate differential at +4.78% to +0.70%. The Packers are closer to full strength injury wise, with the Vikings missing feature back Dalvin Cook with injury, but I still have the Vikings a couple points better than the Packers in my roster rankings. Given that, the Vikings have a great shot to win the re-match, after falling just short in Green Bay (21-16), where the Packers are close to unbeatable with Aaron Rodgers under center (43-22 ATS since 2011).

Unfortunately, we’re not getting any line value with the Vikings, as the odds makers seem to recognize that the Packers haven’t played quite as well as their record suggests and, as a result, have made them 4.5 point underdogs in Minnesota. My calculated line is actually Minnesota -4, so we’re getting the slightest bit of line value with the visitors, but not nearly enough to take either side with confidence. This is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Green Bay Packers 20

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +4.5

Confidence: None

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (7-6) at Green Bay Packers (10-3)

The Packers are 10-3, but there are reasons to be concerned, especially after an underwhelming home performance against the last place Redskins last week. That 20-15 victory was the Packers’ sixth win by a touchdown or less this season and, with two of their losses coming by more than 15 points, the Packers have a point differential of just +39, 11th in the NFL. That’s despite benefitting from a +11 turnover margin and turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so they’re not necessarily going to continue winning the turnover battle going forward. In terms of of first down rate differential, they rank just 16th in the NFL at +0.43% and they’ve been even worse since a hot start, ranking 20th at -0.77% since week 7.

The Packers are also in a terrible spot, facing a divisional opponent they’ve already beaten with a much bigger divisional game on deck in Minnesota next week. Since 2002, divisional home favorites are just 53-79 ATS against a team they previously beat as road underdogs. On top of that, divisional home favorites are just 30-65 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs and the Packers are currently 4.5 point road underdogs in Minnesota on the early line. They could overlook the Bears a little bit with a bigger game on deck.

Given all of that, I was expecting to be betting on the Bears in this one this week, but unfortunately this line has shifted all the way from a touchdown last week on the early line down to 4 points this week, likely as a result of heavy sharp action on the Packers, with the sharps recognizing the Packers are overrated and in a bad spot. With this line now at 4, I actually think I’m going to take the Packers, at least for pick ‘em purposes.

Even though the Packers aren’t quite as good as their record, I still have this line calculated at Green Bay -5.5, as the Bears have been a middling team at best this season. Facing a much tougher schedule than last season with a less dominant defense, the Bears rank just 19th in first down rate differential at -0.59%. Their defense will get a boost this week with defensive end Akiem Hicks set to return from injury (9 games missed), but I still have the Packers slightly higher in my roster rankings and the Packers have been very tough to beat in Lambeau with Aaron Rodgers, going 42-22 ATS since 2011 in games Rodgers starts and finishes. This is a no confidence pick, but with this line moving to where it has the Packers make sense this week.

Green Bay Packers 24 Chicago Bears 19

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -4

Confidence: None

Washington Redskins at Green Bay Packers: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (3-9) at Green Bay Packers (9-3)

The Packers have been close to an auto-bet at home with Aaron Rodgers under center, going 42-21 ATS since 2011 in games that Rodgers starts and finishes. Unfortunately, we’re not getting good line value with them at home this week. The Packers are 9-3, but 5 of their wins were decided by a touchdown or less, as opposed to just 1 of their losses, and they’ve benefitted from a +11 turnover margin, which tends to be very unpredictable on a week-to-week basis.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Packers rank just 16th at +0.52% and have been even worse in recent weeks, ranking 22nd since week 7 at -0.76%. The Redskins are one of the worst teams in the league, ranking 31st in first down rate differential at -7.07%, but I still only have this line calculated at Green Bay -11.5. I’m still taking Green Bay -13 for pick ‘em purposes because of the Packers’ incredible homefield advantage, but I’m not confident in this one at all. 

Green Bay Packers 27 Washington Redskins 13

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -13

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at New York Giants: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (8-3) at New York Giants (2-9)

The Packers were blown out last week in San Francisco in embarrassing fashion, losing by a final score of 37-8 in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by a whopping 15.87%. Ordinarily, that loss would put the Packers in a good betting spot this week, as they are 35-21 ATS off of a loss with Aaron Rodgers under center. However, the Packers seem to be overrated this week, even after last week’s loss.

The Packers are 8-3 and have Aaron Rodgers so people are going to want to bet on them, but they have more problems than the general public realizes. Their 8-3 record has been boosted by a 5-1 record in games decided by 8 points or fewer and their 8 wins have come by a combined 67 points, while their 3 losses have come by a combined 51 points, giving them a pretty underwhelming point differential of +16. 

That’s despite the fact that the Packers have benefited significantly from turnover margins (5th in the NFL on the season at +8), which are very unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. In terms of first down rate differential, the Packers are dead even at 0.00% and have been even worse in recent weeks, with a -2.22% point differential since week 7 that ranks 23rd in the NFL over that time period. The Giants are just 2-9, but they’ve actually been slightly better in that metric over that time frame, ranking 21st at -1.79%. Overall, the Giants rank 23rd in first down rate differential at -2.29% on the season, struggling on the scoreboard primarily because of a -11 turnover margin that ranks 3rd worst in the NFL.

That being said, it’s hard to get excited about betting the Giants this week because they’re in a tough spot. Not only will the Packers likely be totally focused for this game after a loss last week, but they don’t have any upcoming distractions on deck, with a home game against the Redskins up next on the schedule, a game in which they are currently 14.5-point favorites on the early line. The Giants, meanwhile, have a big rivalry game against the Eagles in Philadelphia on deck, a game in which they are currently 8-point underdogs on the early line. 

Favorites of 6+ are 148-94 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 6+ again the following week, while underdogs of 6+ are 84-132 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 6+ again the following week. Combining the two, underdogs of 6+ are 11-49 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 6+ again the following week when their opponent will be favorites of 6+ again the following week. It’s tough for an inferior team to compete with a superior team with another tough game on deck, especially when the superior team has another relatively easy game on deck. 

The Giants also are missing a pair of key players in their receiving corps, wide receiver Golden Tate and tight end Evan Engram, although they haven’t had a full strength receiving corps all year, so that’s not anything new. Even without those two players, I still have this line calculated at Green Bay -3.5, but I would need the full touchdown with the Giants to wager on them in a tough spot. This is a low confidence pick for now, but I’ll probably have an update tomorrow morning if the line moves.

Final Update: This line has moved to +7 in most places, but Bryan Bulaga is unexpectedly active for the Packers this week after being expected to miss a couple weeks with a knee injury. He may not be 100% and could be at risk of an in game injury setback, but I don’t want to bet on a team in a bad spot with a comparably worse injury situation, so I’m leaving this at a low confidence pick.

Green Bay Packers 24 New York Giants 20

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +7

Confidence: Low

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (8-2) at San Francisco 49ers (9-1)

This is one of the biggest regular season games of the year, with the 8-2 Packers going to San Francisco to take on the 9-1 49ers in a game that could decide the #1 seed in the NFC. Despite their similarly impressive records, the 49ers have statistically been the much better team this season, ranking 1st in first down rate differential at +8.58%, while the Packers rank 15th at +1.51%.  The Packers have had five wins by 8 points or fewer and have just a +45 point differential with a +9 turnover margin, while the 49ers have a +140 point differential with a +5 turnover margin. 

Turnover margins are unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so it’s very notable that the 49ers have been much more impressive on the scoreboard than the Packers despite having less help from turnover margins. However, the Packers have faced a much tougher schedule, as they have faced the third toughest schedule in terms of DVOA, while the 49ers have faced the third easiest. When you adjust for schedule, the statistical gap between these two teams decreases significantly. 

The 49ers also come into this game very banged up. They’re tentatively expected to get top receiving threat George Kittle back from a two-game absence, but he’s expected to be less than 100%, as are wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel, their second and third best pass catchers. They also remain without franchise left tackle Joe Staley, their most explosive running back Matt Breida, impressive rotational defensive end Ronald Blair, top linebacker Kwon Alexander, and starting cornerback Akhello Witherspoon, who will be joined on the sideline this week by dominant edge rusher Dee Ford. Meanwhile, the Packers are relatively healthy right now. 

As a result of all the 49ers’ injuries, the Packers actually have a pretty significant edge in my roster rankings, despite the 49ers having a significant edge in first down rate differential. The Packers are also in a much better spot, with only a trip to New York to play the Giants on deck, while the 49ers have another tough game in Baltimore. Underdogs are 71-36 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs. We’re not getting a ton of line value with the Packers at +3, as I have this line calculated at San Francisco -1.5, but they’re worth a bet in a good spot.

Green Bay Packers 27 San Francisco 49ers 26 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +3

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-3) at Green Bay Packers (7-2)

The Packers surprisingly lost to the Chargers last week, but the Chargers were healthier in that game than they’ve been all season, so it’s not a huge surprise the Packers had trouble with a team that was one of the better teams in the league a year ago. The Packers are still well positioned in the NFC at 7-2 and are still one of my top ranked teams. They also tend to do well off of a loss in the Aaron Rodgers era, going 34-21 ATS off of a loss with Rodgers under center since his first season as a starter in 2008. 

The Packers also head home this week, where they are 41-21 ATS since 2011 in games Rodgers starts and finishes. They face a Panthers team that is 5-3 and that has lost just once in 6 games since inserting backup quarterback Kyle Allen into the lineup for an injured Cam Newton, but that loss came by 38, while some of their wins have been close games that could have gone either way. On the season, they have just a +5 point differential, despite benefitting from a +6 turnover margin that ranks 5th in the NFL. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and the Panthers rank just 21st in the league with a -2.52% first down rate differential. That lines up with my roster rankings, which have them 18th.

I have this line calculated at Green Bay -10, giving us a ton of line value with the Packers as 5-point favorites. The line has shifted a point and a half from the early line last week as a result of the Packers’ loss, but even at -6.5 the Packers would have been an enticing bet. I like their chances of bouncing back at home a lot, against an overrated opponent, especially with a bye on deck. Home favorites of 6+ are 49-17 ATS since 2002 before a bye and, while the Packers aren’t favored by that many points, they should be, so the logic still holds. They should be focused and take care of business without any upcoming distractions. This would be my Pick of the Week if the Packers didn’t have a pair of banged up key defensive backs (Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos), but both seem likely to play through their injuries and the Packers are otherwise healthy.

Green Bay Packers 30 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -5

Confidence: High