In the parity-filled, salary cap-controlled NFL, any team can win on any given Sunday. But Packers.com has studied the tea leaves to analyze each of the Packers' 16 regular-season games. In a preview of the Packers' 2006 season, we highlight what to look for in each matchup on this year's docket.
Sunday, Sept. 10 vs. Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears are likely favorites to win the NFC North division crown, according to several pundits. The Bears, who owned the No. 2-ranked defense in the league in 2005, will once again line up a stout unit. Last year five defenders -- Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Nathan Vasher and Mike Brown made the Pro Bowl. More questions exist on the offensive side of the ball. Will Brian Griese supplant Rex Grossman at quarterback? Will Cedric Benson take away some of running back Thomas Jones' carries? Regardless of the answers, expect the Packers season to begin with a low-scoring, slug-it-out game typical of the NFC North.
Sunday, Sept. 17 vs. New Orleans Saints
The Week 5 52-3 romp against the Saints in 2005 was unquestionably the best victory of the year for the Packers. Don't look for this game to unfold as easily for Green Bay. During last year's game, the Packers benefited from two interception returns for touchdowns. Drew Brees, however, replaces Aaron Brooks at quarterback. He has a better pocket presence and should avoid the mistakes that plagued Brooks in 2005. With their training facility and home stadium repaired from Hurricane Katrina's destruction, the Saints do not have to be the road warriors of last year. This game will represent one of eight road games for the Saints instead of 16.
Sunday, Sept. 24 at Detroit Lions
In 2006 the Lions finally may unleash the potential of their talented wide receiving corps. The Lions only had the 26th-ranked passing attack in 2005 despite featuring three former first round draft picks at receiver -- Charles Rogers, Mike Williams and Roy Williams and. Detroit lists them at 6-3, 220; 6-4, 229 and 6-2, 212, respectively. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz favors the passing attack, and quarterback Josh McCown or Jon Kitna will replace Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia as last year's starters. With Martz emphasizing a vertical passing attack, the matchup between the Packers' bump-and-run secondary and the Lions' receivers will be worth watching. Roy Williams called the 6-1, 185-pound Harris one of the best cornerbacks in the league last year.
Monday, Oct. 2 at Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles finished 6-10 last year, but the Packers can expect to face a more competitive team this year under the bright lights of Monday Night Football. Injuries ravaged Philadelphia in 2005 as Shawn Andrews, Jevon Kearse, Donovan McNabb, Lito Sheppard and Brian Westbrook all finished the year on injured reserve. In 2006 they no longer will have to worry about Terrell Owens, now a Dallas Cowboy, causing headaches. Both teams' running backs could serve as the difference in this contest. Samkon Gado rushed for 111 yards in last year's 19-14 Eagles win. Westbrook rushed for 120 yards in that game and racked up 156 receiving yards in the Eagles' 47-17 win in 2004.
Sunday, Oct. 8 vs. St. Louis Rams
This game, which serves as a reunion game for former Rams Ryan Pickett and Robert Thomas, is difficult to prognosticate. The Rams used to be known as an attacking, pass-happy, spread-it-out offense. But with Scott Linehan replacing Martz as head coach, look for a different scheme. Don't be surprised if Steven Jackson receives more carries than the previous runners did in the Rams' system. The Rams ranked 30th in total defense last year, but they have added some new components during the offseason, including linebacker Will Witherspoon, pass rushing interior lineman LaRoi Glover and safety Corey Chavous. They, however, still feature an uneven set of cornerbacks with Jerametrius Butler and Travis Fisher as the likely starters. Look for the Packers to test them through the air.
Sunday, Oct. 22 at Miami Dolphins
This matchup sets up a date with the Packers' former nemesis, quarterback Daunte Culpepper. The Dolphins traded a second-round draft pick to the Vikings for his services. Had the Packers played the Dolphins in the first month of the season, they may have been able to avoid him. Culpepper's rehabilitation from knee surgery could prevent him from playing the first few weeks of the NFL season. Regardless, the Packers, who ranked 23rd in rushing defense last season, may place a higher priority on stopping the Dolphins' running game. Running back Ronnie Brown gained 907 rushing yards as a rookie and became better as the season wore on. With a season under his belt, Brown could have a breakout year, meaning the run-stuffing Pickett could take the spotlight.
Sunday, Oct. 29 vs. Arizona Cardinals
Hosting the Arizona Cardinals used to seem like a game you could mark down in the win column. The Cardinals, however, have added Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James to an offense, which ranked eighth in the league last year. Both starting wide receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, gained more than 1,400 yards-a-piece in 2005, and their jobs will become easier with James aboard. The Cardinals' defense has solid building blocks in defensive end Bertrand Berry, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, cornerback Antrel Rolle and linebacker Karlos Dansby, but their defense had not reached the skill level of their offense. Expect a high-scoring game.
Sunday, Nov. 5 at Buffalo Bills
The Bills will have a very different look this year. Former Packers defensive backs coach Dick Jauron takes over as head coach for Mike Mularkey, and Marv Levy takes over as general manager for Tom Donahoe. The octogenarian Levy will oversee a much younger roster as veterans Eric Moulds, Sam Adams and Lawyer Milloy left during the offseason. Either J.P. Losman or Kelly Holcomb likely will start at quarterback, but Craig Nall signed with Buffalo because he believes he has a fighting chance for the No. 1 slot. If the former Packers quarterback takes the helm, it only will add intrigue to this matchup.
Sunday, Nov. 5 at Minnesota Vikings
With Culpepper traded to the Miami Dolphins, the Packers can breathe a sigh of relief, right? After all Culpepper threw for a combined 484 yards and six touchdowns in his last two games against the Packers. Without him the Vikings will not stretch the field vertically as well as they did before. And Culpepper's replacement, Brad Johnson, is certainly less of a threat as a runner. Johnson, however, still defeated the Packers 20-17 in Lambeau Field last year. With both 2005 games decided by three points, expect another close one even without Culpepper.
Sunday, Nov. 19 vs. New England Patriots
This game should present one of the more challenging matchups for the Packers. The Patriots slipped to 11-5 last year but have won three of the last five Super Bowls. Although their defense lost linebacker/ defensive end Willie McGinest to the Cleveland Browns, a Bill Belichick-coached unit always plays well defensively. If the Patriots do have a weakness, it could be their running game. Their rushing offense ranked 24th in the NFL last year. Running back Corey Dillon only averaged 3.5 yards, but was his decline in performance due to ankle and calf injuries or the fact that he has turned 31-years-old? Look for the Packers, who finished No. 1 in pass defense in 2005, to focus on shutting down the Patriots' passing game. Stopping a two-time Super Bowl MVP like Tom Brady, though, is easier said than done.
Monday, Nov. 27 at Seattle Seahawks
Sure, the Packers defeated the defending NFC Champions 23-17 last year, but this game could be more difficult. Last season's game was played in Week 17, and the Seahawks rested some of their starters, including MVP running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, for a half. The setting will serve as another difference. This game takes place in Seattle's Qwest Field, and the Seahawks did not lose a game there last season. The Packers do have one benefit. By signing former Seahawks safety Marquand Manuel during the offseason, Green Bay weakened the Seahawks' secondary and bolstered its own.
Sunday, Dec. 3 vs. New York Jets
Perhaps no game on the schedule is as difficult to predict as this one. The questions begin at quarterback. Will Patrick Ramsey or Chad Pennington start? Or will the Jets use their fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft to select Matt Leinart, Vince Young or Jay Cutler? If Pennington does become the starter, will he remain effective, coming back from his second major shoulder operation? The questions continue at running back. Curtis Martin averaged a career-low 3.3 yards last year. The 32-year-old could have lost a step, but it's tough to count out a player with more than 14,000 rushing yards. The Jets' performance in a road environment like Lambeau Field will go along a way toward answering these questions.
Sunday, Dec. 10 at San Francisco 49ers
On paper this game looks very winnable. The young 49ers squad, which finished 4-12 last year, lacks gamebreakers at the running back and wide receiver positions. Quarterback Alex Smith enters only his second season in the league. And Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy, the 49ers offensive coordinator in 2005, can use his understanding of the 49ers personnel as an advantage. San Francisco, however, can still upgrade their team with the sixth overall pick in the draft. And don't forget -- the Packers finished 4-12 last year too. So the 49ers likely see this match as a winnable one for their squad as well.
Sunday, Dec. 17 vs. Detroit Lions
With training camp almost five months away, no one knows whether Ahman Green, Samkon Gado or Najeh Davenport will start at running back. But you can bet the Lions do not want to see Gado. In last year's game in Lambeau Field, Gado rumbled for 171 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown run. He also threw a forward pass, which prevented the Packers from giving up a safety. With memories from that 16-13 overtime game still lingering, look for the Lions' run defense, which finished 24th in the league last year, to concentrate on stopping that aspect of the Packers' offense.
Thursday, December 21 vs. Minnesota Vikings
What could juice up one of the NFL's most bitter rivalries? How about when one franchise landmark exchanges his "Green and Gold" helmet for one with horns? Kicker Ryan Longwell, the Packers' all-time leading scorer with 1,054 points, signed with Vikings as a free agent, marking the second year in a row that a former Packer has signed with Minnesota. Safety Darren Sharper did so last year. The Vikings tried to snare another Packer, fullback William Henderson, but he opted to re-sign with the Packers instead. A sure-handed receiver on third downs, Henderson caught 30 passes for 264 yards last year. And a Henderson reception could end up being the difference in another close Packers-Vikings game.
Sunday, December 31 at Chicago Bears
There are a lot of reasons for the Green Bay Packers to want Brett Favre back at quarterback. Playing at Soldier Field is a major one. He has owned the Bears there, possessing an 11-2 career record. Remember the Packers may have lost 19-7 in Soldier Field last year, but Favre still threw for 277 yards. No. 4, however, did admit that last year's Bears defense was the best Bears unit he had seen in some time. Fittingly, the Packers begin and end the 2006 regular season by playing the Bears, continuing the NFL's most prolific rivalry.