NFC North showdowns at start and finish jump out on Packers’ schedule

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GREEN BAY – It would behoove the Green Bay Packers to start and finish the 2019 season strong.

That’s not to discount the importance of all the games in the middle, but a rather unique structure to the placement of Green Bay’s division games will put an exceedingly high value on how the Packers are playing to begin and end their season.

It was known before Wednesday’s official release of the full schedule that the Packers are opening the NFL’s 100th season in the Thursday night Kickoff Opener against the Bears in Chicago.

But now we know the rest of the NFC North story.

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The Packers follow up that historic, rivalry opener with another division game, a Week 2 visit to Lambeau Field from the Vikings. Fast forward to mid-December, and the Packers are closing the 2019 slate with three straight NFC North contests – at home against the Bears in Week 15, a Monday night at Minnesota in Week 16, and a road trip to Detroit for Week 17.

Wow.

That’s five of the Packers’ six division games bookending the schedule. Only one division game will be played in the intervening 11 contests, with Green Bay hosting Detroit on Monday night in Week 6.

The importance of division games almost can’t be overstated. They constitute nearly 40 percent of the schedule. The quickest route to a playoff spot, and a home game in the postseason, is to win your division. Games against division foes practically count double because the winner is also handing a key rival a loss.

In addition, division games are major factors in any tiebreaking procedure. If two teams tie for the division title and split their head-to-head meetings, division record is the next tiebreaker. Same goes for a tie with a division foe for a wild-card spot.

Since the realignment to four-team divisions in 2002, the Packers have never had their division games laid out exactly like this. Some years have been similar, most recently 2016, when the Packers had division games in Weeks 2-3 and over the final three weeks.

Splitting the two early division games and winning all three at the end as part of “run the table” helped the Packers survive a rough midseason losing streak and still reach the NFC title game that year.

No one wants to endure a midseason slump, but it’s not a death knell to a team that takes care of business in its division games. The Packers have one of those potentially tough stretches to navigate – four road games in a span of five, beginning in late October – but having the Week 11 bye break it up will certainly help.

That’s yet another reason to start strong, that cluster of road games that begins with a trip to AFC runner-up Kansas City in Week 8.

After the opener at Chicago, the Packers will play five of their next six games at home, including two in prime time. It’s a run that screams of opportunity for new Head Coach Matt LaFleur to get the team rolling the right way in the season’s first half.

But make no mistake, the division games on the front and back ends carry the most weight. If the Packers are going to win their first NFC North crown since 2016 in LaFleur’s first year, the opening two and final three games on the schedule will serve as determining factors.

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