The most daunting stretch of the Packers' 2014 schedule is punctuated by a game that no doubt caught Mike McCarthy's eye at first glance.
At Miami, Oct. 12, one o'clock. It's a northern coach's nightmare, every bit as bad or worse than a southern coach facing a game in December in Green Bay.
The average temperature for Miami in October is about 85 degrees. The humidity is similar to what it is in Green Bay, if you're taking a hot shower and you've got the bathroom door closed.
McCarthy took his first Packers team, in 2006, to Miami for a one o'clock game on Oct. 22. The temperature at kickoff was 86 degrees. It was hot, Mike Spofford told me, and the Packers won a gut-check game that concluded a 1-6 start for the Dolphins.
It's the worst time of the season for a northern team to be playing in Florida. Summer is gone in the north and the first cool breezes of fall are beginning to chill the air, but not in Florida. This reporter saw two northern teams that would go on to play in the Super Bowl melt in the Jacksonville heat, one of them against an expansion Jaguars team. Even the Dallas Cowboys couldn't take it, largely the result of having spent training camp in sweater-weather Oxnard, Calif.
Sept. 21-Oct. 12 is a stretch of four games on the Packers' schedule that will go a long way toward deciding this team's fate. If you want to circle something on the schedule, circle those four games, three of which will be against division foes and the fourth a likely test of will.
The NFL likes to do those sorts of things to teams. It likes to create special challenges. It's about creating drama, and the Packers aren't the only team in the league facing one. The Seahawks face a late-season, three-game stretch with a trip to Philadelphia sandwiched between critically important games against the 49ers. While the Seahawks are traveling 3,000 miles east to play the Eagles, the 49ers will be crossing the bay to play the Raiders.
Hey, that didn't happen by mistake. The schedule maker did that on purpose. He can be a bad guy.
How about the poor Raiders? For a seven-week stretch beginning in November, the Raiders are at Seattle, home against Denver, at San Diego, home against Kansas City, at St. Louis, home against San Francisco and at Kansas City. The Raiders will play six games against 2013 playoff teams during that stretch; three of those games will be against teams in last year's conference title games and, of course, the eventual Super Bowl champion and the team it beat in the Super Bowl. What did Reggie McKenzie do to deserve that kind of punishment?
What we must remember is that for every unfavorable stretch of schedule that can punish a team, there's a stretch in its schedule that can reward the team. The Packers' second-half-of-the-season schedule is favorable. It includes five home games, four of which are in a five-week stretch that could become this team's launching pad into the playoffs.
The path to the playoffs for the Packers would seem to be surviving the first half of the season and getting hot in the second half of the season. Four road trips in the first six weeks of the season, punctuated by that game in Miami, is the challenge. It's a challenge that will cause McCarthy to be more intent than ever at hitting his training camp targets.