GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers this week declared the Packers in the midst of “the toughest stretch” of their 2019 schedule.
Which puts a boatload of importance on Sunday’s game with the Raiders, for multiple reasons.
First, let’s examine what Rodgers meant by calling this the toughest stretch. The Packers just played an NFC North rival in Detroit that was coming off a bye week, and now on a short week they’re taking on an uncommon opponent in Oakland also coming off a bye.
Teams are often able to throw their best punches after a full week of rest and recovery, and the Packers surely faced Detroit’s. Expect no different Sunday from Jon Gruden’s Raiders.
Fast forward to next week, and the Packers will be traveling to Kansas City with the Chiefs coming off a mini-bye following a Thursday night game, though their extra rest will be little consolation for losing MVP QB Patrick Mahomes to a knee injury.
But Rodgers also pointed to this stretch as difficult because of how banged up the Packers are. The injury report only got longer over the past week, and as a result, little-known Allen Lazard came out of nowhere to lead the fourth-quarter rally against the Lions.
Other young, unproven players must continue rising to the occasion for the Packers to keep winning, and they have four more games to navigate before what will hopefully serve as a get-healthy bye of their own.
Injuries aside, though, the value of beating the Raiders to get to 6-1 can’t be overstated with the Packers playing four of their next five games (with the bye week mixed in) on the road. Two of those are long West Coast trips to play the Chargers and 49ers. The Packers will be travel-weary by the time December rolls around.
Thus far, the Packers have taken advantage of their home-heavy early schedule to lead the NFC North at 5-1. The one loss was at home and Green Bay is 2-0 on the road so far, but four road games in a span of five contests is another matter, regardless of the opponents.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re locked in and understand everything’s right in front of us,” Rodgers said. “It really is. We’re in the mix in the NFC.”
This NFC, as Rodgers emphasized, looks deep and loaded. The Packers are one of four teams – along with the 49ers, Seahawks and Saints – with five wins already, while the Vikings and Panthers each have four. For the record, Green Bay’s one home game over its next five is against Carolina.
Then the defending NFC champion Rams are 3-3 and making trades to improve, while the defending NFC North champion Bears are 3-2. It already appears a high-quality team or two won’t make the playoffs in the NFC simply because there won’t be room for everybody.
The NFC North alone is going to be a season-long battle. Heading into Week 7, it’s the only division in football that doesn’t have a team with a losing record. If the Lions beat the Vikings at home on Sunday, that will hold true heading into Week 8.
Any advantage the Packers can maintain in the division right now is worthwhile, and getting to 6-1 would keep them the only one-loss team in the NFC North.
“We’ve got to put ourselves in position to be right there in the mix come December football,” Rodgers said.
Not that anyone is looking that far ahead, because the Packers were brought back down to earth once already this season. After a 3-0 start and constant hype surrounding the revamped defense and how good it might be, the Eagles came into Lambeau and rolled up 34 points.
This game can humble anyone, and any team, quickly. The Packers believe they’ve found the right mix of confidence and steadiness, a belief in what they have with an even-keeled approach to the grind.
Use that to chalk up another win before the run of road games and they’ll be in as good a spot as they could ask for.
“You expect to be here, so it’s not too much excitement,” veteran safety Adrian Amos said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re doing well.’ You expect to do well when you prepare well, so each and every week we have to come with that same mindset.
“I don’t feel like you have to tell this team to stay grounded. It’s a lot of leaders on defense, it’s a lot of leaders on the team, and everybody holds each other accountable. Our goal wasn’t to be 5-1. Our goal is a lot further than that.”