Don't write the Packers into the Super Bowl just yet. Just as Green Bay has finally shown some chinks in its armor in December, its primary challengers for NFC supremacy are looking more and more formidable.
New Orleans has been the best team in the league of late, with a seven-game win streak that includes victories over playoff teams in the Falcons (twice) and the Lions as well as a 25-point blowout of the Giants. Drew Brees, who broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record with one game to spare, has his offense operating with head-turning efficiency. The streaking Saints have averaged 498 yards in their last five games.
The Packers' other main NFC roadblock excels on the other side of the ball.
The 49ers, who showed their playoff chops with a 20-3 pounding of Pittsburgh two weeks ago, the Steelers' lowest scoring output in more than four years, boast a punishing defense the likes of which Aaron Rodgers & Co. haven't seen this year. San Francisco allows 13.5 points per game, the best mark of any team in the last five years, and leads the league in turnover margin at +26, four better than Green Bay.
Meanwhile, the Packers have shown in the last month that they may not be the slam-dunk Super Bowl team that their white-hot start indicated.
First, the Giants gave the defending champs all they could handle, succumbing only after Rodgers' final-minute heroics lifted the Packers to a 38-35 triumph. Then two weeks later, Green Bay suffered a surprising stumble at then-5-8 Kansas City, losing 19-14 to suffer its first blemish.
Even the seemingly invincible Rodgers came back to earth a bit, registering his season low in passer rating and completion percentage in three straight games before responding with a five-touchdown gem against Chicago.
The Packers' invincible aura is certainly gone.
The New York game showed Green Bay could be vulnerable in a shootout -- just the type of affair it would likely have if it meets New Orleans in the NFC Championship game. Yes, the Packers prevailed 42-34 at Lambeau in the teams' season-opening matchup. But the Saints' versatile rushing attack and Brees' pyrotechnics in the passing game mean New Orleans (12-3) is uniquely positioned to grapple with Green Bay in a high-scoring affair.
Then the Kansas City defense did what appeared impossible, dictating pace and style to the NFL's top-scoring offense, albeit a shorthanded Packer unit. The Chiefs' harassment of Rodgers in a four-sack showing now stands as the blueprint for teams that would favor forcing Green Bay into a grind-it-out, ball-control game -- otherwise known as the San Francisco special.
The 12-3 49ers have mastered the art of dismantling opponents' offensive flow. Teams have all but given up trying to run on San Francisco's stone wall of a front seven -- the runaway league leader in run defense became the first team in NFL history not to allow a rushing touchdown through 14 games before Seattle's Marshawn Lynch finally broke through for a score last week. Forcing opponents into a one-dimensional game plan allows an opportunistic secondary and disciplined pass rush to wreak havoc.
A potential Green Bay-San Francisco showdown in the NFC Championship would be the most anticipated playoff matchup of the year. The best offense (the Packers average 34.3 points) against a historically stout defense. Rodgers, who is threatening to break Peyton Manning's single-season passer rating mark, facing a 49er defense that has amassed 36 takeaways, including at least three in eight games.
While it's easy to foresee a Packers-Saints matchup as another pinball-like game in which points pile up at a dizzying rate, it's a mystery how Green Bay would fair against San Francisco. The Packers haven't faced a single team ranked in the top 14 in scoring defense.
At this juncture, it appears that Green Bay would have its hands full against either the Saints or the 49ers. But the saving grace for the defending champs is that they would only have to face one of those challengers -- in an NFC Championship matchup at Lambeau.
That the 14-1 Packers have positioned themselves to have an easier divisional round game is why they still have to be considered the favorite to reach the Super Bowl. But make no mistake, what earlier seemed a Green Bay stranglehold on NFC preeminence has loosened considerably.
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