2017 NFL Preview: Not exactly 'all in,' but Packers are chasing a title

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

A quarter into a Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles last Nov. 28, the Green Bay Packers were nowhere near a top four NFL team.

Green Bay had lost four in a row and five of six. Aaron Rodgers had finally started to break out of a strange, long slump the week before, but the defense gave up 42 points in a loss to the Washington Redskins. The week before that, Green Bay gave up 47 points in a loss to the Tennessee Titans. Green Bay was 4-6, and tied with the Philadelphia Eagles 7-7 after trading scores in the opening quarter on “Monday Night Football.” The Packers brass would scoff at the notion later, but it sure seemed Mike McCarthy’s seat was plenty hot at that point.

One play didn’t turn around the Packers season, but it seemed significant even in the moment. Rodgers threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams, one of the prettiest tight-window passes you’ll ever see.

Then Rodgers, in his cocksure way, extended his arms and it seemed like he was letting the Packers know he was serious about his “run the table” prediction.

The Packers never trailed again in that game. In fact, they trailed for just 1:44 in all of December, going 4-0 including a blowout win against a good Seattle Seahawks team. They won the NFC North in the season finale at the Detroit Lions, destroyed a strong New York Giants team in their playoff opener and upset a 13-3 Dallas Cowboys team on the road in round two. The magical ride crashed hard at the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game.

Still, after a mysterious stretch of mediocre football – both by the Packers and Rodgers – it seemed something clicked.

We can imagine what might have happened had the Packers 4-6 start turned into 7-9 or worse. Instead, Green Bay made an NFC title game and could start thinking about bigger things. That eight-game winning streak allowed the Packers to go into this offseason confident they had the pieces to win a title. It was a big change from 4-6.

“I don’t think we need to rebuild. We need to reload,” Rodgers said right after the loss to the Falcons. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re going all-in every year to win. And I think we can take a big step this offseason.”

Whether or not those words had any effect, the Packers had perhaps their most aggressive offseason with notoriously conservative general manager Ted Thompson. It wasn’t exactly “all in,” but it was an unexpected big bet by the tightest player at the table.

Thompson signed five veteran free agents. Most offseasons, that number hovers around zero in Green Bay. The key signing was a three-year, $21 million deal to tight end Martellus Bennett.

It’s a little scary to assume an eight-game winning streak means the Packers are all the way back. From Nov. 1 of 2015 through late November of last year the Packers were 9-13, including playoffs. We’re only nine months removed from a million “What’s wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” stories. And those stories were true; for a long stretch Rodgers did not look like himself. Over a 15-game stretch starting Nov. 1, 2015, Rodgers was last in the NFL in completion percentage (58.1), 24th in passing yards per game (233.3) and 25th in passer rating (84.0) according to NFL.com. Rodgers had worse numbers than Brian Hoyer over a 12-game stretch, and failed to have one 300-yard game in that time. There were legitimate excuses for Rodgers’ slump, but it was a slump.

Rodgers can also carry a team unlike any other quarterback. Over that eight-game winning streak late last season, Rodgers had 2,385 yards, 21 touchdowns and one interception for a 117.9 passer rating. It’s impossible to believe any quarterback could play much better over eight games.

We figure Rodgers will be that Rodgers again as we start this season. He’ll make plays that amaze us, and cover up Green Bay’s deficiencies like a patched-together running game and a pass defense that wasn’t able to stop anyone last season. The front office realized that getting Rodgers some help through free agency is not illegal, so maybe he can be even better than last season.

The Packers have mostly been Super Bowl contenders in the Rodgers era, and it seems like they are again. Whatever happened over that long slump seems to be a distant memory.

Aaron Rodgers is looking to make his second Super Bowl. (AP)

The Packers have gotten very little production from their tight ends since Jermichael Finley had to retire after the 2013 season. Aaron Rodgers’ best season was 2011, and that was Finley’s best season too (767 yards, eight touchdowns). Martellus Bennett will be perhaps the best tight end Rodgers has had. Jared Cook had a solid 2016 season on a one-year deal, and Bennett should be an upgrade. The other free-agent additions – tight end Lance Kendricks, cornerback Davon House, guard Jahri Evans and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois – weren’t big-money deals but they should all help. Green Bay’s biggest move was to retain pass rusher Nick Perry on a five-year, $60 million deal. Green Bay did lose some good players in free agency, most notably center J.C. Tretter and guard T.J. Lang. Safety Micah Hyde signed a big deal with the Buffalo Bills. Running back Eddie Lacy was allowed to leave after two disappointing seasons. The Packers’ first four picks were used on defense, and three other picks were used on running backs. While the Packers didn’t have an incredible offseason, it was exciting to see GM Ted Thompson dip into free agency for a change. Grade: B-minus

While a lot was made of the Packers’ uncreative play-calling when their offense was sputtering along, they have the receivers to make up for it. Jordy Nelson’s successful return from ACL surgery was crucial to the offense. Davante Adams rebounded from a terrible 2015 with a 997-yard, 12-touchdown season. Randall Cobb’s numbers have declined since a career year in 2014, but he’s still a dangerous and versatile weapon. Add tight end Martellus Bennett to the mix and the Packers have given Aaron Rodgers perhaps the best overall set of receiving targets in the league.

The Packers were the only team in the NFL to allow more than eight yards per pass play, at 8.1. Only one team (New Orleans Saints) allowed more than the 4,308 passing yards the Packers gave up. Green Bay gave up 32 passing touchdowns, and only two teams allowed more. It’s hard to believe a 10-win team could be so bad stopping the pass. A ton of cornerback injuries played a big role in that. By the end of the season they had to miscast undrafted LaDarius Gunter as their No. 1 cornerback, and that was a significant problem in the playoffs against Dez Bryant and Julio Jones. Perhaps better health and the additions of cornerbacks Davon House (free agency) and Kevin King (second-round draft pick) and safety Josh Jones (second-round pick) will help. The Packers probably need the secondary to be better if they are to make a Super Bowl.

We’re running out of ways to describe Aaron Rodgers’ greatness. His 104.1 passer rating is the best ever, and nobody else is better than 99.6. The last time he threw for double-digit interceptions in a season was 2010. He’s a two-time MVP and will be a candidate to win a third MVP every season for the rest of his prime. Last season he led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes, surprisingly the first time he has ever led the league in that category. Rodgers turns 34 on Dec. 2, so he has a few more years of great football left. Rodgers is one of the best ever, and even though he went through a rough patch for a calendar year, the finish to last season shows he’s as good as ever.

Clay Matthews is still the star of the defense, capable of taking over a game like no other defender on Green Bay’s roster. He hasn’t been the same dominating force the past couple seasons, however. In 2014 he had 11 sacks. In 2015, often having to play out of position at middle linebacker, he had 6.5 sacks. Then last season, playing in only 12 games due to injury, he posted a career-worst five sacks. Hamstring and shoulder injuries were Matthews’ biggest issues last season, and his snaps were limited even when he did play. Matthews had three sacks in his first three games last season before injuries hit, so it’s fair to assume with health he could get back to double-digit sacks. Matthews is 31 years old, so he shouldn’t see a big dip in his play yet.

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “Ty Montgomery has been so commonly discussed as an underrated fantasy RB that he’s become a bit overrated. I challenge you to find a fantasy content provider that hasn’t written a Montgomery hype piece (or three). If you want approval from other league managers in your draft room, then you should definitely target Montgomery. Everyone is quick to type ‘Nice pick!’ after he’s selected. But if you want a high-volume running back with a clear path to double-digit touchdowns, you should probably look elsewhere. Montgomery only delivered one game last season with 10 or more carries. He ran for 222 yards in his two games against Chicago, and just 235 yards in his other 13 games. No one should be surprised if BYU rookie Jamaal Williams holds down a significant supporting role in this team’s backfield. If Montgomery’s average draft position climbs to a spot in which you need him to finish as a 1,000-yard back, veer away to another back.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Packers.]

[Fantasy Football is open! Sign up now]

The Packers, who have made the playoffs eight straight seasons, have had four of their last five seasons end in a road playoff loss. The Packers have one of the best home-field advantages in football, but Aaron Rodgers has never played an NFC championship game at home. “We gotta get one of these at home, man,” Rodgers told Jordy Nelson on the bench near the end of a blowout loss to the Falcons in last season’s NFC title game, as shown by NFL Films. Getting a No. 1 seed is high on the Packers’ priority list, and the road to that starts with a Week 1 home game against a fellow NFC contender, the Seattle Seahawks.

CAN TY MONTGOMERY BE A FULL-TIME RUNNING BACK?

The Packers were running out of options at tailback last season when they tried receiver Ty Montgomery there. It was strange to see No. 88 taking handoffs, but the Packers might have discovered something. Montgomery rushed for 457 yards the rest of the season with a 5.9-yard average. It’s hard to know if he can keep that up over a full season, but it helps to have a full offseason to learn the position. That will especially help in pass protection, an area Montgomery (understandably) struggled in. If Montgomery fails –and that’s possible, considering Montgomery rarely was given a full workload as an emergency substitute last season – rookies Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams will battle to be next in line. Even with an all-time great quarterback, coach Mike McCarthy likes to have balance with a good run game, but he needs a reliable running back to make that work.

The Packers are a rare team. No matter what else is swirling around them, they go into every season feeling they can win a Super Bowl because they have the great Aaron Rodgers. An incredible stretch at the end of last season should make Packers fans even more confident about their team’s chances of making it back to a Super Bowl. Green Bay can get a No. 1 seed, run through the NFC playoffs and then not feel scared by any opponent once they are in a Super Bowl. Having Rodgers allows them to have unending confidence.

This is still a team that finished the 2015 regular season on a 4-6 run and started 2016 on another 4-6 run. There were some ugly blowout losses during the first 10 weeks of last season. While whatever bothered the offense in that stretch seems to have been fixed, it’s dangerous to ignore the bad games and focus on the eight games Green Bay won at the end of the season. While we just assume a team with Aaron Rodgers will win the NFC North, we’ve seen Rodgers and Green Bay have significant struggles recently. What if that happens again?

If the Packers’ pass defense is fixed, the interior of the offensive line holds up and the run game is at least competent, Green Bay is one of the few teams that could beat New England in a Super Bowl. When Aaron Rodgers is rolling, the Packers can beat anyone. Go back and look at how Green Bay blasted Seattle last season, or the road playoff win against a very good Cowboys team. I think Green Bay picks up where it left off. Because its schedule is easier than some of the other top-shelf teams in the NFC, I can see Green Bay grabbing that home-field advantage Rodgers wants. I’d like the Packers’ chances of winning a conference championship if that happens.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders
8. Kansas City Chiefs
7. New York Giants
6. Seattle Seahawks
5. Dallas Cowboys

– – – – – – –

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!