NFL schedule makers gave the Green Bay Packers a gauntlet first seven weeks to start the 2012 season.
Record-wise, only the Denver Broncos (.632) and Jacksonville Jaguars (.615) have had to navigate a more difficult schedule than the Packers, whose first seven opponents are a combined 28-18 (.609) in 2012. Among those seven opponents are the 5-2 San Francisco 49ers (NFC Championship Game participant), the 5-1 Chicago Bears (completely healthy), the 4-3 Seattle Seahawks (still unbeaten at home), the 2-4 New Orleans Saints (13-game winner in 2011), the 6-1 Houston Texans (arguably the best team in the AFC) and the 3-4 St. Louis Rams (who were previously undefeated at home).
To top it all off, the Packers had to go on the road for three-straight games (Indianapolis, Houston and St. Louis) for the first time since 1998.
Finally, the schedule in Week 8 affords the Packers a break. Home for the first time in a month, Green Bay will welcome the 1-5 Jacksonville Jaguars, who may be the worst team the Packers have hosted at Lambeau Field since the 0-16 Detroit Lions in 2008. That isn't just hyperbole. Various betting websites have the Packers as anywhere from 12.5- to 15.5-point favorites.
The Packers have had many reasons for losses this season, including injuries, bad luck and a very difficult schedule. But in Week 8, the schedule will not play a factor. The Packers are big favorites for a reason.
Here are some other things you could watch Sunday:
These are two of the NFL's most beat-up football teams. For both Jacksonville and Green Bay, Wednesday's practice was a who's who of players missing.
The Jaguars listed 10 players on their injury report, many key contributors. Among those included running back Maurice Jones-Drew, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, linebacker Daryl Smith, receiver Laurent Robinson, cornerback Rashean Mathis and safety Dwight Lowery.
The Packers were even more limited numbers-wise. 12 names landed on Green Bay's injury report, including receiver Greg Jennings, cornerback Sam Shields, linebacker Nick Perry, receiver Donald Driver, cornerback Charles Woodson, nose tackle B.J. Raji, receiver Jordy Nelson, guard T.J. Lang and fullback John Kuhn. In fact, Mike McCarthy had to end practice early because of all the injuries.
Both teams have big names to replace this week. Effectively handling all the injury stress is just one factor in the winning equation Sunday.
Prepare for the blitz
Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is starting to run out of ideas on how to get his pass rush started. Through seven weeks, Jacksonville is dead last in the NFL in sacks with five. While there is some talent up front—defensive end Jeremy Mincey and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton among them—things just haven't clicked in getting to the passer.
On the road as a big underdog, and with nothing else working, expect Tucker to throw the house at Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. While blitzes haven't been the blueprint in stopping Rodgers, Tucker can't plan on rushing just four for most of Sunday and having his defense live to tell about it. He may be in trouble either way, but at least bringing some added heat on Rodgers is going down swinging.
Matthews and Monroe
If there's been one bright spot for the Jaguars on offense, left tackle Eugene Monroe would likely be it.
According to Pro Football Focus, Monroe has allowed just 10 pressure plays (two sacks, one quarterback hit and seven pressures) over 221 pass-blocking snaps. Eugene stone-walled both Jared Allen and Julius Peppers in their respective matchups in 2012.
Opposite Monroe Sunday will be Clay Matthews, who registered a sack and hurry last week but was expected to be more disruptive against a backup left tackle in St. Louis. The Packers may gameplan to move Matthews around the formation to avoid Monroe. There's plus-matchups at most spots up front, but Monroe on the left side probably isn't one of them.
Run to the finish line
The Packers run game has once again come under fire after a sub-par performance against the Rams in Week 7. The numbers, especially for Alex Green (20 rushes, 35 yards), were ugly. But like McCarthy has said on so many occasions, yardage totals aren't as relatively important to the Green Bay offense as the amount of times the Packers run in a given game.
Sunday against the Jaguars, both areas should click.
Not only should the Packers have a chance to run early and especially late, but production should follow. Jacksonville is 29th against the run this season (147.3 yards/game), while also allowing over 200 yards in two separate games in 2012.
The Packers won't get to 200 yards on the ground, but it's reasonable to think Green and the running backs get something more started Sunday. By the fourth quarter, there should be opportunities to finish out the football game via the run.
For two weeks, the Packers used a wave of criticism as motivation to turn around their 2012 season. Now, after back-to-back convincing wins and with an inferior opponent on the schedule, that criticism has disappeared altogether. Will this team lose some of that edge Sunday?
By any statistical measure, the Packers should cruise past a bad Jacksonville team. Stick with me as we run down some of these horrendous numbers and rankings:
In 2012, the Jaguars are ranked 32nd in passing (144.8 yards/game), 25th in rushing (91.0), 32nd in total offense (235.8), 30th in red zone touchdown percentage (40.0), 24th in passing defense (264.5), 29th in rushing defense (147.5), 28th in total defense (411.8), 26th in scoring defense (27.3), 32nd in sacks (five), 32nd in first downs (83) 32nd in third down percentage (26.6), 32nd in yards per attempt (5.6) and 23rd in third down percentage allowed (41.8).
Anywhere you look, Jacksonville is ranked in the bottom third of the NFL. The Packers, playing at home, will be expected to blowout the Jaguars. How does this team look as expectations change?
Big upsets happen in the NFL. Remember the Arizona Cardinals, wrote off as 13-point underdogs in New England, stunning the Patriots in Week 2? Or Green Bay falling on its face as double-digit favorites in Tampa Bay (2009) and Kansas City ('11)? These kind of ground-shaking losses can happen.
It just won't happen Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers should have time to film a couple more commercials in the pocket Sunday, and it's difficult to visualize the Jaguars scoring more than their season average (just 14.7 points/game) without their best offensive player. Tack on the comfy feeling of being back at home after a month away, and the Packers should roll.
38 points may be a conservative prediction with the way this offense is humming right now, but there could be a Graham Harrell sighting late in the fourth quarter.
Packers 38, Jaguars 13 (Season record: 2-5)
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.