Why Sporting News was wrong to predict Packers would miss NFL playoffs

The one guarantee about NFL preseason predictions is that there will be something wrong with them. The league, by nature, is unpredictable, and there tends to be recency bias when picking what teams will make the playoffs in a given year.

For Sporting News, our biggest whiff was not thinking the Packers would make the playoffs for a second consecutive season with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, about to win his third NFL MVP, and coach Matt LaFleur. Instead, Green Bay went 13-3 again and won the NFC North again in 2020, ascending to the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs for 2021.

Green Bay fan blogs and message boards have had their fun mocking that pick on social media. Now it’s SN’s turn to take back that misery and revel in the Packers’ amazing season that exceeded all follow-up expectations. SN wasn’t alone in its skepticism about the Packers duplicating their success — we just should have seen them improving vs. regressing to the mean.

Much of it was tied to looking at Green Bay having only a 63-point differential (376 for, 313 against) while handling one of the NFL’s weaker schedules to get 13 wins in 2019. The Packers actually gave up more points in 2020, 369. But the big difference was the fact they scored 509 points, an incredible bump of 133 points year over year, averaging more than eight points more game.

Because of that 140 points differential, more than double, their 13-3 season was legitimate in terms of matching Pythagorean win expectations in 2020. SN projected the Packers to finish 9-7, which was more in line of being the same team from 2019.

It was easy to get caught looking at the narrative of the Packers not investing to improve enough around Rodgers and also not changing things up much defensively. The Packers simply had their current personnel all perform better, led by Rodgers being more comfortable in the second year of LaFleur’s offensive system.

The Packers went from the No. 15 rushing offense to the No. 8 rushing offense in 2020. Despite being a 55-percent passing team, Rodgers’ arguable career-best play shot them up from the No. 19 passing offense to the No. 9 passing offense.

Defensively, the Packers went from No. 10 against the pass to No. 7. They made a bigger leap against the run, from No. 26 to No. 14.

Contrary to popular belief, Rodgers had a strong all-around 2019 season at 36. He just saw running back Aaron Jones score 19 touchdowns, which helped keep his passing stats more modest.

Rodgers’ work in 2020, however, mirrored his MVP seasons of the past and he did it with fewer attempts (526 vs. 569) and some unprecedented numbers. His 48 TDs passes and 70.7 completion percentage were career highs. He also posted 9.6 adjusted yards per attempt and a 121.5 efficiency rating, second-best to only 2011 in both categories.

The Packers’ decision to use a first-round pick on a quarterback, Jordan Love, and not give Rodgers more playmakers ended up being a shrewd move. You can bet Love’s drafting motivated and revved up Rodgers for his rejuvenation, and he proved he could make it work with what the Packers already had.

He turned go-to guy Davante Adams into the unquestioned best wideout in the NFL with his career-high 18 TDs. Rodgers didn’t get the jumps from wide receiver Allen Lazard or tight end Jace Sternberger, but he compensated with big plays to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and finding a different red zone force in Robert Tonyan.

The Vikings, Sporting News’ pick to edge the Packers for the division, never could quite recover from a slow start and major defensive woes tied to injury and inexperience. Instead of the Packers facing factors to drop them out of the playoffs from a top spot, that team was the injury-riddled 49ers, whom the Packers displaced as the No. 1 seed.

The Packers, on top of rolling through the NFC North (5-1), took advantage of the AFC South (3-1) and NFC South (3-1) on the schedule. They got a critical Week 3 statement win at the Saints that ensured they would get home-field advantage and the lone playoff bye later.

In the end, there wasn’t much shakeup in the NFC. The Packers and Saints held form, while the Seahawks elevated to take back the division over the 49ers. The Rams replaced the 49ers as a second NFC West representative in the playoffs. The Buccaneers lived up to expectations to take the Vikings’ spot, while the Bears, swept badly by the Packers, simply benefited from an extra wild-card spot.

There was too much consideration of what the Packers just did to overachieve and what they just didn’t do on paper to upgrade personnel. There was less looking at their potential to fire higher on all cylinders with LaFleur and discounting Rodgers had one more massive career spike left.

Elite quarterbacking. Great coaching. Youngsters rising everywhere. There were more signs of the Packers pushing forward to stay ahead of the competition, vs. suffering a slide. Doubting the Rodgers Rate of return is never a good idea.

While Sporting News is busy cleaning the cheese out of our heads, congratulations to the Packers and their fans for a potential run to Super Bowl 55. Green Bay earned it in every which way.

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