GLS Preview: Green Bay Packers

On paper, the Green Bay Packers clearly have the right formula to make it two in a row in 2011. See, with many Super Bowl winners, the window is closing on a veteran-laden roster. In Green Bay, the window is just opening up. This is a young team that only seems to be getting better.

And this year, they’re healthier. At least in the early stages.

As hard as it is for me to admit, the reason only eight Super Bowl winners have been able to duplicate the feat in the following season is that luck plays an extraordinarily large role in the championship shuffle.

Defending champions not only have to play their schedule with a target on their back, but they also have to hope that they don’t suffer from a Super Bowl hangover (recent victims include the 2009 Steelers, the 2006 Steelers and the 2003 Buccaneers).

In addition to sort of being in the right place at the right time, the biggest challenge is usually staying healthy. It’s not easy to do so in back-to-back seasons. But that comes with the assumption that the team in question is healthy in its initial championship campaign.

The Packers weren’t.

That’s what made their 2010 Super Bowl season so remarkable. They won it all despite a multitude of injuries to key players. It was a serious concern throughout the year, but they were deep enough to compensate for their losses and secure their fourth Lombardi Trophy.

Clay Matthews is healthier this year. So are Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and Morgan Burnett. Because of that, the Packers are actually better now than they were in February.

And that’s downright scary.

2010 in a nutshell: They survive several big injuries and, despite settling for a wild-card spot in the NFC, hit their stride going into the playoffs. The rest is Super Bowl history.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. The loss of Cullen Jenkins will hurt: Nick Barnett and Daryn Colledge, who signed with Buffalo and Arizona respectively, are easily replaceable. Jenkins, who signed with Philadelphia, is not in the same boat. He was a force as a pass rusher and stellar against the run when necessary as a 3-4 end in Green Bay, leaving a hole to be filled. The Packers’ pass rush will probably survive with young star-in-the-making B.J. Raji likely shifting to end. But Ryan Pickett and Mike Neal might not be as effective in run defense, and Neal is having injury issues already. The Packers had one of the worst run defenses in the league in 2010, and it certainly doesn’t improve with Jenkins’ departure shaking things up.

2. Aaron Rodgers will be even better: Statistically speaking, Rodgers was one of the top three quarterbacks in the league last year. Add Finley and Grant back into the fray and consider all of the maturation that took place when he got the postseason monkey off of his back in January and February and there’s no reason to believe Rodgers won’t continue to slap together a Hall of Fame resume as he only enters his prime at the age of 27.

3. Randall Cobb will become a household name: The second-round pick has been a training camp superhero, which doesn’t necessarily mean much. But there’s an opening for a young athlete like him in the Green Bay offense. Donald Driver is old and James Jones and Jordy Nelson have lacked consistency. Greg Jennings and Finley (if fully healthy) are undoubtedly Rodgers’ top targets, but Cobb will have a chance to contribute in the slot while returning punts and maybe even taking some wildcat snaps.

The final word(s): They should easily win the division, but the Eagles got significantly better as well. A Philly-Green Bay NFC championship game makes a lot of sense. I’m giving them a 13-3 regular-season record.