After months of public drama, Aaron Rodgers decided to remain in Green Bay. He will return for what is widely assumed to be his final season with the Packers. The question is whether the team has enough cohesion to advance to Super Bowl with a quarterback who wants to go elsewhere. And that starts with a Week 1 game against the New Orleans Saints.
In 2020, the Saints won their fourth divisional title in a row. They also ended a third straight season with a defeat at home in the playoffs. But multiple valuable contributors left after last season most notably quarterback Drew Brees. With uncertainty as to what Jameis Winston (and Taysom Hill) can provide under center, a playoff appearance is suddenly in question.
Green Bay leads the series between these two teams, 17-9, but New Orleans has won three of the past five meetings. Due to Hurricane Ida’s landfall near New Orleans, this game will take place at TIAA Bank Field (Jacksonville Jaguars' home stadium) in Jacksonville, Florida.
Green Bay vs. New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 12 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Where: TIAA Bank Stadium (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Spread: Packers -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Can anyone fill the void left by the Saints' leading receivers in 2020?
Three of the Saints' four leading receivers in 2020 will not play in this game. Michael Thomas, fourth on the team in receptions (45) and fifth with 511 receiving yards, will miss several games to start the campaign due to his recovery from ankle surgery he underwent in June. Tight end Jared Cook, cut by the Saints after the season and now with the Chargers, led the team in receiving touchdowns (seven) and finished third in receptions (46) and receiving yards (572). And Emmanuel Sanders had the second-most receptions (69) and receiving yards (777) while tying for third in receiving touchdowns (five). He signed with the Bills in May.
The Saints will need several players to boost their contributions from last season. Tre’Quan Smith finished fifth on the team in receptions (37), fourth in receiving yards (533), and second in touchdowns (six). Deonte Harris caught 27 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown while playing in only 11 games. Preseason darling Marquez Callaway had 21 catches for 213 yards, while fellow second-year player Adam Trautman contributed 16 receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown. New Orleans will be leaning on Alvin Kamara to continue his huge outputs after he led the team in receptions (88) and receiving yards (793) last year and added five touchdown catches.
2. Are the Packers able to protect Aaron Rodgers?
Opponents sacked Rodgers just 25 times in 18 games last season. That is an improvement over the two previous seasons when he was sacked 41 times over 18 games in 2019 and 49 times in 16 games in 2018. Overall, only the Steelers (14) gave up fewer sacks than the Packers did in the 2020 regular season. Will the absence of starting left tackle David Bakhtiari (torn ACL) and center Corey Linsley (free agency) diminish the offensive line’s continuity?
The Saints’ defensive efforts contributed much to their 12-4 record and advancement to the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs. New Orleans finished eighth in the NFL with 45 sacks. The defense ranked fifth in the league with 113 quarterback hits.
However, The absence of two Saints’ defensive linemen must be noted. Trey Hendrickson led the squad with 13.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits. David Onyemata had the third-most sacks (6.5) and was tied for second with 16 quarterback hits. Hendrickson left for Cincinnati while Onyemata will be serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
New Orleans’ defense did retain some notable figures. Cameron Jordan racked up 7.5 sacks (second on the team) and 16 quarterback hits (tied for second). Carl Granderson picked up five sacks (fourth) and nine QB hits (fifth), and Demario Davis had four sacks (fifth) and 12 QB hits (fourth). Can these players and the other Saints defenders offset the loss of Hendrickson and Onyemata’s productivity?
3. How will the change of venue affect the teams?
The NFL had originally scheduled this game in the climate-controlled Superdome, which would have been filled with tens of thousands of raucous Saints fans. Instead, it will take place outdoors in steamy Jacksonville in front of a presumably sparse crowd. Does the change favor either team?
Despite playing home games in an indoor stadium, the Saints regularly practiced outdoors during training camp at their facility in a suburb of New Orleans. They withstood temperatures in the 90s with very high humidity regularly during their outdoor workouts and will face nearly identical conditions in Jacksonville.
The Packers, in contrast, will face an unpleasant meteorological contrast. They spent their training camp in Green Bay, where the daily temperatures averaged 71 degrees, peaking around 81 degrees.
Rodgers has a little bit of experience leading the Packers in road games in Florida during September, though. During a victory in Jacksonville in 2016, he completed 20 of 34 passes for two touchdowns with no interceptions and just one sack. In 2008, during a loss at Tampa Bay, he completed 14 of 27 pass attempts for 165 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions while being sacked three times.
This contest should resemble the one from 2020 despite the change of venue and large number of new faces on the Saints’ sideline. Neither team had a lead greater than seven points until two minutes left in the game. Green Bay scored a touchdown at that point to give the Packers enough cushion to win, 37-30.
The weather will take a heavy toll on the Packers, making this game competitive late into the fourth quarter. Green Bay will likely have as many fans in the stands as the Saints, so no one will have an advantage with crowd noise. The Packers are a more solidified squad, so they will escape with a hard-fought victory.
Prediction: Packers 30, Saints 24
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.