On a snowy day on the Chicago lakefront, Aaron Rodgers’ value to the Green Bay Packers became crystal clear. Without him, they had no prayer. With him, their prayers were answered.
Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone in Week 17 and fired a last-minute touchdown pass to stun the Bears and send the Packers to the playoffs. It was one of the most memorable moments of last season.
It’s relevant to recall now because another NFL season is beginning, and my money is still riding on Rodgers, just as it was on that dramatic Sunday in late December.
For several reasons, it feels like this will be Rodgers’ season. It’s an educated guess, based on research and a hunch, but the Packers are primed for a big-time comeback. Rodgers is healthy again, for one reason, and in his prime at age 30, for another reason.
Training camps are opening around the league, and optimism is everywhere, even in Jacksonville. Fans are getting drunk on hope. The bettors who were losers last year believe they will be winners this year.
The first snap in Broncos camp did not sail over Peyton Manning’s head for a safety. This is a fresh start. Despite a Super Bowl disaster, Denver remains the public’s pick to win it all.
“The most tickets are written on Denver,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said of Super Bowl futures. “The Packers are popular with Rodgers coming back. When he got hurt, they went south.”
Vaccaro noted Seattle and San Francisco are getting lots of support, too, and that’s no surprise. The Seahawks knocked out the 49ers, who knocked out the Packers. But this season will be as different as fingerprints and snowflakes.
Green Bay was 5-2 last season when Rodgers went down. The Packers went 2-5-1 without him, and their playoff hopes were circling the toilet bowl and about to be flushed when he returned to win the NFC North in that all-or-nothing finale in Chicago.
Rodgers has the highest passer rating in NFL history. He has won 67 percent of his starts and a Super Bowl. He’s younger and more mobile than Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. In the near future, he’ll probably be considered the top quarterback in the league.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy is gearing up to run a faster-paced offense this season, one that will play to Rodgers’ strengths of reading and exposing defenses. He has a better offensive line, two reliable running backs (Eddie Lacy and James Starks) and two explosive receivers (Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb).
The defense was a problem last season, but it’s improved. Julius Peppers was added to a solid line, Clay Matthews is an elite outside linebacker, and the cornerbacks are physical playmakers.
Green Bay should dominate the division, especially Detroit and Minnesota, teams with less talent and new head coaches. The Bears will be contenders again, but Rodgers against Jay Cutler is an unfair fight.
For now, forget about Super Bowl futures and regular-season win totals. CG Technology sports books, formerly named Cantor Gaming, has posted proposition bets on teams to make the playoffs, with odds offered on 21 teams.
The “Yes” side on the Packers is minus-160, and I’ll lay that price and expect it to pay off, assuming Rodgers avoids another injury.
New England (minus-475), Denver (minus-400), Seattle (minus-260) and San Francisco (minus-240) are the biggest favorites to reach the playoffs. The Seahawks and 49ers are competing in the league’s toughest division, so those prices are adjusted accordingly.
I lean “Yes” on New Orleans (minus-165) and Pittsburgh (plus-100) to make the playoffs and “No” on Cincinnati (minus-110). But those opinions at this early stage are for entertainment purposes.
What do the computers say? Paul Bessire of PredictionMachine.com ran 50,000 simulations for the season and the results showed Kansas City, Carolina, San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, in that order, as the most likely teams to miss this season’s playoffs that made last season’s playoffs.
The Chiefs reached the postseason in 16.6 percent of the simulations, giving them just the 25th-best chance of being a playoff team.
On the flip side, Houston made the playoffs in 48.5 percent of the simulations, and at CG Technology books, the “Yes” side on the Texans is plus-225.
Arizona, Pittsburgh, Miami, the New York Giants and Baltimore, in that order, are the next most likely teams to make this postseason after missing last season’s playoffs.
Last season, 13 of the 16 games in Week 17 had playoff implications, setting up a dramatic finish.
Rodgers and the Packers got in the hard way. This season, there should be no doubt about it. But that’s easy to say in July.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.