Inside NFL | A perilous blueprint

The Green Bay Packers are the defending Super Bowl Champions and have picked up where they left off during last season’s remarkable playoff run. As impressive as the Packers have been in their last 12 games, no one outside of Green Bay entirely saw this coming.

At the end of the 2010 season, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were the league’s elite quarterbacks and the Packers were busy winning their last two games, while receiving help from other teams to limp into the NFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the NFC.

Fast−forward to this season: Green Bay is 8−0 and quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the clear MVP frontrunner as he leads the league with an eight−to−one touchdown−to−interception ratio. Rodgers’ passer rating of 129.1 is 28.5 points ahead of second−place Brees. For some perspective on his dominance, consider that the same margin currently separates second place from 31st.

The Packers’ biggest question mark is their defense. Last season, they were fifth in yardage defense and second in points allowed per game. This year, however, the Packers are allowing the third−most yards per game in the league at 399.6, although that yardage has not translated into points against them. The Packers are 17th in the league in points allowed per game at 22.4, because of a stellar turnover margin of plus−11, good for third best in the NFL.

The outlook is very sunny in Green Bay, as they appear to be head−and−shoulders above the rest of the league. The biggest threats to their throne right now are the 49ers, Ravens and Giants. However, this magical Packers season is headed down a very similar path of another that ended in failure just a season ago.

The 2010 New England Patriots, coming off a disappointing first−round playoff exit the prior year, started slow. They lost in Week 2 to the New York Jets, but then they caught fire and left the rest of the league burnt to a crisp, with a stunning loss to Cleveland in Week 9 standing out as an aberration. New England’s defense actually regressed, however, going from 11th to 25th in total yards allowed per game and fifth to eighth in points allowed per game. This seems incongruous, but it makes sense when you note that, like Green Bay’s, New England’s turnover margin went from plus−six in 2009 to plus−28 in 2010.

In addition to the change in turnover margin, the Patriots got perhaps their best season out of Tom Brady ever — even better than Brady’s record−breaking 2007 campaign. Brady led the league in passer rating at 111.0, 9.2 points ahead of runner−up Philip Rivers, and posted an unprecedented nine−to−one touchdown−to−interception ratio.

The Patriots had all the makings of a Super Bowl title as they went on a stretch of games where they eviscerated future playoff teams, blowing out the Steelers, Jets and Bears, while sandwiching in a potential season−defining three−point victory over the Colts, in which the Pats intercepted Manning three times, including a pick at the New England 6−yard line with 31 seconds to go.

Running through the Packers’ schedule through just eight games, for all the praise they are receiving, their only convincing victories have come against the Rams and Broncos. They have only two other double−digit wins against quality opponents: the Bears and Falcons. Their season−defining victory may have come already in Week 1, when they stuffed the Saints on 4th−and−goal to end the game and preserve an eight−point win.

Rodgers’ offense seems unstoppable, as Green Bay has four receivers with 20 or more catches and at least four touchdowns. The Packers’ rushing attack has been pedestrian, but neither James Starks nor Ryan Grant fumbles the ball much, ensuring that Rodgers has the opportunity to make plays on virtually every drive.

So why, then, is there any reason to worry? As the Patriots highlighted last season, it’s dangerous to rely on turnovers to bail out a defense that allows too many yards. After playing perfect football during the latter half of last season, New England ran into a divisional rival in the playoffs who didn’t turn the ball over and played strong pass defense.

The Packers’ most recent game showed a glimpse of what could go wrong come playoff time. Aaron Rodgers was nearly flawless, completing 21 of 26 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns. Yet, the Chargers had the ball in Green Bay territory with a minute left and a chance to tie the game even after the Packers returned two Rivers interceptions for touchdowns in the first half. Green Bay scored 45 points, but — in a microcosm of their season so far — that was barely enough to top the Chargers’ 38.

Come playoff time, we could see two potential doppelgangers for last year’s Pats−Jets tilt if the Packers face the 49ers or Lions. San Francisco and Detroit are the top two teams in takeaways, yards allowed per game and points allowed per game in the NFC this year—three factors that could help them upset Green Bay when it matters most.