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Dougherty: Weather or not, Packers focusing in on securing NFC's top seed

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - The NFL’s home-field advantage ain’t quite what it used to be in this season of COVID-19 and mostly empty stadiums.

According to the Washington Post, since 2002 (when the league expanded to 32 teams) through last year, home teams won 57 percent of the games.

But this season? They’re a shade under .500 (84-85-1), and while everyone still covets the top seeding in each conference — mainly for the lone first-round bye — the home-field advantage isn’t what it would be in a normal year.

The difference mostly comes down to one factor: noise. Playing offense on the road with a capacity crowd at full throat, especially in thunderous venues such as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans and newly renamed Lumen Field in Seattle, is tougher than playing at home. No getting around that.

Of the NFC’s contenders for the top seeding, the New Orleans Saints will probably have the most fans at home games, and they hold the top spot. They had about 6,000 fans at their last home game and according to reports are hoping to expand that to 15,000 for their final two regular-season games, if the city allows.

Getting any higher than that seems a stretch, especially with the possibility of another COVID-19 spike over the holidays. And 15,000 fans spread around the Superdome for social distancing just isn’t enough to force a visiting offense to go with a silent count.

“No, unless they pipe in artificial noise!” an offensive line coach in the NFL texted me late this past week.

Without crowd noise making a practical difference, there’s still one contender for the NFC’s home field that would benefit more than the rest: the Green Bay Packers.

Let’s face it, nobody wants to come to Green Bay to play in January, especially from warm climates. There’s nothing teams from the South and West can do to acclimate. They just have to suck it up and play.

“This is why we love the friendly confines of Lambeau Field in the wintertime,” Aaron Rodgers said last week after the Packers’ home win over Chicago, “because there's a lot of elements. The footing, also the wind, we've had wind in the last three or four home games that makes it difficult to throw at times for guys who aren't used to this weather. But this is the type of weather we enjoy playing in.”

Only Rodgers knows how much of that he actually believes — does he really like playing in blustery winds or finger-numbing cold? — and how much is gamesmanship. But it doesn’t diminish the edge the Packers (8-3) would have over the other contenders for the top seeding: New Orleans (9-2), Seattle (8-3) and the Los Angeles Rams (7-4), if you want to throw them in there. Same for the other two teams over .500 in the NFC, Tampa Bay (7-5) and Arizona (6-5).

All are in warm or at least temperate (Seattle) climes. They aren’t used to the cold and can’t practice in it. The Packers, on the other hand, have to deal with the weather daily just living it. And coach Matt LaFleur often takes his team outside to practice in the winter.

The top seeding also carries an edge that’s a product of a seventh team added to the playoffs this year: the lone first-week bye. Normally, the top two seeds get the first weekend off.

There’s probably not a coach in the league who wouldn’t want that, even if his team was hot. Injured players get a free week to heal, and no one is at risk of getting hurt on game day. Though the Packers are getting healthier, they’d surely relish a week off in early January.

So what are the Packers’ chances? Well, the Saints are sitting atop the standings now, but they’ll play at least the next two or three weeks, and possibly more, without Drew Brees (broken ribs). Their schedule also includes the league’s best team, Kansas City.

The Packers are a game behind the Saints but need only tie them in the standings to get the top seeding — the Packers have the head-to-head tiebreaker because they beat New Orleans earlier this year.

Below is a thumbnail look at the NFC contenders, including their remaining schedules. None faces a killer finish, and they don’t play each other. Based on current records the Saints have the toughest schedule — their opponents are 26-29-1, followed by the Rams (25-30), Packers (24-31-1) and Seahawks (20-35). Home games are in all caps.

Packers (8-3): PHILADELPHIA (3-7-1), at Detroit (4-7), CAROLINA (4-8), TENNESSEE (8-3), at Chicago (5-6).

Tennessee obviously jumps out. The Titans’ run game is built for Lambeau in December and an especially bad matchup for the Packers' defense. Anyone who has watched the Packers regularly the last two seasons will have no trouble envisioning Derrick Henry running all over them.

Saints (9-2): at Atlanta (4-7), PHILADELPHIA (3-7-1), KANSAS CITY (10-1), MINNESOTA (5-6), at Carolina (4-8).

If the Packers lose one of their last five, New Orleans will have to lose twice. The Saints with Taysom Hill at quarterback will be the underdogs against the Chiefs. Where might another loss come from, not knowing if Brees will make it back for the final one or two games?

Atlanta is 4-2 over its last six and will have to beat Hill, not Brees, this week. The Falcons are a three-point underdog at home. The Vikings are dangerous but erratic. They are as formidable at running back (Dalvin Cook) and receiver (Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen) as anyone, but you never know how quarterback Kirk Cousins is going to play.

Seahawks (8-3): NEW YORK GIANTS (4-7), NEW YORK JETS (0-11), at Washington (4-7), LOS ANGELES RAMS (7-4), at SAN FRANCISCO (5-6).

Seattle for now holds the tiebreaker over the Packers for the No. 2 seeding based on one of the down-the-line tiebreakers (strength of victory, or combined records of the teams they’ve beaten). The Seahawks’ next three games are nearly gimmes.

But the Rams and 49ers could be tough. Both are in the playoff chase and division opponents. The 49ers also might have quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (high ankle sprain) back by that last game.

Rams (7-4): at Arizona (6-5), NEW ENGLAND (5-6), NEW YORK JETS (0-11), at Seattle (8-3), ARIZONA (6-5).

The Rams are a long shot and will to win their last five to have a prayer. Even then, they’ll need a lot of help.

With Brees out for at least a few more weeks, the race looks open. And no team has more to gain than LaFleur’s Packers.

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