Packed with punch:

Of­fense again drives peren­nial NFC con­tender

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Gary D’Amato @gary­dam­ato­golf USA TO­DAY Sports D’Amato writes for the Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel, part of the USA TO­DAY Net­work.

Green Bay takes an­other ti­tle shot with per­haps Mike McCarthy’s most tal­ented team.

Al­most ev­ery year since Brett Favre as­cended to the up­per ech­e­lon of NFL quar­ter­backs in the mid-1990s, the Green Bay Pack­ers have started the sea­son with a re­al­is­tic chance of reach­ing the Su­per Bowl.

Some years the ros­ter has been deeper and more tal­ented than oth­ers, but for the most part play­ing into late Jan­uary has been an ex­pec­ta­tion — in the locker room and among the team’s far-flung fan base — for a quar­ter-cen­tury.

Nine­teen play­off ap­pear­ances, 21 play­off vic­to­ries and two sub.500 sea­sons in 25 years con­sti­tute an as­tound­ing run. Pack­ers fans born af­ter 1985 are spoiled. They have no idea what it’s like to cheer for a bot­tom-feeder.

In con­trast, the Cincin­nati Ben­gals haven’t won a post­sea­son game in 26 years, the Buf­falo Bills in 21 and the Cleve­land Browns in 19. The Detroit Lions are 0-9 in play­off games since 1991. And 15 fran­chises have not won a Su­per Bowl.

You can crit­i­cize head coach Mike McCarthy, gen­eral man­ager Ted Thomp­son and/or de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dom Capers all you want — and many do — but con­ti­nu­ity and con­sis­tency are tenets of suc­cess in the NFL. In Green Bay, there is a long track record of good draft­ing and salary cap man­age­ment along with solid coach­ing and player de­vel­op­ment.

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have had Nos. 4 and 12 un­der cen­ter.

The Pack­ers go into the 2017 sea­son with the same lofty ex­pec­ta­tions. It’s per­haps McCarthy’s most tal­ented team, one that should win the NFC North for the sixth time in seven years.

The Pack­ers’ two-deep ros­ter is not with­out holes, but the same can be said of ev­ery team in the league. Depth (qual­ity, not quan­tity) on the of­fen­sive line is the big­gest con­cern, fol­lowed closely by the de­fense’s abil­ity to get to the quar­ter­back and, by ex­ten­sion, cover re­ceivers on the back end. The run­ning game is a mystery.

On many teams the strengths aren’t enough to off­set the weak­nesses, but that’s not the case in Green Bay.

Aaron Rodgers is com­ing off a 4,428-yard, 40-touch­down sea­son and is a mas­ter of McCarthy’s ver­sion of the West Coast of­fense. At 33, he’s still at his phys­i­cal peak.

Rodgers can dis­trib­ute the ball to three start­ing-cal­iber tight ends, NFL come­back player of the year Jordy Nel­son and es­sen­tially two other 1,000-yard re­ceivers in Ran­dall Cobb and Da­vante Adams. The group is so good that Thomp­son cut fifth-round draft pick DeAn­gelo Yancey and sev­enth-rounder Malachi Dupree.

The of­fen­sive line ranks among the top four or five units in the league, as long as tack­les David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bu­laga stay healthy.

Caught short at run­ning back last year, Thomp­son drafted Ja­maal Wil­liams, Aaron Jones and De­vante Mays, and each made the 53-man ros­ter. Con­verted re­ceiver Ty Mont­gomery is the nom­i­nal starter.

None of them is Ed­die Lacy, but the Pack­ers don’t need a 1,000yard rusher in or­der to score a lot of points. They need some­one who can pick up the blitz, hang on to the ball, catch passes out of the back­field and grind out 2 yards on third-and-1.

McCarthy talks a lot about the im­por­tance of the ground game, and while he un­doubt­edly means what he says, it doesn’t carry over to the way he calls plays. Last year the team’s run­ning backs av­er­aged 18 car­ries a game, a num­ber not likely to be ex­ceeded in 2017.

The de­fense might be only marginally bet­ter than it was last year, when it ranked 31st against the pass and looked over­matched some weeks and out of sorts oth­ers. Capers’ “ni­tro” pack­age might help, and if Ah­mad Brooks of­fers some­thing as a pass rusher, all the bet­ter.

But the de­fense just needs to be ad­e­quate be­cause the Pack­ers are built to outscore op­po­nents. They scored 432 points last sea­son, and it’s not un­rea­son­able to ex­pect them to ex­ceed that to­tal in 2017.

Bar­ring a spate of in­juries to the wrong play­ers, any­thing short of a berth in the NFC Cham­pi­onship Game should be viewed as fail­ure.

PHO­TOS BY JIM MATTHEWS, GREEN BAY (WIS.) PRESS GAZETTE, VIA USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Wide re­ceiver Jordy Nel­son is among the key play­mak­ers on the Pack­ers’ high-pow­ered of­fense.

Tackle Bryan Bu­laga, right, who’s en­ter­ing his eighth sea­son, helps an­chor Green Bay’s of­fen­sive line.

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