GREEN BAY — For the Green Bay Packers, it's the start of another attempt to reach the top of the NFL mountain.
For the Jacksonville Jaguars, it's the start of a long journey toward respectability.
With two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and Mike McCarthy as coach, the Packers enter their season-opening game at Jacksonville with a seven-year postseason streak — tied with New England for the longest current run in the NFL. While they are considered Super Bowl contenders, they are surrounded by some nagging questions.
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First, can Rodgers rebound after the worst season of his career? The man who owns the best passer rating in NFL history ranked just 15th in that category last season. Rather than rounding into form throughout the preseason, Rodgers played two series and threw nine passes.
Second, can receiver Jordy Nelson rebound after missing all of last season? In 2014, Rodgers won his second MVP on the strength of Nelson's stellar season of 98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. Nelson, however, tore an ACL during the 2015 preseason. Without him, the Packers' offense went from leading the NFL in scoring in 2014 to ranking 15th in 2015. Nelson is back, but he didn't play a single snap in the preseason.
Third, how will the offensive line fare without two-time All-Pro guard Josh Sitton, who surprisingly was released on Saturday? He'll be replaced by fourth-year pro Lane Taylor, who has two career starts.
Put it together, and this offense could be a work in progress to start the season.
“I think the identity kind of grows game to game,” Rodgers said. “You see it start to show itself this week. You have an idea where the ball is going to go or who is going to have opportunities in the game. But things happen out there. There's broken plays and there's guys who show up and guys who make the most of their matchups. Defenses can sometimes dictate the way we end up adjusting. So, it's always interesting to see which guys show up when it really counts.”
Jacksonville hasn't made the playoffs since 2007, which also happened to be the last time it finished with a winning record. In each of the past five seasons, the Jaguars have lost at least 11 games.
However, the pieces are in place for a franchise that has given away home games to help the league expand its reach overseas. The Class of 2013, which includes coach Gus Bradley, quarterback Blake Bortles and receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marquise Lee, will define where this franchise heads this season.
Bortles was fantastic statistically last season. He ranked seventh with 4,428 passing yards and second with 35 touchdowns. He also was one off the league lead with 18 interceptions. That could be a sticking point against a Packers defense that year in and year out ranks among the NFL leaders in interceptions.
“Quit throwing the ball to the other team,” Bortles said of the next step in his career. “I think if I can eliminate that – and I did a lot of stuff this offseason to try to help that out, whether it was mechanical stuff to be a more accurate passer and mental stuff to make faster, better positions. Hopefully, I can help us out on that side of things and not turn the ball over so much.”
While Rodgers stirs the Packers' offensive drink, it will be up to Bradley's revamped defense to puts the brakes on their attack. It's a new-look unit. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson, safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Prince Amukamara were part of the Jaguars' $220 million free-agent haul. Defensive end Dante Fowler, the 2015 first-round pick who missed his rookie season due to injury, is back. And the 2016 draft included first-round cornerback Jalen Ramsey, second-round linebacker Myles Jack and third-round defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Those are seven fresh faces to fix a defense that ranked 31st in points allowed last season.
“We've got so much respect for Green Bay,” Bradley said. “Here is a playoff team that has had great success, a really, really good offensive unit, and it'll be a great challenge for us. Great challenge, and we're looking forward to that challenge. Any time you have a chance to play a caliber team like Green Bay, especially how they are as an offense, it's a great challenge for our guys.”