Why Packers are NFC's favorite and a (surprise) team that could stop them

The Green Bay Packers can talk all they want about how much they want the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs that comes with it.

And that's well within their reach now that they have the inside track thanks to their win Sunday over the Detroit Lions combined with the New Orleans Saints' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. It means the Packers (10-3) can win out and grab the No. 1 seed -- the only one that gets a first-round bye this season -- no matter what the Saints (10-3) or anyone else in their conference does because they own the tiebreaker over New Orleans thanks to their Week 3 win.

What's perhaps more interesting is whether this version of the Packers, the one in Matt LaFleur's second season as coach, is any better than last year's team that the San Francisco 49ers wiped out in the NFC Championship Game 11 months ago. Or better than any of the other near-misses of Aaron Rodgers' career: the 15-1 team of 2011 that didn't even reach the conference title game or the 2014 and 2016 teams that lost with a Super Bowl appearance on the line.

"This is their best chance to make it to the Super Bowl," a longtime NFL scout said Sunday night when asked if this iteration of the Packers is any better than the aforementioned teams.

In fact, the scout said he sees only one NFC team that truly has the recipe to beat the Packers in the postseason. It's not the Saints, who currently would be the No. 2 seed. Or the Buccaneers, who trounced the Packers by 28 points in Week 6. Or either of the 9-4 teams atop the NFC West, the Rams and Seahawks.

It's the Washington Football Team, which sits atop the NFC East despite an unappealing record (6-7).

"You need a powerful run game and an elite D-line to beat Aaron," the scout said. "With the 49ers dismantling their D-line, there's only one team that can stop Aaron: the Washington team."

Washington scored a pair of defensive touchdowns, including one by rookie standout defensive end Chase Young, in its win Sunday over the 49ers.

With that in mind, here's a look at what could make this Packers team different from the ones that have come up short of the Super Bowl:

An all-in Rodgers: At age 37, Rodgers still believes he can -- and will -- play at a high level for years to come, but what he doesn't know is how long that will be for the Packers after they drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round this year.

Perhaps that's why he has seemingly thrown everything he has into this season and has talked since this summer about being in a good place mentally, not worrying about the future.

"We had a moment in the locker room, I just kind of leaned back in my locker and just smiled and took it all in with the music playing and the guys celebrating, it was just a special moment," Rodgers said Sunday after the Packers clinched the NFC North. "And you realize, these are the times you're going to miss when it's all said and done. I'm just so happy for the opportunity to be a part of this squad and optimistic about what the future can hold with these guys."

Rodgers has flourished in Year 2 under LaFleur, who said his quarterback "without a doubt in my mind should be the front-runner for the MVP."

MVPs in their roles: If Rodgers is the league MVP, the Packers have several MVPs within their roles. This year's offense is more than just Davante Adams and Aaron Jones like it was last season.

It's also Robert Tonyan (nine touchdowns, the most by a Packers tight end since Bubba Franks in 2001) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (whose six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown on Sunday couldn't have come at a better time). And offensive linemen like Elgton Jenkins, Billy Turner, Rick Wagner and Lucas Patrick, who all played somewhere other than their primary positions on Sunday.

And on defense, there are emerging playmakers to join Za'Darius Smith. Their two 2019 first-round picks, Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage, have shown up bigger of late. Jaire Alexander has blossomed into one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. And their renewed pass rush (four sacks on Sunday, 11 in the last two games) and turnovers (nine in the last six games) might give the Packers just enough to avoid a defensive meltdown like last year.

"I feel like this team has a lot of role players," Rodgers said. "A lot of times when you say that, and I've said this before, it has almost a negative connotation, like 'You're just a role player' or somebody would say that. That doesn't apply when I say that about this squad. I feel like there's so many guys that have specific roles and when you embrace those roles ... when you give a guy a role, you empower him and when that player embraces that role and makes the most of it, it lifts the entire squad."

Fast starts: One of LaFleur's strengths has been his game-opening scripts. When the Packers scored on their opening drive Sunday in Detroit, it marked the league-leading 10th time this season they have scored (six touchdowns, four field goals) the first time they've possessed the ball.

On Sunday's first drive, Rodgers threw a back-shoulder fade to Adams, who then took it 56 yards for his 14th touchdown of the season.

"I feel like we've gotten off to some really good starts," said Rodgers, who has 39 touchdowns and just four interceptions on the season. "Obviously, I've been pretty efficient through the air, taking care of the football, being aggressively opportunistic, I think is definitely how I feel like my approach has been this season."