by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The real oddity of Rep. Paul Ryan's recent selection as Mitt Romney's GOP running mate in the fall is that it put Wisconsin into focus for something other than the Green Bay Packers.

Don't worry, even if the GOP wins the White House, the Pack will soon become the center of the Badger State universe once again.

Much as it was a year ago, when for a long while the Pack threatened at matching Bill Belichick’s 2007 New England Patriots and their record 16-0 regular-season mark in 2007, although the 2011 campaign would end with a thud in Green Bay.

The perfect regular season was lost in mid-December at Kansas City, and the playoffs ended before they really began when the Giants avenged a late-season defeat at the Meadowlands by dismantling the Pack by a 37-20 count in the NFC Division Round at Lambeau Field.

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Now, the talk is about two titles in three years (not so bad, eh?) in Wisconsin, an easy sell to Las Vegas oddsmakers. Green Bay’s season win ‘total’ of 12 ½ is clearly the high-water mark in the NFL and alongside the Patriots in the entire NFL. Those books quoting other season-long prices have the Pack favored in the NFC North (1/3 at various outlets) and to win the NFC (11/5 as of later July).

Green Bay is also the clear favorite to win the Super Bowl, with prices in the vicinity of 9/2 at most Vegas wagering outlets.

Still, the manner in which the Pack was dispatched by the Giants in the playoffs is cause for alarm, and not simply a hiccup in an otherwise brilliant 2011 campaign. Getting undressed is such a manner in a postseason game is revealing. And in the Pack’s case, it underlined concerns with a defense that hardly looked Super Bowl-caliber for most of last season, ranking last in total yards and net passing yards (although it should be noted that those numbers were a bit distorted by teams constantly playing catch-up with the Pack).

Pressure is thus on d.c. Dom Capers (right) to get more of a push on opposing QBs who simply had too much time tho throw last fall. Capers’ 3-4 looks too often let QBs stand in the pocket for what seemed like an eternity, as Green Bay generated only 29 sacks all season. Moreover, Capers’ “D” permitted more than 70 completions of 20+ yards.

Looking to upgrade where needed most, GM Ted Thompson went almost exclusively for defensive help in the draft and spent the majority of his free-agent signing money on stop unit help as well. Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrave (DE via Saints) and DT Daniel Muir (DT via Colts) at least figure to add some quality depth to the defensive front.

Still, Capers and HC Mike McCarthy look as if they are going to have to rely on some of the rookies to step into the breach immediately. After cutting former Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins (who has had neck issues) before the draft, Thompson didn’t select a replacement, which raises the possibility that 35-year-old Charles Woodson (left) might be asked to move from the corner to Collins’ old position.

To help with the pass rush issues, Thompson selected Southern Cal hybrid LB/DE Nick Perry with the Pack’s first-round selection in April at Radio City Music Hall. Perry, expected to start right away, will hopefully alleviate some of the big-play burden from LB Clay Matthews III, held to a career-low six sacks in 2011.

Moreover, second-round pick Jerel Worthy, a playmaking DE from Michigan State, could be plugged in right away along the line aside DT B.J. Raji (right). If Woodson moves to free safety, then another second-round pick, Vanderbilt’s Casey Hayward, could step into the lineup sooner than expected.

At the least, expect Hayward to be featured in nickel-back looks this fall.

But can all of these new faces be counted upon to upgrade a defense that was subpar a year ago? We’ll see.

We spent time talking about the defense because there are few issues on the attack end as the NFL’s most-explosive offense returns virtually intact from a year ago.

Aaron Rodgers returns for an encore at QB, long-since having proven a worthy successor, and then some, to Brett Favre (who’s he, anyway?). The reigning MVP Rodgers delivered another record-breaking season with his aerial exploits last fall as Green Bay amassed a whopping 560 points, second most in league history.

Rodgers, who tossed 45 TD passes and only six interceptions a year ago (and those numbers are no misprints) while passing for 4643 yards, also posted a passer rating of 122.5, an NFL record. Perhaps the only concern for McCarthy and o.c. Tom Clements is experienced cover behind Rodgers. Just in case, Matt Flynn (who left for the Seahawks in free agency) was a serviceable reliever; that role now goes to inexperienced ex-Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell.

There remain an overload of receiving options led by wideouts Greg Jennings (right) and Jordy Nelson (combined 135 catches and 24 TDs in 2011) and TE Jermichael Finley, a potential free agent who was wisely re-signed by Thompson. Randall Cobb, an electric second-year force from Kentucky who made his mark on kickoff returns a year ago, could also become more involved as a big-play WR this fall.

The one potentially-significant offensive loss, C Scott Wells (who left via free agency to the Rams), was addressed in free agency when Thompson inked longtime Colts C Jeff Saturday as Wells’ replacement. Veteran OT Chad Clifton was also released in the offseason, though McCarthy believes one of two young prospects (Marshall Newhouse or Derek Sherrod) can handle the position.

If we want to nitpick about this potent strike force, the running game takes a secondary tole to the aerial show in the very-vertical McCarthy offense. And Ryan Grant, who split carries with James Starks (left, vs. San Diego a year ago) last fall, remains unsigned. Ex-Hawaii RB Alex Green, who carried the ball only three times before injury a knee last year, could be asked to split carries with Starks, whose durability as a featured back is in question.

Like we said, that’s just nitpicking. The Pack can still outscore any team on the schedule.

Green Bay has also been a pointspread force lately, recording a 25-13 mark against the number thee past two seasons, routinely handling hefty spreads along the way. Since 2007, McCarthy’s spread record is a sterling 57-30. The Pack also enters 2012 having covered 17 of its last 24 on the board, and 10 of its last 14 at Lambeau.

It was also no surprise that with Rodgers & Co. Scoring points at a record-breaking clip, that Green Bay would be “over” 12-5 last season.

Summary...Despite what happened in the playoffs vs. the Giants, the Pack still looks like the team to beat in the NFC as long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy and in the lineup. The offense remains capable of outscoring any foe in the league, but Green Bay risks getting derailed as it did last January by the G-Men if the “D” can’t make upgrades. The pressure is on Dom Capers to get the stop unit functioning effectively for the Pack to have another Super Bowl shot next February.


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