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NFL Preview - Green Bay (8-5) at New England (11-2)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Green Bay Packers believe they possess a defense capable of slowing down a New England Patriots attack that's been putting up points at astronomical levels as of late. However, the team may not have its star quarterback under center for a game that may be vital to the team's chances of reaching the playoffs.
While Green Bay brings the NFL's stingiest stop unit in terms of points allowed into Gillette Stadium for this Sunday's critical showdown with the scorching and playoff-bound Patriots, there appears to be a good chance that Pro Bowl triggerman Aaron Rodgers won't be making the trip with his teammates to Massachusetts.
Rodgers exited last week's contest with Detroit in the second quarter after sustaining a concussion while scrambling out of the pocket for a first down. The offensive catalyst was held out of practice the entire week leading up to Sunday's all-important matchup, and although head coach Mike McCarthy stated his status won't be determined until Saturday, all signs indicate Rodgers won't be suiting up for this game.
Green Bay's offense sputtered with unproven backup Matt Flynn at the controls against the Lions, mustering only 258 total yards and no touchdowns on the day while converting a mere 2-of-12 third-down chances. As a result, the Packers were left with a crushing 7-3 loss that severely compromised their odds of making a return playoff trip.
The Packers presently sit one game behind Chicago for first place in the NFC North with three remaining on the schedule, and trails by the same margin in the race for the conference's final Wild Card berth.
New England aided Green Bay's cause with a 36-7 dismantling of the Bears last Sunday at a snowy Soldier Field, a victory that secured the Pats an invitation to the AFC Playoffs. They can clinch both the East division and a first-round bye by besting the Packers and if the New York Jets lose at Pittsburgh over the weekend.
Flynn, who has never started an NFL regular-season game, completed 15-of-26 passes for 177 yards in his relief stint. The third-year pro also threw a back- breaking interception near the goal line in the third quarter with Green Bay in position to take a two-possession lead.
New England has no such issues at the quarterback position heading into this Week 15 interconference clash. Tom Brady is in the midst of arguably the best stretch of his brilliant 10-year career, and the one-time NFL MVP's superb play has helped propel the Patriots to a league-best 11-2 record along with a six- game winning streak in which the AFC front-runners have averaged a whopping 39.2 points.
Brady has thrown 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions over New England's last eight games and brings a streak of 268 consecutive attempts without a pick into Sunday's tilt. He's just 40 throws shy of matching the NFL record for that category, set by Cleveland's Bernie Kosar from 1990-91.
The standout signal-caller will also be attempting to extend a league mark he already owns when he takes the field on Sunday. Brady has won his last 26 regular-season starts at Gillette Stadium, a run that dates back to the 2006 season.
As a team the Patriots have prevailed in 15 straight non-playoff home tests, with their last defeat a 33-10 setback to Pittsburgh on Nov. 30, 2008. They've also won 21 of their last 22 encounters with NFC representatives.
With Rodgers possibly out of the mix, the Packers will rely heavily upon a defense that's yielding a league-low 14.5 points per game and has held the opposition to seven or less in four of the team's past six outings.
New England, on the other hand, has scored at least 31 points all throughout its current win streak and has totaled 126 points over its three latest games.
The all-time series between the Packers and Patriots is knotted, 4-4, with New England evening the series by virtue of a 35-0 road rout when the teams last met, in 2006. That contest marked the Packers' biggest margin of defeat at home since 1970. Green Bay won the previous meeting between the clubs, taking a 28-10 decision at Gillette Stadium in 2002. The Packers are 2-0 in New England since last losing there in 1994, a game that also marks the last time a home team won in the series.
The most memorable game between the franchises was Super Bowl XXXI, won by the Packers by a 35-21 count in New Orleans.
New England head coach Bill Belichick is 2-2 in his career against the Packers, including a win against Green Bay when he was head coach of the Browns in 1992. McCarthy is 0-1 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
If Rodgers (3289 passing yards, 23 TD, 10 INT) is unable to go, Green Bay's best chance of keeping up with the high-powered Patriots is to try to control the clock by running the football and putting the lightly-tested Flynn (182 passing yards, 1 INT) in manageable situations. Problem is, the Packers haven't had a consistent ground game for most of this season, as leading rusher Brandon Jackson (546 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 4 total TD) is averaging a pedestrian 3.8 yards per attempt and rookie backup James Starks (81 rushing yards) has just a handful of touches to his credit. The pair could come up with only 27 yards on a combined 13 carries against the lowly Lions last week. Working in Flynn's favor is the fact that the youngster has plenty of talent to operate with among the receivers, with big-play performer Greg Jennings (61 receptions, 996 yards, 11 TD) heading a strong foursome of wideouts that also includes dependable veteran Donald Driver (40 receptions, 4 TD) and two other impact players in James Jones (40 receptions, 3 TD) and slotman Jordy Nelson (38 receptions, 1 TD). A relatively ordinary front line that surrendered four sacks to Detroit in Week 14 may have raise its game as well in order for Green Bay to move the football efficiently if Rodgers isn't around.
While defense has not been the Patriots' strength during this banner season, the group did deliver a dominant effort in last week's destruction of the Bears, permitting a scant 185 total yards and forcing four turnovers in by far its best showing of the year. New England has now produced 12 takeaways over its past four wins, with promising rookie cornerback Devin McCourty (67 tackles, 6 INT, 14 PD) coming up with four interceptions over that span. The 2010 first-round draft choice did sustain a rib injury against Chicago but does appear on track to play, which is good news for a secondary that's next-to-last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (266.2 ypg) and won't have nickel back Jonathan Wilhite (20 tackles) for the rest of the year after landing on injured reserve Wednesday with a hip problem. Up front, ultra-active inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (148 tackles, 1 sack) and hefty nose tackle Vince Wilfork (44 tackles) lead a run-stopping corps that held the Bears to 47 yards on the ground a week ago. Mayo's usual running mate, rookie Brandon Spikes, won't be active on Sunday as he serves a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancers, but fill-in Gary Guyton (46 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) had an interception and returned a fumble for a touchdown in the Chicago rout.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Not even Mother Nature has been able to bring down Brady (3398 passing yards, 29 TD, 4 INT) during his amazing stretch, as the unflappable quarterback was able to carve up a high-caliber Chicago defense for 369 yards and two scores on 27-of-40 passing in the harsh and windy conditions of last week's contest. He's the obvious driving force of a New England offense that's averaging 425.2 total yards over the past five games and hasn't had a single turnover over that period, though Brady hasn't exactly done it alone. The veteran wide receiver duo of Wes Welker (80 receptions, 7 TD) and Deion Branch (57 receptions, 6 TD) torched the Bears for 266 yards and a touchdown on 16 catches, while the tight- end tandem of rookies Aaron Hernandez (41 receptions, 4 TD) and Rob Gronkowski (31 receptions, 7 TD) have each quickly established themselves as integral parts of the passing game. The Patriots have also gotten positive results out of the running back committee of BenJarvus-Green Ellis (786 rushing yards, 11 TD) and early-season pickup Danny Woodhead (376 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 5 total TD), with the former emerging as an effective lead runner and the ex-Jet Woodhead providing a spark as a change-of-pace alternative as well as a shifty receiver.
The Packers may present Brady's toughest challenge of his MVP-caliber season this week, as the club stands atop the league in pass efficiency defense and sports two outstanding cover corners in reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson (79 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) and the underrated Tramon Williams (51 tackles, 5 INT, 17 PD), and rookie Sam Shields (21 tackles, 1 INT) has stepped in and done an admirable job as the team's nickel back. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews (51 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 1 INT) is making a case for the honor bestowed on Woodson last season by putting together a tremendous sophomore campaign in which the relentless edge rusher has routinely wreaked havoc upon opposing quarterbacks. Green Bay has compiled a healthy 37 sacks on the year but may be without two other key pressure-creators on Sunday, as end Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 7 sacks) has been ruled out for a second straight game with a calf strain and outside linebacker Frank Zombo (38 tackles, 4 sacks) is considered doubtful after spraining his knee against the Lions. Jenkins' absence was also felt in the run department, as the Packers were gashed for 190 rushing yards in last week's loss.
New England offensive players have been fantasy gold over the past few weeks, and a matchup against a stout Green Bay defense still shouldn't deter owners from utilizing the team's top weapons this week. It goes without saying that Brady should be in starting lineups, and both Welker and Branch have vaulted themselves into the must-use category as well. As the goal-line back on the league's highest scoring squad, Green-Ellis is also a worthwhile play, but Hernandez and Gronkowski aren't sure things as complementary members of an offense that contains so many quality options for Brady. How the Packers' quarterback situation plays out will have a huge bearing on the prospects of several candidates in this game. If it's Flynn, then Driver, Jones and Nelson -- all of whom are marginal fantasy starters to begin with -- should be completely disregarded, and the value of both Jennings and Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby could take a huge hit. Conversely, New England's defense gets a sizeable upgrade in value if the Packers have to go to the backup plan, and Jackson gets a slight boost as well with what's likely a more run-based approach. This may be the one week not to play the Green Bay defense.
The Packers would have their hands full in this game even if Rodgers had played, and there's no evidence that suggests Flynn can go into a notoriously hostile environment that's been a graveyard for recent opponents and lead his team to what would be a shocking victory. Green Bay's going to need another Herculean effort from its defense to do the unthinkable here, and although the group has been lights-out over the course of the past few weeks, remember that the Patriots have had little difficulty plowing through other top-level defenses (i.e. Pittsburgh, New York Jets, Chicago) during their impressive streak. There's a wide gap between the credentials of the two anticipated quarterbacks in this game, and that may end up being the case on the scoreboard as well.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Packers 10
12/16 16:58:08 ET