Here are ten things worth keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Patriots-Packers game:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Keeping Clay Matthews at bay. Matthews is a pass-rushing demon who has compiled 22.5 sacks over the last year-plus for the Packers. There’s an interesting wrinkle to his game: While most premier pass rushers line up to go against the opposing left tackle, Matthews is on the other side, meaning he’ll go up against Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Vollmer will likely get some help in the form of a tight end who will either stay in to block or make sure to get a chip on Matthews before he starts his route, but the bulk of the responsibility will be on the big German.
“He's a second year guy that's got a heckuva motor, [and] plays really well in their defense,” New England left tackle Matt Light said of the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Matthews. “They use him in a few different ways. Coming off the edge, he's very accomplished at what he can do and how he does it. Again, I think it's his motor and his relentless style that probably defines him best.”
Quick start. After the win over the Bears, one of the things that Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler mentioned was the fact that the quick start of the New England offense put a lot of pressure on the Bears offense to try and match the Patriots. New England has played excellent complementary football out of the gate — their first-quarter point differential of plus-42 (75-33) is the highest of any quarter they play — which has put a lot of teams on their heels.
According to Nuggetpalooza, the Patriots are now second in the league in “first possession points” with 76 (first and second half combined), trailing only the Saints (78). However, Green Bay has allowed only 19 such points, the second fewest in the league (Cleveland, 16). If the Patriots offense continues to operate at peak efficiency and the team can get one or two stops on defense, the Pats should be well on their way.
“We always focus on starting fast,” said wide receiver Deion Branch. “I think the last two or thee games, we've started fast.”
Taking care of the football. Few teams do a better job of taking care of the football than the Patriots. Tom Brady has only four picks this season, now has 268 consecutive pass attempts without an interception — 40 shy of Bernie Kosar's all-time record streak, which bridged the 1990-91 seasons — and his eight-game streak without throwing a pick is the longest in his career. In addition, New England has just four fumbles on the season, the lowest total in the league. (According to Nuggetpalooza, the Patriots are on pace for just seven fumbles this year, which would break the club record of 14 (set in 2007) and would tie the NFL mark since 1960, set by the 2002 Chiefs.) They’ll be tested by an opportunistic Green Bay defense that is plus-11 in takeaways (second in the NFC) with 17 interceptions and seven fumbles.
“Obviously, I know a lot about [cornerback] Charles [Woodson] — I played with Charles in college. He was the defensive player of the year last year [and he’s a] great interceptor,” Brady said. “[Free safety] Nick Collins is a great interceptor back there. [Cornerback] Tramon Williams is a great interceptor. They’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays on the ball. I’m looking forward to this week. It’s one of the best defenses that we’re going to face all year. I think we have a lot of challenges. I think they’re first in scoring or first against the passing offense. What more of a challenge could you want than that?”
Keep the chains moving with the running game. Rather remarkably, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 786 rushing yards through 13 games, and could be New England’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Corey Dillon had 1,635 yards on the ground in 2004. Green Bay is average against the run, yielding 117.3 yards per game (19th in the league), but the guy Green-Ellis will meet in the middle more often than not on Sunday will be linebacker A.J. Hawk, a ferocious tackler (he’s second on the team). When it comes to red zone situations, it could come down to Green-Ellis against Hawk, an intriguing matchup that could decide whether the Patriots can come away with seven in the red zone instead of three.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Solving Matt Flynn. No one is quite sure what Flynn brings to the table. An LSU product who will be making the first start of his professional career, he’s completed 25-of-46 pass attempts for 246 yards and 2 interceptions in 27 career games, all in a reserve role. While Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that things would be different with Flynn under center, that doesn’t mean the Patriots should prepare for a radical overhaul of the Green Bay offense.
“I mean, their offense is still their offense,” Belichick said. “For them, [if] they change quarterbacks, it’s not like they have a hundred new plays that they haven’t run before just because they put one guy in there. They still run the plays that they run and I’m sure [Flynn’s] reads are still [the same] reads. You don’t have plays and have reads for this quarterback and reads for that quarterback or that type of thing. You run your offense [and] whichever quarterback is in there, executes it.
“Each guy has his own set of skills and it certainly is important to know who’s in there. But, at the same time, defensively, you are preparing for the same basic offense. The individual skills of the players within the offense, that may change, but you have to be aware of who they are and adjust accordingly.”
Containing Greg Jennings. Jennings is the Packers’ No. 1 option in the passing game. Coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Jennings has 61 catches for 996 yards and 11 touchdowns. In addition, he’s a big-play threat — he leads the NFL with 26 catches of 40 yards or more since 2007 — and presents a formidable test for a young secondary that is still evolving. If Devin McCourty is able to go Sunday night — he was listed as questionable with a rib injury he suffered in last week’s win over the Bears — this will be a matchup worth watching.
Stopping Brandon Jackson. The Packers lost starting running back Ryan Grant in the opener, which has forced them to lean on the 5-foot-10, 216-pounder out of Nebraska as the primary option in the running game. Jackson won’t remind anyone of Grant, but has shown an ability to break out from time to time, including a 10-carry, 115-yard outburst earlier in the season against the Redskins. Overall, he leads Green Bay in ground yardage this season with a career-high 546 rushing yards on 143 carries. (He’s also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield — he has career-highs this season with 39 catches and 313 receiving yards.) Again, he’s not a particularly overwhelming presence, but with Rodgers out, the Packers might be more inclined to lean on their running game, which would mean more of Jackson.
Continuing to force turnovers. The Patriots defense has made its bones as a takeaways-hungry crew, and its success doing so has to continue if the team is to beat Green Bay. Rodgers is almost as good as Brady when it comes to taking care of the football — he has thrown just seven interceptions this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFC. But it’ll be Flynn under center, so look for the New England defense to present some different looks for the young quarterback in hopes of keeping their turnover-streak alive.
“I love giving Tom Brady a short field to work with,” said Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. “The best quarterback in the game. Our job is to keep him in those situations.”
New England got a great performance last week on special teams last week against the Bears in Chicago, as kicker Shayne Graham was almost perfect in the snow, while punt returner Julian Edelman had his best day of the season, taking one back and almost pulling off a second one. The Patriots kick return game (and kick coverage, for that matter) probably isn’t where it should be, but still remains better than average. On the other side of the ball, the Packers get solid if unspectacular special teams work from kicker Mason Crosby, while punter Tim Masthay is one of the better punters in the league. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s kick and punt teams are average. The advantage here goes to New England.
In the parlance of Tedy Bruschi, Sunday has the potential to be a hat and T-shirt game. That is, if the Jets lose to the Steelers and the Patriots beat or tie the Packers, when the New England players get back to their lockers, they’ll find hats and T-shirts with the words “AFC East Champions.” When the Patriots have been faced with hat and T-shirt games over the years, there are few teams that have a better record.