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Patriots-Packers Preview

Super Bowl XXXI: Boy how the Packers miss those days. (Photographed by: Bill Frakes/SI)

Both the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots carry the burden of history on their shoulders. The Packers used to be one of the great franchises in sports history. They’ve won a combined 12 NFL (pre AFL-merger) and Super Bowl championships. They’ve produced Hall of Famers with names like Curly Lambeau, Bart Starr, and Reggie White. And they gave us one of the greatest coaches of all time in Vince Lombardi, a man who so fundamentally transformed the game of football that they named the Super Bowl trophy after him. Green Bay was once the joke of the NFL, un-findable on a map. After Lombardi, it was nicknamed “Titletown.”

But Green Bay is no longer “Titletown.” Foxborough has replaced it – the only town that can boast three Super Bowl victories in four appearances over the last ten years. Once again, a joke of a franchise has been transformed by a coach that could quite possibly go toe to toe with the great Lombardi. Bill Belichick may not have Lombardi’s fury, but he probably spends as much time in the film room as Lombardi did. And Belichick is every bit as good at taking unknowns and rejects and maximizing their potential, getting championship-producing performances from players cast off by other teams. As for the Patriots themselves, consider this: sportswriter Albert Kretchmer once called Starr the “symbol of it’s [football's] potential for innocence and glory.” The Patriots have that too, plus his hair is way classier.

The Packers are coming to Gillette Stadium. It’s the first time in eight years that they’ve played there. A team looking to put a vice-grip on the AFC East and top seed in the AFC will try to handle its business against a team whose playoff chances are fading fast. Let’s see who’s who.

Green Bay Packers

Offensive Stars: Aaron Rodgers (if he plays), Greg Jennings. There’ll be no word until Saturday as to whether the Patriots will face the dangerous Rodgers or the ineffective Matt Flynn. Right now, Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy is saying they’ll air on the “high side of caution” with Rodgers as he recovers from his second concussion of the season. That’s bad news for Packers fans. Rodgers is a very good quarterback. He might actually be the second-best quarterback in the NFC. Rodgers is among the top ten quarterbacks in total yardage, yards per game and completion percentage. He’s sixth among quarterbacks in touchdowns with 23. And he’s fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt and quarterback rating. Whether or not the Packers can win, if Rodgers can play, he’s dangerous. He’s also an under-rated running quarterback, and the Patriots have shown a small vulnerability to designed or broken-play quarterback runs this season. It’s not a huge deal, but it is there. And since the Packers can’t run the ball with their running backs, a healthy Rodgers might be able to extend drives and at least put some points on the board. Flynn, on the other hand, has yet to throw a touchdown pass.

Greg Jennings, meanwhile, is a very good wide receiver. He’s fifth in the league in receiving yardage with 996, third in touchdown receptions with 11, and eighth in the NFL in yards per game with 76.6. The Patriots will probably put Devin McCourty on Jennings. This makes sense on two levels. It puts the Patriots’ best corner on their best receiver, and it allows McCourty to try and exploit Jennings’ slight tendency to fumble. Jennings has already fumbled the ball twice, and McCourty showed against the Bears that he has some skill at stripping the ball. Without Rodgers and with Jennings neutralized, the Packers’ offense will not be able to hang with the offensive firepower of the Patriots.

Defensive Stars: Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams. Matthews is a beast of a linebacker. He’s already recorded 12.5 sacks for a combined 88 lost yards. He is dangerous, and that’s bad news for a Patriots offensive line that’s allowing over 1.5 sacks per game. The Patriots will probably shift their tight ends to more blocking schemes to try and neutralize him, or use running backs in check-down plays over the middle to keep Matthews from cheating up all the time.

At corner, Williams is a solid defender. He’s knocked down 17 passes thrown his way, good for third in the NFL. He’s also picked off five passes, forced one fumble and recovered two. But he can only cover one Patriot, and New England has had zero trouble neutralizing good corners by varying their passing attack on every play. He’ll get a ball or two, but the likelihood that he really gets more than a couple of play-making opportunities is low. But Matthews will be very hard to keep out of the Patriots’ backfield.

Keep an Eye On: Charles Woodson. The other half of the Packers’ cornerback duo. Not as dangerous, but Patriots receivers should be careful. He’s already forced four fumbles, and he has the second-most tackles among cornerbacks in the NFL. If the Patriots catch the ball on him, they’d better make sure they secure it, because Woodson will go after it. Meanwhile, his tackling skills may minimize the yards-after-catch that the Patriots rack up with such precision.

New England Patriots

Offensive Stars: Tom Brady, Patriots passing attack. Is there really anyone else? Brady is, simply put, the best quarterback in the NFL right now. Seventh in yards per game, sixth in yards (3,398), fifth in yards per attempt (8.00). Those are all nice. How about the highest scoring QB with 29 touchdown passes? How about fewest interceptions among starting quarterbacks with only four? How about highest QB rating in the NFL at 109.9? Brady is pristine, and his passing attack is ungodly.

There’s no one star in the Patriots’ passing system, which is bad for statistics but great for game-plans. The Patriots never fall into an offensive pattern, so it’s impossible to scheme against them. They might run an out-route with a wide receiver, or they might run a slant route. Or a post-route. Or they’ll use a tight end. Or a running back. Whoever gets open gets the ball. That’s the offense that’s brought championships to New England, and right now it’s firing on all cylinders. It’s the highest scoring, and it’s the most efficient passing attack in the AFC (66.5 percent). Mike McCarthy’s an alright coach, but there’s no way he can game plan for this. And by the time he’s figured it out, Belichick will just come up with something new at halftime.

Defensive Stars: Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo. McCourty has improved phenomenally across this season, and it’s been fun to watch. He’s learned not just how to be a cornerback, but how to be a great cornerback. He has the athleticism to stay stride for stride with his receivers, then turn around and cleanly play the pass without committing pass interference. The result: six interceptions returned for 110 yards, both tops in the AFC. This guy could legitimately win Defensive Rookie of the Year. At the very least, a Pro Bowl nod.

Mayo, meanwhile, leads all tacklers in the NFL with 148. We’d always hoped he’d blossom into the defensive force he was in college, but injuries kept holding back his development. Finally healthy, he’s showing everyone what he can do. Mayo also can handle his business on his own. Of his 148 tackles, 97 were solo tackles, highest in the NFL (he also leads the NFL in assisted tackles with 51). He’s not a great interceptor or pass defender, but if you try to run through him you’ll pay a heavy price. He’s also fairly sure-handed, having already recovered two fumbles. McCourty helps guard the sideline, and Mayo helps prevent big runs up the middle. That doesn’t leave much space for an opposing offense to work in, and it increases the likelihood of a big defensive play. The New England defense isn’t great (average against the run, terrible against the pass), but its capacity for big plays has created a lot of games where teams put up big numbers but few points. And when all is said and done, points are all that matter.

Keep an Eye On: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Although he hasn’t put up many big-yardage games, Green-Ellis has been rock-solid in the red zone. He’s scored 11 rushing touchdowns, putting him in a four-way tie for second in the NFL. His specialty seems to be short-yardage power runs, meaning he’s not always so effective in the middle of the field. But get close to the end zone and his ability to push through tacklers and fall forward for a few extra yards makes him dangerous. If the Patriots get inside the 5-yard line, expect to see a few carries for Green-Ellis. New England has other backs to eat up the middle of the field and convert third downs; leave the scoring to Green-Ellis.

Prediction: Patriots 28, Green Bay 10

If Aaron Rodgers can’t go, the Packers’ score drops to six. But both Rodgers and Flynn are going to have a hard time reading a Patriots defense that has produced 27 turnovers. Additionally, even though Rodgers can run, he might not have time. The Packers’ offensive line is porous, having allowed 27 sacks already. The Patriots are going to bring pressure and try to make Rodgers throw up jump-balls that its athletic secondary can pick off. Or they might fake pressure, drop back into coverage, and intercept Rodgers/Flynn that way. But neither quarterback is going to have an easy time with this defense, and Flynn in particular is going to be playing under serious pressure, both from the turnover-hunting Patriots and from the Packers, who need a win to stay alive in the playoff race. And whichever quarterback goes is going to have to throw a lot, because the Packers don’t have a good running back anymore. Which is too bad, because a successful running game is actually what hurts the Patriots. In both of their losses this season, the opposing team rushed for over 125 yards. If the Packers are forced to rely on the pass, they’ll rack up yards, but they’ll rack up turnovers too. And with each pick Flynn throws, his confidence is going to diminish more and more. Pick him off twice and he might completely fold.

Defensively, the Packers are going to have some success, but not enough. And they’re going to have to play a lot, because you need a running game to manufacture long drives. The Patriots controlled the ball for nearly 60 percent of the last two games, and that’s a testament to their tendency to score, force a quick turnover, then score again, and repeat this until the opposing defense is completely gassed. The Packers might get a sack or two, they might even force a fumble (but not an interception). But they won’t make enough plays to counter a Patriots defense that will eat their quarterback alive, whoever he is. Factor in Green Bay’s mediocre special teams unit (28th in the NFL in kickoff return yardage, 28th in the NFL in average punt returns), and you have another victory for a Patriots squad that seems destined for Dallas in February.

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