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Patriots Keys to Victory: Week 15 vs. Packers

The Patriots offensive line will have to protect Tom Brady from Packers linebacker Clay Matthews on Sunday night. He leads Green Bay with 13.0 sacks this season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

After blowing out the NFC North division-leading Bears 36-7 in Chicago, the New England Patriots (11-2) now appear unbeatable.  Sunday’s victory marked the second time in as many weeks the Pats have dismantled a division leader.

Barring a complete catastrophe, New England will without-a-doubt clinch the number one-seed in the AFC heading into the playoffs. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company have been nothing short of dominant over the past few weeks.

To put things in perspective, the Patriots outscored their last two opponents, whose combined record is 18-8, by a combined total of 81-10.

Many claim the New England offense is better than it was in 2007, when Tom Brady threw for 4,806 yards and 50 touchdowns —and they may be right.

Those who disagree will point to the fact that the Pats’ offense currently ranks 9th in passing and 15th in rushing.

Another statistic, however, tells the real story. The Pats’ offense leads the NFL in points scored, with 415. When the New England offense gets in the red zone, it scores touchdowns, not field goals. Against the NFL’s best defenses (Ravens, Steelers, Jets, Bears) the Patriots scored 23, 39, 45, and 36 points, respectively. They’ve scored at least 28 points seven weeks in a row—mind-blowing stuff.

For the Pats’ offense, its all about precision and execution, and it will have to continue to be efficient against a desperate Green Bay Packers (8-5) team on Sunday night in Foxboro.

The Packers come into this weekend’s showdown with the Patriots, which will be broadcast to a national audience on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, facing the possibility of playing without star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who suffered a concussion in last week’s 7-3 loss to the Detroit Lions.

It’s unclear if Rodgers will be cleared to play on Sunday night. Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy said the team plans to take “the high side of caution” with him. He didn’t practice all week, and is listed as doubtful on the Packers’ injury report.

If Rodgers can’t go, the Packers will be forced to start third-year pro Matt Flynn, who completed 15/26 passes for 177 yards and 1 interception against the Lions last week.

Only the top six teams from each conference make the playoffs, and Green Bay is currently in the No. 8 position in the NFC behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants. Therefore, this weekend’s game versus the Patriots is a must-win for the Pack.

Avoiding costly penalties and turnovers.

Before you start criticizing me for stating the obvious, please note that in my Week 9 “Keys to Victory” column, I warned that the Pats needed to avoid turnovers and self-inflicted wounds against an inferior Cleveland Browns squad.

The Patriots’ offense committed three turnovers and dropped several crucial passes in that game en route to a 34-14 loss.

This match-up reminds me a lot of the Cleveland matchup back in Week 9. The Patriots are once again riding a five-game win streak, and on paper, the Packers simply don’t match up.

The only team that can stop the New England Patriots right now is the New England Patriots. The Pats pride themselves on not committing stupid penalties, protecting the ball, and avoiding mental mistakes. When they avoid doing all of those things, and execute their game plan, they’re damn near impossible to beat.

The Patriots lead the NFL with an astounding plus-18 turnover margin, and rank 28th in total penalties. This, coupled with the fact that they average a league-high 31.9 points per game, has been their recipe for success in 2010.

Accounting for Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson.

Honestly, the Packers’ injury-riddled offense, even with Aaron Rodgers, has been boom or bust. With Rodgers coming off a concussion, I think the Pats’ defense should have no problem shutting down an offense that has scored just 13 points in the first quarter of their past seven games.

The real concern will be the Packers defense, which at times can give opposing quarterbacks fits. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers employs a zone blitz scheme, similar to the one Dick Labeau uses in Pittsburgh. The centerpieces of Caper’s defense are linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson.

Matthews is currently having an MVP-type season. He ranks second in the NFL with 12.5 sacks. Capers loves to send Matthews at the quarterback from a variety of angles. Center Dan Koppen will have to make sure he accounts for Matthew’s location before every snap in order to keep him from wrecking havoc in the Patriots backfield.

Capers also likes to occasionally blitz Woodson off the edge. Woodson is experienced, has a very high football IQ, and is an exceptional tackler for a corner. The 13-year veteran has two interceptions and four forced fumbles this season.

Prediction: Patriots 34-14

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