The preseason Super Bowl favorites according to many have been bombarded by injuries, and their series of trips to the infirmary have sabotaged their season.
It’s the little things in this league, particularly in close games, and the Packers’ five losses have all been by four points or less. Conversely, they’ve only won twice this season in games that have been decided by four points or less.
There’s just not enough there to stay consistent, and this week’s injury to starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers might be the one that finally breaks them. Rodgers suffered a concussion early in last week’s 7-3 loss to the Lions that left the Packers with backup Matt Flynn, who had only attempted 20 passes in his three-year career prior to last week.
If Rodgers is medically cleared, it’s hard to imagine him playing like himself, especially after missing time at practice and in the film and meeting rooms. At full strength, Rodgers is one of the best in the game. He has a great arm, commands Green Bay’s full-scale passing attack and has linked up with Greg Jennings to form one of the better quarterback-wide receiver combinations in the NFL. Rodgers is also very mobile, as he’s second on the team with 309 rushing yards.
Flynn’s arm is a little suspect, but the 2008 seventh-round pick from LSU has been praised for his leadership and gamesmanship — similar to Lions quarterback Shaun Hill. Flynn, who has never started an NFL game, can be rattled, and his accuracy will take a dive if he’s hurried out of the pocket.
The Patriots might just be able to do that by attacking the left side of Green Bay’s line, which is weak compared to its sturdy right side. If the Pats can break through on Flynn’s blind side, they’ll open up their chances to hurry him, hit him, force a fumble or force a bad throw that could lead to an interception.
What’s worse is that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is said to be overly committed to the passing game, but this season it’s been out of necessity. The Packers lost starting running back Ryan Grant in the season opener, and they’ve been forced to go with somewhat-speedy Brandon Jackson, and John Kuhn, who is a poor man’s Peyton Hillis. Thus, the Packers are ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing yards. It’s also worth noting that neither back is all that impressive in the passing game, despite Jackson’s 39 receptions.
Rodgers or Flynn will also be throwing to Donald Driver, who is still a top-notch receiver out of the slot, and the tandem of James Jones and Jordy Nelson, who have 78 receptions between them. Both are on the plus-side of 6-feet, and they’re sneaky impressive. Since tight end Jermichael Finley went down in the Packers’ fifth game, they’ve gotten very little production out of the tight end position that was expected to really drive their offense this season.
If it’s Flynn doing the work, though, it’s just hard to imagine him having a good game against the Patriots’ opportunistic defense that has forced 27 turnovers, is starting to do an excellent job of disguising coverages and has improved on a weekly basis.
Defensively, the Packers run a very similar system to the Steelers, but they don’t have the same caliber talent, mostly because of the injuries. The Packers are susceptible over the middle, which could yield big nights from wide receiver Wes Welker and rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
On defense, the injuries to middle linebacker Nick Barnett and strong safety Morgan Burnett have only opened the gaps over the middle, and a guy like Tom Brady should be able to have a day if he goes that route.
The Packers, who have the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL despite being ranked 11th in yards allowed, are strong against the pass on the outside, where they’ve got a pair of excellent cornerbacks in Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. Free safety Nick Collins can also be thrown into that mix.
The third-ranked pass defense will face a test, though, because its strengths don’t exactly match up with the Patriots, who prefer to pass from the inside out. That could potentially mean Woodson lining up in the slot over Welker, as the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year is a corner who can line up all over the field. Such a potential matchup with Welker would be one of the best duels of the day.
Obviously, one headline-grabbing talent has been left outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who has 12.5 sacks this season despite, what some say, playing on one leg. Matthews could be a big test for right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, but the Patriots will be afforded a serious luxury to load up their tight ends – Alge Crumpler or Gronkowski — to that side because the Packers have been pulling guys out of the stands to play right outside linebacker.
There’s no reason to think Brady won’t target those areas right away to back up Green Bay, and if Brady’s outstanding run continues, he’ll open up running lanes for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, who will soon be able to take advantage of the Packers’ 19th-ranked run defense.
There are a lot of matchups that favor the Patriots in this game.