The teams: The Green Bay Packers (5-3) vs. the Philadelphia Eagles (4-5).
The time: Noon CST Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Pam Oliver reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 85-45 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Chip Kelly is 4-5 in his first season as coach of the Eagles and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 24-13, while the Eagles hold a 2-1 advantage in postseason play, with their fourth-and-26 victory in the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs and the Packers winning in Philadelphia on the road to the Super Bowl XLV title. The Packers hold a 16-4 edge in games played in Green Bay and have won three straight overall in the series, including playoffs.
The rankings: The Packers’ second-ranked offense is No. 2 in rushing and No. 6 in passing. Their 15th-ranked defense is No. 5 against the run and No. 20 against the pass. The Eagles’ fourth-ranked offense is No. 3 in rushing and No. 10 in passing. Their 32nd-ranked defense is No. 15 against the run and No. 32 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 1 1/2 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone). Doubtfui: OLB Andy Mulumba (ankle). Questionable: RG T.J. Lang (concussion), OLB Nick Perry (foot). Probable: OLB Clay Matthews (thumb), DT Ryan Pickett (knee), OLB Mike Neal (knee). Eagles – Doubtful: LB Jake Knott (hamstring), QB Michael Vick (hamstring). Questionable: CB Bradley Fletcher (pectoral). Probable: CB Roc Carmichael (groin), S Patrick Chung (shoulder), WR Damaris Johnson (ankle), T Jason Peters (pectoral/shoulder), RB Chris Polk (shoulder/knee), DE Cedric Thornton (knee), G Julian Vandervelde (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Ground and pound: With Rodgers out, the Packers turn to Seneca Wallace, their 33-year-old veteran backup who joined the team on Sept. 2 after the organization decided that Graham Harrell, Vince Young and B.J. Coleman weren’t going to cut it. There’s no question that Wallace wasn’t good enough last Monday night against Chicago, when he didn’t even attempt a pass longer than 20 yards and went 11 for 19 for just 114 yards with an interception on his first series.
The talk all week was long was that Wallace would undoubtedly be better with a week of preparation, and that seemed completely logical.
“He looks a lot better. He’s a very prideful individual,” McCarthy said of Wallace. “There’s some things he’s still done on the field working on, there’s a couple things that weren’t clean on the field for him. The situational offense is always the challenge. That’s been my experience in the past, and it’s holding true through the week of preparation. We’re expecting an aggressive defense schematically, and that’s what we’re getting ready for.”
Even if he’s only marginally better, if Wallace can avoid mistakes like the interception – a play that game after running back Eddie Lacy had run six times for 36 yards on six of the seven snaps that immediately followed Rodgers’ injury – then his team will have every chance to win. Why?
Because of the legitimacy of their running game. No back in the league has run for more yards over the past five weeks than rookie Eddie Lacy (545), and with Lang expected to start, the fivesome up front should be intact. While the Eagles’ pass defense is the worst in the league, the Packers won’t be able to exploit that without the run game doing what it’s done over the past month or so.
“(We) try to run the ball, well, every week. I used to work for a guy, and he’d say, ‘Hey, pound the hell out of ‘em 1 or 2 yards in the first quarter, 2 and 3 in the second quarter, 3 or 4 in the third quarter, and hell, by the fourth quarter we’re coming out the back gate,’” McCarthy said, presumably referring to former Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer. “I hope it doesn’t take that long, but we’re going to run it. That’s one thing I can promise you. If it works, it works. But the attempts, as I’ve said time and time again, is the most important statistic that I look for. I trust our linemen, I trust our run-blocking unit, and our backs are playing so much better, and I think they have an upside. But we’ve got to keep ‘em in clean plays and let these guys play.”
Home, James: Speaking of the run, while Lacy has deservedly received most of the attention, veteran James Starks keeps reminding the coaching staff why he merits more carries. In the Packers’ loss to Chicago on Monday night, Starks scored on a 32-yard touchdown run, matching his career-long scoring run which he’d set in a Week 2 victory over Washington on Sept. 15. It marked his second straight game that he posted a touchdown run of 25 or more yards (he had a 25-yard touchdown at Minnesota) and he now has had three 25-yard scoring runs in the last four games he’s played. (Starks suffered a knee injury against Cincinnati on Sept. 22 and didn’t return to action until facing the Vikings, missing three games.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Starks is the first player in Packers history to have three touchdown runs of 25 or more yards over a four-game span in the same season. He’s also the only player in the NFL this season to post three such touchdown runs, and the three TDs are a career best for him.
”James Starks, he just runs for touchdowns. We’d like to give him more opportunities,” McCarthy said. “I really like the way Eddie’s running the football and the way James is coming in there, he’s coming in there with a whole different attitude, a lot of juice to each and every one of his opportunities. And I think you’ll see that with Johnathan if we ever give him a chance. The game really kind of dictates that so we’ll see how it goes.”
If Starks can stay healthy in his complementary role – he started against the Bengals with Lacy sidelined with a concussion – he could give McCarthy the 1-2 punch he wants, and needs, at running back. Starks’ history shows that when he’s sharing time, as he did in 2011 with Ryan Grant, he is available more (he played 13 games that year).
“I won’t say I’m too fresh legged because they worked me out in the training room, but it is different from being in practice and running all the time. It does feel good to go out there and just play well and do good for the team,” Starks said. “(The injuries are) in the past. I’m moving on and I’m going to continue to try to get better. I know for myself, I’m going to continue to get better.”
Getting defensive: The Packers are well aware of the challenges the Eagles’ up-tempo offense could create for them. But more than that, there’s no getting past the talent the Eagles have on offense.
From LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher with 777 yards, to wide receiver DeSean Jackson to quarterback Nick Foles, who threw for seven touchdowns last week, the Packers will have their hands full. In fact, the Eagles look a little bit like the Packers did before injuries struck, with a big-time back, an offense that used essentially the same three receivers (Jackson, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper) and a quarterback capable of getting hot.
“They’ve got two very explosive players in McCoy and Jackson. All you have to do is watch the tape from last week, with Foles throwing for seven touchdowns. The first four times they had the ball, they went right down the field and scored,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “They’re a big-play outfit. Very fast tempo, up tempo, they try to keep the pressure on you defensively. You’ve got to really stay tuned in … they’re going to spread you out and try to use their skill. Both of those guys I talked about have elite big-play ability. So, you’ve got to find a way to be sound and take care of your responsibility and not let the tempo get you.”
If the tempo doesn’t get you, the big plays will. The Eagles lead the NFL with 53 plays of 20 yards or more, which will be the Packers’ biggest challenge to handle, especially after a difficult night against Chicago last week. The feeling on the defensive side of the ball after that game was one of disappointment, as Rodgers’ injury put it squarely on the defense to win the game – and the unit failed.
“They have so many guys...DeSean Jackson and McCoy, both of them, you get them in space and they’re some of the best in the business, so of course they want to get them out there and make you try and tackle them one-on-one,” inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “I think their coach does a great job of getting them in space, everyone on their offense. It’s something you’ve got to work on, but I say it all the time, every team you play against has an unbelievable player and these guys are no different. They have a bunch of different ways they can hurt you.”
Brotherly love: The Brothers Matthews have faced off twice before, when Clay was at Southern California and Casey, now in his third year with the Eagles, was at Oregon. They split their two college meetings.
“I guess this game will be a little tiebreaker,” Casey said during a conference call with Wisconsin reporters this week.
Clay’s biggest issue this week isn’t how he can beat his little brother, but how effective he can be with a club cast on his right hand after breaking his thumb a month ago. After missing four games, he’s back just in time to see his bro and make Mom happy by posing for pictures.
“It would make for a good photo op,” Clay said at midweek. While both brothers said the most incentive comes from where their teams stand – “our quarterback going down, it's time for other positions to elevate their game and really carry this team until he comes back,” Clay said – they also agreed that Clay’s challenge of playing essentially one-handed will make things even more interesting.
Casey said their dad, 19-year NFL linebacker Clay Matthews Jr., always stressed the importance of playing well with one’s hands, and that’ll be Clay III’s challenge Sunday.
“Using your hands is very important, especially on the defensive side of the football. Growing up with my dad and having him coach us, we learned early on,” Casey said. “With Clay, if he goes and he’s wearing a club, it will affect some of his game. But I’m sure he’ll do a good job of finding a way to change it up. Obviously, he’s very powerful. It’s going to be hard not being able to grab with his right hand but he’ll find a way. He’s done it in the past. He’s played with clubs on before.”
Home cooking: In reply to a question about whether Wallace has a better chance of succeeding in his first start with the Packers because he’ll be playing at home, McCarthy answered this way: “Playing at home helps everybody. There's no place like home, there's no place like Lambeau Field. I'm glad we're home this week. I wish we were home every week.”
On Sunday, we should get an idea of whether the Packers’ late-season home success has more to do with the crowd, the atmosphere, or having one of the league’s best quarterbacks. With Rodgers out, it’s hard to make heads or tails of this stat: Since 2009, the Packers have been one of the best teams in the league at home in games played Nov. 1 or later. The team’s 27-20 loss to Chicago on Monday night snapped a 17-game winning streak in regular-season games played Nov. 1 or later at Lambeau Field. The next-closest home winning streaks entering Monday night were six-game streaks by Indianapolis and Seattle.
Since 2009, the Packers have won 17 of 19 games played Nov. 1 or later at Lambeau Field, an .895 winning percentage that is tied for the No. 1 mark in the league over that span. In those games, Green Bay has outscored its opponents 644-332 points. The Packers have scored at least 30 points in 12 of those games.
Now, they’ll try to do it without Rodgers.
“Playing at home in front of your crowd obviously helps,” said Wallace, who is 6-15 in his 10-year NFL career as a starter. “But we still have to go out there and execute.”
The formula is simple. Run the ball as well as they did against Chicago, play better defense than they did against Chicago, and how Wallace plays – as long as he doesn’t make a half-dozen fatal mistakes – won’t matter. But defensively, that’s easier said than done. And offensively, if the Eagles don’t come into the game prepared for the Packers’ running game, then they’d be committing coaching malpractice. The guess here is that, at home, the Packers find a way without their star QB. That may not happen in every game Rodgers misses, but it might this week. Packers 21, Eagles 17. (Season record: 7-1)
– Jason Wilde