Senior writer jclombardi looks at Packers keys to victory against “brotherly love” Eagles.
Statistically good QB Rodgers must win in pressure playoffs: As the Packers quarterback and his teammates prepare for Sunday’s NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Rodgers is acutely aware of the outside expectations being put on his team–by the passionate fan base (which is still smarting over last season’s overtime loss to Arizona), by experts like Sports Illustrated’s Peter King (who picked the sixth-seeded Packers to reach Super Bowl XLV) and by his critics (who are fond of pointing out that the third-year starter has yet to win a playoff game). So Rodgers broke into his best Will Ferrell imitation on Monday, recalling his character in the ABA-themed movie “Semi-Pro,” when Ferrell’s Moon flips out after one of his harebrained promotions – wrestling a bear at midcourt – goes awry and the bear escapes into the Tropics’ arena. Rodgers’ point? The playoffs are no time to lose your cool. Don’t change who you are just because the stakes are higher. That mindset fell right in line with coach Mike McCarthy’s message to the team when the players returned to work following their back-to-back de facto playoff victories over the New York Giants and Chicago Bears in the final two weeks of the regular season. His message earlier this week was, “Don’t believe the hype,” and Rodgers personifies that mentality. For while Rodgers fully understands that a quarterback’s reputation is forged by what he does in the postseason, he’s not the type to tense up or alter his approach. For Rodgers in 2010, he raised the bar to the point that his regular-season numbers (65.7% completion percentage, 3,922 yards, 28 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 101.2 passer rating) were somewhat disappointing – including to him. A victory over the third-seeded Eagles – followed by an upset of top-seeded Atlanta at the Georgia Dome the next weekend – would do plenty to quell talk about his poor record in close games (2-13 in games decided by four points or fewer) and erase the disappointment of last year’s loss to the Cardinals.
Aggressive blitz defense and contain QB Vick: Antoine Winfield has some free advice for Packers as DC Capers formulates his game plan for containing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in Sunday’s NFC Wild Card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field. Especially if Capers wants to take a page out of the Vikings’ defensive playbook and blitz Vick aggressively, as Minnesota did in its 24-14 victory over the Eagles on Dec. 28. “The rush better get there,” Winfield warned in a conversation with the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Chip Scoggins. “If it doesn’t, you’re vulnerable in the back end.” Facing Vick, defenses are vulnerable just about everywhere. His season of redemption has seen him complete 62.6 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,018 yards and 21 touchdowns against just six interceptions (100.2 rating). He’s also run for 676 yards and nine touchdowns and put together several tour de force performances. The question is, how will Capers focus on him? The Vikings’ approach was to blitz on almost half of Vick’s dropbacks with their preferred blitz being bringing Winfield off the slot in their nickel defense. By Winfield’s count, he blitzed 16 times in that game, and as he told Scoggins a few days later, “I don’t think I blitzed 16 times the whole season.” The payoff? Six sacks, plus seven more hits on Vick and near-constant pressure. Winfield finished with nine tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss and a quarterback hit, and he returned the fumble he forced on one sack 45 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half. Considering the Packers have a much more accomplished blitzer who plays their slot corner spot – seven-time Pro Bowler Charles Woodson – mimicking the Vikings’ approach would be logical. Of course, it’s also a safe bet that Eagles coach Andy Reid has spent the past two weeks devising a counter-move to the weakness exposed by the Vikings. Asked Wednesday if the Packers need to be aggressive against Vick, Woodson harkened back to the team’s 51-45 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals in last year’s NFC Wild Card playoff game, when Woodson felt Capers was too conservative in his game plan. “(Being aggressive is) very important. We know what we’re going up against,” said Woodson, who blitzed more than a dozen times last Sunday against Chicago’s Jay Cutler and finished with a sack, eight tackles and three pass deflections. “We know that dynamic that Vick is. He’s a very big part of what they’re doing right now. He makes a lot of plays with his feet, but we’ve got to make sure we stay aggressive and make him run if he has to and make sure that we do our job in the back end. But aggressive, that’s the way we like to play.”
Solid special teams performance: “Jackson’s a very talented guy. He’s in a class all by himself with the talent he’s got,” the Green Bay Packers quarterback said as his team prepared for Sunday’s NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Eagles in Philadelphia. “Obviously, I’m a little biased because I’m from Cal, but the play he made at the end of the Giants game – which really helped us out, allowed us to be in this position right now – that was incredible and he’s a guy we have to account for. I hope our special teams does this weekend.” Now, the Packers’ challenge is to make sure Jackson doesn’t end their season. While containing Vick has been a primary topic of conversation all week, handling Jackson on punt returns could be almost as dangerous. While Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April wouldn’t say for certain this week whether Jackson would handle all punt returns, it stands to reason that Philadelphia would want him back there given the stakes. Jackson averaged 11.6 yards on 20 punt returns in the regular season, ranking him seven in the NFL among returners with at least 20 returns. The Packers are expecting to see Jackson throughout, and their hope is to contain him the way they handled Chicago’s dangerous Devin Hester last week. Punter Tim Masthay earned a game ball from coach Mike McCarthy for his work against Hester, whom the Packers held in check last week. Punting eight times, Masthay had averages of 43.5 gross yards, 36.6 net yards and 3.86 seconds of hang time, with four punts inside the 20-yard line and one touchback. His longest punt was a 56-yarder. Hester, meanwhile, had only two returns – a 19-yarder and a 16-yarder – and fair caught the only other punt he touched.
Offense must protect and score/score/score: The offensive line needs a strong performance against the Eagles’ pressure-packed defense. Rodgers generally had that time against the Giants two weeks ago, and he had a monster game with 404 yards and four touchdowns. Rodgers didn’t have that time against the Bears last week, and it led to a shaky performance. The Eagles’ secondary is ripe for the picking. Pro Bowler Asante Samuel is one of the best in the business, with an NFC-high seven interceptions despite missing five full games because of injuries. He’s apparently healthy now after being rested last week. The other cornerback position, however, is a mess. Veteran starter Ellis Hobbs went down at midseason with a neck injury. Dimitri Patterson struggled down the stretch – allowing three touchdown passes in the first half against the Giants in Week 15. He’ll start, with 5-foot-9 Joselio Hanson and rookie Trevard Lindley joining the fray when the Packers trot out three and four receivers. If Rodgers has time, the Packers should like their chances of scoring plenty of points.“Obviously, we have some favorable matchups that we think we have but at the same time, when you’re dealing with a team in the playoffs, they’ve seen us from Week 1, we’ve seen them Week 1,” said receiver Greg Jennings, who caught five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in that game. “You really can’t have a huge gauge off what took place that early in the season. They’ve had some injuries in their secondary. It’s our job to expose them.”