Senior writer jclombardi: Packers vs Eagles previews, keys & game plan.
Preview:Teams: Packers (10-6) vs. Eagles (10-6). Time: 3:30 p.m. Sunday CST. Place: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia. TV coverage: FOX. The rankings: The Packers’ ninth-ranked offense finished the regular season ranked No. 24 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their fifth-ranked defense wound up No. 18 against the run and is No. 5 against the pass. Packers injury report: S Atari Bigby (groin), OLB Frank Zombo (knee) and FB Korey Hall (knee) have been ruled out. DE Cullen Jenkins (calf) is questionable. OLB Clay Matthews (shin), LT Chad Clifton (knees), S Nick Collins (ribs), DE Ryan Pickett (ankle) and CB Charles Woodson (toe) are probable. The line: The Eagles are favored by 3 points. THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH–Nip and tuck: At no point this season did the Packers trail by more than a touchdown.e all season long. The Packers found themselves in so many close games this season with half of their games decided by four points or fewer. The Packers went 2-6 in those games. Their six losses this season were by a total of 20 points. Meanwhile, much has been made of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 2-13 record in games decide by four points or fewer, but stats shed more light on how well he’s played in close games. That the Packers under McCarthy and Rodgers are historically inclined to play in close games meaning this NFC Wild Card game is a safe bet to come down to the wire. Small ball: For awhile, the NFL’s trend at wide receiver was toward big, strong, athletic playmakers. But as Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson and Green Bay’s Greg Jennings prove, there’s still room in the game for the little guy. The 5-foot-11 Jennings finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,265, while the 5-10, 170-pound Jackson has been among the league’s most electrifying players, whether it’s on punt returns or catching passes. To win, the Packers need to make sure they keep Jackson from celebrating any sort of scores. Pressure key to Vick-tory: While Eagles quarterback put up MVP-type numbers in his first six starts this season posting a league-best 115.1 passer rating with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, he’s struggled in his last six games with six INTs and a middling 89.8 passer rating. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Vick has been bothered by increasingly aggressive pass rushes of late. The Packers could adjust their defensive tendencies to take advantage of Vick’s struggles versus extra pressure. Capers has been more aggressive of late and Woodson expects a similar game plan in this game. The real McCoy: While much of the focus this week has been on Jackson and Vick, Eagles RB McCoy could very well decide the game. The Packers went from the league’s No. 1 defense against the run last season to 18th this year. While rushing 207 times for 1,080 yards, he also led the Eagles in receptions and finished with 1,672 combined yards from scrimmage. Running the ball effectively would take some of the pressure of Vick and might get Capers to pull back on some of his blitzing, which McCoy said is part of the plan. Mr. Rodgers neighborhood: For Packers to advance, they’ll likely need him to make some more big plays, especially early, as the Packers have shown a need for early explosions to get their offense humming. Rodgers had one of his worst outings of the season against the Eagles in the regular-season opener, throwing a pair of interceptions and posting a 73.1 passer rating, his second-lowest of the season for a game he finished (his rating was 34.7 after getting knocked out of that Detroit loss before halftime). Rodgers led all quarterbacks this season with 32 passing plays of at least 30 yards. The Eagles have been vulnerable against explosive passing attacks, having allowed a league-high 29 pass plays of at least 30 yards. And while the Eagles pass defense ranks in the top third of the league overall, it has been exploited in the red zone, where Philadelphia has allowed the highest passer rating (115.9) and the second-most touchdowns (23). Rodgers has excelled in the red zone this season, completing an NFL-best 65.8 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and just one interception.
Things to watch: INVITING TARGET: At midweek, coach Andy Reid announced that he was going back to Dimitri Patterson at RC. “He’s a mess,” an executive in personnel for a recent Eagles opponent said. “Lot of breakdowns. Just lacks speed. Can’t recover. Best underneath in zones. He’s a liability on an island. Plays very soft. When they’re in single high coverage he gives up a lot of underneath routes. He will bite on double moves.” “He is quick to support the run and he has four interceptions,” a scout said. “If you were playing a true Cover 2 where you jam the receiver and support the run and he has a short zone, he’d be a productive starter. But athletically, at the top of routes, he doesn’t match up with elite speed.” ON THE OTHER SIDE: LC Asante Samuel, 30, is one of the most dynamic interceptors in the NFL. “Plays the game kind of his own way,” one scout said. “The only reason he lets go of his man is if he sees something and knows where the quarterback is throwing the ball. He guesses right 8½ times out of 10.” Samuel has seven picks this season. “He baits quarterbacks,” another scout said. “He plays with big cushion, then will jump it. Very good anticipation. Great ball skills. Doesn’t have great speed, but he is so instinctive. He’s got great mirror skills. He’s just not a physical guy. In the run game, he doesn’t want any part of it.” THE MAIN COURSE: Can Michael Vick be contained? “He’s been stopped.?.?.?by the Vikings,” one scout said. “He should have thrown five picks against them. They dropped three. You hit him early, get him thinking, get him looking at the rush, force him into negative plays. He should be (healthy), but if you start hitting him, who knows? I think he’s banged up pretty good. I think he’s lost a little confidence. You’ve got to pressure him from different angles and you have to disguise. The Eagles are going to have that (slot blitzes) blocked. You’ve got to change it up a little bit. I’m sure Capers knows that.” Added another scout: “I don’t think he sees the blitzes quick or reads coverages fast. I know he’s gotten better and Andy’s done a good job. Vick is banged up already. I think the Packers can get after him.” Offered a third personnel man: “(Dom) Capers can contain him, but it might take an extra person to do it. Now you’ve got to worry about the hole you leave in your zone or man coverage on the tight end. Or the back chipping and getting out and creating big plays. You’ve got to match him athletically on the edge and you’ve got to be disciplined. The difference now is he can make a lot of throws that he didn’t make before.” SPEED DEMON: WR DeSean Jackson didn’t do much of anything in the opener against Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, who played one of his best games. “Tramon Williams doesn’t run as well as he does,” one scout said. “Neither does (Charles) Woodson. They can attempt to be physical, but sometimes you’re going to reach and miss.” Another scout was asked if he’d take Jackson or Greg Jennings. “If you need a big clutch throw inside, Greg Jennings will make a play. Jackson can catch it deep.” Added a third scout: “He’s the most explosive and fastest big-play guy. He is big time. You need to be physical with him.” CHANGING OF THE GUARD: The Eagles suffered a tragic loss before the 2009 season when Jim Johnson, their defensive coordinator, died of cancer. He was replaced by Sean McDermott, one of his assistants for nine years. They’ve got young guys on defense and they’re all little. The safeties are little. (Kurt) Coleman is corner size. Samuel is little. The (linebackers) are little. (Mike) Patterson’s little.”
Keys and game plan: KEYS–QB Michael Vick took a beating the final month of the season as defenses became more aggressive and the Eagles struggled in blitz pickup. That’s a major concern against the Packers, who racked up 47 sacks. Philadelphia combats pressure with a plethora of screen passes and the mobile Vick should be closer to full strength. However, he did turn the ball over eight times in his last five starts and the Packers enter with a plus-10 turnover margin. Rodgers won’t be facing the same defense that held him to a 73.1 passer rating to open the season. The Eagles have suffered injuries at linebacker and in the secondary, where CB Dimitri Patterson has been a popular target of late and FS Nate Allen was lost for the season and replaced by fellow rookie Kurt Coleman, who lacks Allen’s range. Rodgers tends to carve up blitzes and the Eagles don’t generate much pressure with just their front four, but Green Bay has to guard against becoming too one-dimensional as Philadelphia finished the regular season with 34 takeaways. GAME PLAN— Unlike the season-opening meeting between the teams in Philadelphia, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have a plan in place to counter daring quarterback Vick. Containment off the edges will be imperative if Capers blitzes liberally to thwart Vick, who ran for 103 yards and passed for 175 in the Week 1 game, on bootlegs and trying to extend plays with his feet. Powerful back McCoy, who had only seven carries but gained 35 yards in the opener, also is a focal point for the defense. The Packers were mostly solid in coverage the last time around against the dynamic receiving duo of DeSean Jacksonand Jeremy Maclin, who had a combined eight catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. The rematch with the Eagles calls to mind that the Packers lost workhorse halfback Ryan Grant to a season-ending ankle injury in the second quarter of the season lid-lifter. Brandon Jackson had some success as Grant’s replacement and carried the football 18 times for 63 yards. Getting a high volume of rushing attempts is the stated goal, but coach Mike McCarthy invariably will stick with the bread-and-butter passing game against Philadelphia’s pressure-based, gambling defense. The Eagles’ propensity for playing off coverage can be exploited with quick throws from Aaron Rodgers and short to intermediate pass patterns by the receivers.
Rodgers, it’s goal to go in playoff game against the Eagles: It certainly wasn’t a bad season for Rodgers, who again placed himself among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL from a statistical standpoint. But Rodgers wanted more. “With the way I prepared and the way I took care of my body in the offseason,” Rodgers said during a candid self-assessment earlier this week, “I guess I was looking for a slightly bigger jump.” Rodgers completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 3,922 yards with 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for an NFC-leading passer rating of 101.2. While his numbers in some categories were down slightly from the previous season, Rodgers set the bar pretty high pretty high in 2009 with 4,434 yards and 30 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and a passer rating of 103.2 in 16 starts, one more than he had this season. But Rodgers felt there was too much inconsistency during a season in which the Packers overcame injuries to finish 10-6 in the regular season and make the NFC playoffs as a wild card. Packers coach Mike McCarthy echoed that assessment earlier in the week when he said Rodgers’ season was in line with that of an up-and-down offense. McCarthy, whose background is in offense, admitted earlier this week he believes defense wins championships. He also acknowledged it doesn’t hurt to have a great quarterback. It’s too early to call Rodgers great, but the potential for greatness is clearly there. If he has more to give, now would be a good time. Because for everything Rodgers has done in his first 48 starts since being handed the keys to McCarthy’s offense at the beginning of the 2008 season — he’s passed for 12,394 yards with 86 touchdowns and 31 interceptions in that span — the one thing missing from Rodgers’ resume is success in the postseason. He’ll have the opportunity to change that when the Packers face the Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) in an NFC playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field. “I think the greatest quarterbacks are remembered for winning big games, but it’s not all about the quarterback,” Rodgers said. “Great teams win games, and then the quarterbacks on those great teams are often remembered as being great quarterbacks. “We want to win. Every time we take the field we want to win. It’s important to win. That’s why we play the game. And eventually, if you want to be remembered as a great player, you’ve got to win in the playoffs.”