Sports

Packers vs. Patriots: Preview, key matchups, keys to the game & prediction

The Green Bay Packers (3-3-1) will hit the road for the second consecutive week for a primetime date with the New England Patriots (6-2) Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. Green Bay will complete their two-game trip across the United States, as they come off a loss to the Los Angeles Rams last week, while New England looks for their sixth consecutive victory after knocking off the Buffalo Bills last Monday night.

Some notes on the matchup:

  • The game will be televised nationally on NBC, with Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya handling the broadcast duties. Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren can be heard calling the action across the 50-station Packers Radio Network, originating from flagship station AM 620 WTMJ. Nationally, Westwood One Sports will broadcast the game on the radio, with Kevin Kugler and Mike Mayock on the call.

  • The all-time regular season series between the two teams is locked at 5-5, with the Packers emerging victorious in the only postseason meeting, a 35-21 win in Super Bowl XXXI.

  • Green Bay is 1-2 against New England under Mike McCarthy, dropping contests in 2006 and 2010, with the lone victory coming in the last meeting between the two in 2014.

  • Sunday marks just the second time Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady have gone head to head as starters, with the 2014 game being the first.

Injury Report

The Packers final injury report of the week listed four players with their status for Sunday in question before downgrading wide receiver Geronimo Allison to OUT on Saturday afternoon.

New England will be without the services of guard Shaq Mason and center Brian Schwenke, while a host of others are listed as questionable, including wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski, though both are expected to play.

Here’s how the Green Bay offense stacks up against the Patriots’ defense:

Scoring

Green Bay: 25.0 ppg (13th)

New England: 23.1 ppg (12th)

Total Yardage

Green Bay: 412.1 ypg (5th)

New England: 382.8 ypg (25th)

Passing

Green Bay: 308.1 ypg (5th)

New England: 277.3 ypg (27th)

Rushing

Green Bay: 104.0 ypg (21st)

New England: 105.5 ypg (14th)

And how the Packers’ defense matches up with New England’s offense:

Scoring

Green Bay: 24.7 ppg (17th)

New England: 29.9 ppg (4th)

Total Yardage

Green Bay: 340.9 ypg (12th)

New England: 381.9 ypg (11th)

Passing

Green Bay: 221.7 ypg (5th)

New England: 266.6 ypg (12th)

Rushing

Green Bay: 119.1 ypg (22nd)

New England: 115.3 ypg (13th)

When Green Bay is on offense…

While the Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady narrative will get the majority of the attention, a secondary storyline that will no doubt be discussed is the crazy week that was at 1265 Lombardi. Contributing to that, of course, was the Packers’ decision to trade running back Ty Montgomery, which will only enhance the calls to increase Aaron Jones’ workload going forward.

If the Patriots’ defense has a strong suit, it’s against the run, where they’ve held opponents to under 100 yards in four of their eight games this season. Green Bay, meanwhile, has rushed for at least 100 yards in four of its seven contests—including 106 last week against the vaunted Rams front—as well as 98 yards twice, so it’s fair to think the Packers can move the ball on the ground. Jones, who is averaging 6.2 yards per rush, received the larger share of work against the Rams and will likely get the nod again this week.

If anything, the trade of Montgomery could bring greater clarity to the respective roles of Jones and fellow sophomore back Jamaal Williams. Jones is a slasher, with a quick-twitch that leaves defenders guessing, while Williams can use his compact frame and powerful burst to wear defensive fronts down and pick up short yardage. Of course, Mike McCarthy has never been one for taking the obvious approach with his rotations in the running game, so it’s no guarantee that Jones, who has clearly been the most impressive runner for Green Bay this season, will find himself becoming the bell cow.

In the passing game, the absence of Geronimo Allison probably stings a little less than it did a few weeks ago, before Aaron Rodgers really knew what he had in rookie receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. Valdes-Scantling has seemingly earned the trust of the two-time MVP quarterback, and his straight-line speed gives defenses a legitimate deep threat to worry about. Davante Adams obviously continues to be Rodgers’ main target, but will likely garner most of the attention from a Belichick-led defense that thrives on taking away opponents’ biggest pieces.

The wild card in all of this could be Jimmy Graham, who poses a threat from the tight end position that the Packers didn’t have the last time these two teams met in 2014. Between Graham, Randall Cobb and the rookies, the Packers should have enough firepower to force the Patriots to adjust, giving Adams a few more opportunities to make an impact. As was evidenced last week against the Rams, Rodgers and the Packers stand to benefit from getting the ball moving on the ground to open up the play-action game, where they were able to hit multiple big shots in Los Angeles.

Above any individual performance or statistic, Green Bay simply needs to get better at finishing drives. For starters, the Packers rank 19th in the league with a 38.5 percent third down conversion rate. They’ll get a chance to improve that mark against a Patriots defense that allows opponents to convert 42.9 percent of the time on third down, good for 26th leaguewide. When you dig into the advanced stats, a theme starts to appear. According to Football Outsiders, the Packers rank 18th in drive success rate, which looks at the percentage of time a team will get a first down or touchdown given a set of four downs. Additionally, they check in at 20th in touchdowns per drive, 21st in points per red zone appearance, and 20th in touchdowns per red zone appearance.

The problem, then, isn’t necessarily that the Packers can’t move the football or put points on the board, but rather that they end up with three points instead of six more often than not. Given that the Packers lead the league in field goal attempts (22) and rank 24th in total touchdowns (18—of which 17 have been score by the offense), this makes sense.

When Green Bay is on defense…

Unlike the running back situation, the Packers plan in the secondary got cloudier when the team dealt safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix this week. Despite his up-and-down play, Clinton-Dix still led the team in interceptions and was the most consistently available player on defense. His absence leaves a hole that the Packers apparently plan to fill with any number of bodies until they find something that works. Tramon Williams told reporters this week that he would be playing safety at the request of Mike Pettine, under whom Williams has played the position before, albeit three years ago in Cleveland. Pettine confirmed the move, though he said Williams would be playing “some” safety and echoed Mike McCarthy’s comments about the door being open for a few different players to seize the opportunity.

So, who might those players be? For starters, there’s Jermaine Whitehead, a safety by trade who has frankly played better when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage. Second-year man Josh Jones has failed to garner meaningful defensive snaps after a somewhat promising rookie campaign. Instead, Jones—who is coming off an ankle injury—has found himself playing primarily on special teams, prompting questions about the coaching staff’s level of confidence in him as an every-down player. From here, the waters get murky. Obviously, Williams will get his shot, but what about fellow corners Josh Jackson and Bashaud Breeland? Jackson’s snap counts have waned a bit since early in the year, and Breeland is expected to be active for the first time as a Packer this week. Who knows what Pettine has been able to come up with over the past five days, but it’s safe to say we’ll see some trial and error Sunday night.

Offensively, New England poses a couple unique challenges. First, there is James White, the running back who may as well be a receiver. White leads the Patriots in receptions (55), receiving yards (459) and receiving touchdowns (6), while also factoring into the running game (48 carries, 208 yards, two touchdowns) while lead back Sony Michel dealt with an injury.

This could be a big week for Packers’ rookie linebacker Oren Burks, who will likely be matched up with White a fair amount Sunday night. The other big gun Green Bay will have to worry about is tight end Rob Gronkowski, athletic freak and Tom Brady’s favorite red zone target. Gronkowski is dealing with both ankle and back trouble, which would obviously benefit the Packers enormously. Despite being mired in the longest touchdown drought of his career—six games—Gronkowski is making the most of his targets, averaging 15.4 yards per reception on 29 catches. With the uncertainty at safety for Green Bay, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see how Mike Pettine decides to attack the big tight end.

Up front, it’s going to be on the Packers’ pass rushers to get Tom Brady off his spot with regularity, which is obviously no easy task. Brady’s awareness in the pocket is off the charts, so the way to beat him is to give him no escape and force him to either hold the ball or get rid of it before he wants to. Historically, Brady has had the toughest time with pressure coming up the middle, in which case the Packers would be relying on Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and company to win their battles and make the future Hall-of-Famer uncomfortable.

Key Matchups

Mike McCarthy vs. Bill Belichick: Sure, both the Packers and Patriots have offensive and defensive coordinators, but Sunday night boils down to McCarthy’s offense against Belichick’s defense. Despite the constant moaning about McCarthy’s stale offensive game planning, history suggests he’ll have something ready for a primetime matchup against one of the league’s best teams. In the 2014 matchup, it was Davante Adams who stepped up when the Patriots schemed to take Jordy Nelson away. This time, Adams will be the target. How McCarthy plans to counter will tell the story of the night.

Packers safeties vs. Rob Gronkowski: As mentioned above, the task of controlling Gronk could fall to any number of players throughout the game. Even with an aching back and a bum ankle, the freakish tight end requires constant attention, and if the Packers don’t have their ducks in a row in the secondary, it could turn out to be a nightmare.

Keys to the Game

Special teams: Patriots return man Cordarrelle Patterson is averaging 32.3 yards per kickoff return, with one touchdown under his belt this season. Patterson, whom Packer fans remember from his time in Minnesota, is tied for second all-time in league history with six career kickoff return touchdowns. The game will be tough enough to win without giving up big plays on special teams, so the Packers can ill afford to let Patterson get loose.

Six instead of three: You just don’t beat Brady and Belichick with field goals. Green Bay will be able to move the ball, but they need to find the end zone instead of settling for three points. The Packers failed to capitalize on a great defensive start last week, and their 10-point lead quickly evaporated. That needs to change against New England.

Win the take/give: Speaking of last week, the Packers and Rams played 58 minutes of turnover-free football before a fumble stole away a chance for Aaron Rodgers to win the game. With two of the greatest quarterbacks in the game going toe to toe, turnovers will likely be at a premium, and the chances of victory will greatly increase for whoever is able to create some.

Prediction

I think level-headed people would agree the Packers are a better team—even if just slightly—than their 3-3-1 record suggests. The way the defense played last week against a high-flying Rams team was encouraging, even if the offense’s inability to build on a lead was a little discouraging. The Patriots have been extremely tough to beat at home in the Brady/Belichick era, but a hobbled Gronk and a porous pass defense going up against Aaron Rodgers says there is hope for a statement win by Green Bay. Packers 30, Patriots 27.

Top photo: Jake Roth/USA Today sports