By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
The Packers come to town 8-5 Sunday night versus the Patriots in a game that suddenly may not be as difficult as it initially looked. Aaron Rodgers suffered his second concussion of the year last Sunday and may not play. Even before he went out, the Pack had been struggling. Meanwhile, the Patriots are hitting on all cylinders. It’ll be their second NFC North opponent in a row and so far they’re 3-0 versus that division winning by an average of 20. Last time they saw the Packers was 2006 at Green Bay and that was a 35-0 Patriots whitewash. A win could clinch the division and a bye for the Patriots if the Jets lose at 4:15 PM at Pittsburgh. If so, a crowd approaching the fired up crowd that saw the Patriots crush the Jets two weeks ago could be in display once again. And at the end of the night, with or without Rodgers playing, the Patriots could possibly have achieved their first goal for the season…..winning the AFC East.
Aaron Rodgers (#12), Quarterback: Rodgers has clearly become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL right up there with Tom Brady in the discussion. But his career certainly didn’t get off to that kind of start with Green Bay. Rodgers was originally drafted with the 24th pick in the draft by Green Bay in 2005. 24 was considered a “slip” for Rodgers, who leading up to the draft was considered to be a higher rated prospect. He then proceeded to sit for three years behind Brett Favre with little playing time. When he did get into a game, such as in 2006 when the Patriots knocked Favre out of the game, he was generally unimpressive. That appearance in the Patriots game remains his only appearance against them. In that game, a 35-0 Patriots win at Lambeau Field, Favre was hit with just under 2 minutes left in the first half with the Patriots already leading 21-0. Rodgers played the rest of the game and was 4-12 for 32 yards and took 3 sacks in just over a half of play. It was performances like that before he became the starter that lead many to wonder if he’d ever be a good NFL quarterback.
But beginning in 2008, Rodgers got his chance as the Packers starter when Favre was let go and then moved on to the Jets. And he’s steadily improved to become one of the elite quarterbacks. Last year he had an excellent 103.2 QB rating. This year he got off to a slow start, but had been great of late and his QB rating is up to 98.5. Against Detroit this past Sunday, however, Rodgers suffered his second concussion of the year leaving his status for the game against the Patriots in doubt. Having just had a concussion two months ago and not missing a game, the Packers will likely be under a lot of pressure in both directions regarding Rodgers. Those who are worried about the Packers playoff chances will push for Rodgers to play. Medical concerns will push the Packers legitimately in the other direction. Will he play? We likely won’t know until at the earliest 24 hours before game time. Perhaps right before the game. And having or not having an elite quarterback will be a major factor in what kind of test the Patriots will face Sunday night.
Matt Flynn (#10), Quarterback:
If Rodgers doesn’t play, it’ll be Matt Flynn. Flynn is a former 7th round choice out of LSU. Most Patriots fans are probably quite unfamiliar with Flynn, who has limited playing time in the NFL. I happen to have the chance to have watched him quite a bit, at least in college, being a LSU alum and fan who catches most of their games. And I’ll say this, Flynn is one of the smartest quarterbacks I have ever seen play. He is Tom Brady level in terms of intelligence, game management, leadership and smart play. What he lacks, however, is Brady’s talent and obviously NFL experience.
At LSU, Flynn got his first significant experience as a Sophomore when the starter was hurt for the bowl game versus Miami. And all Flynn did in his college start was lead LSU to a 40-3 win and earn player of the game honors. His junior year, Flynn went back to being a backup but finally earned the starters position again his senior year of 2007. And Flynn had an excellent year, playing smart, efficient football and not making mistakes. It culminated with Flynn leading the Tigers to a National Championship game with a 38-24 win over Ohio State in which Flynn earned player of the game honors.
Since coming to the NFL, Flynn has impressed in earning backup duties to Rodgers beating out some higher draft picks. But he’s only thrown 46 career passes in three years. As I said, he is smart, can scramble a bit, has nice touch and is a good game manager. He lacks a big arm though and is inexperienced. He can’t make huge throws with velocity into tight coverage. But he will take what is given to him and usually avoids mistakes. He throws on the run well. He is just one of those players who wins and at the end of the game you wonder why he is always on top as he doesn’t appear to have great skills. But if he does play Sunday night, look for the Packers to play a conservative game with Flynn avoiding dumb mistakes and taking what the Patriots give them. If the defense can slow the Pats offense down, Flynn is perfectly capable of keeping the Packers in the game and pulling a stunner.
Greg Jennings (#85), Wide Receiver: Jennings is an explosive, dangerous receiver and one of the best receivers in the NFL. Originally a 2nd round choice out of Western Michigan, Jennings has it all for a receiver: speed, moves, quickness, hands and toughness. He is a definite deep threat but also a threat on slants and shorter inside curls. On tough third and longs, the Packers look for him first. The Patriots best corner, rookie Devin McCourty, was injured this past Sunday versus the Bears but it uncertain how seriously. The Packers aren’t great at running the ball, so will have to throw. They’ll likely look for Jennings a lot and if McCourty isn’t there the Patriots could have a lot of trouble with him. He’s a game changer who despite his smallish frame, has put together 12, 9, 4 and 11 touchdown seasons the past 4 years. He averages over 16 yards per catch for his career. If early in the game you know McCourty is out and the Packers throw successfully to Jennings, its a cause for concern the Packers could pull the upset.
Clay Matthews (#52), Linebacker: There has been a lot of consternation amongst Pats fans they did not draft Matthews in 2009 despite opportunities to do so. There was a lot of thought at the time he’d fit perfectly at outside linebacker in the Pats 3-4 defense. And he was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009. His father Clay Sr. played for Bill Belichick back in Cleveland. It seemed a natural. But for whatever reason, the Pats went in a different direction and Pats fans have been questioning it ever since. In any event, Matthews will be on the other side this Sunday and is a game changing disruptive force. After a 10 sack rookie season, he’s followed it up with a 13 sack season this year thru 13 games. There are some reports out there Matthews is playing injured and his effectiveness is down. But no matter, the Pats will have to account for Matthews and not allow him to constantly disrupt Brady’s timing.
Charles Woodson (#21), Cornerback: The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year has had a good season, but not quite as dominant as his 2009 campaign. After 9 interceptions last season (and 7 in 2008), Woodson has a mere 2 this year. With Tramon Williams a good corner on the other side, you really can’t ignore Woodson and pick on one side. So you’d have to conclude he has slipped slightly. Still, he’s capable of big plays and Tom Brady nearly had a few picks this past week against the Bears. Brady wasn’t quite as sharp and had more bad throws than he had the previous 3 games. If that trend were to continue, Woodson (Brady’s former Michigan teammate) is a guy who could take serious advantage (as could Williams). This will make only Woodson’s second return to Foxborough since the Snow Bowl when Woodson sparked one of the most talked about plays in NFL history when he hit Brady (it should be noted in the head) in a play that lead to the “Tuck Play.” His first return in 2005, Woodson was unable to get revenge with the Patriots winning 30-20 in that season’s opener. This time the weather is likely to be more similar to the Snow Bowl and the Patriots will be hoping the result will be the same over Woodson’s team.
Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers: Capers coached with the Patriots as Secondary Coach in 2008. There have been some rumors he did not get along well with Bill Belichick and he was allowed to leave for Green Bay (and a better position) last year. He immediately switched the Packers to a 3-4 defense and an excellent turn around has resulted. Last year he helped turn around the Packers defense and it went from 21st in 2008 to 2nd in the NFL in 2009. This year, they’ve only allowed 183 points through 13 games despite a ton of injuries for Green Bay on that side of the ball. He’ll have a huge test this week trying to slow down the Patriots, the hottest offensive team in the NFL right now and could be without another top player in Cullen Jenkins. Capers grew up as a coach in the Pittsburgh Steelers blitzing style 3-4, so that’s what the Patriots will see Sunday. They like to try to spread those type of defenses out so we’ll probably see a lot of that. It should be a big game for Danny Woodhead. If Capers learned anything regarding how the Patriots like to attack this style defense from his year here, it could help the Pack counter this strategy. Either way, it should be a great chess match between two top notch units, the Patriots offense and Packer defense.