Match-up: New England Patriots (9-2) at Green Bay Packers (8-3)
Location: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
Date: Sunday, November 30, 2014
Time: 3:25 PM CST
In one of the most anticipated match-ups of the regular season, the New England Patriots visit the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. The Patriots are 9-2, having won their last 7 games. The Packers are 8-3, and have won 7 of their last 8. These are two of the hottest teams in the NFL, taking part in what some have dubbed a possible Super Bowl preview.
This game features the NFL’s top two teams by point differential, with the Patriots leading the league by scoring 130 more points than their competition, and the Packers having outscored their opponents by 108. They are also the two highest scoring teams in the league, with the Patriots once again best overall (32.5 points per game vs. 32.2 points per game). Neither defense has been great, with the Patriots 14th overall in yards allowed and 11th overall in points given up, while the Packers chime in at 21st and 15th, respectively. By most objective measures while each team has been near the top of the league this season, the Patriots have been slightly better than the Packers through 12 weeks. Nevertheless, with home field advantage, the Packers are slightly favored by Las Vegas, and the nation’s putative experts. It should be a great game.
The Packers’ pass rush vs. the Patriots’ offensive line. As you may have heard, Green Bay’s defense under Dom Capers has had some trouble against top-of-the-line quarterbacks. Tom Brady is terrific if he is not pressured, and the Patriots’ offensive line has played very well during their seven game win streak. The Packers have 27 sacks on the season, tied for 14th, and 15 interceptions, tied for second. They need to find ways to get to Brady so that their playmakers in the defensive backfield have some chance of holding their own. An added benefit would be making the Patriots to rely on their 15th ranked rushing attack if they have any hope of slowing down New England. While the Patriots are average at running the ball, the Packers would certainly rather see more of their stable of running backs than passes from Brady.
Rob Gronkowski vs. The World. Rob Gronkowski can block. Rob Gronkowski can catch. Rob Gronkowski can throw you out of the club. AJ Hawk has made a career out of ineffectively chasing tight ends as they make big plays. Clay Matthews is new to the position of Middle Linebacker. Green Bay’s other linebackers barely warrant mention in coverage. Morgan Burnett tends to play soft over the middle and secure tackles after a receiver has already made a catch. Julius Peppers is big and fast and has played well and is extremely unlikely to be thrown out of the club, but cannot be expected to chase Gronkowski around all day. The Packers will have to find some way of at least minimizing Gronkowski’s impact on the game in order to win, and options seem thin. It may be up to Carlos Hyde, who has emerged as a versatile and important cog in Dom Capers’s scheme.
On the other side of the ball, the key match-up is Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb vs. Darrell Revis and Brandon Browner. It is no secret that Aaron Rodgers has been targeting his top two receivers heavily this year (Nelson is 8th in targets in the league, Cobb 39th), and the offense is at its best when they are able to find room to work. When those receivers are well-covered, as they were by the Minnesota Vikings, the offense is far more pedestrian. For New England to puts its team in the best position to win, it has to hope that Browner and Revis are capable of matching up with Nelson and Cobb in one-on-one situations. If so, Green Bay’s other playmakers are far less likely to go off, and Aaron Rodgers will have a difficult time exploiting matchups.
Player to Watch
Eddie Lacy. Lacy ran for 100 yards against the Vikings in week 12, only the second such effort for him this season. If the Patriots effectively handcuff Nelson and Cobb, he will be needed again. The Patriots are not great against the run, ranking 14th in the league, but Lacy also is not on pace for 1,000 yards this season. The good news for Green Bay is that Lacy already has more receiving yards than a year ago, and has three receiving touchdowns on the season. He can be used in multiple ways to make Green Bay’s offense less one dimensional. If the Packers win this one, Lacy will likely be a key reason why.
Green Bay has been very good at home this season, scoring over 50 points on two occasions, and 42 on a third, and twice scoring 38 points. Their lowest point total in Lambeau Field in the 2014 came in week two, when they put up 31. If any team can keep pace, it is New England. With due respect to the Vegas sharps and ESPN experts, the Patriots have been the better team through this point in the season. They have the better record, more notable wins, and better objective statistical performance. Green Bay is the team that needs to execute perfectly to win, not New England. Given historical struggles for Green Bay’s defense against hall-of-fame level quarterbacks, I am not hopeful of a Packer victory. The Patriots win this one with a little fourth-quarter magic, 38-34.