The Green Bay Packers (1-2) welcome the winless New Orleans Saints (0-3) to Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon for an important Week 4 clash between two NFC teams expected to have better records at this point of the season.
The Packers and Saints combined for just four regular-season losses a year ago (Packers 15-1, Saints 13-3), but the 2012 season has already seen the two teams eclipse that total as both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have struggled at times to start the year.
Sunday afternoon is historically important in a win-loss sense, as just one team (1992 San Diego Chargers) starting 0-4 has made the playoffs. Twenty-one teams have made the postseason after a 1-3 start. A 1-3 start for the Packers would give them five losses in their last seven games, and three losses in their last four home games.
Below, we analyze the five matchups that will help decide who wins Sunday's vastly important Week 4 matchup between the two teams.
Packers OLBs Nick Perry and Erik Walden vs. Saints RT Zach Strief
Much of the offensive line focus for the Saints will revolve around left tackle Jermon Bushrod and his matchup against Clay Matthews, who has been mostly unblockable in 2012. But the Saints could have their hands full on the right side too.
Strief, who won the right tackle job in camp, has been a liability in pass protection this season. Both Walden and Perry present difficulties for Strief, who might need help containing the two pass-rushers Sunday. He was destroyed in Week 3 by Chiefs rusher Justin Houston.
Walden has been the more effective pass-rusher the past two weeks, but Perry could have the first big game of his NFL career if his wrist is getting closer to 100 percent. The injury has limited him some the past two weeks.
Packers RB Cedric Benson vs. Saints MLB Curtis Lofton
The Saints are a woeful 32nd against the run in 2012, allowing 215 yards a game through three weeks. While the Packers are still an offense that wants to attack vertically with the passing game, getting Benson touches early on is a must.
Not only has the Packers offensive line struggled in pass protection, but the play-action passing game has been nullified by teams who sit back in two-deep coverage and dare the Packers to run. However, the Saints, unlike the 49ers, Bears and Seahawks, do not have the personnel up front to pull off that plan.
Benson needs to be able to run downhill in the zone-blocking scheme and create room for the Packers passing game. Featuring Benson early could open up the down-field passing plays that have been missing for Green Bay in 2012.
Packers LBs A.J. Hawk and D.J. Smith vs. Saints RB Darren Sproles
Tight end Jimmy Graham represents a tough matchup for the Packers defense, but Sproles may have more opportunities to make plays against a slow-footed group of linebackers for Green Bay.
Remembering back to Week 1 of last season, the Saints gave Sproles nine targets and seven catches, including one on an angle route out of the backfield that went for 36 yards. Sproles smoked Hawk in space for a third-down conversion.
Expect the Saints to get Sproles the ball in space against Hawk, Smith or whoever else the Packers want to put on Sproles out of the backfield. In any matchup, Sproles likely has the advantage. He needs to have a big impact for the Saints to win Sunday.
Packers rookies Jerron McMillian and Casey Hayward vs. Saints QB Drew Brees
McMillian and Hayward have been pleasant surprises as the nickel safety and dime cornerback, respectively. McMillian is an instinct, hard-nosed player who has looked comfortable as a deep safety and playing near the line of scrimmage.
Hayward, a second-rounder, has been a lockdown cover man in the slot on passing downs. He's also showed a knack of being a sure-tackler in space.
But Sunday's matchup with Brees certainly represents their most difficult matchup, both from a mental and physical standpoint. Expect Brees to test the two rookies early and often to see if they are up to the task. The Saints could have a big day passing if the rookies are overwhelmed by Brees and the passing game early.
Packers S Charles Woodson vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham
Graham is a difficult matchup for any defensive player in football, including the savvy Woodson. Watch for when Graham splits out as a wide receiver, which should mean Woodson comes up and plays him in the slot. That one-on-one battle will be the matchup to watch all afternoon.
If Graham can physically out-man Woodson, the Saints should be able to move the football. Look for a few holding and illegal contact penalties from Woodson too, who is known for getting grabby when he loses in the slot.
In the red zone is another area to concern yourself with, considering Graham has touchdown catches in eight straight games dating back to last season. No defense is capable of handling him inside the 20-yard line, making Graham a strong bet to catch another Sunday, regardless of the outcome.
Prediction: Packers 35, Saints 17