7 Bold Predictions for Green Bay Packers' Week 14 Matchup
This season as much as any has proven that anything can happen in the NFL from season to season down to week to week. The same is true for the Atlanta Falcons (3-9) and the Green Bay Packers (5-6-1) in their matchup Sunday.
The Packers, who finished last season with an 11-5 record, and the Falcons, who went 13-3 en route to the NFC Championship game, currently have fewer wins combined than each had individually last season.
There are many glaring reasons for Green Bay's decline, most notably injuries at almost every position, a young secondary and a patched-up offensive line. Atlanta's struggles have hinged more on an offense that was deflated after injuries to Roddy White, Julio Jones and Steven Jackson early in the season.
But in 2013, if you think you've figured a team out, wait until next week.
There's the question of which Packers team will show up—the one that went undefeated in the month of October or the one that hasn't won a game in five weeks. And is Atlanta good enough to actually take advantage of the Packers' flaws?
In this matchup—a struggling Falcons team coming off its first win in six games and a roller-coaster Packers team at Lambeau—nothing would be a surprise.
That's why the following seven predictions, though bold, are still grounded in reality.
Aaron Rodgers Will Play
At this point, Aaron Rodgers suiting up against the Falcons on Sunday will end up being either the most out-there prediction in this list or the least surprising.
The issue is that, as of Tuesday, no one—not Rodgers, not Mike McCarthy, not team doctor Pat McKenzie—knows whether Rodgers will be medically cleared in time for the game. The scans he received Tuesday morning were apparently not conclusive enough to either clear him or rule him out without seeing how he does at practice this week.
In a press conference given Tuesday afternoon, McCarthy said, via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Silverstein, that Rodgers will practice Wednesday "in a limited fashion, and we have not ruled him out for the game yet."
In his Tuesday radio show on ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers said, "Unfortunately for everybody involved, myself included, it's just gonna be a waiting game here...see how I'm feeling, and ultimately I'm not gonna be able to play if I don't get medically cleared."
Even though Rodgers sounded hopeful he would play in his radio show, at this point it would still be a surprise if McCarthy named him the Week 14 starter. Sunday will mark 34 days since Rodgers broke his collarbone, right in the middle of the four-to-six-week window given at the time of the injury as his healing window.
Still, one also has to assume that unless Rodgers displays truly limited mobility in his throwing motion in practice, or unless the team medical staff sees evidence to suggest the risk of re-injury is too high, the Packers will make every effort to start him.
Aside from the fact that Rodgers has been incredibly vocal about wanting to return, Sunday's game against Atlanta is in many ways an elimination game. While it still will not be mathematically impossible for the Packers to make the playoffs after a loss on Sunday, it becomes nearly impossible in practice.
Eddie Lacy Will Have a 100-Yard Day
It certainly feels like Eddie Lacy has had many 100-yard rushing days so far in his rookie season—after all, he is averaging the 10th-most yards on the ground per game in the league, at 74.7. He's the only rookie to land in the top 10.
That being said, expect him to carry the rock for at least 100 yards when the Falcons come to town on Sunday.
At No. 23 in the league, per Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) rankings, Atlanta's run defense isn't stout, but it's not in the bottom quarter either. Still, the Falcons have allowed opposing teams at least 100 rushing yards in nine consecutive games.
Considering that Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey alone (averaging 30.9 yards per game on average) was able to exploit the Falcons' run defense for 163 rushing yards in Week 11, it's safe to say the unit has been exposed.
Of course, Atlanta doesn't fear Rainey, but it certainly fears Lacy. If Rodgers were out, there is no doubt Atlanta would stack the box with eight or even nine defenders against Lacy on a majority of his runs out of the backfield.
However, Rodgers playing changes all that.
With Rodgers under center, the Falcons would be forced to play Cover 2 against the Packers rather than bring one unblocked safety down to the box. This, in turn, frees up run lanes for Lacy, who could have more success on the ground against Atlanta than the defenses he's been up against the last five games have allowed.
Green Bay's Front Seven Will Get 4 Sacks on Matt Ryan
Sacks can be a misleading stat.
For instance, the Packers have the third-highest sack total in the league with 38 on the year, but anyone who's watched a game can tell you that the pass rush has nonetheless struggled to put real pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
However, there's no denying that sacking Matt Ryan four times would be the morale boost this defense needs to adequately shut down the Falcons' pass game.
Thirty-eight sacks so far this season means that the Packers have averaged three per game. Of course, as with any average, there are outliers in both directions, such as the six sacks the Packers registered against Christian Ponder in Week 12 and the single sack on Colin Kaepernick they managed in Week 1.
Still, mathematically, the Packers have averaged three per game, so the prediction is that they'll do one better, with four, on Sunday.
Just last week, Ryan was sacked six times by the Bills, but the Falcons still managed to eke out a 34-31 win in overtime.
Still, for a front seven that was dominant to begin the season and which has now struggled to find its identity, and with Clay Matthews improving every week along with the increased pass-rushing potential Mike Daniels and A.J. Hawk have shown in the interior, having something to show for a performance at the end of the day is important.
More than just numbers on the stat sheet, getting after Ryan continually and relentlessly boosts the defense, shakes up the quarterback and perhaps forces him into throwing some balls he'll wish he could get back.
Green Bay's O-Line Will Not Allow a Sack
As bad as Green Bay's offensive line has looked at times in 2013—last Thursday's game against the Lions may have been the low point of the season—it's far from the worst in the league in terms of sacks allowed. The Packers have allowed 32 sacks so far, tied for 13th-most in the NFL.
It's not a coincidence that two of the teams against which the Packers have allowed the fewest sacks, the Giants and the Browns, have two of the worst-rated pass rushes in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Browns are ranked No. 30 and the Giants No. 27.
It's likely, then, that the offensive line can hold up against the team with the worst-ranked pass rush in the NFL: the Falcons.
Of course, as previously noted, sacks are not the only measure of pressure, and the offensive line will have to limit quarterback hits and hurries as well.
The line graded out with a minus-2.5 score in pass-blocking by Pro Football Focus on Thursday, its worst grade of the year save for Week 6 against Baltimore and only its fourth negative grade of the season.
A big factor in the O-line's ability to protect Rodgers (or Flynn, should the prediction that Rodgers plays prove untrue) will be if Evan Dietrich-Smith is healthy. After he was injured on Thanksgiving Day, the offensive line went from bad to worse as T.J. Lang moved to center, Don Barclay to right guard and Marshall Newhouse to right tackle.
In fact, a low snap to Flynn on one of Lang's first plays at center directly contributed to the Lions' third sack of the game.
But if Dietrich-Smith plays, limiting the need for a patch-up job, the offensive line should be strong enough to earn a positive mark, as it has eight other times this season. Expect it to redeem itself from some of the criticisms that have been rained upon it in the last two weeks, especially by keeping the man under center off the ground for an entire game.
Roddy White Will Have 100 Receiving Yards
Before 2013, the idea that Roddy White having a 100-yard day would be a bold prediction would be laughable. He had seven in 2012. However, ankle and hamstring injuries have hampered his efforts this season, causing him to miss his first three games ever Weeks 7 through 9.
The high-ankle sprain he suffered in the preseason has been hindering him all season, and it's still not healed, despite the fact that he had his first 100-yard game of the season last week against the Bills.
"I didn't think I was going to be healed by now," White told ESPN's Vaughn McClure on Sunday.
"My ankle is still bothering me, but I'm a football player. ...If I feel like I can go out there and be productive, I'm going to go out there and help my team win."
White also told McClure he knew from the game plan that a lot of plays were drawn up to get him the ball, and he was prepared to have a big game last Sunday.
Why the Falcons, currently mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, have decided to ramp up White's involvement knowing that he's playing through an injury is somewhat uncertain, but regardless it stands to reason White will have another big day against the Packers' 22nd-ranked passing defense.
With Tony Gonzalez having a less productive than average year and Julio Jones on injured reserve, the Falcons will undoubtedly turn to White to lead them to what would be a morale-boosting win against the Packers at Lambeau.
Green Bay's Secondary Will Force Multiple Turnovers...
How far the mighty have fallen. The team that led the league in interceptions over the last four years with an average of 26 per season has only managed six so far in 2013, tied for second-fewest in the NFL.
The Packers have fared slightly better in forcing fumbles, but not by much. The defense has recorded eight fumbles this season, tied for fifth-most in the league.
Still, the Packers have a negative turnover differential (minus-four) for the first time since 2006, and the defense, for not seizing opportunities for takeaways, is as much to blame as the offense. Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn have thrown for twice as many interceptions in five games than Rodgers threw for in seven.
At this point, the defense can't make up the ground it has lost, but it can still help bring the turnover differential back into the positives.
A great place to start is by taking away the ball in space.
Matt Ryan has given up his fair share of balls—his 12 interceptions are the eighth-most in the league. Of course, forcing a quarterback into throwing picks is a combined effort by the front seven and the secondary, and so, looking back three slides, the onus also fall on the defensive line and linebackers to get after the quarterback.
There's reason to expect that the defense will be able to come away with some interceptions against the Falcons. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are finally healthy at the same time, and with a team-leading two interceptions each, they've been picking up the pace and can keep it going against the Falcons.
Additionally, Pro Football Focus has the Falcons' pass protection ranked as the fifth-worst in the NFL, which increases the likelihood that Green Bay's defense can put some pressure on Ryan and force him into some poor throws.
...But Green Bay's Offense Will Not Commit a Turnover
Eight. That's how many interceptions Green Bay backup quarterbacks have thrown in the past five games, compared to only four thrown by Aaron Rodgers in the seven games he played.
Inaccuracy is to be expected with a backup, especially one who has taken limited reps with the first-team offense throughout the season, which has been true of Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn in each of their starts.
But the eight interceptions the three have combined to throw in the last five games, combined with the five fumbles the team has lost in the same span of time, have helped ensure that Green Bay's turnover differential stays in the negative.
That's why, in addition to the secondary taking some passes away from Matt Ryan, the Packers need to also not commit any turnovers on offense.
If Rodgers plays, of course, this prediction holds far more water. Even when he's out of practice, Rodgers is one of the NFL's most accurate quarterbacks.
For their part, Eddie Lacy and James Starks have been diligent about protecting the ball; each has only lost one fumble so far this season.
If Flynn starts on Sunday, it's far more likely he commits a turnover, but in the interest of keeping things interesting, the prediction stays the same: The Packers will not commit an offensive turnover regardless of who is under center.
It's unlikely Atlanta will be able to get significant pressure against any Green Bay quarterback on Sunday. There's that league-worst pass rush to consider again, as well as the fact that the Falcons only average 0.8 takeaways per game, which is also tied for worst in the NFL.
For their part, the Packers understand that Sunday's game is do-or-die. A loss almost certainly eliminates them from playoff contention, while a win keeps them alive in a very real way. Protecting the football is the first and most essential step toward a win at home Sunday, and for that reason, expect the Packers to prioritize it above all else.