The Green Bay Packers now hold their own destiny for the playoffs as they head into a matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Had you spoken those words a few weeks ago, it's quite likely that you would have been laughed and scorned at.
However, if the Packers win their final two games, including this week's matchup with Pittsburgh, they'll find themselves atop the NFC North and hosting a first-round playoff game. While the Steelers have had an up-and-down season this year, they aren't going to be a cakewalk win for Green Bay.
The Packers need to come out sharp from the start of this week's game and have a specific game plan in order to beat the Steelers. Let's break down what that game plan needs to be.
The Competitive Edge
While Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been great this year, he's still an accomplished quarterback you can't count out of any game. As of right now, there is no guarantee that Aaron Rodgers will play on Sunday, and Roethlisberger is a much better option than Matt Flynn.
This will be a great battle of two of the best rookie running backs: Eddie Lacy and Le'Veon Bell. However, the Packers have a huge edge because right now you might only be able to count the running backs in the league better than Lacy on one hand. And one of those names isn't Le'Veon Bell.
Advantage: Green Bay
As talented as Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are, it'd be hard to take either player over the Packers' Jordy Nelson. When you throw in James Jones and Jarrett Boykin, the Packers have the edge here.
Advantage: Green Bay
Heath Miller of the Steelers might be one of the most underrated tight ends in the league. However, Andrew Quarless has 12 receptions, 132 yards and two touchdowns over his past two games for the Packers. Right now you have to take the hot hand, and that is Quarless.
Advantage: Green Bay
The offensive line isn't a strength for either team. Instead, each team will likely hope that its offensive line doesn't absolutely destroy its quarterback. This is one of the closest positional matchups, but the Packers offensive line is riding just a little more momentum into this week's game.
Advantage: Green Bay
There simply aren't that many defensive lines that have struggled as much in recent weeks as Green Bay's unit. Even though the Steelers defensive line hasn't been great, it still has the edge over the group that the Packers are putting on the field.
Both of these teams are loaded with the potential to change games. Unfortunately, neither unit has really been able to live up to those expectations this year. With that said, the team with the better collection of talent right now is Green Bay, and that is why it gets the edge here.
Advantage: Green Bay
The biggest gap in talent might be between the Steelers safeties and the Packers safeties. Troy Polamalu is a future Hall of Fame player and has twice as much talent as Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings and Sean Richardson combined. While the Packers have the advantage at the cornerback position, it isn't nearly enough to give them the advantage in the secondary.
Packers Offense vs. Steelers Defense
While the Steelers haven't been great on defense like in previous years, they still have the talent on that side of the ball to be dangerous.
With Lacy running like an elite back in recent weeks, the Packers are likely going to want to feature him quite often. Unfortunately, the Steelers' run defense is much better than their pass coverage.
That doesn't mean the Packers won't have success with Lacy; it just means they might not get the type of game they got from him last week when he gained 141 yards. The key for Green Bay will be to not abandon the run if Pittsburgh does have some early success in shutting it down.
As for the passing game, the Packers don't necessarily need a performance like Matt Flynn's second-half one last week to win this game. However, they will need him to be more consistent and keep Green Bay out of a hole early.
The ultimate difference-maker in this matchup is going to be the Steelers' All-Pro safety Polamalu. If he can make big plays throughout this game, then the Steelers defense should come out on top.
Packers Defense vs. Steelers Offense
The good news for the Packers defense this week is that the Steelers offense isn't nearly as potent as offenses Green Bay has played in recent weeks.
Now that doesn't mean that the Steelers can't put points on the board, because they certainly can. A big reason why is that Roethlisberger remains one of the top quarterbacks in the league. In fact, he's the 10th-best quarterback in the league according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While Roethlisberger remains a huge part of the offense, the Steelers rely more on their rookie running back to set up Roethlisberger this year. Look for Bell to be a huge part of Pittsburgh's game plan this week.
This could cause a big issue for the Packers defense because it gave up 7.4 yards per carry to DeMarco Murray last week. If Bell is having that type of success against Green Bay, you can be certain that the Steelers won't abandon the run like the Dallas Cowboys did with Murray last week.
So, the key for the Packers defense will be to stop the run early in the game and force the Steelers to beat them through the air. Green Bay will need another big game from cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, but last week showed that this duo is finally up to the task.
Last week was the first time in a long time that the Packers coverage team didn't give up a big play on special teams. Is that a sign of improvement, or were the Packers just blessed to play a team that wasn't that great in the return game?
We'll likely find out this week because the Steelers' combination of Felix Jones and Antonio Brown has the potential to break big plays. The Packers will need their coverage team to step up so they don't dig themselves into a hole by allowing Pittsburgh to break off some huge returns.
As for the Packers return game, it still remains anemic and is unlikely to make much of a difference in this overall matchup.
Wednesday's Injury Report
|Brandon Bostick||TE||Toe||Did Not Practice|
|Johnny Jolly||DL||Shoulder||Did Not Practice|
|Brad Jones||LB||Ankle||Did Not Practice|
|Eddie Lacy||RB||Ankle||Did Not Practice|
|Mike Neal||LB||Abdomen||Did Not Practice|
|Nick Perry||LB||Foot||Did Not Practice|
|Ryan Pickett||DL||Knee||Limited Participation|
|Aaron Rodgers||QB||Collarbone||Limited Participation|
|C.J. Wilson||DL||Ankle||Limited Participation|
He's been a forgotten name since Rodgers went down with an injury, as many have forgotten that he still had a chance to return this year. Well, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN, Cobb was back on the practice field on Wednesday:
WR Randall Cobb practicing for the 1st time since he broke his tibia on Oct. 13. Would need to added to the roster to play Sunday. #Packers— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) December 18, 2013
As Demovsky points out, Cobb still needs to be added to the roster to play this week, but his return to practice is certainly a good sign.
As for Wednesday's injury report, the fact that not a single name on the report fully participated in practice is a little troubling. However, a handful of names, such as running back Eddie Lacy and linebacker Brad Jones are pretty much guaranteed to play this week.
The big name to watch again will be Rodgers. He was limited on Wednesday and was taking snaps with the second team according to ESPN:
UPDATE: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers took snaps today with the 2nd team in practice but still has not been cleared by the medical staff.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 18, 2013
The Packers have shown they can win with an injured Rodgers, but it'd sure be nice to get him back for the final push of the season. Overall, don't be surprised if the injury report looks quite a bit better as we finish the week.
The Packers Will Win If...
...They play all four quarters of football.
When you think about last week's incredible comeback against the Dallas Cowboys, you have to realize that Green Bay wouldn't even be in that position had it showed up for the first half. However, the Packers fell down 26-3 by halftime and were forced to play flawless football in the final two quarters to win that game.
The Packers certainly have more talent on their roster than the Steelers, and that remains true even if Rodgers is in street clothes. The reality is that the Packers have failed to live up to expectations this year.
Now they've certainly shown flashes of their potential dominance, but it's never been for a full four quarters. If the Packers want to win this week, then that'll need to change.
Green Bay will need to play solid football from the kickoff to the final whistle. If the Packers can do that, they'll be only one win away from a trip to the playoffs.