Green Bay Packers vs. Saints Preview: 6 Things to Watch
Thursday night officially kicks off the 2011 NFL season, and the matchup that's lined up for us couldn't be more intriguing, as last year's Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers take on the 2009 Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
Both teams are still among the NFL's elite, so a Week 1 matchup-of-power should make for an intense game on the field and a nerve-racking game off the field.
Prior to the kickoff, some questions are still unanswered about both teams, but the mysteries will soon be answered.
Here are the most intriguing things to watch during the season opener.
Oh, right, before I forget...
ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBAAAALL?!?!
Will Green Bay Look Like They Have a Chance to Repeat?
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After the Green Bay Packers made a somewhat surprising run through the playoffs last season to win the Super Bowl, the biggest question for the season opener is easy:
Are they going to be good enough to repeat?
The short answer is yes, but here's a hopefully more detailed description of why they're once again the favorites to win it all.
Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. His numbers last season weren't the greatest for a Super Bowl MVP, but it was enough to get the job done. He keeps getting better every year, and this season will be no different.
Along with Rodgers, the Packers return almost every key player from last season, and they also get TE Jermichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant back from injured reserve.
Finley should be a great target for Rodgers this season along with star WR Greg Jennings. After Jennings, the Packers are still deep at receiver with Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Donald Driver.
The question on offense will be the offensive line and their ability to keep Rodgers' jersey clean throughout a game. After giving up 31 sacks last season, the Packers have had some trouble with their line in the last few preseason games.
The Packers will most likely have one of the best offenses in the league, but their defense is what's going to make them such a good team. They have just been getting continually better since Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009.
Their secondary, led by veteran CB Charles Woodson and last year's break-out star CB Tramon Williams, will be poised and ready to take on Drew Brees and the Saints' illustrious passing game.
The Packers will win this game. Their impressive play will show the world that they are ready to repeat.
Who Will Shine in the Saints' Backfield?
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History tells us that the Saints will be using both Pierre Thomas and rookie Mark Ingram in their season opener. The question remains, "Which will shine?"
Let's look at both of their preseason stats:
19 carries for 55 yards and three touchdowns; 2.9 yards per carry
13 carries for 50 yards and one touchdown; 3.8 yards per carry
Neither running back had a stellar preseason, but it's at least neat to see Ingram with three touchdowns in three games. This could be a nice glimpse into what's to come this season.
Thomas is the current starter, and he's likely to get the bulk of the carries in Week 1, but Ingram will split time and should see third-down and goal-line carries.
That is not to mention newly-acquired Darren Sproles, who is sure to get into the mix at some point. But he'll likely be used more as a return man than a running back.
Both Thomas and Ingram will likely run for about 50 yards apiece, but look for Ingram to score two touchdowns in this game to Thomas' zero.
Can the Saints Stop the Pass?
Because the Saints have one of the best offenses in the league, sometimes their defense gets under-appreciated.
Granted, sometimes their defense just isn't very good, but last season they finished with the fourth best pass defense in the league—though, that could very well be due to the fact that Matt Ryan was the best quarterback they faced all year.
Regardless, the Saints secondary really has to pull through to get a few stops. That's the only way they're going to be able to win this game.
Their secondary returns every starter: cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, strong safety Roman Harper and free safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Greer and Porter are going to have to do a good job of containing Greg Jennings, if not, it could be a long night.
The Saints should be able to slow down Rodgers and the Green Bay passing attack, but by no means will they completely stop it.
Rodgers will be the best quarterback that the Saints will face all season.
Besides Aaron Rodgers, Who Is Going to Step Up for Green Bay?
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The first name that pops into your head has to be Greg Jennings. He is Rodgers' go-to target and is one of the best wide receivers in the league.
But that's not who I'm thinking of...
Is it Jermichael Finley? After coming off of injured reserve, Finley should be in line to have a fantastic season as one of the NFL's premiere pass-catching tight ends.
Nope, that's not it either, but the guy I'm thinking of is coming off of injured reserve...
Running back Ryan Grant will be the star of the game for the Packers (excluding Rodgers, of course). Grant was a more-than-solid running back in the NFL during his first three seasons in the league, but his fourth season was cut short during the first game of the year.
Even though Grant saw the bulk of the carries in the preseason and has had time to heal, the Packers are likely to split carries between him and James Starks against the Saints. Starks provided a lot of spark for the Packers offense last season during the playoffs, so he has definitely earned his carries.
What many are forgetting, though, is that Grant rushed for over 1,200 yards two years in a row. The guy is a really great running back, and he's going to make the most of his time on the field Thursday night.
The Packers may want to feature a running back committee this season, but Grant will do his best to prove why he's still the guy to feature.
Grant will go off for around 100 yards and a touchdown, while splitting the carries.
Who Will Be the Better Quarterback?
Both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are among the NFL's elite when it comes to quarterbacks, and now they both have a Super Bowl ring to add to their resume.
When they clash on Thursday night, the "who is better" argument is sure to come up at least once during the game.
Brees has the edge statistically, but that's because he plays in a more pass-heavy offense. Last season, Brees through the ball 658 times and completed 448 of them. His total completions is only 27 less than Rodgers' attempts (475).
So, while Brees will likely boast the best game on paper, it's going to take more than that to win this quarterback competition.
Rodgers has looked absolutely stellar in the preseason. He completed 37 of his 47 pass attempts for 395 yards and four touchdowns (one in each game). He looks poised, accurate and ready to repeat.
Both quarterbacks in this game are great leaders and are their teams' respective MVPs, but only one will win this game's MVP—and that will go to Rodgers.
This should be a close game all the way through, but Rodgers will lead the Packers on a few key drives down the stretch to pull away.
Will This Be a Preview of the NFC Championship Game?
This is a tough question. The NFC is likely to be run by the Packers, the Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles this season; but which of these two teams is going to end up in the championship game?
Even though the most question marks surround the highly-touted Eagles, I'm going to say that no, this season opener between the Packers and Saints will not be a preview of the NFC Championship game.
Here's how I see the NFC playoffs playing out:
(1) Green Bay Packers
(2) New Orleans Saints
(3) Philadelphia Eagles
(4) St. Louis Rams
(5) Atlanta Falcons
(6) Dallas Cowboys
The Eagles will beat the Cowboys handily in the first round of the playoffs, while the Falcons will travel to St. Louis and take care of business against the Rams. Now the fun games...
Atlanta will be on the road again, but this time they will be facing a much more formidable opponent at Lambeau Field. The Packers will win this one, but it's going to be close.
In what could be the best playoff game this season, the Eagles will travel to New Orleans to take on Drew Brees and a Saints offense that has had an entire season to gel.
Unfortunately for the Saints, the same can be said about the Eagles, and they're just a little more skilled on both sides of the ball. The Eagles will win a close game on the road.
So the NFC ChampionshipGgame will be against the Packers and the Eagles, and what a game it'll be to watch.
But until then, this season opener against the Packers and Saints will have to do.