The Carolina Panthers will travel to Green Bay Sunday to take on the Packers at Lambeau Field in a game that is undeniably important for both squads and their playoff hopes.
Common themes in those games were poor tackling (against Atlanta last week in particular—193 of the Falcons' 392 yards were gained after contact), dismal quarterback play from Jake Delhomme, and tremendous offensive rushing success.
Terrible defense (particularly the safeties getting beaten easily around the edge) and average quarterbacking by Aaron Rodgers have been commonplace in the losses.
Solid all-around team play was just as frequent in the win.
The Packers' offense has survived because of QB Aaron Rodgers and WRs Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Rodgers has handled the adversity of succeeding Brett Favre as well as anyone could have hoped, throwing for 2,599 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions to complement a 90.5 passer rating.
Jennings, in only his third season, is having far and away his best season and is looking for his first 1,000-yard season—he has 56 receptions for 966 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Driver, a veteran in his 10th season, has done well in a complementary role to Jennings, making 49 catches for 615 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Green Bay RB Ryan Grant has struggled this year after a solid, near 1,000-yard season in 2007. He averages only 3.9 yards per carry and has been dealing with a figurative brick wall in the red zone. On 31 carries inside the opposing 20 yard-line, Grant has scored only three times and averages a mere 2.0 yards per carry.
Grant's woes this year could be faulted to a Green Bay offensive line that has given up 23 sacks in 2008. Yes, sacks allowed is a passing statistic, but it could be an indicator of a line that can't block in the running game in addition to being incompetent in the passing game. Starting RT Mike Tauscher is questionable with a hamstring injury. Fortunately for the Packers, that's not Julius Peppers' side of the line.
Packers TE Donald Lee should contribute in a very reserved role.
The Panthers have a stingy pass defense that allows only 192.1 yards per game, good for eighth in the NFL.
Cornerback Chris Gamble, whom the team signed to a six-year contract extension, is on pace for his best overall season, with 65 tackles, 15 deflections, and 2 interceptions.
The pass defense as a whole doesn't allow many deep plays because defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac generally keeps the corners five or six yards off the line of scrimmage and the safeties relatively deep to protect against the deep pass.
That stubborn tendency usually frustrates Panthers fans as the other team completes tons of short-to-medium passes, keeping the defense on the field for a long time and still scoring in the process.
But this week, this game plan should benefit Carolina, as the Packers' offense thrives on the deep ball—Green Bay is tied for seventh in the league in pass plays of 20 yards or longer and for third in pass plays of 40 yards or longer.
In essence, the Packers' offense is a carbon-copy of the Saints', whose passing attack the Panthers shut down for about 230 yards earlier in the season.
Carolina's speedy linebackers should be able to contain the short-to-medium range Green Bay air attack.
Ryan Grant averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 20 attempts in the meeting between Green Bay and Carolina last year—a respectable day.
But this time last year, Grant had all the confidence in the world, not to mention a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback keeping the defense honest with three touchdown passes. This year he has neither.
Plus, Panthers coaches decided to use some "shock therapy" this week in practice and rip into the defense with a painful statistic: the Falcons had gained 193 of their 392 total yards after contact.
Atlanta should have had maybe 235 or so yards of offense, instead of nearly 400. Don't expect Carolina's run defense to give Grant much.
Matchup To Watch
Panthers DE Julius Peppers vs. Packers LT Chad Clifton
Peppers ranks seventh in the league with nine sacks and leads the league in forced fumbles, with five. He's pressured the QB, run down rushers, and dropped into coverage when necessary. Peppers has done it all this year.
If Aaron Rodgers is going to give the Packers a chance in this game, Clifton is going to have to prevent Peppers from planting Rodgers on every other play while not getting whistled for holding.
The Panthers are moving the ball the way head coach John Fox wants them to—by running. The Panthers have gone from the bottom tier in the NFL in run offense to No. 6, averaging 133.6 yards rushing per game in just a few weeks.
Most of this success has been on starting RB DeAngelo Williams. He has strung together four straight 100-yard games, including a 101-yard performance last week against a surging Atlanta defense.
He's on pace to become the first 1,000-yard rusher the Panthers have had since Stephen Davis gained 1,444 yards in the 2003-04 season.
Williams could even surpass the millennium mark this week if he picks up 117 yards (a great possibility against Green Bay's suspect run defense).
Both Williams and backup Jonathan Stewart are imposing goal-line presences—Williams has seven scores, Stewart six. Stewart could also have a big game.
The lack of Packers starting MLB Nick Barnett, who is out with a knee injury, should help Carolina's running game.
Panthers receiver and icon Steve Smith should score at least one touchdown, maybe even two. If the Panthers can catch the Packers blitzing, especially, Smith could run an out route.
Delhomme dumps the ball off to Smith, and he beats one around the edge and outruns the other to the end zone. Or he could just go deep and outrun the safety for a touchdown. Either way works.
Carolina field general Jake Delhomme must play a mistake-free game. The Packers rank third in the NFL in interceptions with 17, and the Panthers don't want to give the Packers good field position.
On up the side for Carolina fans, Delhomme shouldn't be hurried much. The Packers have only notched 18 sacks, tied for 17th in the NFL, and the Panthers are tied for sixth in the NFL in sacks allowed with a mere 16.
Matchup To Watch
Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Packers CB Al Harris
Smith always has the potential to be a game breaker, but even more so this week. If Smith isn't going to burn the Packers like he did the Falcons (8 catches for 168 yards), Harris has to minimize how much separation he gets.
The Panthers, once again, have the edge in the kick return department. Carolina's Mark Jones averages 23.4 yards per return, while Green Bay's Will Blackmon averages 21.4 yards per.
However, the Packers are much better than the Panthers in punt returning. Carolina must be wary of Blackmon, who averages 13.4 yards per return and has taken two punts back for touchdowns. Jones averages 11.9 yards per return and has yet to return a punt for a score.
Carolina placekicker John Kasay is more accurate (21-of-23 field goals) than Green Bay's Mason Crosby (19-of-23), but Crosby's long (53 yards) is a little better than Kasay's 50. Both kickers are perfect on extra point attempts.
Panthers punter Jason Baker blows Packers punter Derrick Frost out of the water. Baker averages 37.0 yards per punt, has a long of 60, and has landed 20 punts inside the opposing 20. Frost averages 36.4 yards and has a long of 65, but has only gotten 8 punts inside the opposing 20.
Special teams is all about field position, and it looks like the Panthers are going to win the field position battle.
The Panthers are 8-1 when they rush for at least 100 yards. Furthermore, they're 4-1 when DeAngelo Williams rushes for 100-plus yards. There's no reason why he can't do that for the fifth straight game on Sunday against the Packers, whose run D is one of the worst in the NFL. I'm going with the Panthers in this one.
All-time Series facts:
The Panthers are 1-4.
The Panthers have scored 84 points, the Packers have scored 129.
The Panthers have 82 first downs, the Packers have picked up 101.
The Panthers have gained 1,469 yards, the Packers have gained 1,629.
The Panthers' average time of possession is 27:58, the Packers' is 32:02.
The Panthers are 3-of-4 in field goals, the Packers 5-of-8.
Brett Favre has killed the Panthers, going 108-of-170 (63.5 percent) for 1172 yards and 12 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. All this amounts to a 97.5 passer rating.
But as good as Favre's numbers are in his five games against the Panthers, his average numbers are actually about even in his two games against the Packers.
He has completed 40-of-63 passes (63.5 percent) for 490 yards and 4 touchdowns to go with 1 interception for a 102.0 QB rating.