- This Monday Night Football game on the road against the Eagles is practically an elimination game for the Packers. Will Aaron Rodgers keep his struggling team alive or can the Eagles add to the success of the NFC East, keeping every team above .500?
The tagline on ESPN’s Monday Night Football promos this week: “Sometimes desperation can be the best motivation.”
If that’s true then both the Packers and Eagles should be oozing motivation when they meet in the City of Brotherly Love tonight. Green Bay—once thought to be the NFC North’s clear-cut favorite when Minnesota lost QB Teddy Bridgewater to injury for the year this preseason—has dropped four straight games to plummet to 4–6 overall. Philadelphia, an early-season darling thanks to Carson Wentz’s arrival and a corresponding 3–0 start, is just 2–5 since its bye and sits in last place in the thriving NFC East.
So, how to turn this all around before it’s too late?
For the Packers, despite the persistent focus on their offense, there’s no hope of righting the ship without a much-improved defensive effort. Green Bay has given up an average of 44.5 points and 480.5 yards during the first two stops on its current three-game road trip, losses to Tennessee and Washington. Even the formerly sturdy run defense has slipped (154 and 151 yards allowed in Weeks 10 and 11, respectively).
Injuries continue to wreak havoc on the Packers’ D: rookie linebacker Blake Martinez (knee) was the latest to join the hobbled ranks, a group already well-populated by several members of Green Bay’s secondary.
The opportunities should be there for Carson Wentz to attack downfield, as they were for Marcus Mariota and Kirk Cousins. That has not been the M.O. for Philadelphia’s offense, though, which would much prefer to establish the run and work short areas in the passing game. Martinez’s absence could help allow them to do that, if Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood can get rolling early.
The Packers have to keep that from happening, because this could be a test for Aaron Rodgers & Co. on the other side of the ball. The Eagles are allowing fewer than 10 points per game at home and, thanks to their active pass rush, have been particularly strong when opposing QBs drop to throw (No. 8 in passing yards allowed, No. 2 in passing DVOA).
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz knows Rodgers and Green Bay coach/play caller Mike McCarthy well from his years in Detroit. If he is able to orchestrate pressure with Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin off the edge, Rodgers’s maligned receivers will find the sledding difficult against the Eagles’ back seven.
Philadelphia has been susceptible to strong rushing attacks—in three of its past four losses, the opposition has topped 150 yards on the ground. Could new Packer/former Seahawk/fantasy darling Christine Michael cause similar problems Monday? He will be making his debut in green and gold, and he should carve into James Starks’s playing time.
This all but amounts to an elimination game for the Packers. Lose, and they will be three back in the NFC North and 2.5 back in the wild-card race. Knowing that, Rodgers will do what he can to carry the offense in a prime-time game.
But is he capable of doing any more than he has the past four weeks? He accounted for 13 touchdowns during that stretch, all losses. Plus, he’ll likely be down a starting guard (T.J. Lang) and center (J.C. Tretter), which would leave the Packers’ line piecing together its interior protections against Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox/Bennie Logan duo.
Should the Eagles show they’re able to move the ball on even a semi-consistent basis, their defense can bring this one home.
Key player: Jared Cook, TE, Packers. Playing last week for the first time since Sept. 25, Cook caught six passes (on 11 targets) for 105 yards and a touchdown. That’s the type of performance Green Bay had in mind when it added the mercurial tight end this off-season. Replicating the effort would help open up the outside passing game and ease Rodgers’s night.
But Cook finds himself up against a Philadelphia defense that has been airtight vs. tight ends for much of 2016. The 28 catches allowed to that position are the fewest any defense has coughed up this season.
Bold prediction: Sproles scores his first rushing touchdown of the year. With Ryan Mathews down for Monday’s game, Sproles will remain the de facto No. 1 running back. Whether or not that translates into more red-zone looks remains to be seen, but there’s not exactly a power running waiting to swipe chances—Kenjon Barner (two) and Smallwood (one) are the only Eagles aside from Mathews to score on the ground this season.
Sproles is the Eagles’ best and most dangerous option out of the backfield, truths that arguably hold when Mathews is available. They shouldn’t take the ball out of his hands when they get inside the Green Bay 20.