GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers are 8.5-point favorites for Sunday’s home game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Packers (8-3) are in contention for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. The Eagles (3-7-1) are in contention to win the NFC East because, well, somebody has to win it.
Still, there are reasons to believe this will be a much more difficult game than expected. Here are three reasons for concern.
1. Eagles’ Stout Defense
Philadelphia has spent most of this season not just spinning its wheels but slowly slipping backward. The defense, though, is no pushover. The Eagles are in the top 10 in several areas, including yards per play (fifth, 5.04), yards allowed per rush (ninth, 4.09), yards per pass play (eighth, 6.46), sack percentage (third, 10.0) and third down (fifth, 36.9 percent).
Last week, Seattle’s powerful offense managed 301 total yards – 177 of those went to Seattle receiver DK Metcalf – and went just 2-of-10 on third down.
In total defense, which is based on yards allowed, Philadelphia is in the top 10 for the third time in Jim Schwarz’s five seasons as coordinator. In last year's game at Lambeau Field, Packers running backs gained 31 yards on 15 attempts.
“I’ve gone against Jim a few times now, and I’ll tell you what, there’s an identity there,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “You’re going to play against a very fast and physical defense, and that same thing shows up regardless of what coverage or front or whatever they may be doing. That’s his trademark is they’re going to play fast, they’re going to know what to, there’s not a whole lot of mistakes made on that defense. I think this is one of the most physical and fast defenses we’ll have played this year. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. It’s a hard, penetrating front.”
2. Ertz’s Return
In 2018, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz caught 116 passes. His quarterback, Carson Wentz, was an MVP candidate who finished third in the NFL with a completion rate of 69.6 percent.
This season, having missed five games with an ankle injury, he’s caught only 24 passes. His absence has been profound. Wentz is 31st of 32 qualifying quarterbacks with a 58.1 completion percentage. Philadelphia is 25th in scoring. In Ertz’s absence, the Eagles haven’t gotten past 23 points.
“Smooth route runner,” safety Adrian Amos said. “Runs routes like a receiver. A bigger body. I think that’s the biggest thing: his routes, smooth in and out of breaks. He knows how to find holes in zones. He knows how to get open with intermediate and deep routes.”
Ertz will make his highly anticipated return this week. At age 30, will there be rust? Or will he hit the ground running – with Wentz regaining his stride as a byproduct?
3. Extra Miles
Green Bay’s on-again, off-again run defense will be tested by Eagles running back Miles Sanders, who is fourth in the league with a 5.56-yard average. Despite missing three games, he’s rushed for 600 yards. In last year's game, he ran 11 times for 72 yards.
“He’s a great running back,” said defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who anchors a unit that ranks 25th with 4.63 yards allowed per carry. “They do a good job at running the ball. He’s a really good running back. He’s an in-and-out kind of runner, so if you poke your head in the wrong gaps, he’s going to exploit that. He’s a guy that’s elusive, and you see him jumping over guys and all that kind of stuff.”
Of Sanders’ eight games, he’s produced 80-plus rushing yards with a 4.8-or-better average five times. Last week was not one of those games. He was practically forgotten by coach Doug Pederson and limited to only 15 yards on six attempts. Given the state of the Packers’ defense, and the Eagles’ place in the standings, it stands to reason that the explosive Sanders might get his first 20-touch game since an overtime tie vs. Cincinnati in Week 3.
"He’s an explosive back," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. "He can make you miss, he runs well between the tackles, he’s good out of the backfield in the pass game, solid at pass protection. Anytime you’re going against him, it’s a challenge."