NFL Preview - Denver (1-2) at Green Bay (3-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It sure looks like a long way.
While it's true that both Denver Broncos losses so far in 2011 have been near- misses and not near-blowouts, it's every bit that far in reality.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Green Bay Packers are just that good.
Regardless of the heads turned by competitive efforts under year one of the John Fox era in Denver, the chasm between the most recent Super Bowl champion Packers and the reigning AFC West doormat Broncos couldn't seem much wider as the teams get together for a Week 4 matchup Sunday at Lambeau Field.
The Broncos fell to 1-2 with a 17-14 loss at Tennessee last week in their first road game of the season, a result largely created when veteran running back Willis McGahee went 0-for-3 on consecutive attempts from inside the Titans' two-yard line with a chance for an insurance score early in the fourth quarter.
The host Titans turned the failure into follow-through later in the period when Daniel Graham reeled in a four-yard touchdown pass from Matt Hasselbeck for the decisive points.
And Fox was left to an unenviable line of follow-up questions about why he repeatedly chose to go with McGahee instead of inserting collegiate short- yardage hotshot Tim Tebow.
Denver scored twice from close quarters earlier in the game, both on passes from quarterback Kyle Orton.
"We had two touchdowns in the same situation, we just needed three," Fox said afterward.
He indicated certain goal-line schemes were available that featured Tebow and claimed they were considered at the time of McGahee's runs, but he was unwilling to make the jump to say it was a lack of confidence that steered him to McGahee.
"I didn't say that," he said. "We just didn't choose [those packages]."
Meanwhile, in Green Bay, it all seems so much simpler.
The Packers won their fifth straight regular-season game over the past two years -- and ninth in a row including the playoffs -- last week in Chicago, where they threw for 292 yards and ran for 100 more while topping the Bears, 27-17, in a rematch of last January's NFC Championship Game.
Ominously for the rest of the league, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers still sees room for growth.
"I think we have the potential to get better, and I don't know how many wins that means or the playoffs or whatever, but I just think we can play better football," he said. "The standard we've set around Green Bay is excellence, so until we're at that point, there's going to be a lot of hard work during the week."
A potential stumbling block is injuries, of course, which the Packers could experience more so this week with the possible absences of first-string running back Ryan Grant and starting right offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Head coach Mike McCarthy said midweek that both players, suffering from a bruised kidney and sprained knee, respectively, will be "pressed to make this game."
If Grant can't play, 2010 postseason hero James Starks would draw his first start of 2011. Second-year lineman Marshall Newhouse, who spelled Bulaga against the Bears, would start in latter's place against Denver.
This regular season series is deadlocked at 5-5-1, with the Packers drawing even by virtue of victories in each of the last two meetings. Green Bay routed the Broncos by a 31-3 count at Lambeau Field in 2003 and also came through with a 19-13 overtime decision in Denver during the 2007 season. Denver has never bested the Pack in five lifetime outings as the visitor in this set, though it did forge a 17-17 in a game played at Milwaukee's County Stadium in 1987.
The most famous matchup between these teams took place in Super Bowl XXXII following the 1997 season, when Denver scored a 31-24 upset of Green Bay at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.
Fox owns a 2-3 career record against Green Bay, with all of those games taking place during his tenure with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10. McCarthy has a 1-0 mark against Denver and is 1-1 over two previous head-to-head bouts with Fox.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Orton has a 3-1 career record as a starter against the Packers and needs four touchdown passes to reach 50 with the Broncos. He has 14 touchdown passes, six interceptions and a 94.0 passer rating against the NFC since 2009. McGahee had a rushing touchdown in his last game against the Packers, while with Baltimore in 2009. He had a scoring reception last week, the fifth of his career. Since 2010, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd has 79 first-down receptions, third-highest in the NFL behind Atlanta's Roddy White (88) and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne (83). Lloyd has three touchdown catches in his past three games against NFC opponents as well and needs five catches to reach 100 with the Broncos. Wide receiver Eric Decker had a career-high seven catches last week, and 11 of his 15 receptions this season have been for first downs. Tight end Daniel Fells is averaging 13.8 yards per catch on six receptions.
On defense, Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson holds the franchise record with nine defensive touchdowns (eight interceptions, one fumble recovery). Since the start of 2006, his eight interception return scores are the most in the NFL. Linebacker Clay Matthews has nine sacks in his past seven games against AFC foes, while safety Morgan Burnett had a career-high two interceptions last week and has three picks in his past two games. Defensive end Jarius Wynn had a career-best two sacks in last week's win.
Statistically, the Broncos' offense is 23rd in scoring (19.3 points per game), 27th in total yards (286.3 yards per game), 22nd in passing yards (210.3 ypg) and 28th in rushing (76.0 ypg). On defense, Green Bay is tied for 22nd in points allowed (24.7 ppg), 29th in yards allowed (414.3 ypg), 31st against the pass (359.3 ypg) and first against the run (55.0 ypg).
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers is 12-1 in his past 13 starts at home while completing 284-of-421 passes for 3,609 yards, 29 touchdowns and a 109.1 rating. He leads the NFL in 2011 with 120.9 rating and has a 100-plus number in seven of Green Bay's nine straight victories (a 115.5 rating overall). Grant rushed for 104 yards in his only career game against Denver and has a rush touchdown in three of his past four against the AFC. Tight end Jermichael Finley had a career-high three touchdown catches last week, while wide receiver Greg Jennings had six catches for 141 yards and an 82-yard score in Green Bay's last meeting with Denver and nine catches for 119 yards in the Week 3 win over the Bears. Since the start of 2007 Jennings has 44 receiving touchdowns including the playoffs, the third- most in the NFL. Including the Super Bowl, he has three receiving touchdowns in his past two games against the AFC. Also, wide receiver Jordy Nelson has a receiving touchdown in three of the Packers' last four games.
For the Broncos on defense, rookie linebacker Von Miller -- the No. 2 overall pick in last April's draft -- aims for a third consecutive game with a sack. Safety Brian Dawkins has two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his last five meetings with the Packers, while outside linebacker Wesley Woodyard leads the team with 28 tackles.
On offense, the defending champion Packers are fifth in scoring (33.0 ppg), eighth in total yards (403.3 ypg), ninth in passing (294.3 ypg) and 10th in rushing (109.0 ypg). Meanwhile, Denver is tied for 13th in scoring defense (20.7 ppg), 15th in yards allowed (334.7 ypg), 13th in pass defense (234.7 ypg) and 14th against the run (100.0 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Broncos are middle-of-the-road statistically in pass defense, but they're in for a huge challenge from the likes of Rodgers and his fleet of talented pass-grabbers. How they handle that task will decide their fate.
For the visiting Broncos to have any chance, it may need to come via shootout with Orton trying to poke holes in a Green Bay pass coverage unit that's second from the bottom of the league.
The Packers are mediocre statistically on defense, but they have a knack for the big play with big-moment players like Woodson and Matthews that Denver will need to pay close attention to.
No coach will endorse the value of a moral victory on the record, but that may be all Fox has got to go on with the Broncos visiting a red-hot championship- level team. Sure, the Packers could be looking ahead to what was forecasted as an colossal NFC showdown at Atlanta next week, but they still should have enough to pull themselves through here no matter how events unfold.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 30, Broncos 14
09/29 19:43:36 ET