NFL Playoff Preview - Green Bay (10-6) at Philadelphia (10-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A high-profile meeting at Lincoln Financial Field nearly four months ago helped shape the 2010 fortunes of both the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. One of those Super Bowl contenders will now see a promising season end where it started when the two teams renew acquaintances this Sunday in the Wild Card Round of the NFC Playoffs.
The Packers kicked off their 2010 campaign with a 27-20 victory in the City of Brotherly Love back on Sept. 12, a game that wound up completely changing the course of the Eagles' season. The signature moment of that contest took place midway through the second quarter, when Philadelphia quarterback Kevin Kolb sustained a concussion after being leveled by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews on a scramble.
Kolb's injury opened the door for Michael Vick to take over the reins of one of the league's most exciting offenses, and the once-disgraced playmaker certainly took advantage of the opportunity. In one of the greatest comeback stories in recent memory, Vick raised his game to a previously unseen levels in directing the Eagles to a third consecutive postseason appearance and first NFC East title since 2006.
The former Atlanta Falcons franchise face established career bests for passing yards (3,018) and completion percentage (62.6) while accounting for 30 touchdowns (21 passing, 9 rushing) in an MVP-caliber year. The Eagles went 8-2 in games in which Vick started and finished this season.
Vick couldn't deliver a win in his latest outing, however, with the Minnesota Vikings successfully containing both the dual-threat quarterback and his team's usually potent offense in a 24-14 upset at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 28. The 30-year-old was hampered in that game by a quadriceps contusion and was one of several Philadelphia regulars to be rested in a meaningless 14-13 loss to Dallas last Sunday, but pronounced himself to be at 100 percent earlier in the week.
The Packers may have the means to keep Vick and the high-scoring Eagles grounded as well. Green Bay allowed the second-fewest points in the league (15.0 ypg) during the regular season and racked up a healthy 47 sacks, six of which came in the club's Week 1 besting of Philadelphia.
Green Bay's defense stood tall once again under high-stakes circumstances last weekend, holding NFC North champion Chicago to 227 total yards in an imperative 13-10 triumph that gave the Packers the NFC's final Wild Card berth. The unit sacked Jay Cutler six times and intercepted the Bears quarterback twice, including a game-sealing pick by safety Nick Collins in the final seconds.
The Packers will lean on that stout defense as well as standout quarterback Aaron Rodgers in hopes of recording their first road playoff win since the 1997 NFC Championship Game. Green Bay has come up short in four subsequent postseason tests away from home, most recently the memorable 51-45 overtime setback at Arizona in last year's opening round in which Rodgers threw for a team playoff record 423 yards and four touchdowns in his first-ever postseason start.
Green Bay also enters Sunday's showdown having lost its last three road tilts and was just 3-5 as the guest this year.
The Eagles finished 4-4 at home and dropped two straight games at Lincoln Financial Field to close out the regular season, but the team sports a stellar 7-1 mark in playoff openers under longtime head coach Andy Reid. The lone blemish took place last January, however, with a 34-14 first-round defeat at Dallas.
Philadelphia has won each of its two previous postseason meetings with the Packers, including a memorable 20-17 overtime triumph in the 2004 NFC Divisional Playoffs at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles forced the extended session on a David Akers field goal late in the fourth quarter, with the drive extended by a 4th-and-26 completion from quarterback Donovan McNabb to wide receiver Freddie Mitchell. The Eagles also bested Green Bay by a 17-13 count in the 1960 NFL Championship for the franchise's last world title.
Green Bay took a 24-13 advantage in its all-time regular-season series with the Eagles after the aforementioned Week 1 verdict. That result also halted a 48-year winless drought for the Packers in Philadelphia, with the team losing nine straight times (including playoffs) in the City of Brotherly Love since a 49-0 rout in 1962.
Reid, a one-time assistant at Green Bay from 1992-98, is 5-3 against his former team during his tenure in Philadelphia, while the Packers' Mike McCarthy is 2-1 against both Reid and the Eagles as a head coach.
Reid owns a 10-8 lifetime record in the postseason, with McCarthy sporting a 1-2 career playoff mark.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Look for Green Bay to spread the Eagles out with plenty of multiple-receiver formations on Sunday, which should enable the team to get the most out of the accurate and athletic Rodgers (3922 passing yards, 28 TD, 11 INT) and an offense that ended the regular season fifth in passing yards (257.8 ypg). The Packers have a well-equipped quartet of wideouts headlined by Pro Bowl honoree Greg Jennings (76 receptions, 1265 yards, 12 TD), a dangerous deep threat who averaged 16.6 yards per catch, while fifth-year pro James Jones (50 receptions, 5 TD) put up career-best totals at the other outside position. Steady veteran Donald Driver (51 receptions, 4 TD) and improving youngster Jordy Nelson (45 receptions, 2 TD) give Rodgers two more good options out of the slot, and the corps' overall depth has helped the Packers compensate from the season-ending loss to emerging tight end Jermichael Finley in October. Green Bay's still going to show semblance of a running game to keep the pace with the high- powered Eagles, and that's been a problem area at times this year. Top back Brandon Jackson (703 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 4 total TD) hasn't produced much of late, combining for a dreadful 58 yards on 25 attempts over the past two weeks.
Rodgers will be going up against a Philadelphia defense that's often been feast or famine this season. The Eagles finished third in the league with 23 interceptions, including a pair of Green Bay's quarterback back in Week 1, but have also surrendered a troubling 31 touchdown passes, tied for third-most in the NFL. The secondary contains a true game-changer in Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel (26 tackles, 7 INT, 14 PD) as well as a valued stabilizing presence in strong safety and leading tackler Quintin Mikell (88 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT), but depth is a concern due to a series of injuries over the course of the year. The defense will also be without middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (60 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) for a fourth straight game because of a dislocated elbow, though rookie Jamar Chaney (42 tackles) has done a serviceable job filling in. The 2010 seventh-round draft pick is now a key part of a group that's gotten better at stopping the run since surrendering 132 rushing yards to the Pack in the first meeting, while ends Trent Cole (65 tackles, 10 sacks) and Juqua Parker (22 tackles, 6 sacks) head up a pass rush that's capable of making life difficult for Rodgers on Sunday. The relentless Cole reached double-digit sacks for the third time in the past four years, while Parker took down Rodgers twice in the opener.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Philadelphia's No. 2 overall ranking in both scoring (27.4 ppg) and total offense (389.4 ypg) isn't solely because of Vick (3018 passing yards, 21 TD, 6 INT), but there's little question the Eagles are far more difficult to defend when the gifted southpaw is under center. Still a deadly runner who compiled 103 yards on 11 scrambles in nearly leading his team back from a big early deficit against the Packers in Week 1, Vick's accuracy and decision-making have also greatly improved under Reid's tutelage. Other big-time weapons exist on an arsenal that produced 80 plays of 20 or more yards in the regular season, tied for the most in the league. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson (47 receptions, 1056 yards, 7 total TD) is a bona fide home-run hitter who averaged a sizzling 22.5 yards per grab, while sophomore LeSean McCoy (1080 rushing yards, 78 receptions, 9 total TD) excelled as both a runner and pass-catcher as the featured back in Philly's wide-open attack. Another high draftee in 2009, wideout Jeremy Maclin (70 receptions, 10 TD), also turned in a terrific second year as Jackson's outside complement, while slotman Jason Avant (51 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Brent Celek (42 receptions, 4 TD) serve as sure-handed underneath targets in the NFL's ninth-rated passing attack (243.9 ypg). If the Eagles have a weakness, it's in pass protection, with the team permitting a subpar 50 sacks on the year.
Green Bay has the goods to exploit Philadelphia's Achilles' heel, with the energetic Matthews (60 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT) leading a strong collection of pass rushers that figure to put Vick's scrambling skills to the test. The Pro Bowl performer had a monster day against the Eagles in September, notching three sacks and a forced fumble along with seven tackles and his KO of Kolb. Fellow outside linebacker Erik Walden (25 tackles, 3 sacks) had a three-sack effort of his own in last week's big win over the Bears, and the expected return of end Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 7 sacks) from a four-game absence due to a calf strain should make the Pack even more formidable up front. The rushers are supported by a high-caliber secondary that's a major reason why Green Bay tops the NFL in pass efficiency defense and garnered 24 interceptions, just one shy of the league lead. The cornerback combo of 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson (92 tackles, 2 INT, 13 PD) and Tramon Williams (57 tackles, 6 INT, 20 PD) is as good as any in the business right now, while Collins (70 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) is headed to a third straight Pro Bowl as the team's center fielder. With 2009 first-rounder B.J. Raji (39 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and special-teamer Desmond Bishop (103 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) stepping up nicely in place of the injured linebacker Nick Barnett, the Packers can be tough to run on inside, though keeping Vick in check out of the pocket will be a chore.
Possessing a pair of upper-echelon specialists in kicker David Akers and Jackson gives the Eagles the advantage here. Akers was selected to his fifth career Pro Bowl last month after knocking home 32-of-38 field goal tries, including 10-of-14 from beyond 40 yards, and continuing to display a strong leg on kickoffs. Jackson (11.6 avg.) has four punt return touchdowns in his three pro seasons, the last of which was an unforgettable 65-yarder on the final play of Philadelphia's Week 15 win over the New York Giants. Rookie Jorrick Calvin had been the main kick returner until landing on injured reserve in late December, with the team signing ex-Brown Gerard Lawson to take over those duties. Sav Rocca had the best of his four seasons as the Eagles' punter, with the former Australian Rules player establishing personal bests with a 43.8 yard average and 28 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
No one has stood out among the Packers' special teams units, with Nelson (21.6 avg.) and rookie nickel back Sam Shields (21.5 avg.) ranking in the middle of the pack in kick returns and Williams averaging an ordinary 8.4 yards on punts. Kicker Mason Crosby (22-of-28 on field goals) has a strong leg but can be erratic, as his 78.1 percent career conversion rate on three-point attempts attests. Rookie punter Tim Masthay turned in a promising debut, averaging nearly 44 yards per boot and placing 25 kicks inside the 20, but the punt coverage teams have been shaky at times.
They say it's all about matchups in the NFL world, and the Packers seem to have a few that may work in their favor come Sunday. Philadelphia's injury-plagued secondary is going to have its hands full against Green Bay's strong cast of receivers, while an offensive line that's had its issues in protection all year long also faces a difficult assignment from the Pack's assortment of pass rushers. Taking a page out of Minnesota's blueprint from a few weeks back, Green Bay is capable of preventing Vick and his array of playmakers from going wild, while a sharp and controlled passing game led by Rodgers could serve the dual purpose of generating scoring chances and keeping the Philadelphia offense off the field. Add in the fact that the Packers have been operating in a playoff-like atmosphere down the stretch and appear to be in better shape heath-wise as well, and the possibility exists that the Eagles could have their season end in the very same fashion as it began.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Eagles 19
01/06 16:44:37 ET