NFL Preview - Green Bay (13-0) at Kansas City (5-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Kyle Orton hasn't started an NFL game since the first week of October, while Romeo Crennel hasn't been a head coach for one in nearly three years.
Both men will get an opportunity to reprove themselves in league circles when the Kansas City Chiefs attempt to shock the still-unbeaten Green Bay Packers Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in a Week 15 interconference clash with some added intrigue.
The floundering Chiefs made what was believed to be an inevitable move into a reality when the organization fired head coach Todd Haley on Tuesday, two days after the team was handed its fourth loss in a five-game span with a miserable 37-10 throttling by the New York Jets this past Sunday. Though Kansas City surprised nearly every observer by winning 10 times and capturing an AFC West title in Haley's second season at the helm in 2010, the regression of an offense that's been one of the league's poorest this year coupled with the fiery Haley's reported frosty relationship with general manager Scott Pioli triggered the change in leadership.
In his place steps in Crennel, well-regarded as a defensive assistant but who went 24-40 during a failed four-year stint as the Cleveland Browns' sideline boss from 2005-08. The 64-year-old, who had served as the Chiefs' defensive coordinator the past two years, will guide the team on an interim basis for the final three games in what could be an audition for the permanent job.
"I would like to be a head coach again to show that I can do it," said Crennel on Tuesday. "I know how to get it done and I think the experience from the first time will make me better the next time around. Otherwise I don't know if I would have taken the position to try and finish out this season if I didn't want to be a head coach again."
Crennel's first decision in charge was to elevate Orton to the top of the depth chart at quarterback. The two-time 3,000-yard passer had been working in a backup capacity to Haley preference Tyler Palko after being claimed off waivers from Denver last month, and his progress had been stalled by a dislocated finger he suffered during a brief relief stint at Chicago two weeks ago.
"I feel pretty good," Orton said following Wednesday's practice. "I'm just going to kind of take it as it goes and we'll see what happens when we get to Sunday, but for today [his finger] felt about as good as I think it could."
Ironically, Orton's penultimate start as a Bronco before being supplanted by popular youngster Tim Tebow came against the Packers in Week 4. He threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns in Denver's 49-23 loss, but was also intercepted three times.
The Chiefs produced a 1-3 record and a meager 32 points in Palko's four starts in place of injured regular Matt Cassel, with the offense held under 255 total yards in the three most recent contests. In last week's setback, Kansas City mustered just four total yards and one first down in falling behind to the Jets by a 28-3 score.
Green Bay hasn't had such problems, nor has it lacked consistency. The reigning world champions are riding a 19-game winning streak dating back to last season into Sunday's bout -- the second-longest run in NFL history -- behind a dominating offense that leads the league in scoring (35.8 ppg) and has put up 42 points or more on five occasions thus far in 2011.
The Packers were in top form once more in a 46-16 shellacking of AFC West contender Oakland last Sunday, though the defense had a hand in the rout as well. Green Bay forced five turnovers against the Raiders, while scoring a defensive touchdown as well as a safety.
Green Bay secured a first-round bye in the upcoming NFC Playoffs with the victory and can wrap up the conference's No. 1 overall seed by topping the Chiefs.
The Packers will have to do so without their leading receiver and perhaps their top rusher, however. Pro Bowl wideout Greg Jennings will miss a minimum of two weeks after spraining his left knee in the Oakland game, while running back James Starks is likely to sit out a second straight test due to an ankle injury.
The Packers and Chiefs have met nine times previously in regular-season play, with Kansas City winning six of those matchups and the teams also battling to one tie. The Chiefs had bested Green Bay five consecutive times prior to a 33-22 Packers' triumph at Arrowhead Stadium in 2007, and the Green and Gold's only other positive result in the series was a 23-3 road decision in 1987. Kansas City last topped the Packers via a 40-34 overtime shootout at Lambeau Field in 2003.
These two franchises also squared off in the first-ever Super Bowl, held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in January of 1967, with Green Bay coming out on top by a 35-10 count.
Crennel is 1-0 against the Packers as a head coach, having led the Browns to a 26-24 win at Lambeau Field in 2005. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, who spent six seasons as a Chiefs assistant from 1993-98, is also 1-0 lifetime against his former employer and will going head-to-head with Crennel for the first time.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Even with Jennings and Starks on the sidelines, the Packers will bring a loaded offense that's given opposing coordinators nightmares with its blend of skill, precision and depth into Arrowhead. Not one has had an answer on how to slow down Aaron Rodgers (4125 passing yards, 39 TD, 6 INT) this season, with the ultra-consistent quarterback on a collision course for his first-ever league MVP award while rewriting the club record books in the process. Brett Favre's onetime understudy is coming off his most ordinary game of the season, but was still able to compile 281 yards on 17 completions against the Raiders while throwing for two scores, leaving him one shy of becoming the first-ever Green Bay triggerman to have 40 in a single year. He won't have a lack of quality targets to work with regardless of Jennings' absence, with big-play wideout Jordy Nelson (51 receptions, 957 yards, 10 TD) capable of stepping in seamlessly to the No. 1 receiver's role and tight end Jermichael Finley (42 receptions, 6 TD) a serious matchup problem for safeties and linebackers due to his enviable athleticism. Steady veteran Donald Driver (31 receptions, 4 TD) has shown lately he can still get it done as well, with the 36-year-old backing up a two-touchdown effort against the New York Giants in Week 13 with a season- high 75 yards on four catches last Sunday. Fifth-year pro James Jones (26 receptions, 5 TD) adds another deep threat to a Green Bay attack that's third in the NFL in total offense (404.2 ypg) and passing yards (304.6 ypg), while the backfield remains in good shape with two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant (401 rushing yards, 2 TD, 13 receptions) taking over for Starks. The Packers matched a season-high with 136 rushing yards in the Oakland game, with Grant amassing 85 on just 10 attempts while scoring a pair of touchdowns.
Though Sunday's challenge may be their most difficult of the season, the Kansas City defense may be up to the task considering their recent play. The Chiefs have limited their last three foes under 185 net passing yards and accumulated 10 of their still-modest sum of 23 sacks over the past two games, racking up seven takedowns of Chicago's Caleb Hanie two weeks back. Rookie outside linebacker Justin Houston (43 tackles, 4 sacks) has generated four sacks over that span to give Crennel's group a needed complement to All-Pro pass rusher Tamba Hali (52 tackles, 9 sacks), while Brandon Flowers (52 tackles, 4 INT, 19 PD) and Brandon Carr (39 tackles, 3 INT, 11 PD) form a solid cornerback duo that anchors a young secondary. Stopping the run has been a bit of an issue at times, though, as Kansas City ranks 26th in rush defense (132.5 ypg) and was bullied for 159 yards on the ground by the physical Jets last Sunday. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (112 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) is the team's top tackler and regarded as one of the league's better coverage players at his position, which should come in handy given how much and how well the Packers throw the ball.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Though Orton (979 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT with Denver) has played only a handful of snaps over the last two months, he's an experienced quarterback that should be a significant upgrade from the overmatched Palko under center. He's still dealing with a sore finger, however, and may be eased into action with Crennel stating a preference for a more run-based philosophy during the week. The Chiefs do have three backs who've rushed for over 300 yards this season in inside pounder Jackie Battle (504 rushing yards, 1 TD), shifty speedster Dexter McCluster (426 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 1 TD) and 12-year veteran Thomas Jones (337 rushing yards), though none of them have come close to matching the impact and production of injured game-breaker Jamaal Charles. There's talent at the wide receiver spots as well, with top weapon Dwayne Bowe (65 receptions, 937 yards, 4 TD) coming off a 15-touchdown 2010 campaign that landed him in the Pro Bowl and offseason pickup Steve Breaston (52 receptions, 2 TD) delivering a 1,000-yard season with Arizona back in 2008. 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin (16 receptions, 1 TD), who's spent most of his rookie year in Haley's doghouse, could get more of look down the stretch with the coaching change as well. Changes should be in order anyway, since Kansas City is next-to-last in the NFL in scoring (13.3 ypg) and 30th in passing yards (177.4 ypg).
The Packers enters this week's play 31st in the league in both total defense (394.7 ypg) and passing yards allowed (288.7 ypg), but those poor rankings can be construed as a bit misleading with opponents often having to take the air against them while playing catch-up. What Green Bay does do exceptionally well on this side of the ball is create turnovers, having registered the most takeaways (32) and interceptions (27) in the league. The Packers have two terrific ball-hawks in the secondary in six-time All-Pro Charles Woodson (61 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 INT) and fellow cornerback Tramon Williams (51 tackles, 4 INT, 15 TD), while second-year nickel back Sam Shields (36 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) could start on most clubs. With the exception of relentless outside linebacker Clay Matthews (38 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT) and his ability to constantly command double teams, the pass rush has been inconsistent, however, which helps explain Green Bay's tendency to surrender high yardage totals. The unit did do an admirable job of neutralizing Oakland's usually-strong ground game, though, with the Raiders' Michael Bush kept to a pedestrian 78 yards on 23 carries last week, but may be minus two key stoppers in inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (97 tackles, 5 sacks) and end Ryan Pickett (32 tackles) against the Chiefs due to a calf strain and concussion, respectively.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How Orton fares in his return to the field will go a long way towards determining whether the Chiefs can conjure up enough offense to hang with the NFL's most prolific scoring team. The battle-tested quarterback certainly provides his new team with more of a vertical presence than Palko, but he'll need to shake off some serious rust and show he's got a grasp of the system. And a three-interception effort like he had in his last appearance against the Packers would be an absolute crippler.
Realistically, Green Bay shouldn't be seriously tested by a Kansas City squad that's scored only 15 offensive touchdowns all season and is in the midst of a coaching shakeup if it's focused and business-like in its approach. But with the Packers all but assured of having home-field advantage in the playoffs and getting an injury scare in the form of Jennings last week, it's not out of the question that McCarthy rests a few nicked-up regulars and treats this game like a tune-up for the bigger prizes that lie ahead.
Kansas City's only hope of preventing Rodgers and his cast of playmakers from lighting up the scoreboard at will is if a pass rush that's turned it up a notch as of late can be a factor. The Raiders were able to cause a few problems for the razor-sharp signal-caller with their pressure packages last Sunday, with Rodgers sacked four times and completing just 17-of-30 pass attempts, well below his usual standards.
The Chiefs will have a different look than what they've shown over the course of the season, and it's reasonable to believe both the insertion of Orton and the more-relaxed atmosphere that Crennel will bring as opposed to the stern and demanding Haley can pay some immediate benefits. It's not going to change the Packers' customary results, however. Kansas City will still be hard-pressed to keep the defending world champions from nearing their normal offensive output, and there's little debate that the Chiefs don't have anywhere near the firepower to keep up in a high-scoring affair. The final two games will offer a better indicator of whether Kansas City's modifications will lead to an overall improvement, as the Packers are simply in another class.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 34, Chiefs 20
12/16 08:06:39 ET