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NFL Preview - Baltimore (6-5) at Green Bay (7-4)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A pair of playoff hopefuls from opposite conferences will cap off the Week 13 schedule at chilly Lambeau Field on Monday night, when the Green Bay Packers host the Baltimore Ravens in a game that will have playoff implications for both teams.
Neither the Packers nor the Ravens are likely to take home division crowns in 2009, though both clubs find themselves in the heart of the wild card race, and will either enhance or diminish that standing based on Monday night's result.
Green Bay, which effectively conceded the NFC North when it suffered a second loss to the division rival Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 1st, then looked to be on the ropes for the postseason following a loss to the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following week, has boosted its status with an encouraging three-game winning streak.
The Packers will come into Monday's contest on 10 days rest, following a 34-12 beat-down of the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was a sharp 28-of-39 passing for 348 yards and three touchdowns in the win, doing a healthy portion of his damage down the field to wide receiver Donald Driver (7 receptions, 142 yards, 1 TD), though it was the work of Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense that truly stole the holiday show.
The Packers intercepted Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford four times, two of which went to Woodson, who sealed the game with a 38-yard INT return for a touchdown and also broke off a piece of NFL history.
Woodson became the first player in NFL history with two interceptions, an interception-return touchdown, one sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the same game, also helping Green Bay rise to the top of the NFL charts in total defense (281.5 yards per game), opponents' completion percentage (53.4), and turnover margin (+17). Woodson was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
The Ravens also had a positive Week 12 result, helping to remove a major albatross from around their necks by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-17, in overtime.
Baltimore had lost three times to Pittsburgh last season, including a 23-14 loss in the AFC Championship, and was nearly sent to another defeat by pesky Steelers third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon.
Trailing 17-14 following a Dixon touchdown run, Baltimore managed overtime thanks to a 44-yard Ray Rice catch-and-run on 4th-and-5 with fewer than four minutes to play, setting up a Billy Cundiff field goal. Cundiff, who would miss a 56-yard kick at the end of regulation, would ultimately hand Baltimore a 20-17 win six plays after Dixon made his only real mistake, an interception that was returned into Steelers territory by Ravens rookie linebacker Paul Kruger in overtime.
For what it may have lacked in style points, the win was an important one for a Baltimore team that had lost five of its previous seven games, including four defeats by six points or fewer.
Green Bay has a 2-1 edge in its all-time series with Baltimore, taking down the Ravens at Lambeau Field in 1998 (28-10) and 2001 (31-23) before suffering a 48-3 rout at M&T Bank Stadium in 2005. A Baltimore-based team has not won in Green Bay since 1968, when the Colts achieved the feat.
The Packers' Mike McCarthy and Ravens' John Harbaugh will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
After an early-season period in which it appeared that Joe Flacco (2744 passing yards, 13 TD, 8 INT) and the Ravens passing attack would take precedence within the Baltimore offense, it has been Rice (821 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 7 TD) and the team's running game that has taken over in recent weeks. The diminutive second-year back provided the team's signature moment with his late catch against the Steelers, and has gone over 100 combined rushing-receiving yards in each of his last eight games. Rice's efforts have helped mask some hot-and-cold play from Flacco, who has thrown just two touchdown passes in his last five games and has been subject to the occasional bad turnover. When he looks downfield on Monday night, the second-year man out of Delaware will seek to locate wideouts Derrick Mason (52 receptions, 5 TD) and Mark Clayton (32 receptions, 2 TD), along with tight end Todd Heap (37 receptions, 2 TD). Mason scored his first touchdown in 23 career appearances against the Steelers last week, while Clayton made an impact to the tune of seven catches for 129 yards in the victory. The Ravens offensive line has done a generally good job of protecting Flacco this season, but will have to respond after allowing him to be dropped five times against the Steelers.
The Packers' defensive reputation might not be one of dominance, but their current standing at the top of the NFL total defense chart suggests differently. In their first game without cornerback Al Harris and top pass rusher Aaron Kampman, both of whom were lost for the season in the previous week's win over the 49ers, Green Bay forced five turnovers and held the Lions to 272 total yards, with Woodson's huge day helping to lead the charge. Other Packers stars included rookie outside linebacker Clay Matthews (29 tackles, 5 sacks), who had one of the team's two sacks while playing significant minutes in place of the injured Kampman, and linebackers Nick Barnett (71 tackles, 3 INT) and A.J. Hawk (60 tackles, 1 INT), who had 10 tackles each in holding Detroit's Kevin Smith to just 43 ground yards on 18 totes. Rookie nose tackle B.J. Raji (15 tackles, 1 sack) has been emerging of late, and had two tackles and a pass deflection against the Lions. Green Bay is fourth in the league against the run (89.1 yards per game) as Week 13 commences. In addition to Woodson (54 tackles, 7 INT, 2 sacks), cornerback Tramon Williams (29 tackles, 2 INT) and safety Nick Collins (36 tackles, 4 INT, 1 sack) each had interceptions on Thanksgiving.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Packers have not had a great deal of trouble scoring points this season, the fact that a once-battered offensive line will likely be featuring the same five starters for a third straight game on Monday night indicates that the offense could be about to take a major step forward. Despite absorbing a league-worst 44 sacks on the season, Rodgers (3136 passing yards, 22 TD, 5 INT) has had a steadying hand for a team that has committed an NFL- low 10 turnovers on the season. Rodgers has thrown multiple touchdown passes in eight of his last nine games, with Driver (53 receptions, 5 TD) and fellow wideout Greg Jennings (47 receptions, 3 TD) ranking as the signal-caller's favorite targets. In addition to Driver, wideout James Jones (22 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Donald Lee (30 receptions, 1 TD) also caught touchdown passes against the Lions last week. Though known as a pass-oriented team, Green Bay would like to establish its running game as well as the weather gets colder. Ryan Grant (890 rushing yards, 5 TD, 23 receptions) is just 110 yards shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season on the ground, but comes off a week in which he was held to a pedestrian 61 yards on 20 carries by the defensively-challenged Lions.
The defensive scouting report in every contest against the Packers says that you have to get to Rodgers via the pass rush, and the Ravens will be able to do so much more easily if Terrell Suggs (42 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is in the lineup. Suggs has missed the last two games with a knee injury suffered on a dirty hit by Browns quarterback Brady Quinn in Week 10, and is considered questionable for Monday night. If he can't go, the Ravens will need Kruger (4 tackles, 1 INT), who made the first big play of his NFL career with the overtime interception last Sunday, to help pressure Rodgers, along with fellow outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (41 tackles, 6 sacks). A much-maligned Baltimore secondary could have some trouble with Driver and Jennings, with Domonique Foxworth (33 tackles, 1 INT), rookie Lardarius Webb (20 tackles, 1 sack), and Chris Carr (21 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) among the players who will try to contain those figures down the field. Clearly, safeties Ed Reed (45 tackles, 3 INT) and Dawan Landry (60 tackles, 4 INT) will have to be helpful in support. The Ravens can still call run-stopping a general strength, though nose tackles Haloti Ngata (24 tackles), Kelly Gregg (45 tackles), and inside linebacker Ray Lewis (92 tackles, 2 sacks) have been somewhat inconsistent this season. The Ravens are sixth in the league against the run (97.6 yards per game), and 10th in NFL total defense (308.9 yards per game).
Though he's not going to get you a 100-yard rushing bonus most weeks, Rice has been a terrific fantasy starter this year due to his contributions to both the ground and receiving games. Mason is another player who can generally be counted on to provide something in the way of points, though if he draws Woodson on Monday night, it could be Clayton that is the more effective receiver. Flacco is a backup at this stage. The Ravens defense still carries a solid reputation, but the team hasn't made as many big plays this year as in the past, and figures to give up a decent amount of points against Green Bay.
Rodgers has been a top-flight fantasy starter thanks to his many multiple- touchdown games, coupled with the fact that he commits very few turnovers. Driver and Jennings are usually good plays, and that doesn't change against a Ravens squad that is limited in the secondary. Grant probably won't get shut out in the rushing column, but against a Ravens team that is strongd against the run, this may be a week to sit him if you have other credible options.
Each of these teams has been somewhat schizophrenic this season, capable of both impressive wins and grating losses, but both have the talent to make some noise in the postseason if they can get rolling. The Packers, who have been a little battered on the injury front and have been at their best against bad teams, are a little tougher to figure out than is Baltimore. Rodgers will get his yards, but the Ravens should have some ability to place some pressure on him, and Green Bay probably won't do much to keep the Ravens defense honest with the run game. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore is balanced enough to keep the still-developing Packers defense on its heels, and a couple of the Ravens' customary big plays could be the difference here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, Packers 16
12/03 20:44:14 ET