QB Matt Flynn vs. coach Bill Belichick: The million-dollar question was whether Aaron Rodgers would start this Sunday night clash. The answer is no. You can bet that Belichick, one of the league's all-time defensive gurus, will throw the book at a quarterback making his first NFL start. He's certainly made much more established quarterbacks look foolish over the years. The book on Flynn is that he's highly cerebral and a good athlete but lacking of a big-time arm. So, expect Belichick to take away the underneath stuff and dare Flynn to beat his complex coverages vertically.
OTs Bryan Bulaga and Chad Clifton vs. OLBs Jermaine Cunningham, Tully Banta-Cain: Baluga and Clifton will have to hold up on the edge against the Patriots' outside linebackers, who are not known for their rush. Banta-Cain leads the linebackers with a meager four sacks; Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich have one apiece. With Flynn starting, expect New England to dial up the calls for Banta-Cain, Cunningham, Ninkovich and company to pour on pressure to force early throws.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: PACKERS ON DEFENSE
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Linebackers vs. TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski: The New England tight ends have made life difficult for opposing defenses for one simple reason: They're not ordinary tight ends. Veteran Alge Crumnpler is a devastating block in the ground game. Rookie Rob Gronkowski is a massive player, big enough to level a typical linebacker but a good enough receiver to have seven touchdowns. Fellow rookie Aaron Hernandez is more of a Dallas Clark type – a tight end who creates matchup problems for LBs or DBs because of his athleticism. It's a defensive coordinator's nightmare: Bring pressure and expose the secondary to two of New England's best pass receivers.
THE PACKERS WILL WIN BECAUSE …
… This team has a tendency to play its best when its backs are against the wall. It did it last season, when a 4-4 start was reversed with a 7-1 finishing kick. And it did it this season, when a 3-3 start was reversed by a four-game winning streak. The Packers' offense will find holes in the Patriots' defense and the Packers' defensive backs are better than anyone Tom Brady has faced this season.
THE PACKERS WILL LOSE BECAUSE …
… They've run out of healthy bodies to get after Brady. Against the pass-happy Patriots offense, leading sacker Clay Matthews has been slowed by a shin injury and No. 2 sacker Cullen Jenkins is out again with an injured calf. Plus, injuries to Brad Jones, Brady Poppinga and Frank Zombo have left Erik Walden – who was unemployed for most of the first half of the season – starting at outside linebacker. The Patriots are not a team you want to face when your top pass rushers are dressed in street clothes.
THE PATRIOTS WILL WIN IF ...
New England can win the game if they continue to play mistake-free football. Tom Brady has thrown 268 consecutive passes without an interception. Another 41 and he breaks Bernie Kosar's record of 308. New England hasn't turned the ball over in five straight games, the longest streak in the league. If New England continues to avoid bad plays, then it'll be able to lean on its offense – the most efficient in the league with 415 points (31.9 per game). With that many points on the board, Green Bay, which averages just 23.5 per game, will have a hard time keeping up.
THE PATRIOTS WILL LOSE IF ...
Don't be surprised if the Patriots struggle with the Packers' offense on the field. Green Bay converts third downs 41 percent of the time. Meanwhile, opponents are converting a league-high 48 percent of third downs against New England's defense. Even a struggling offense tends to do well against the Patriots. The Jets had multiple turnovers when in scoring position against New England, snuffing out opportunities to keep the game close. The Colts, Steelers and Lions all used soft New England defense to keep a blowout closer than it should have been. If the Packers just try to sustain drives, without trying for home runs, they should be able to march up and down the field on New England's 27th-ranked defense.
The Packers, with their season on the brink after a litany of close losses early in the season and last week's flop at Detroit, will play surprisingly well with Flynn in at quarterback. But the Patriots are the hottest team in the league and Brady's 26-game home winning streak speaks volumes. So, expect an unexpectedly close game but expect the predicted result. Patriots 27, Packers 17.
New England will probably keep Tom Brady's consecutive win streak at home alive, moving the record to 27 in a row. Without a healthy Aaron Rodgers to keep it close, the Patriots' secondary should be able to find a way to limit the damage that an explosive Packers offense can muster with Matt Flynn. Snow is in the forecast, and under Bill Belichick, New England is 10-0 in the white stuff. Patriots 30, Packers 20.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.