World’s Best Preview: Turning Rodgers and Co. Into Road Kill

The Packers play an elite defense at Denver on Sunday. History says that's a bad combination. Plus, the Broncos' dynamic receivers, stifling defense and much more in a preview bigger and better than you'll find anywhere else. Guaranteed.

In his last eight road games against teams that finished with winning records, the Green Bay Packers have lost all eight times.

In fact, Aaron Rodgers and Co. haven’t gone on the road and defeated a team that finished better than .500 since late in 2012, when they won at Chicago 21-13.

Will Sunday night’s showdown at Denver end with a happier ending?

Certainly, the blame for the road woes doesn’t all fall on Rodgers. After all, this is a quarterback who led the Packers to the championship in 2010 by winning three consecutive road playoff games. For the first time since 2010, he’s getting a major helping hand from the defense, with the Packers leading the NFL in points allowed per game.

Still, it’s inarguable that the Packers’ offense must do more.

Much more.

The tie that puts a bow around most of those losses is they came against defenses that finished in the top five in scoring. In fact, each of the last seven of those losses came against those elite defenses. Here they are, in chronological order:

2014: NFC championship. Seattle 28-22. Rodgers 1 TD, 2 INTs, 55.8 rating
2014: Week 15. Buffalo 21-13. Rodgers 0 TDs, 2 INTs, 34.3 rating
2014: Week 3. Detroit 19-7. Rodgers 1 TD, 0 INTs, 88.8 rating
2014: Week 1. Seattle 36-16. Rodgers 1 TD, 1 INT, 81.5 rating
2013: Week 3. Cincinnati 34-30. Rodgers 1 TD, 2 INTs, 64.5 rating
2013: Week 1. San Francisco 34-28. Rodgers 3 TDs, 1 INT, 102.5 rating
2012: Divisional playoffs. San Francisco 45-31. Rodgers 2 TDs, 1 INT, 91.5 rating

Combined, Rodgers threw nine touchdown passes against nine interceptions while the Packers averaged 21.0 points. The quarterback with the highest passer rating in NFL history broke 100 just once. Four times last season, the Packers – who led the NFL in scoring – couldn’t solve elite defenses on the road. And that was with Jordy Nelson catching passes and Eddie Lacy running over defenders.

Without Nelson and without a rumbling Lacy, getting the best of Denver’s defense will be a huge challenge. It is a unit without weakness. If not for Peyton Manning throwing three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, it would be the Broncos who lead the league in scoring defense.

“There's no weak spot,” Rodgers said. “It's a great defense from the front line to the back. Solid up front with their pass rush, they've got very good linebackers. You've got a great scheme. Wade (Phillips, the defensive coordinator) does a great job of coaching them up. They're really solid on the back end. They make plays on the football, excellent cover guys. You've got to be very efficient and take care of the football. They've been very opportunistic, obviously holding teams to very low points per game. But they've also taken the ball away really well.”

For the first time in weeks, Green Bay’s offense is in good shape physically thanks to a well-timed bye.

“We don’t make excuses,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said of the injuries. “We line up and go play. We’re 6-0 and we’re preparing to go into a hostile environment and show what we’re all about. We’ll just leave it at that. We’re going to line up with 11 guys on the field and feel good about our 11 guys. We’ll see what happens.”

DENVER’S DYNAMIC RECEIVING DUO

Last season, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and Green Bay’s Nelson and Randall Cobb battled for bragging rights as the best receiver duo in the NFL. Thomas and Sanders certainly were the most prolific. Each caught more than 100 passes and they combined for more than 3,000 yards.

Even with Manning’s struggles this season, Thomas and Sanders have continued to put up big numbers. Through the first six weeks of the season, their 86 catches ranked first among receiver duos and their 1,054 yards ranked second.

Last season, Thomas caught 111 passes for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns. His stretch of seven consecutive 100-yard games was the second-longest in league annals behind Calvin Johnson’s eight-game run in 2012. Thomas has had three consecutive seasons of 1,400-plus receiving yards and 10-plus touchdowns. That’s tied with Jerry Rice for the second-most in NFL history behind Marvin Harrison, who had four such campaigns with Manning throwing the passes in Indianapolis. This season, he has 48 receptions – putting him on pace for 128 -- for 527 yards.

Packers safety Morgan Burnett knows Thomas better than almost anyone. They were roommates at Georgia Tech and remain close friends.

“We work out together over the offseason,” Burnett said. “He’s like a brother to me. We’ve got a close relationship so it’s going to be fun.

“All the games have their uniqueness about them. It’s always fun when you can lace up and go out and play this game. Just going against one of my best friends, that makes it even better. It’s sweet, especially for the people back home and all of our family and friends at Georgia Tech.”

At 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, he’s a physical mismatch. He’ll have 4 inches and about 45 pounds on Packers cornerback Sam Shields.

“He’s big, strong, very hard to tackle after the catch,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “I recruited him out of high school. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s more in the mold of Calvin and those guys. He’s just a freak of nature in the height, weight, speed category.”

The 5-foot-11 Sanders played a mean second fiddle with 101 receptions for 1,404 yards. He’s caught 38 passes, matched Thomas’ 527 yards and has a team-high three touchdown catches.

“I did a study this offseason of the top-15 receivers and I didn’t know Emmanuel was as good as he is. To me, he is a top-3, 4 receiver in this league,” Whitt said. “He’s so much like the guy that’s at Pittsburgh (Antonio Brown), it’s not even funny. I knew Demaryius was good. But Sanders is unbelievable.

“He can run every route. He’s quick. He can get to his speed fast. He has long speed. He’s good with the ball after the catch. There’s not an aspect of his game that he’s weak at, a lot like the kid from Pittsburgh. They’re very similar. In and out of routes quick, deceptive in their route running. For a guy that’s 5-10, 5-11, can catch the deep ball over the top. Great body control. There’s really not a weakness in his game. He is a problem. He is a really good player.”

AGELESS EDGE RUSHERS

While Father Time might be sacking Manning, Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware keep sacking the quarterback.

At 33 years old, Ware leads the NFL’s best pass rush with 4.5 sacks. With 131.5 career sacks, Ware ranks second among active defenders and is two sacks shy of vaulting over Lawrence Taylor and breaking into the top 10 on the all-time list.

“You watch them on tape and it just doesn’t seem like (he’s slowed down with age),” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “He’s got great quicks still and he’s very savvy with his moves. He sets up moves well. He’s just a smart football player. He’s got a great motor, too. He doesn’t quit on plays. He’s just a very good player. Obviously, I didn’t watch him early on in his career – I was probably still in high school – but just from him seeing him on tape with Denver, he’s just a really good, smart football player.”

At 35 years old, Peppers ranks third among active defenders with 131 career sacks. Last year, his first season in Green Bay, Peppers finished second to Houston’s J.J. Watt with nine turnover plays.

“I said this when the guy got here last year: Oldest dude -- he’s probably about 100 years old -- and he outruns everybody,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “Outruns everybody – big, small, young, whatever. So, he makes us all give way more effort than we probably would’ve because I’m looking at someone who’s 35 years old and he’s sprinting past me. I’m probably going to have to get back on the treadmill myself to work on some things.”

Peppers is a freak of nature. Just look at the Packers’ weekly injury report. Peppers’ name is never on it. He practices day after day after day. While he might not be an every-down menace, he seems to rise to the occasion when it’s necessary. That was evident against San Diego, when Peppers made a minimal impact until the final play, when he got right in Philip Rivers’ face to help force an incompletion.

“He’s an impact player,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s been such a positive addition to our defense and he’s grown into a defensive leader. In this business, it’s a society of productivity. I don’t care what kind of leader he is, if he’s not on the field producing … These guys sit in the room and they watch. When a guy’s producing, guys are going to listen to whatever he has to say. Obviously, with a guy like Julius and what he’s done, when he comes in the meeting room and is so professional in the meeting room – I don’t know that he’s missed a practice since he’s been here. These guys, they always look at the guys that are productive and made the journey before them, the young guys aspire to have that kind of a career.”

Both players will be key in determining Sunday night’s outcome. For Peppers and the Packers, they must get to Manning so he doesn’t have the clean pocket necessary to step into the pocket and fire with maximum velocity. For Ware and the Broncos, they must keep Rodgers in the pocket.

“We were looking at a lot of plays from the beginning of the season,” Ware said this week. “He's one of those elusive quarterbacks where he can string plays out and sort of move from the rush. That sort of makes the coverage break down a little bit and then they get the big plays. We have to make sure we keep him in the pocket.”

INSIDE THE BRONCOS

The quarterbacks are the headliners but the defenses will take center stage, with the Packers ranked No. 1 with 16.8 points allowed per game and the Broncos tied for No. 2 with 17.0 points per game.

Denver’s defense has been dominant in every way imaginable. While Green Bay has allowed a 14th-ranked 355 yards per game, the Broncos are No. 1 with 281.3 yards per game – including No. 1 vs. the pass and No. 4 vs. the run. It’s not just the yards, though. It’s the big plays. In six games, they have 17 takeaways and 26 sacks. They are just the second team in the last 17 seasons to accomplish that feat.

“First and foremost, they play hard and they play fast,” center Corey Linsley said. “They’re around-the-ball-type guys. You don’t see them standing around or lazy at all. They’re very well-disciplined. They have a great defensive coordinator, obviously. They’re not the type of defense that’s going to be out of place a lot. They’ve got a great secondary that they can rely on if they don’t get to the quarterback.”

The Broncos have won on first round and then attacked on third down. On first down, Denver has yielded 3.60 yards per play – about two-thirds of a yard better than any other team in the league. That plays into a fierce pass rush. Denver’s sack count is the second-most in the first six games of a season since 2011. Eleven players have at least one sack. It has at least four sacks in five consecutive games. No other team has had a four-sack streak of longer than two games this season.

Bulaga and left tackle David Bakhtiari will have their hands full against the best edge-rushing duo in the NFL. In fact, outside linebackers Ware and Von Miller statistically are the best pass-rushing combo the NFL has ever seen. Among players with 50 career games, Miller ranks third all-time with 0.84 sacks per game and Ware checks in fifth with 0.81 sacks per game. J.J. Watt (0.87) and Reggie White (0.85) top the list.

“He’s very explosive,” Bulaga said of Miller, the third-fastest player in NFL history to 50 sacks. “The thing with him, too, is he’s like DeMarcus Ware in that he’s a very smart player, as well. He does a lot of good things in his pass rush. He’s got a lot of moves but doesn’t give anything away. I keep saying it but they’re both very smart players. They’re very good at setting moves up and playing within that defense. Obviously, two standout guys. You’ve got to play your best game against those guys.”

Moreover, like with Green Bay’s Mike Daniels and Datone Jones, Denver is getting an up-the-middle push. Defensive end Malik Jackson is tied for second on the team with 3.5 sacks and nose tackle Sylvester Williams has 2.0.

“I think that's one thing that we have that some teams don't have,” Phillips said. “We've got inside rushers that either push the pocket or like Malik has had quite a few sacks, too. Guys inside that keep the quarterback having to step back rather than step up makes a difference for those outside guys.”

A strong pass rush can make mediocre cornerbacks look good. The Broncos’ cornerbacks, however, are anything but mediocre. Chris Harris, incredibly, went undrafted in 2011 but was selected for the Pro Bowl last season. Counterpart Aqib Talib leads the NFL with 30 interceptions and eight interceptions returned for touchdowns since entering the NFL in 2008. Since joining the Broncos last season, he already has four pick-sixes – tied for tops in franchise history – including one last week vs. Cleveland.

Finally, safety T.J. Ward leads all NFL defensive backs with 5.5 sacks and 18.0 tackles for losses since the start of the 2013 season.

-- Kubiak is off to a great start as one of only eight coaches since the 1970 merger to win his first six games with a team. It helps to have a talented team, obviously – the Broncos sent 11 players to the Pro Bowl last year -- but it also helps to have an experienced coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Phillips (24 years), special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis (23 years) and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison (12 years) have a combined 59 years of coordinator experience, tops in the league.

“He’s done a tremendous job,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said in a conference call. “We’re able to put his group back together here that we had a few years ago. I thought that was extremely important. The group has done a great job. Wade’s a hell of a teacher. You go back and look at everywhere he’s been, he’s able to get things done quick and is able to get groups going quick. I don’t think what we do is very complicated. Get them playing hard and get them in the right spots. Very proud of the job that he and the group have done. The staff that we were able to put together for him is exceptional.”

-- For all the focus on Manning’s struggles, he hasn’t gotten a lot of help from the running game. Last year, C.J. Anderson looked like a budding star. An undrafted free agent in 2013, the 5-foot-8, 224-pounder rushed for 847 yards and eight touchdowns last season en route to becoming the fifth undrafted running back in NFL history to make a Pro Bowl. Most of that production came down the stretch, with a league-high 709 total yards in November and a league-best seven rushing touchdowns in December.

This year, he’s rushed for 180 yards, averaged 2.7 per carry, has a long run of 14 yards and hasn’t scored. Denver ranks just 30th in rushing with 85.0 per game.

“One of the ways that you help (Manning) is run the ball better and continue to get better up front,” Kubiak said. “We’ve had a lot of issues going on, a lot of changes up front, and we need to settle down and get the group playing better, more consistently, protecting better – all those type of things.”

-- If Broncos punter Britton Colquitt’s name rings a bell, it should. He is the fourth member of his family to punt in the NFL. Colquitt, who entered the league in 2009, boasts a career average of 45.5 yards per punt. His brother, Dustin, entered the NFL in 2005 and punts for the Chiefs. Their father, Craig Colquitt, was a two-time Super Bowl winner who punted for six seasons. Dustin’s uncle, Jimmy, punted in two games for Seattle in 1985.

HISTORY LESSONS

-- Talk about sustained excellence.

Denver is in the midst of its fifth consecutive winning decade. In his 31 seasons as the Broncos’ owner, Pat Bowlen – who is battling Alzheimer’s and will be added to the Broncos’ Ring of Fame on Sunday night -- has been a part of six Super Bowl appearances compared to only five losing seasons. The Broncos’ .614 winning percentage during that time is the third-best in major American professional sports. Since taking over in 1984, the Broncos have a league-high 307 regular-season wins, a third-ranked 325 total wins and a fourth-ranked 12 division titles. During that span, Green Bay is fifth with 289 regular-season wins, 307 total wins and 11 division titles.

Since the start of the 2011 season, when John Elway took over the Broncos’ front office, New England has a league-high 61 wins, followed by Denver with 55 and Green Bay with 54.

-- Starting 6-0 has meant good things for both teams. This is Green Bay’s seventh 6-0 start. It won the championship in 1929, 1930, 1931, 1962 and 1965 but went one-and-done in the 2011 playoffs following a 13-0 start. This is Denver’s seventh 6-0 start. It has reached the Super Bowl five times in its previous 6-0 starts, including championships in 1997 and 1998.

“Every game is an incentive for us. We only get 16 guaranteed opportunities,” Packers receiver Randall Cobb said. “Definitely when we go up against a great team, both of us being undefeated, ‘Sunday Night Football.’ Definitely, the stakes -- I wouldn't say are higher, but it's a little bit more added to the game and makes the game a little bit more fun.”

-- It’s rare that the NFL matches up two teams coming off a bye, so much of Green Bay’s historical advantage can be tossed out the window. Nonetheless, McCarthy’s 8-1 record in the game immediately after the bye gives him a .889 winning percentage that is tied with Marv Levy for tops in NFL history. Green Bay has won six straight following the annual bye. Meanwhile, Green Bay is 23-7 on “Sunday Night Football.” That .767 winning percentage ranks No. 1. That includes 11-5 under McCarthy and 10-3 with Rodgers. Rodgers has thrown 31 touchdowns with five interceptions for a rating of 113.4 under the Sunday night lights.

-- The Packers have split the 13 games, with Green Bay having a 6-5-1 advantage in regular-season play but the Broncos shocking the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. Denver has won five of the six games at home, with Green Bay’s one win coming in 2007 on Brett Favre’s overtime touchdown pass to Greg Jennings. In their last matchup, Green Bay crushed the Kyle Orton-led Broncos 49-23 at Lambeau Field in 2011. Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history with 400 passing yards, four passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in the same game.

NUMBERS WORTH NOTING

Could Manning break out of his funk on Sunday? Perhaps, based on what happened last year.

The bye should be an asset for the quarterback who is approaching his 39th birthday. In his first three games of last season, Manning threw eight touchdowns with one interception. After a Week 4 bye, Manning threw for 479 yards in Week 5 and had a combined 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in Weeks 6 through 8. Then came the second half of the season, when the grind of the season appeared to get the best of him.

With the week off, perhaps Manning will be refreshed after throwing seven interceptions with just two touchdowns in the prior three games.

“I see the same guy,” cornerback Sam Shields said. “Peyton is going to be a Hall of Famer. When teams are, ‘It’s not the same Peyton,’ that’s when he kills teams. He’s still the same Peyton. He makes perfect throws. I think it’s not letting him make his right steps so he can make those throws.”

-- With Rodgers and Manning being two of the smartest quarterbacks in the league, defenses tend to shy away from blitzing. Will that hold true on Sunday night? When blitzing, Denver has allowed a third-best passer rating of 58.9 while the Packers have yielded a fifth-best passer rating of 72.8.

Blitzing Rodgers is a risky premise, though. Since taking over as the starter in 2008, he leads the league with a 110.5 rating, 78 touchdown passes, 7.99 touchdown percentage and 8.87 yards per attempt. This season, he has a 106.1 rating vs. the blitz.

“Each quarterback is different with how much they give you,” Phillips said. “He can scramble and make plays. He can run with the ball. He averages running the ball five times per game. The really great pass rushers can rush the quarterback and see the quarterback and see the quarterback as they rush rather than looking at their man all the time. That's what we have to be able to do is be able to rush our guy, but also see where he is.”

With a wealth of experience and a quick release, Manning is a challenge to blitz, as well.

“Manning’s very well aware, from playing against him for so many years, you’ll see people come flat free through the A-gap, where it’s the shortest distance to get to the quarterback, and he senses it and the ball’s out of his hands,” Capers said. “We’ve got to do a really good job of coverage on these receivers and we’ve got to be able to pressure. When he wants to throw the ball hot or get the ball out of his hands, we have to show tight coverage so we can force him to hold the ball longer.”

-- Something’s got to give in the first quarter. Green Bay, which has scored in an NFL-record 22 consecutive first quarters, leads the NFL with a plus-57 scoring differential in the opening period. That’s as much as the next two teams, Cincinnati (plus-29) and New Orleans (plus-28), combined. The Packers are averaging a league-high 11.0 points per first quarter and have scored touchdowns on their opening possession the past three weeks. Denver, meanwhile, is the only team in the NFL to not allow a first-quarter point, having outscored its opponents 12-0.

-- Last season, Manning broke Favre’s record for career touchdown passes. This season, he’s likely to break Favre’s records for completions and passing yards. On Sunday, he could tie another of Favre’s records. Manning has a career record of 185-77, one win behind Favre’s 186-112.

“I don’t have a lot for you on that,” Manning said. “I don’t talk a lot about things that haven’t happened or do what-if scenarios. We have our hands full on both sides of the ball this week and obviously getting ready for their defense (with) Peppers and Matthews and all their different defensive linemen and active linebackers and active secondary. It’s hard to think about much else besides that.”

FOUR-POINT STANCE

The Broncos’ defensive backs will challenge a Packers passing attack that had been out of synch in the final three games before the bye. With the return of Davante Adams (ankle) and Randall Cobb (shoulder) and James Jones (hamstring) being healthier, the Packers believe they haven’t been at their best all season.

“We’ve played well at times but we have yet to play the best that we possibly can,” Adams said. “That’s what’s the best about this team is we haven’t played our best football and we’re still winning games. We’ve played good football but we know what our standard is. We definitely can improve and play a lot better.”

If not, it might be a long night for Rodgers and Co. because Talib and Chris Harris might be the best corners in the game. They are the starting corners in the Broncos’ base defense. In nickel, Harris will face Cobb in the slot. Both are Pro Bowl players, and they’ve combined for five interceptions and three touchdowns this season.

“Aqib is a really smart, instinctive player,” Phillips said. “He knows what's happening out there. In the Kansas City game right before the half when he intercepted the ball, when he went out on the field, he said, ‘Coach, they're fixing to throw it quick.’ They threw it quick and he intercepted it. He's got that kind of mentality. He's into the game and he studies the guys that he's playing against really well. I had a guy like that before named (Pro Football Hall of Famer) Bruce Smith that studied the offensive tackles. He knew everything about them when he played the game. Aqib is kind of the same kind of guy. He knows everything about the receiver he's playing against and the quarterback. He's special that way, and he can run them all the way back every time, which is amazing.”

-- The No. 1 reason why Green Bay leads the NFL in scoring defense has been its play in the red zone. Green Bay ranks ninth, with opponents scoring touchdowns 47.6 percent of the time. Under Capers, the Packers have ranked 20th or worse in every season but 2010, when they ranked No. 12. Denver’s offense, meanwhile, ranks 30th in red-zone efficiency with a touchdown rate of 30.2 percent.

“The No. 1 stat that I look for is scoring defense and red zone play highly affects that,” Whitt said. “So if you can make them kick field goals or get fourth down stops or turn the ball over in the red area, that directly goes to opponents’ scoring. And so that’s why it’s so important. And that’s the No. 1 stat and I think we’re doing well right now in that regard.”

-- The Packers missed a couple opportunities to intercept Philip Rivers. Based on Manning’s history, the Packers can’t afford to do that again. When he doesn’t throw an interception, Manning’s teams are 103-14. When he throws at least one, his record falls to 82-63. Manning, however, has thrown at least one interception in every game and the Broncos have won them all.

“From the looks, he looks very accurate,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “He has some bad balls, some tip balls for the other team, but that’s everywhere. He’s very accurate. He can throw the deep ball – probably not as far as he used to, but he’s been very accurate with his balls.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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