Keys to the game

For two teams that entered this season with Super Bowl aspirations, an off-season's worth of hard work and a training camp's worth of sweat and punishment will be all for nothing for the unlucky loser of tonight's showdown of 1-3 teams.

Only eight teams in the long history of the NFL have rallied from a 1-4 start to push into the playoffs. The loser of tonight's game at Lambeau Field pitting the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers will be staring up at that deep and foreboding hole.

Neither team has anything to hang its hat on entering the showdown. The Packers are the home team, which you'd think would mean something in such a crucial game, but Green Bay is a woeful 6-6 in its last 12 at Lambeau Field. Neither team has any momentum, with the Packers losers of three straight and the Titans losers of two straight.

The Packers have a three-time MVP at quarterback in Brett Favre while the Titans have last season's co-MVP, Steve McNair, under center. Both of those game-changers are coming off injuries, however — McNair missed last week's game at San Diego after being hospitalized the week before with a bruised sternum. Favre, meanwhile, has the heavy heart after his brother-in-law died in an all-terrain-vehicle accident.

The Titans always are superb on defense while the Packers were supposed to be improved with the change to Bob Slowik as defensive coordinator. So much for that, too, as Tennessee's run defense is the worst in the league and the Packers' defense has been torched by land and by air.

Simply put, neither team has a significant advantage heading into tonight's clash. That means the outcome could boil down to the intangibles. Which team starts fast to get some good vibes? Which team's playmakers will make some plays? Which unheralded player will come to the fore? Which team makes its luck? Which team isn't prepared to see all that hard work be wasted just five games into the season?

"We have to play a helluva lot better than we've been playing," Packers coach Mike Sherman said.

Here are the rest of this week's keys to the game.

2. See how they run

Remember that Colts-Packers game, with all the fireworks in the passing game? Tonight's game could feature a lot of fireworks in the running game. The Packers' Ahman Green can take over a game with his combination of power and speed. Tennessee's run defense, meanwhile, ranks 23rd against the run but last in the league in yards allowed per rush with 5.5. Tennessee's Chris Brown ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing with 401 yards through Week 4. After several years of the plodding, near-the-end-of-his-career Eddie George, Brown has provided an explosive burst to the Titans offense. Green Bay's run defense, meanwhile, was tied with Tennessee at 23rd in the league and was 28th in yards allowed per rush with 4.9. Tennessee's defense dominated the Packers in the preseason matchup. The standouts are tackle Albert Haynesworth and end /tackle Kevin Carter. Haynesworth is sort of in the Cletidus Hunt mold as a player with immense talent who doesn't always show up. Carter is a career end who is rotating in at tackle and is more of a pass rusher than a run stopper. "If we don't improve our run defense, there is not a back in the National Football League that won't make us look bad," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.

3. Clash of the QB titans

It doesn't get much better than Favre vs. McNair. Favre is off to a hot start, ranking eighth in the league in passing efficiency by completing 81 of 126 passes (64.3 percent) for 865 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. McNair is off to a poor start for his lofty standards, ranking just 26th in the league in passing efficiency by completing 50 of 79 passes (63.3 percent) for 489 yards, only one touchdown and two interceptions. The Titans have not been explosive through the air. Derrick Mason and Drew Bennett have combined for 52 catches — the top duo in the AFC through Week 4 — but are averaging only 10.7 yards per catch. Green Bay's struggling secondary, however, could be just the tonic for McNair.

4. Pass protection

The Packers and Titans rank in the bottom third of the league in sacking the quarterback with seven. Green Bay, however, is tied for the league lead in fewest sacks allowed with two while the Titans are tied for 24th with 11 sacks allowed. Both quarterbacks are coming off injuries, making pass protection even more important. If the Titans can protect McNair, then he can pick on the league's 24th-ranked pass defense. Despite his 1 1/2 sacks last week against the Giants, Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has been invisible for most of the season. Packers center Grey Ruegamer, who replaced Pro Bowler Mike Flanagan last week, will be tested by Haynesworth, Carter and Fisher's schemes.

5. Avoiding mistakes

The Packers have been their worst enemy this season. They stand at minus-3 in the all-important turnover ratio with just five takeaways and eight critical giveaways. Green's fumbling problems have been well chronicled, with his habit of carrying the ball in his left arm making him vulnerable on runs to the right. The hard-hitting Titans certainly are aware of that. Making matters worse for the Packers, they stand in the top 10 in the dubious most-penalties list with 32 through four games. Tennessee has been much more disciplined, with a turnover ratio of zero and a middle-of-the-pack standing in penalties. With all of Green Bay's problems, it can't afford to kill a drive with a turnover or penalty or prolong a drive with a defensive miscue.


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