Keys to the Game: Slowing Owens and Kearse

The phrase "fourth-and-26" cuts through a Packers fan like a January wind. No matter the outcome of today's showdown between the Green Bay Packers (7-4) and Philadelphia Eagles (10-1), that fateful fourth-and-26 play can never be erased or overturned.

But Packers coach Mike Sherman hopes it provides just a little motivation for a Packers team desperate for victories as it enters the stretch run in a neck-and-neck race for the NFC North title with the Minnesota Vikings.

"You can't go back and undo what's done," Sherman said. "Now, when we hit the field and we go to the Philly stadium and we walk out of the locker room will there be a little something extra in their gut? I hope so, you know? I hope so.

"But as far as our preparation is concerned, I mean, it's totally focused on what we're trying to accomplish this year. We had our opportunity last year and we didn't take advantage of it and we have an opportunity to play a very good Philadelphia team this year, which we hope to take advantage of."

Motivation certainly won't be a problem. But how motivated will the Eagles be? That's among the five keys to today's game.


The Eagles won the NFC East last week and have the inside track toward home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. Philadelphia started the season 7-0 before getting overwhelmed at Pittsburgh. The Eagles responded with three straight blowout wins over their weakling division rivals.

While Philadelphia may be due for a letdown, Eagles coach Andy Reid isn't worried.

"I probably couldn't have picked a better team to play right after (clinching the division)," said Reid. "You put on film of the Packers and they get your attention real quick. If there was going to be a letdown, there won't be one after watching these guys play."


Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb are two of the biggest stars if the sport, but they are eclipsed by the flamboyant Terrell Owens. Owens is more than just the king of the touchdown celebration or the co-star in a racy "Monday Night Football" pregame skit.

Owens is seventh in the league in receptions with 61, second in yardage with 1,026, first in touchdowns with 13, and tied for second in 20-yard-plus receptions with 15. He's got the speed to get deep and the power to muscle his way open.

Packers cornerback Al Harris, who is having an excellent season and has consistently fared well while matched up with the opponent's No. 1 receiver, faces his biggest challenge of the year. Harris' physical play provides a great subplot as he faces the equally physical Owens.

"Terrell is having an exceptional year," Sherman said. "He's playing his best football. We will definitely have to know where he is every play."

The addition of Owens, who came in a three-way trade with Baltimore and San Francisco, has helped McNabb enjoy the best season of his career.

"You can get the ball to the guy and he can turn a 15-yard catch into a 30 or 40-yard touchdown," McNabb said.


While the spotlight has been on Owens, fellow Eagles starter Todd Pinkston has developed into a big-play threat. Of receivers with 20 or more catches, Pinkston ranks fourth with a per-catch average of 18.3 yards.

And remember the guy who made the fourth-and-26 catch? Freddie Mitchell, a former first-round pick, hasn't done much this season but he's made the most of his opportunities. He is averaging 20.1 yards per catch on 12 grabs.

The Rams' Isaac Bruce and Minnesota's Nate Burleson are two of the secondary receivers to post big games against Green Bay's shaky secondary. Pinkston and Mitchell have the ability to make the Packers pay if they focus too much attention on Owens.

4. On the run

Green Bay's offensive line turned it perhaps its finest performance of the season Monday night, time and again opening gaping holes for Najeh Davenport to run through. Philadelphia's run defense isn't as porous as the Rams' but it can be exploited. The Eagles are allowing 4.5 yards per rush, which ranks 25th in the league.

Green Bay's run offense, meanwhile, has been steadily climbing the charts. The Packers rank eighth in the league at 135.1 yards per game but no teams can match the one-two punch of Ahman Green and Davenport with the ball and William Henderson and Nick Luchey leading the way. During the six-game winning streak, the Packers are running for 164.8 per game.

5. Protecting Favre

The key to Philadelphia's defense is the schemes of coordinator Jim Johnson. Amazingly, the Eagles' defense hasn't fallen apart with the free-agent departures of standout cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. The key as always is Johnson's pressure-packed blitzes, which have helped protect young 5-foot-10 corners Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard.

While the Eagles rank second in sacks with 34, the Packers have yielded an eye-popping league low of five sacks. Not even the season-ending injury to center Mike Flanagan has prevented the line from giving Favre all the time in the world.

A key matchup with be Packers offensive tackle Mark Tauscher against speed-rushing end Jevon Kearse. Tauscher is coming off a dominating performance against stellar Rams end Leonard Little. Little is quick around the corner, but perhaps no end in the league can get to the passer faster than Kearse.

"Kearse is such an explosive player," said Reid. "He makes plays all over the field. Last week he had a blocked punt. He's a very versatile guy."

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