Packers-Browns: Keys to the game

After Sunday's season-opening loss at Detroit, Packers quarterback Brett Favre admitted to never feeling so pessimistic about his team in his career. And that's after going through last year's 1-4 start.

That feeling had better be eliminated before Sunday's kickoff against the Cleveland Browns. If the Packers are feeling sorry for themselves, they could be in for another humiliating defeat.

The Packers and Browns (27-13 loss to Cincinnati) have plenty of room for improvement. The Packers were downright horrible in their 17-3 loss to the Lions. The running game was largely ignored, Favre was out of sync, the offensive line struggled against a stout Lions front four and, oh yeah, Javon Walker was lost for the season to add injury to insult.

Only about 11 percent of teams in the Super Bowl era have qualified for the playoffs after starting the season 0-2. If the Packers want to avoid such a dreadful start, they must win the majority of this week's keys to the game.

1. Remember the run

Hey, remember Ahman Green? Najeh Davenport? The Packers' running backs are both in their contract years. They should be ready to put up big numbers, but they were ignored in last week's game plan, perhaps because coach Mike Sherman didn't think his revamped offensive line could handle Detroit's Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson.

Well, there are no Rogers or Wilkinsons in the Browns' lineup. First-year coach Romeo Crennel is putting his stamp on the Browns, and part of that stamp is the 3-4 defense. Crennel, however, lacks the personnel to run that lineup effectively. Cincinnati exploited Cleveland's run defense for 148 yards on 32 attempts last week.

Green and Davenport combined for just 15 rushes against the Lions. That number almost certainly will be doubled against Cleveland.

2. New air show

As the Packers' running game goes, so goes the passing game. That's no surprise — it's been the offensive meal ticket of the Packers for the last few years. When Green and Davenport are running effectively, then the Packers' passing game thrives off play-action fakes and bootlegs.

That's especially important now, with Walker out for the season. There are no worries about Donald Driver, who got lost in Walker's shadow last year but still posted Pro Bowl numbers. Robert Ferguson moves back into the starting lineup. He says he has the talent to be one of the best receivers in the game. It's time for him to show that and prove he's over the mental aftereffects of the season-ending injury suffered last year against Jacksonville.

Perhaps even a bigger question is whether the Packers have big-play potential. No player other than Walker has a reception of longer than 50 yards since the 2002 season. Cleveland's pass rush is weak and the cornerbacks are average at best. The Packers would be wise to go deep a few times, just to show the rest of the league that the long ball is still in the playbook.

3. Clean it up

The Packers were flagged 17 times against Detroit, a number so unacceptable that Sherman has gone back to his high school coaching roots. Players who commit penalties in practice were forced to run.

The flags sapped any offensive rhythm the Packers tried to find, and penalties on defense gave the Lions six first downs.

Ahmad Carroll lost his starting job after getting nailed four times, but he'll still get plenty of playing time in the nickel and dime groupings. Carroll and his replacement, Joey Thomas, no doubt will be targeted early and often by veteran Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer.

4. Reuben sandwich

Browns running back Reuben Droughns rushed for 1,240 yards and six touchdowns last season while in Denver. In his Cleveland debut, he carried the ball 12 times for 78 yards, a gaudy 6.5-yard average.

The Packers' run defense was thought to be a major weakness entering the season, but Jim Bates' outfit held Detroit's potent attack in check last week. Standout running back Kevin Jones gained 87 yards but just 3.5 yards per rush with a long of only 7 yards.

If the Packers can duplicate that success, then the Browns' hopes fall into the hands of Dilfer. Dilfer is a Super Bowl champion, but he has thrown 107 interceptions in his career compared to 96 touchdowns. He was picked off twice last week.

If it's up to Dilfer to win the game, the Packers are in great shape. If Cleveland can dictate the tempo with Droughns, then the Packers could be in trouble.

5. Home-field advantage

Once upon a time, the Packers were a force at Lambeau Field. That advantage has been lost during Sherman's tenure. He is 2-3 in home openers, including a loss last year to Chicago and in 2003 to Minnesota. The Packers went 4-5 at home last season and lost three home games in 2003.

With road games against Carolina, Minnesota, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Baltimore filling the schedule, the Packers absolutely must win their home games if they have any hope of earning a playoff berth.

On paper, Sunday's game is the easiest on the schedule. The Packers can build some much-needed momentum with an early knockout. The longer they let the Browns hang around, however, the more the Browns will think they can pull the upset.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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