The Green Bay Packers have the youngest team in the NFC North, if not the entire NFL. More than half the roster is made up of rookies or players entering their second professional season. They will start four rookies, including two offensive linemen. Their opening test? The Chicago Bears.
The Packers enter Sunday's game as mere three-point underdogs, a line that takes into account the Lambeau Field faithful and the ineptitude of the favored Bears' offense.
Point spread notwithstanding, the Packers will have to play a nearly flawless game to pull off the upset. How can they do it? Here are the five keys to the game.
1. McCarthy's debut
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has said from the day he took the job that his offense will run the ball. Again and again, regardless of whether it's working. The method behind his madness, he has said, is a 1-yard run in the first quarter will be a 2- or 3-yard run in the second quarter and a 4- or 5-yarder in the third. By the time the fourth quarter starts, the opposing defense will be ready to crumble.
In other words, it's a test of wills.
But will McCarthy really have the will to stick with the run if it's not working? If the natives at Lambeau are getting restless? If the Packers are losing 13-3 and his rookie guards are getting manhandled by Chicago's dominant defensive tackles so thoroughly that linebacker Brian Urlacher is running untouched and tackling everyone in sight?
The book on McCarthy is empty. He will start filling in some pages today.
2. Trench warfare
Packers quarterback Brett Favre is old enough and wise enough to know that the game's stars shine and teams win because of the battles at the line of scrimmage.
"You can only go as far as your offensive line takes you," Favre said. "So it's up to those guys, really, to dictate."
"I'm sure the preseason was an eye-opener for them, but this is for real," Favre said.
Beyond the youngsters' ability to control the middle of the field and give Ahman Green and the running game a chance to succeed, tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton will be tested. Especially Clifton, who had a rough training camp and preseason as he battles a sore knee. He'll face speed rusher Alex Brown. That's a matchup within a matchup, and it's one the Packers must win for Favre to have success.
"Having guys running open downfield is great, if you can plant and throw the ball. So there's a lot riding on the guys up front's shoulders," Favre said.
3. Favre vs. the Bears
Favre used to own the Chicago Bears. At one point, the Packers had won 18 of 20 against Chicago, with Favre having some of his biggest and most memorable games against them. His 51 career touchdowns against the Bears is third most in NFL history for a quarterback against a single team.
Last year, however, was a nightmare. In two games, Favre threw 111 passes. The results? Two ugly losses, no touchdowns, six interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns — and a whole bunch of hits and frustration.
Despite that domination, Favre has the respect of Chicago's defenders.
"Brett Favre's a Hall of Fame quarterback," Brown said. "He's obviously done something right for a long time. He can easily go out and throw for 400 yards on you if you don't watch out, so we've got to be ready to play. We can't sit back and hope that he throws us a ball or two. We have to go out and try to make plays against him."
The key for Favre — for this season, but especially this game — is obvious. Make wise decisions. The Bears' have a ballhawking secondary — cornerbacks Nathan Vasher, Charles Tillman and safety Mike Brown are among the best in the business.
4. The walking wounded
Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman is entering his fourth NFL season. He will make the eighth-start of his injury-riddled career today.
Green Bay running back Ahman Green had rushed for 1,100 yards in his previous five seasons before suffering a season-ending quad injury early last season.
Both players will start, and how they do will be key to their teams' offense.
Green has the challenge of running against Chicago's powerful front seven. He has played only one preseason game — well, two, if you count his one attempt against Tennessee — and he has a history of fumbling early in the season.
Regardless of whether he's ready, Green is going to be the main man.
"With Ahman's history, we're going to push it as far as he can go," McCarthy said.
Grossman's task is to do well enough in his limited opportunities to at least make the defense respect the Bears' lousy passing game. His below-average receiving corps will be challenged by Packers corners Al Harris, who held Chicago's No. 1 receiver, Muhsin Muhammad, to one catch last season, and Charles Woodson.
"We are a defensive-minded team and we run the ball well," Grossman said. "We'd like to add a passing game that's not ranked last in the league. We want to get our passing game very, very respectable, at the least. Once we do that, I think we'll have a complete team"
5. Got it covered
This is the great unknown. Judging by the preseason, the Packers are in big trouble here, but that's the preseason. The coverage units that were toasted, especially by Tennessee in the final preseason game, have been revamped. Many of the players covering kicks against the Titans aren't even on the roster.
They will be tested by rookie second-round pick Devin Hester. The Bears were ridiculed by concentrating on their defense in the draft, but Hester is a big-time addition to the offense, even if he plays defensive back.
Hester averaged 22.8 yards per punt return. Sure, his 54-yard runback skews things, but take that away, and he still averaged 16.6 yards per punt return. On kickoffs, he averaged a more modest 21.8 yards.
"This guy Hester, the rookie, has adapted very well to the pro game and found out where the seams are," special-teams coach Mike Stock said. "He can make things happen. It's not always where it's designed to go, and he can still get the job done. A very, very elusive guy."
Editor's note: Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.