Packers vs. Eagles: Keys to the game

Green Bay will have its hands full against an Eagles offense that averages 28.7 points per game. Offensively, the Packers must handle Philadelphia's barrage of blitzes.

Maybe the Green Bay Packers aren't as bad as many observers think. The defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks barely beat Detroit and got blown out by Chicago. Same for the Packers.

Tonight's game at Philadelphia will test how far the Packers have come since that Week 1 drubbing by the Bears. The Eagles look like a playoff contender a season after the T.O. debacle, while Green Bay is coming off a win at Detroit.

Here are this week's five keys to victory.

The Westbrook factor

New Orleans' running back Reggie Bush is the most-hyped rookie in years. Maybe ever. He's a heck of a player, but at this point in their careers, Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook is the better player.

Both running backs are big-time threats in the running and passing games. The Packers have done well stopping the run, but they've looked overmatched against running backs who can catch the ball and make a move afterward.

Westbrook probably is a mismatch for any of the Packers' linebackers, especially strong-side linebacker Brady Poppinga but even middle linebacker Nick Barnett and weak-side linebacker A.J. Hawk. That puts the onus largely on safety Nick Collins — who has struggled badly in deep coverage but did a great job limiting Bush in Week 2 — to limit Westbrok's yards after catch.

"I think Brian Westbrook is special," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's a guy that can score from anywhere on the field. He'll be a primary target for our defense this week. He can do it all. You look at the run he had at San Francisco, just the way he finished it. They do a good job of getting him the football and getting him in space. Once again, he's a primary target for our defense."

The McNabb factor

He's back.

A year after Terrell Owens ripped apart the team and a sports hernia limited, then ended, quarterback Donovan McNabb's season, McNabb is back in full force.

That's not good news for Green Bay's pass defense, which is ranked dead last in the NFL.

McNabb is as athletic as ever, which will put a constant strain on defensive ends Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Aaron Kampman to mount a strong pass rush while preventing McNabb from escaping around the outside and making a big play with his arm or legs.

In the pocket, however, is where McNabb does most of his damage these days. Unlike Atlanta's Michael Vick, who can run but can't throw a lick, McNabb has developed into a superb passer. He's completing 61.1 percent of his passes, has seven touchdowns against one interception, and boasts a stellar passer rating of 105.3. And that's with only a better-than-average group of weapons that's led by L.J. Smith — the Packers have struggled to cover tight ends — and newcomer Donte Stallworth.

"He looks great," McCarthy said of McNabb. "You can see he has a great comfort level where his receivers are as he works through his progressions. He gets the ball out of his hand. I think he's probably the best quarterback in the league outside the pocket as far as throwing the ball down the field. He really looks good."

Protecting Favre

You'd think this wouldn't be such a big deal since the Eagles' top pass rusher, Jevon Kearse, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.

Still, the Eagles entered Week 4 with a league-leading 16 sacks. With a deep defensive line — unheralded Trent Cole is tied for the league lead in sacks with five, despite not having played his Week 4 game, and already has matched his total from his rookie season of 2005 — and the creative blitzing schemes of coordinator Jim Johnson, a young Packers offensive line will face its biggest test.

"Basically, communication and recognition is the big challenge this week," said center Scott Wells, who will make his 16th career start. "Being on the road again, being able to see those things and communicate those things with the crowd noise will be huge."

Expect the Packers to duplicate what they did last week at Detroit, where they used a tight end and running back or two tight ends to give Favre extra protectors, and use a barrage of rollouts to maneuver Favre out of harm's way. Favre wasn't even hit last week, much less get sacked. If they can repeat that feat, there are big plays to be had against a secondary that is yielding 252 passing yards per game.

Be patient

While the Eagles pose all sorts of problems with their defense, the unit has been exploited this season. Philadelphia ranks 28th by allowing quarterbacks to complete 65.5 percent of their passes, and the Eagles have picked off only one pass.

Also in the Packers' favor, cornerbacks Roderick Hood (heel) and Lito Sheppard (ankle) are doubtful. Neither has practiced this week. Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins (concussion) hasn't practiced this week either, though he's listed as questionable.

If the Packers can mount some sort of running game and Favre remains as patient as he was last week at Detroit — the availability of Ahman Green, especially as a checkdown receiver and blitz stopper, is vital — Green Bay's offense has a chance to sustain some long drives that not only put points on the board but keep a rowdy crowd sitting on their hands.

"Brett is playing a lot better," run-stuffing Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "Brett has always had a strong arm, and he's been getting rid of the ball quick. The offensive line is doing a better job protecting him. They do a good job of keeping the backs in, having them chip on those guys up front, and when you give a guy like Brett some time to get rid of the ball, he can really cause some problems."

It's good to be young

The bad news: The Eagles have owned the Packers in games played at the so-called City of Brotherly Love. The last three seasons have been especially bad, and the Packers haven't won in Philly since the Lombardi era.

Of course, there was the fourth-and-26 game in the 2003 playoffs.

In 2004, the Eagles hammered the Packers 47-17. For the first time in 36 games, Favre failed to throw a touchdown pass.

Last year, with McNabb injured and Mike McMahon starting, the Eagles still won 19-14. The Packers committed five turnovers.

The good news: This Packers team is so young that none of this really matters. The only thing that matters is how the Packers play.

"If we can go out there and execute, we'll be good," receiver Donald Driver said.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.


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