Packers vs. Bills: Keys to the game

The Packers will like their chances of winning if they can hold Willis McGahee in check and put the ball in J.P. Losman's hands.

After the Packers were thumped 26-0 in their season opener and started the season 0-2 by losing two home games, who would have believed — without being fitted for a straitjacket — that Green Bay would play at Buffalo on Sunday with a chance to reach .500?

The Packers (3-4), winners of two in a row, face the Bills (2-5), losers of three in a row but coming off their bye. Will the Packers' mini-roll continue, or will the adage prove true that only teams good enough to win three games in a row actually can win three games in a row?

Here are five keys to determine that answer.

Gang up on McGahee

With quarterback J.P. Losman struggling, the offensive line shuffled and the defense average, expect the Bills to make sure their best player, running back Willis McGahee, gets the ball early and often to move the chains and control the clock.

"We'd like to get him anywhere from 20 to 30 touches a game, run and pass. That's what the goal is," Buffalo coach Dick Jauron said.

When the Bills started the season 2-2, McGahee averaged 25 touches per game. In their three-game losing streak, he's averaged less than 20 touches per game.

The Packers' run defense has been strong, ranking ninth in the league in yards allowed per rush (3.7) and tying for first in fewest 20-plus-yard gains allowed (1). If the Packers continue that type of strong play, they'll put the ball in Losman's hands, and that's just where they want it.

Speaking of Losman ...

Losman, Buffalo's first-round pick in 2004 — a player the Packers were considering drafting at No. 25 as a possible heir to Brett Favre but got stuck with Ahmad Carroll, instead, when Losman went at No. 24 — will make his 16th career start on Sunday. Losman drew comparisons to Favre coming out of college, but enters the game with a 3-12 record. He's been benched twice during that stretch.

Buffalo is a lot like Green Bay in that football is the No. 1 passion. Thus, Losman is feeling the heat.

"I've been feeling that way since Week 1," he said. "It's a constant, proving yourself over the course of a career and a season: ‘Can he string four or five weeks in a row?'"

The Bills' offense entered the bye playing terribly. They've been outscored 88-30 during their skid. Their most productive game of the season was in Week 3, when the Bills scored 20 points in a 28-20 loss to the New York Jets.

Losman's play is a big reason why. He's the 22nd-ranked quarterback in the league, and has six touchdowns compared to six interceptions. That's about on par with his career totals (14 TDs, 15 INTs), though his completion percentage of 61.9 percent is far better than last season's figure (49.6 percent).

 Green Bay's pass defense had been lousy until last week's victory over the Cardinals, when the biggest gains allowed covered 22 and 17 yards. If that performance represented progress instead of a mirage, then the Packers will be in good shape.

"Eliminate the big play, and it's hard to score on us when you have to drive," said defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, who chose Green Bay over Buffalo in free agency this past offseason.

Not-so-fine line

After giving up 21 sacks in seven games, Buffalo shook up its offensive line during its bye week, moving right tackle Jason Peters to left tackle and moving rookie seventh-round pick Terrance Pennington into the right tackle slot.

Pennington's starting debut will be a tough one: against NFL sacks leader and reigning NFC defensive player of the week Aaron Kampman.

Peters, a collegiate tight end who was an undrafted free agent in 2004, will match up against the Packers' best pure rusher, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

"He's a very unique big man," Jauron said. "I just picture this guy getting better every game, every practice, because he keeps working at it. If you were building a left tackle, maybe any offensive lineman, you might make it Jason in terms of his athletic ability, his size and his power. He's got all those things."

If he doesn't show those things on Sunday, and Pennington gets taken to school by Kampman, it will be a long day for Losman and a great day for the Packers' defense.

Off and running

The key to the Packers' offensive success has been the leaps-and-bounds improvement of the running game. That improvement has allowed Brett Favre to be coldly efficient, going three-plus games now without an interception.

Green Bay's running game was thrown a setback on Friday when McCarthy announced fullback Brandon Miree definitely will not play against the Bills. That means veteran William Henderson, who's barely played the last few weeks with Miree's emergence, will be back in the lineup. His play will be critical.

"The starting point of our offense is ultimately running the football," McCarthy said. "There are so many positive things that come off of running the football, and I think you're seeing that in our offensive production. When your run game improves, you pass protection usually improves, your first-down win percentage improves, so there are so many things that come off of that."

Do it again, Al

After a slow start to the season, veteran cornerback Al Harris has begun playing like he did last season. He'll get another stiff test on Sunday against Lee Evans.

Evans leads the team with 37 catches and 429 yards, and until being held to one catch in the Bills' last game, Oct. 22 against New England, Evans was coming off consecutive games of eight catches for 107 yards, seven catches for 92 yards, nine catches for 94 yards and eight catches for 82 yards.

Given Losman's comfort level with Evans — his stats are nearly double that of No. 2 receiver Josh Reed's 22 catches for 223 yards — Harris' play will be critical.

"They match up guys and they stick with you all game," Evans said of Harris and Charles Woodson. "Outside, it's definitely going to be a challenge for us, and even in the slot. We know that coming in and we just need to get to know them a little better on film and go out there and play."

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


Packer Report Top Stories