Packers vs. Patriots: Keys to the game

To win Sunday's game, the Packers must put pressure on Tom Brady while avoiding the types of breakdowns in pass coverage that Brady can exploit for big plays.

A month ago, the New England Patriots were being hailed as championship contenders again. A month ago, the Packers were 1-4 and being called perhaps the worst team in the NFL.

What a difference a few weeks makes. While the Patriots are solid favorites to win Sunday's matchup at Lambeau Field, New England is in the midst of its first two-game losing streak in more than three years. The Packers have won three of four — it could have been four straight — and are on the cusp of entering the playoff race.

"It's very important with where we're at in the season," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Everybody wants to talk about playoffs — I want to talk about getting to 5-5. If you get to 5-5, then you can start thinking about the next one, and the one after that. It's very important for our football team to get to 5-5."

Will the Patriots rebound? Will the Packers continue playing well? Here are five keys to Sunday's game.

Start fast

The Packers can't fall behind by more than a touchdown, or else the Patriots will find the comfort zone they've been out of the past couple weeks.

Just as importantly, playing with the lead will give the Patriots ample opportunity to use their potent running game. New England's running game ranks seventh in the NFL, but the Pats got away from it a bit two weeks ago in a loss to Indianapolis and neglected it while being edged by the New York Jets in a driving rainstorm last week.

"They run the ball very well when they've tried to," McCarthy said.

Stopping the Patriots' passing attack will be challenging enough without the Packers' defenders having to keep two eyes in the backfield to watch the productive one-two punch of Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney.

"It's a huge test for this team and this defense, and we can't wait to get out there and see what we can do," linebacker A.J. Hawk said.

Brady vs. the Packers' secondary

Tom Brady is perhaps the NFL's best quarterback not named Peyton Manning. The breakdowns in the Packers' secondary — or "miscommunications," as they like to call them — have been well-documented.

If pedestrian quarterbacks such as Brad Johnson and J.P. Losman can exploit those blown coverages for touchdowns, what do you think a three-time Super Bowl winner like Brady will do?

The Packers have a big enough challenge on their hands. Giving away cheap touchdowns will make that challenge even steeper.

On the other hand, if the Packers can clean up their act, they've got a good chance at controlling the Brady-led passing attack. The Patriots are one of just a handful of teams with fewer receiving weapons at their disposal than do the Packers. Tight end Benjamin Watson leads the team in catches, and the starting receiver tandem of Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel is more fast than good. Green Bay cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson can definitely handle them.

The Packers' blitzes vs. Brady

Teams have been blitzing Brady more than ever, and with fewer targets to throw to, the tactic has been working. For the first time in his career, Brady is completing less than 60 percent of his passes, and he's on pace for a career-high 16 interceptions.

Given the success the Packers had last week attacking with their linebackers, expect them to go after Brady. Last week, all three linebackers were involved in sacks. If the Patriots concern themselves too much with the budding trio of Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga and Hawk, that could free up defensive end Aaron Kampman, who leads the NFL with 10 sacks, or the inside duo of tackles of Corey Williams and Cullen Jenkins. Even Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who has been almost invisible this season, could break loose.

"I think we're just starting to get more comfortable with attacking, sending guys and knowing where we need to fit on those blitzes and plays," Barnett said. "There were a couple times where I went and it wasn't even a blitz. It's just feeling comfortable and playing football."

Blitzing, of course, is a gamble against a quarterback like Brady. If the blitzes don't succeed, Brady has the talent to make the Packers pay dearly.

Belichick vs. Favre

Belichick is considered the best coach in the NFL because he's a defensive genius. He's the reason why the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, when his schemes shut down the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf." Only Belichick has had any success frustrating Manning, and if anyone can find a way to keep the ball away from Donald Driver, it will be Belichick.

Expect Belichick to try to exploit the absence of right tackle Mark Tauscher by blitzing at his replacement, rookie Tony Moll, and rookie starting right guard Jason Spitz.

Packers quarterback Brett Favre is playing it safe more than ever this season, but he also has a history of throwing the ball up for grabs when facing a fierce pass rush.

Which approach will work? Belichick's blitzing and unique packages, or Favre's veteran skills, footwork and new-found approach?

"When you play New England, you've got to kind of expect the unexpected," Favre said. "But knowing that they will play their defense and give you some oddball looks and things like that, especially on third downs, and we have to be ready for that — but also keep it as simple as possible for our young guys."

Young kickers and special teams

Dave Rayner replaced a local legend in Ryan Longwell. Stephen Gostkowski replaced an all-time legend in Adam Vinatieri.

Both kickers have been impressive. Gostkowski is 10 of 14 on field goals, but he's had only two opportunities from beyond even 39 yards. Rayner has been superb, going 15 of 18. However, neither of these young kickers — Gostkowski is a rookie and Rayner might as well be one — has had to make a field goal with the game on the line. Will this be the week, and how will they react?

Beyond the kickers, the Packers face a huge challenge for New England's return game.

Rookie punter Jon Ryan has shown a strong leg but his hangtime has been a problem and he ranks near the bottom in the league in net punting. Patriots punt returner Kevin Faulk averages a stellar 13.1 yards per return, good for second in the league.

The Packers allowed the Vikings to return a kickoff for a touchdown last week, though it was taken off the scoreboard by a questionable penalty. Maroney averages 29.7 yards per runback, also good for second in the league, without a long touchdown to skew the numbers.

As is the case with the Packers' breakdowns in pass coverage, Green Bay's special teams can't afford to give up a cheap touchdown or perpetually put the team in a field-position disadvantage.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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