The Patriots made a couple of changes this week, starting with the acquisition of veteran DL Louis Leonard and placing CB Jonathan Wilhite on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
Wilhite's loss isn't a deal-breaker. He played in the team's first nine games this season with a pair of passes defensed, but was primarily used as a nickel back. The Patriots will more than likely find a way to supplement his loss with their current stock of backup defensive backs.
Leonard is in his fourth season after spending time with St. Louis, Cleveland and Carolina. He was a full-time player for the Browns in 2008, making four starts over a 16-game span. Cleveland traded him to Carolina the following year and he wound up on injured reserve in Week 1 with an ankle injury.
Health has always been Leonard's issue, so it'll be interesting to see if he can hold up in whatever role the Patriots have planned for him. Depending on what happens with reserve lineman Mike Wright, Leonard could be a jack-of-all-trades in the trenches.
GAME PLAN: The Packers might be without star quarterback Aaron Rodgers this weekend, which would be a benefit to the Patriots and their surging defense.
They've held their last two opponents to a combined 10 points, including a near shutout against the Jets two weeks ago. This is the best the defense has played all season, even without a superlative pass rush last weekend in Chicago.
The Patriots are forcing plenty of turnovers without turning the ball over themselves, so the key Sunday on what should be a frigid afternoon will be to maintain the balance they've had in recent weeks and continue to be opportunistic defensively.
The Packers are a strong team defensively, as evident by their shutout against the Jets this year, but the Patriots are in a zone in terms of run-blocking and pass protection up front. They should continue to do what they do best, which is establish the run to help set up Tom Brady's play-action game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots CB Devin McCourty vs. Packers WR Donald Driver. We'll see if McCourty can continue his recent stretch of solid play. Over the past few weeks, McCourty has developed into one of the league's most dangerous ball-hawks on defense and Sunday's matchup against Driver represents another tough challenge. McCourty is drawing the best of the best each week, but continues to pass each test with flying colors.
Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Patriots TE Alge Crumpler. Matthews is one of the players many draft experts expected New England to select, but that pick was traded to Green Bay, which used to get the aforementioned linebacker from USC. Matthews is dangerous on blitzes, so expect Crumpler to spend plenty of time helping out on the offensive line as an extra blocker. This is his role from now on, and he's done it well so far.
Patriots C Dan Koppen vs. Packers ILB A.J. Hawk. This is somewhat of an unconventional matchup, but the job of any great center is to limit the pressure up the middle from the opposing defense. Koppen will have help, but there may be times when his ability to chip away at Hawk will keep the Packers' star linebacker from blowing up a potentially big play up the middle. The Patriots have opened plenty of holes for their 15th-ranked running game and they'll need to do more of the same this weekend against a fundamentally-sound Packer defense.
INJURY IMPACT: The Patriots don't have too much to be worried about, but concussions suffered by Ron Brace and Mike Wright might leave them a bit thin up front, which explains the recent signing of Louis Leonard. The loss of Jonathan Wilhite hasn't hurt them yet, so it's hard to imagine them not being as creative in the secondary without a cornerback who has been somewhat dispensable the past two years.
Rookie linebacker Frank Zombo, who recently began mimicking Zorro after producing a sack, will have to put the imaginary mask and sword away for at least one game.
Coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday that he is ruling an injured Zombo out for the Sunday night game at New England, although McCarthy then slightly backpedaled on that declaration.
Zombo suffered a knee sprain in the 7-3 loss at Detroit last Sunday.
"I know he wants to try to make it this week, but I don't see that happening," McCarthy said. "He overcame the big ankle injury in training camp, but this is pretty significant. He's giving it a shot, so maybe he'll surprise me. But, I think he's a long shot to be available."
Consequently, the Packers are preparing Erik Walden for his first pro start. Walden would be Green Bay's third starter at right outside linebacker this season.
Opening-day starter Brad Jones lasted only six games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Zombo, who made the team out of training camp as an undrafted signee, has started eight games.
Walden, whom the Packers signed as a free agent Oct. 27, hadn't played much on defense until he took over for Zombo in the second half Sunday. The third-year player previously was with the Dolphins and before that the Chiefs, appearing in a combined 28 games since 2008.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Walden's learning curve in his short time with the Packers has been expedited by replacing left-side starter Clay Matthews with the starting group in practice the last several weeks. Matthews is on a modified schedule because of a lingering shin injury.
"He's taken all of Clay's reps," Capers said. "When a guy does that, he gets better. If you come watch us practice, it (had been) Walden and Zombo out there."
GAME PLAN: The midweek update in Green Bay was far from encouraging that Aaron Rodgers would be ready to play Sunday night, a week after he suffered his second concussion of the season. Unless Rodgers makes a dramatic recovery, the Packers' odds of bouncing back from a deflating loss to the Lions and trying to spring a road upset against the league's best team aren't good.
Matt Flynn is in line to make his first pro start, and his erratic performance in an extended relief role against the Lions doesn't bode well for the Packers to put up enough points to hang with the Patriots, who have scored at least 31 in each of their five straight wins. Green Bay's best hope is to have Flynn, who has limitations as a thrower, play mistake-free in orchestrating a short passing attack to chew up the clock and limit New England's possessions. Not having an effective running dimension makes that a daunting proposition, however.
On the flip side, the onus is on Green Bay's defense, which is yielding a league-low 14.5 points per game, to put pressure on Tom Brady, get him flinching in the pocket and force him into a rare miscue. Otherwise, if given ample time, Brady will pick apart the Packers' zone coverage with the likes of Wes Welker, Deion Branch, tight end Rob Gronkowski and scat back Danny Woodhead. Green Bay, which hasn't been stout against the run this season, also will have to deal with explosive BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Packers LOLB Clay Matthews vs. Patriots RT Sebastian Vollmer. If Green Bay's top-rated scoring defense is going to have any chance of slowing down the Patriots' No. 1-ranked scoring attack, it will need Matthews to snap out of the lull he's been experiencing in the second half of the season and put Tom Brady on his back a time or two. Matthews has only four sacks in the last seven games, quieting the hype he was getting as NFL Defensive Player of the Year material after his hot start of 8 1/2 sacks in his first five games. Vollmer, likewise a second-year player, is in his first full season as a starter. He is a load at 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds and possesses the athleticism to counter Matthews' speed rushes in one-on-one encounters.
Packers WR Greg Jennings vs. Patriots CB Devin McCourty. The potential loss of concussed QB Aaron Rodgers for this game will take away some of the impact Jennings can make, especially down the field, since Matt Flynn doesn't have as strong an arm as Rodgers does. Still, if indeed Flynn gets the starting call, he can lean on the league's top pass-catcher the last two months with the quick slants and intermediate seam throws that may be there since McCourty and New England's other cornerbacks tend to play off coverage at the line of scrimmage. McCourty, though, has flourished in his rookie season with six interceptions, four in the last four games. The 5-foot-10, 193-pound cornerback matches well with the 5-11, 198-pound receiver if Bill Belichick elects to go that way exclusively. That is contingent on the health of McCourty, who suffered a rib injury in New England's last game and isn't a given to play Sunday.