Green Bay Packers (8-5) at New England Patriots (11-2)
PREDICTION: Patriots 34-14
Keys to the game: The Patriots have racked up 126 points over the past three weeks, including 45 against the Jets and 36 against the Bears -- both top 10 defenses. And the Packers will have to keep pace with QB Matt Flynn because Aaron Rodgers (concussion) wasn't cleared to play. The prudent move would be to shorten the game with a strong ground attack, but that's hardly Green Bay's calling card. The Packers need quick, high-percentage passes to move the chains and to capitalize on drives with touchdowns. Defensively, the Packers have 37 sacks and have to terrorize QB Tom Brady. But he's among the league's best in pre-snap adjustments, and will find mismatches because Green Bay is short on experienced cover men.
Fast facts: Rodgers had started 45 consecutive games. ... Brady has won an NFL-record 26 regular-season starts at home and is 31-5 (.861) in his career in December.
Inside the numbers: Packers – 11th on offense (24th rushing, eighth passing) and ninth on defense (19th rushing, third passing). Patriots – eighth on offense (15th rushing, ninth passing) and 27th on defense (14th rushing, 31st passing). Turnovers: Patriots are first (plus-18) while the Packers are seventh (plus-7). Third down: Green Bay's offense ranks sixth (41.7 percent) while New England's defense ranks a dead-last 32nd (48.2 percent).
Inside the Packers
Aaron Rodgers needs help off the Ford Field turf after his second-quarter scramble.
Leon Halip/Getty Images
The Packers ruled Rodgers out on Saturday, with the quarterback having not regained the same mental and physical levels as he had during pre-concussion testing conducted before training camp.
That means Matt Flynn, a third-year pro out of LSU, will make his first NFL start. Late Saturday morning, the Packers announced the former Texas Tech star Graham Harrell had been promoted from the practice squad and safety Anthony Smith (ankle) was placed on injured reserve. Harrell has never been active for an NFL game, much less thrown a regular-season pass.
Rodgers never was cleared to practice and never got as far as being tested by an independent neurologist, though coach Mike McCarthy held the door open for Rodgers while giving his Pro Bowl quarterback one more day to recover. Rodgers appeared in good spirits in the locker room on Friday, while he did not take questions from reporters, he engaged in some playful banter about celebrity gossip and a reporter's sweater.
Rodgers had started all 45 games since replacing Brett Favre for the kickoff of the 2008 season. Throw in Favre's legendary consecutive-games streak, the Packers are going with a backup quarterback for the first time since Favre replaced Don Majkowski in 1992.
Inside the Patriots
Some of the numbers are ghastly, such as the yardage they've allowed or the number of points per game they've given up this year. Then there's the number the entire defense hangs its hat on -- turnover differential.
The New England Patriots lead the league in this category at plus-18, which means they've forced far more turnovers than they've allowed this season. That's been the key to surviving despite allowing a significant number of yards on a weekly basis.
The Patriots force turnovers at key points in the game and they take exceptional care of the ball on the offensive end, often making their opponent pay the price for being so careless. They surged ahead of Philadelphia in the turnover margin category by forcing four turnovers in last week's 36-7 win over Chicago.
"That's something we're proud of," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "We preach it every day in practice. Guys make plays all the time in practice, and I'm telling you, it sounds like I'm saying it a lot, but practice ... you can't get enough practice.
"The more you do in practice, the more plays you make in practice, the more consistent you are in practice, then you have a good chance of being that consistent on game day and it's been working for us."
Most of the Patriots' turnovers have come on interceptions. They're second in the league with 20, just two shy of the Eagles. Conversely, they've only turned the ball over nine times while scoring 105 points off their opponents' turnovers.
The Patriots' offense also set a record during the team's recent five-game win streak by not committing a turnover in any of those games.
"Running to the ball has a lot to do with it and also just having awareness where the ball is at certain times," outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich said in regard to forcing turnovers. "There's always a high emphasis on it with every team because it's such a big factor in the game -- turnovers are a big deal."
The midweek update in Green Bay was far from encouraging that Rodgers would be ready to play Sunday night, a week after he suffered his second concussion of the season. Coach Mike McCarthy left the door open on Friday, when Rodgers threw some passes on the side at practice and joked with reporters in the locker room. But on Saturday, news came that Rodgers was out and Flynn would make his first NFL start.
Without Rodgers, 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. 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. At least he has the benefit of a week's worth of practice reps and a game plan with his skill-set in mind.
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.
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