ESCAPE FROM REVIS ISLAND
Green Bay's plan to avoid throwing the ball in Richard Sherman's direction backfired in the season-opening loss to Seattle. Maybe that's the course you take when Brandon Weeden is your quarterback, but not when you have Aaron Rodgers. Expect the Packers to create an early baseline for trying to spread the ball around the Patriots' secondary.
New England has two legitimate shutdown cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, who each arrived this offseason with something to prove. The Seahawks allowed the 6-foot-4 Browner to walk this offseason after an in-season suspension and questions about the 30-year-old's durability, whereas Revis needed to show he could live up to his lofty billing after a forgotten year in Tampa Bay.
According to Pro Football Focus, Revis' 63.1 passer rating on passes thrown in his direction is the ninth-lowest in the league. The Patriots can either play inside or outside with Kyle Arrington, who likely draws the third receiver option. Revis is the more likely option to shadow Randall Cobb with Browner getting the chance to work Jordy Nelson.
The Packers' top two receivers were held in check in Sunday's 24-21 win over Minnesota with Mike Zimmer reinstituting a Cover-2 look instead of the single-high safety approach that gashed Philadelphia and Chicago. The Packers anticipate varied looks, especially after how well Browner and Revis contained Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, respectively, in New England's 34-9 win over Detroit last weekend.
"Watching some film, they've mixed it up over who matches up with who," Nelson said. "If you look at last week, Browner was on Calvin and Revis was on Tate, and then they can do different things with their safeties if they want to put them over the top. I'm preparing for both."
RODGERS VS. BRADY
The opportunities for Rodgers to size up against the NFL's truly elite quarterbacks are few and far between. His first start against Tom Brady couldn't come with more fanfare as the Patriots are riding a seven-game winning streak and the Packers are winners of seven of their past eight.
The Patriots and Packers rank first and second, respectively, in points per game and point differential. Rodgers was pitted in a shootout with New Orleans' Drew Brees before the bye week until he strained his hamstring late, limiting his mobility. He's looked fine in the Packers' last three wins with a league-high 119.2 passer rating indicative of his efficiency as of late. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots took the same approach the Saints did with Brees in leaning on his quick release to slowly dissect Green Bay's defense.
The Packers have played significantly better since moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker, but an early turnover or stop could be key to give Rodgers enough breathing room to operate. New England's offense lives off the play-action pass, so containing whoever the Patriots line up in the backfield will be critical. The same goes for Eddie Lacy, who rushed for a season-high 125 yards and two scores when the Vikings kept an extra safety back to fend off Rodgers' downfield threat.
THE BIG GRONKOWSKI
Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman are the top two receivers on the depth chart and both are legitimate targets for Brady, but the real key to New England's offensive success has been the return to form of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has started to hit his stride over the last month.
A year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, Gronkowski leads NFL tight ends in most major categories with 58 catches for 812 yards and nine touchdowns. Defenses have used linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties in an attempt to take him away, but the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder still is going to get his.
When it looked like the Lions might have an answer, all it did was open up opportunities for No. 2 tight end Tim Wright, who caught two touchdowns. The Packers probably will need to exercise all of their options, whether it's using nickel cornerback Micah Hyde or Matthews inside or any of their top three perimeter cornerbacks (Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Davon House) when he splits out.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers also has the wild card of Julius Peppers at his disposal. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound defensive end-turned-linebacker has the size to slow Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage. He has two interceptions returned for touchdowns this year, but only dropped into coverage 27 times on his 581 defensive snaps.
"You want to try to collision him and give him a hard time getting off the line of scrimmage," Capers said. "Julius obviously plays up there on the line of scrimmage, but different people try to defend him differently. He's a rare guy with his size and athletic ability, and he uses that to his advantage in running his routes."