Packers vs. Patriots preview: Predictions, 5 things to watch
TEAMS: Green Bay Packers (3-3-1) at New England Patriots (6-2).
WHEN: 7:20 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Gillette Stadium.
TV: NBC with Al Michaels (play-by-play), Cris Collinsworth (analyst), Michele Tafoya (sideline).
RADIO: AM-620 in Milwaukee, FM-101.1 in Green Bay; Packers Radio Network.
SERIES: Packers lead, 6-5.
LINE: Patriots by 5½.
WEATHER: Partly cloudy, low of 35 degrees.
COACHES: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy (134-81-2) vs. New England's Bill Belichick (284-131-0)
LIVE GAME BLOG: Join Tom Silverstein for analysis and lively discussion
5 THINGS TO WATCH
VET VISIT: Unlike the Packers, the Patriots are not counting on a lot of rookies to come through for them this year. Of their nine draft picks, six are on injured reserve — including first-round guard Isiah Wynn — and only one is a starter: running back Sony Michel. Only one undrafted free agent made the team. The past couple of drafts haven’t been very productive for coach Bill Belichick — only seven players from the last three drafts are on the 53 — yet New England remains competitive, mostly on the strength of the many free agents they sign. In Week 1, the Patriots had the second-oldest roster in the NFL and currently have 12 players age 30 or older on the 53. The Packers, on the other hand, have 14 rookies and just seven players 30 or older on their roster. However, their only rookie starters are cornerback Jaire Alexander, punter JK Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley.
THE WHITE ALBUM: An argument can be made that former Wisconsin running back James White is the Patriots’ most valuable player through the first half of the season. White is on pace to break the NFL record for running back receptions (Matt Forte, 102). He has 55 receptions for 459 yards and six touchdowns to go with 48 carries for 204 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Even if rookie running back Michel (knee) is able to play, White will be on the field a lot and the Packers are going to have to figure out how to cover him. It might take a cornerback to slow him down in the pass game. “Guys like him can kind of fall through the cracks and the next thing you know they’re wide open and you’ve got a 1-on-1 with him in space,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “And there aren’t a lot of guys who are going to win that matchup. He’s been special for them.”
THE PATRIOT WAY: Packers defensive players got a lot of intel on the Patriots from Pettine and defensive running game coordinator Patrick Graham. Pettine faced the Patriots twice a year while with the Jets and Buffalo from 2009-13 and called some good games against them. Graham was an assistant coach for the Patriots from ’09-15 and has intimate knowledge of their offense and defense. All week, they’ve been focused more on explaining what the Patriots are trying to do to them than detailing plays. “I think it’s more a philosophy,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You look at what we did well and haven’t done well in the past and obviously they’re going to try to take advantage of that. You just need to make sure you’re ready because I feel like they do a really good job in game of taking advantage of certain situations, certain personnel.”
LOOSELY HELD SECRET: One thing that has made quarterback Tom Brady so successful over time is a simple philosophy: Get the ball out of your hand and trust the guy on the other end will do something with the ball. He isn’t afraid to throw check-downs or short passes. He called it a simple philosophy. “It’s throwing the ball where they’re not,” said Brady, who is completing 67.5 percent of his passes but has seven interceptions. “What I believe as a quarterback is it’s all risk-reward. The bigger risk you take, the more chance you have for things to go wrong. Look, if they (defenses) are deep, you have to throw it short. If they’re playing you tight, you’ve got to throw it deep. If they’re guarding you outside, you’ve got to throw it inside. If they’re guarding you inside, you’ve got to throw it outside. I think people that don’t understand that, that’s when you start putting balls into areas where they shouldn’t be. When you do that, bad things happen.”
STARTING GATE: Rookie receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling might as well be considered a starter given how many snaps he has been playing and how many big catches he has had. With Geronimo Allison doubtful, Valdes-Scantling will be the starter if the Packers begin with three receivers. He has only 14 catches, but he’s averaging 18.4 yards per catch and has four catches of 30 or more yards. It’s likely the Patriots will try to take Davante Adams out of the game and so Valdes-Scantling may get some one-on-one opportunities. “I still think there’s a lot left on the chart for him to grow and develop, but he’s made some big plays,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “He’s catching the ball better even recently. He’s catching the ball more naturally in stride and moving better. He did some good things today, too. I like the trajectory he’s on. He’s going to be a big part of what we do.”
The Packers are healthy and coming off a good performance against the Rams. The Patriots have injuries to several key players (Rob Gronkowski, Sony Michel, Shaq Mason) and are coming off a lackluster performance against Buffalo. This stands as Mike McCarthy’s best chance at showing his team they are a contender. He needs to come up with a game plan as good as the one in 2014. Packers 26, Patriots 23
Things are aligning for a Packers upset. The Patriots are playing on a short week and have a long list of “questionable” players on their injury report. The Packers’ coordinators (Mike Pettine and Joe Philbin) have extensive experience coaching against Bill Belichick teams from their time in the AFC East. The Packers are coming off a good though losing performance in Los Angeles, and they’re healthy. The guess here is the Packers prevail in the big Aaron Rodgers-Tom Brady matchup. Packers 31, Patriots 27
The Patriots had been clicking on all cylinders before stumbling a bit Monday night, scoring at least 38 points in four straight games before Buffalo held them to 25. This should be a close game, especially after the Packers found some confidence last week in Los Angeles. Their problem: Running back James White is a terrible coverage matchup in the middle of the field. Expect White to have another big game as a receiver, and Tom Brady to find a way to make one more play than Aaron Rodgers inside his home stadium. Patriots 31, Packers 30
A week ago, I wondered if the defense would come out of the bye and have its first-half issues resolved. The unit answered that question resoundingly by nearly shutting out the Rams in the first half. I believe that will carry over, and Aaron Rodgers will play his best game of 2018. Packers 28, Patriots 27
This certainly has the makings of an upset victory for the Packers, what with their strong showing against the Rams, the Patriots' injury question marks and New England entering the game off a short week. But the Packers have seemed snakebit, particularly in losses to the Rams and Lions and the tie against the Vikings, and the suspicion here is they will come up just short again. Patriots 26, Packers 21