Although the folks in New England will have something to say about the matter, it’s possible that Sunday night’s meeting between Green Bay and Denver could be a Super Bowl preview. The unbeatens have displayed plenty of punch during their half-dozen victories and will measure themselves for deep postseason success when they meet.
The game is packed with fascinating subplots and features some of the game’s biggest stars. It’s a perfect prime-time showcase game and shouldn’t create too much trouble for the team that loses, so long as the defeat isn’t drastic. The Broncos have been particularly impressive defensively this season, while Green Bay’s offensive attack is again extremely potent, thanks to the magical arm of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Green Bay at Denver
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Green Bay -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Defensive Posture
Both teams have been extremely tough on the defensive side of the ball and rank first (Green Bay) and second in the league in total points allowed. A big reason has been their success rushing the passer. The Broncos have amassed 26 sacks, while the Packers have trapped opposing QBs 23 times. Denver also has returned three interceptions for touchdowns. “I think [Denver defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips] does such an incredible job as far as getting his system in and how fast his players have always played at all of his stops that I've had the opportunity to compete against him,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Clearly in Denver, it's a very talented defense, they have excellent depth and their numbers speak for themselves. We're very impressed with what we've seen on film.”
2. Woe is Peyton
No athlete remains elite forever, so it is hardly surprising that 39-year-old Peyton Manning is finally struggling. He is completing a solid 61.6 percent of his passes and has amassed 1,524 yards through the air, but he has only tossed seven TDs and has been intercepted eight times. Part of it is clearly his relative unfamiliarity with Gary Kubiak’s offense, but part of it is definitely age. Still, it is ridiculous for people to heap criticism on Manning. He remains the quarterback of a 6-0 team and is hardly ready for the waiver wire.
3. Very Special
It’s not often the kickers are considered among the main factors in a game, but when the outcome is expected to be tight, it makes a big difference who is trying the big placements. Both teams are extremely strong at kicker. Green Bay’s Mason Crosby has made 10-of-11 field goals this year and is reliable to 50 yards, while the Broncos’ Brandon McManus has been excellent so far, drilling 16-of-17 tries, including 4-of-5 from 50 and beyond. In the thin air, both should be at their best, and one could well decide the game.
This is a great midseason matchup and should give both teams strong indications of where they stand in the NFL hierarchy. Green Bay will rely on Rodgers (68.1 percent, 1,491 yards, 15 TDs, 2 INTs) to produce big numbers, especially if top runner James Starks (286 yards) is unable to go because of an injured hip. The Packers must pressure Manning so that he doesn’t get comfortable.
Speaking of a big pass rush, it’s important for Denver ends DeMarcus Ware (4.5 sacks) and Von Miller to make Rodgers’ night difficult. Meanwhile, Ronnie Hillman (323 yards) must provide a strong rushing complement to Manning’s passing. Turnovers will be big, since Manning has struggled with interceptions, and Denver has returned three picks to the house already this year.
Prediction: Packers 23, Broncos 20
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.