The NFL's last undefeated team faces their latest challenge: Aaron Rodgers
Two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks face off Sunday when the Green Bay Packers take on the Los Angeles Rams. The first one needs no introduction; future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers has been near perfect, throwing just one interception, despite suffering a serious knee injury in the first game of the season against the Chicago Bears. That comeback victory on virtually one leg is what has his team over .500 and back in contention to win what’s been a tight NFC North race thus far.
But Rodgers will go face-to-face with the man likely to join him as a future NFL MVP. Jared Goff has continued to take steps forward this season, posting the fourth-best QB rating in the NFC while leading one of the sport’s most dynamic offenses. The Rams remain the lone undefeated team, sitting at 7-0 and starting a two-game stretch against the two teams most likely to catch them in the standings. Sweep the Packers and Saints these next two weeks and they hold tiebreakers on both along with the Vikings. The No. 1 seed in the conference would appear to be a mere formality.
Can Goff, Todd Gurley and company run right over what’s been a shaky Packers defense? Or does Rodgers have another legendary performance in store to put on his resume?
Green Bay at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Rams -9.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Packers' running game step up?
While Rodgers is a known commodity, Green Bay's offense has been stymied this season by their inability to run the football. It’s nothing new but an old storyline among Packers fans looking for a breakout rushing performance to keep Rodgers from having to dress up as Superman every week.
The Packers are averaging 103.7 yards per game, which is 20th in the NFL, but they haven’t had a 100-yard rushing performance since Jamaal Williams did so back on Dec. 3, 2017 against Tampa Bay. In fact, no one from the Packers has rushed for more than 65 yards in a single game while they’ve scored a total of two — count ‘em, two — touchdowns on the ground in six games. That’s tied for dead last while their longest run of 30 yards ranks a distant tied for 26th.
Rodgers himself has some legs but the knee injury has hampered his speed at times in 2018. That’s not going to play well against the Rams, whose run defense already ranks a respectable 12th in the league. The play of their defense alongside a Pro Bowl offense at virtually every position has separated the Rams from the Chiefs to make them the NFL’s best team.
To combat that, the Packers need a career night from their pair of young speedsters: Williams and Aaron Jones. Jones, a fifth-round pick has a promising 5.9 yards per carry average on the season but the Packers have been hesitant to commit to the run while developing a committee approach. That may need to change Sunday afternoon; just one bullet under center in Rodgers isn’t going to beat the Rams at home.
2. Watching those injuries at wide receiver
The Packers do have two of their main offensive weapons returning Sunday. All indications are Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison, both suffering from hamstring injuries, will suit up against the Rams. Cobb especially should be a starter in all fantasy football formats after missing the last three games. He was off to a slow start but his nine-catch, 142-yard performance in the season opener is proof he’s still one of Rodgers’ top target when healthy.
Allison will push rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling aside despite some quality deep catches in his absence. Scantling’s 60-yard reception against the 49ers helped tip the scales in what was a game far too close for comfort for the Packers at Lambeau Field.
On the flip side, the Rams will almost certainly be without Cooper Kupp for a second straight week. Kupp suffered a MCL sprain against the Broncos in an awkward fall; the team is lucky the injury wasn’t more serious. Josh Reynolds is expected to fill in but is hardly an intimidating deep threat.
Kupp wasn’t missed last week in a demolition of the San Francisco 49ers; however, the offense was never really needed to fire on all cylinders. Green Bay will produce a more serious challenge as their defense is ranked fifth against the pass, allowing just 211.8 yards per game.
3. Can the Goff/Gurley combo be stopped?
While the Chiefs' offense dazzles onlookers with speed and agility, the Rams' offense showcases more balance. Todd Gurley is the best running back in the NFL right now, leading the way with 686 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. No one else in the league has more than seven; he’s two weeks removed from a beast-like 208-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Broncos.
But you shouldn’t underestimate Goff's role in maximizing the offense's potential, creating opportunities for not just Gurley but a group of B-level receivers. Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks have had solid, dependable NFL careers yet neither one has been selected for a Pro Bowl with 10-plus seasons of career experience between them. Goff’s got one more interception this year compared to 2017 at this stage but has done a great job taking care of the football and limiting turnovers. Indeed, the Rams' six giveaways are tied for third fewest in the NFL.
Goff’s not a guy who gets out of the pocket much, rushing for 51 yards this season, compared to a hobbled 126 yards for Rodgers. Goff’s main contemporary, Carson Wentz of the Eagles, has racked up 61 yards on the ground in two fewer games.
But Goff can throw. His 9.8 yards per attempt ranks second in the league to the now-benched Ryan Fitzpatrick and he has no problem throwing deep. With receivers that don’t often get total separation he can put the ball in a place where it leads to a valuable catch-and-run. He’s well on pace to be considered for league MVP if the Rams keep marching toward the top seed.
Common games don’t always tell the story in the NFL. But the Rams and Packers did happen to play the reeling 1-6 San Francisco 49ers over the past two weeks. The Packers barely survived, needing every ounce of Aaron Rodgers magic to pull off a 33-30 victory at Lambeau Field on "Monday Night Football." It was a mix of defensive lapses and frustrating offensive stops and starts before their bye week.
Compare that to the Rams, whose 39-10 demolition of the 49ers started with defense. They had two forced fumbles and a safety in San Francisco’s first four possessions; by the middle of the second quarter, it was 22-0 and the game was all but out of reach.
That alone shows the difference in talent between these two teams. The Packers, with Rodgers, are never out of any game. The Rams?
They’re in control of every game. That’s the difference between good and great. On Sunday? Expect the Rams to be great.
Prediction: Rams 31, Packers 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.