Monday night’s matchup between Green Bay and Philadelphia serves as a virtual playoff elimination game for the Packers. A loss leaves them three games out of the NFC North lead with five to play and 2.5 games behind the Redskins for the second wild card. Green Bay’s streak of seven consecutive postseason appearances is in jeopardy.
Who would have believed that heading into the season for a team once considered a Super Bowl favorite? Head coach Mike McCarthy is under fire for his coaching style; the team itself has taken criticism for lack of effort despite impassioned statements by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But what really matters is that the Packers find themselves trailing a team (Lions) that hasn’t won a division title since 1993.
The Eagles head into this game with a better record and arguably higher upside behind the development of a young offense and quarterback Carson Wentz. Sitting at 5-5 puts them last the competitive NFC East but still in the playoff hunt. Philadelphia also has been a different team at Lincoln Financial Field, just one of two undefeated at home this season (Seattle).
Series History: Packers lead 26-16-0
Green Bay at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Monday, Nov. 28 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Eagles -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Packers step up against the Eagles run game?
Ryan Mathews, recovering from a sprained MCL will miss Monday night’s contest just two weeks after posting the Eagles’ only 100-yard rushing effort of the season. Darren Sproles and rookie Wendell Smallwood will share the backfield work in Mathews’ absence.
Sproles, an explosive playmaker in the passing game and on special teams, is not suited to serve as an every-down back. The 33-year-old veteran has more gotten more than five carries in just three of the Eagles’ 10 games. Sproles is most effective when he’s used as the change-of-pace option or in space as a receiver.
That leaves Smallwood, Philadelphia’s fifth-round pick this year, with the opportunity to prove his mettle against the NFL’s sixth-ranked rushing defense (91.1 ypg). Green Bay’s defense has shown a few more cracks against the run lately, and it can ill afford to let an unproven ball carrier like Smallwood come up with big gains on the ground. Smallwood’s best showing this is 79 rushing yards. If he tops that, chances are the Eagles will be in good shape. And any production out of the ground game will make Carson Wentz that much more dangerous.
2. Rodgers vs. Wentz
After struggling, by his own lofty standards, earlier in the season, Aaron Rodgers has turned things around and he’s certainly not the reason the Packers have lost four in a row and five out of six. Take last week for example. He finished with a season-best 351 passing yards, three touchdowns and a 115.0 passer rating on the road against Washington. But Green Bay still lost 42-24 because it gave up 515 total yards (375 passing to Kirk Cousins) to the Redskins. Rodgers’ margin for error is slim because it seems like the Packers are struggling in every other area – running the ball, defense, special teams. Besides Rodgers, one other bright spot for Green Bay has been the resurgence of Jordy Nelson, who has caught a touchdown in four straight games.
The question for Wentz, then is not whether he can reach Rodgers’ elite status in his first season but if he can stay in the ballpark. The past three games have seen him make some typical rookie mistakes: four interceptions, two fumbles (one lost) and just two touchdown passes. The Eagles, as you might expect went 1-2 during that stretch.
Wentz got off to a strong start before encountering the obstacles that most rookies must deal with in their first season. Wentz certainly doesn’t have the same supporting cast at his disposal that Rodgers does, and that’s even if Mathews were healthy. But Wentz still has to find a way to make plays against a defense that hasn’t stopped anyone in a month. The No. 2 overall pick is still looking for his first three-touchdown performance and has yet to show that he can win a close game. Four of Philadelphia’s five losses have been by a touchdown or less. Wentz has plenty going in his favor tonight – matchup, at home, national spotlight – now it’s up to him to take advantage and show why the future is bright for the Eagles.
3. Which team will win the turnover battle and excel in special teams?
One reason the Packers’ defense has struggled is where it has to start defending. Opponents start drives from their own 29, the worst field position allowed in the league and it constantly puts Green’s Bay defense, well… on defense. That’s a bad stat to have against an Eagles special teams unit that leads the league in kickoff returns (33.7 ypr) and has taken two all the way back for touchdowns.
Those intangibles have really hurt the Packers. Their minus-6 turnover margin is tied for 26th in the NFL and they have as many giveaways (16) as the Eagles have takeaways. Holding onto the ball and keeping the game manageable is crucial for a team that’s spent a month making far too many mistakes.
I once thought it impossible a team with Aaron Rodgers on its roster could miss the playoffs. But it’s important to realize, he’s only one person. Look at the Colts, suffering despite the success of Andrew Luck and the way Drew Brees can’t lift up the Saints. Both suffer from minimal defensive support and it’s the Packers’ “D” that will fall short once again. Carson Wentz has been looking for a moment to step up and the Monday night spotlight will provide it.
Prediction: Philadelphia 31, Green Bay 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Carson Wentz photo courtesy of Getty Images)