The Green Bay Packers know exactly how the Philadelphia Eagles are feeling these days. Last year, a season that started with Super Bowl aspirations for them never got itself off the ground. Aaron Rodgers struggled to get reliable receiving help; criticism mounted about his ability to remain a dominant quarterback in this league. The Packers fumbled away close games, suffering five of their nine losses by seven points or fewer, and they became so disjointed that their head coach was fired by the end of the season.
The Eagles aren’t quite there — yet. But when the biggest news story in Philadelphia involves a raving mad fan caught on camera (who also happens to be the University of Penn’s Dean of Admissions) it’s a sign that this 1-2 start is even getting Ivy Leaguers antsy. Injuries have limited Carson Wentz’s receiving options; replacements dropped seven balls in Sunday’s loss against Detroit. The team has now lost two straight one-score games, while their main division rivals the Cowboys have opened up a two-game division lead.
A 1-3 start would be disastrous for the Eagles' playoff hopes in a conference where five teams sit without a loss. But it’s not exactly easy to win at Lambeau Field, is it? Especially when Rodgers, by all accounts, isn’t even the top weapon as he adjusts to new head coach Matt Lafleur’s offensive scheme. Instead, it’s the defense that has carried the Packers as they’ve reemerged as a force in the NFC North.
Sloppy play has driven the Eagles to the brink and given the Packers a chance at a 4-0 start. Can Green Bay kick an opponent while it's down and take full advantage?
Philadelphia at Green Bay
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 26 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Packers -4.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Packers’ first-half success vs. Eagles’ second-half surge
he Packers have come out of the gate charging at full speed. They’ve held the halftime lead in each of their first three games, scoring 45 of their 58 points in the first half. Only the Vikings, a team the Packers have already beaten, have more first-half points in the NFC. That cushion has taken the pressure off an offense that struggles as the game progresses.
The Eagles, meanwhile, have trailed at halftime in each of their first three games. The 10 points they scored against Detroit in the first quarter last week were their most since Oct. 11, 2018, versus a struggling New York Giants team.
But once head coach Doug Pederson has time to make adjustments, this team tends to wake up. Of their 76 points, 53 have been scored in the second half, tied for third in the NFL behind only San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams. The Eagles, despite their injuries, are too talented to hold back offensively for all four quarters.
But if you dig a big enough hole? It’s impossible to catch back up.
2. Sloppy Philly offense vs. Packers' dominant defense
The Packers defensive unit has been nothing short of outstanding three games into the season. Their 11.7 points allowed per game leads the NFC; only New England has done better. The team ranks in the top three in the NFL in multiple defensive categories: forced fumbles (5), fumble recoveries (4), interceptions (4) and sacks (12).
All those disruptions add up to a league-leading eight takeaways and +6 turnover margin. Keep in mind: Last year this defense had 15 takeaways all season long. Free-agent signees like Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos have made the difference in tipping the balance of power on this team.
“Regardless of the circumstances, we always go out there with the mindset that we’ve got to make plays,” Preston Smith told Forbes. “We’ve got to make plays to put our offense in good position. And we’ve got to put them in position to score, so we knew every time we touched the field, we’re like, ‘Someone’s got to make a play,’ no matter who does it.”
Smith has certainly earned his four-year, $52 million deal thus far since coming over from the Washington Redskins. His 4.5 sacks rank third in the league, paired with an interception, forced fumble and two passes defended. Za’Darius Smith has three sacks of his own, while fourth-year linebacker Blake Martinez ranks fifth in the league with 32 tackles.
Of course, one could say that a quarterback roster of Mitchell Trubisky, Kirk Cousins and an aging Joe Flacco isn’t exactly top-tier competition. Wentz, with his ability to extend offensive plays with his legs, offers up a different challenge.
At the same time, the Eagles offense is suffering through a lack of weapons. Zach Ertz was effectively double teamed by Detroit and held to four catches for 64 yards. Nelson Agholor, fresh off his late-game drop against Atlanta, collected more drops, as he’s struggling with the weight of the No. 1 receiving role he has by default with both Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson hurt. Even the running backs offer little help; Miles Sanders put the ball on the ground twice last week.
So who’s Wentz going to throw to? Himself? Add in six sacks and 14 QB hits through the first three games, and it’s clear the Packers have an opportunity to make his life miserable.
3. Will the old Aaron Rodgers make a comeback?
The rub in Green Bay is how impressive this 3-0 start has been with Rodgers playing like an average quarterback. The team was just 2-of-9 on third downs against the Denver defense; on the season, their conversion rate ranks 29th in the NFL (25 percent). To be averaging under 200 yards a game through the air is unheard of when your signal-caller is an automatic first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Blame it on Lafleur, blame it on the offense, blame it on age (Rodgers turns 36 in December). But the reality is that a healthy Rodgers sits 23rd in the NFL (23rd!) with only 647 passing yards. His QB rating is a pedestrian 13th (96.5) with the longest pass play going for 47 yards. And just five rushes for seven yards? That’s not what you expect from a game-changing quarterback.
Rodgers, for his part, has taken ownership of his performance. But he also feels like the potential is there for the offense to develop.
“Our punter’s kicking the hell out of the ball right now,” he said of JK Scott, tied for second in the NFL with nine punts inside the 20-yard line. “He’s been punting the ball great. And so we’re winning with great special teams, great defense and we’re taking care of the football on offense and being opportunistic. I think it is sustainable. It’d be nice to get all three of those great, but I feel very confident in the potential of the offense.”
History says Rodgers will eventually get going. And if he does Thursday night? That’s far too much for the Eagles to overcome.
The Eagles will be desperate, aware of what a 1-3 start does to their playoff chances. Problem is, you can only do so much when you’re facing a superior opponent. If Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson do not play, the rest of the offense is too unreliable to hold up against a Packers defense firing on all cylinders.
Prediction: Packers 31, Eagles 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.