The Packers enter the playoffs as the number six seed, but in a conference that features a 7-9 division champion, any team could come out of the NFC and head to Super Bowl XLV.
The first stop for the Packers on the road to Dallas is in Philadelphia for an encore match against the Eagles. In the first game of the regular season, the Packers beat the Eagles 27-20 after knocking then-starting quarterback for the Eagles Kevin Kolb out of the game and giving Michael Vick the opportunity to write one of the great comeback stories in NFL history.
Looking back at that game, the Packers had the Eagles well under control until Vick came into the game. He nearly led the Eagles back, but a couple well-timed sacks stopped the comeback just short and the Packers held on the victory.
With an entire week to game plan for Vick, will the Packers fare better against the elusive Eagles quarterback?
Breaking down the Eagles
Vick carried the Eagles this season. You can’t argue any other way.
In a season where coach Andy Reid was under the microscope after dealing Donovan McNabb away within the division, Vick played brilliantly and leads an incredibly explosive offense. With Vick’s dual running and passing threat, the Packers will have their hands full with No. 7.
Now, Vick is reported to be a little less than fully healthy for this game with him as of early this week saying he was only at 75% but will be ready to go Sunday.
Should the Packers be able to somehow contain Vick to the pocket, they will have to take in account speedy receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Vick also can use tight end Brent Celek as a medium distance threat. Running back LeSean McCoy also is very underrated and will provide another option for Vick in the screen game. Of course, this all depends on if the iffy Eagles offensive line can hold up.
Bottom line: Do not underestimate the Eagles offense. They are one of the few units in the NFL than can keep up on the scoreboard against the Packers’ offense.
The Eagles defense is the weak link of the team. Trent Cole anchors the defensive line and will under a lot of pressure to get to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. With a sub-par linebacking group, the secondary led by cornerback Asante Samuel will not only have to account for the Packers receivers but also will likely be called upon to blitz Rodgers as well.
Jackson provides a big threat for the Eagles in the return game as the Giants can attest to. While he’s no Devin Hester, he is still a threat that Shawn Slocum and the Packers have to account for him.
When the Packers have the ball….
The Packers have been running the ball a lot better the last couple of weeks. While they haven’t found true balance yet, the Packers running game has shown life at the most important time of the season. That said, the Eagles have a solid enough run defense where the Packers may not be able to be effective enough with the run.
Of course, that means Air McCarthy makes a return appearance this week. Even without a running game, the Packers can keep the Eagles off balance with some screen/dump off passes to either the halfback or the fullback. It’s not a handoff, but it makes the defense adjust as if it were a run play.
Aside from Samuel, the Eagles secondary doesn’t match up well with the Packers passing attack so look for Rodgers to continue spreading the ball around brilliantly like has the past few games. There is no way the Eagles will be able to account for Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and the rest of the Packers weapons.
The Eagles are going to have to get pressure from the outside in order to get to Rodgers. If they bring a corner or a safety on a blitz, Rodgers has to get the ball out fast or make a play with his feet.
Rodgers and the Packers offense have the advantage here.
When the Eagles have the ball….
Vick is going to have his hands full with a very aggressive Packers defense. The Eagles will use McCoy in a dual threat out of the backfield in the passing game as well as the running game. You haven’t heard McCoy’s name much this season but he can still make plays and would be very easy for the Packers to overlook.
Vick also is going to have to utilize Celek a lot especially if the Packers can take away Maclin and Jackson. The Eagles run an offense similar to what the Packers run and the quarterback will be forced to spread the ball around. While Vick has improved vastly as a passer, he is still known for making plays with his legs once he is outside the pocket.
Naturally, that means the Packers need to find a way to keep Vick INSIDE the pocket.
The Vikings a couple weeks ago had relative success against Vick by bring Antoine Winfield in on a corner blitz. Charles Woodson, we are looking at you. Perhaps Tramon Williams could be brought in as well, but he’s the faster of the two between him and Woodson so I’d be willing to bet No. 38 stays in coverage.
Three keys to the game:
1. The Packers’ offensive line needs to limit mistakes
This doesn’t just mean sacks, either. The offensive line must cut back on stupid penalties. Yes, I’m looking at you, Bryan Bulaga although the whole line really needs to improve in this area. Many times this season, big plays by the offense have been called back to holding or other penalties on the offensive line that should not have occurred. It’s now the playoffs and one stupid penalty could mean the difference between moving on and starting your offseason program early. They need to play smart.
2. Contain Vick
Even though most of the players on the Packers roster weren’t present when Vick embarrassed the Packers at Lambeau in a wild card game when he played for the Atlanta Falcons, they know full well what kind of plays Vick can make.
If the Packers can keep Vick in the pocket and take away his deep receiving threats, they can essentially shut down the Eagles offense. Vick is not a Tim Tebow-type player than can barrel through the middle of the field. He likes to run outside the tackles, in particular the left tackle, and if the Packers can close that gap, they can keep Vick relatively under control.
3. Neutralize Samuel
Much like the Packers secondary without Al Harris before the emergence of Tramon Williams, the performance of the Eagles secondary rests in the hand of one player: Samuel. Rodgers could simply not throw the ball near him, but with his speed Samuel won’t make it that easy.
Instead, watch for the Packers to keep the ball to the perimeter more than the middle of the field. Rodgers will need to pick his fights with Samuel carefully. He is a very seasoned playoff cornerback and has a nose for the big play at crucial moments in the game.
Packers 35, Eagles 31
Even with the stellar play of the Green Bay defense as of late, this game has shootout written all over it.
It won’t be quite as epic as the Cardinals playoff game last year, but this game likely comes down to the bitter end. I don’t see it going into overtime, but look for the Packers to pull ahead late in the fourth with the defense forcing a game saving turnover with about a minute to go.
So I say: bring on the Falcons. The Packers’ journey to Super Bowl XLV continues.
GO PACK and XLV OR DIE——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke