When you sift through all the information, everything you know from watching the Packers play 16 times this season, it’s really quite simple: they will return to the Super Bowl only if they are able to stop the run and rush the passer.
The offense will be able to score on any of the three NFC teams they may face in the next two weeks. A matchup with the Saints would be a video game. The 49ers are terrific against the run–susceptible to high-powered passing attacks. And the Giants? Well the Pack’s played them twice in the past 13 months and has hung 83 points on them.
It comes down to the defense and whether you believe that they will be able to hold up their end of the bargain. This unit is not the ’10 Packers. Take away Nick Collins and Cullen Jenkins and you’ve lost two of your four best players from last year’s defense. And there has been significant drop-offs from their replacements.
But is still a unit that is led by Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews. A unit that is for the most part, championship-tested and built to play its best in the biggest moments. The return of Ryan Pickett should settle down the run defense and that’s where things begin. Much of the nation saw the Bears’ third string running back run up and down the field at Lambeau on Christmas night and figured a good running attack would crush the Pack. Pickett is vital in stopping the run game and the Pack must do that on Sunday.
The Giants ranked 32nd and dead last in rushing this season, but regained some swagger with 170 yards against the Falcons. Ahmad Bradshaw has battled injuries all season (he missed practice on Wednesday, so it’s still an issue). Brandon Jacobs rarely puts two good games together and he was very good last weekend. The offense is playing with some swagger and the Pack needs to bottle up the run–put Eli Manning in second and third and long situations, where he can be forced into mistakes.
Speaking of Manning, he’s had his best season and has been especially tough in the fourth quarter. The Packers’ pass rush has been abysmal the final month of the season. We can throw out the Lions game, since Matthews and Woodson didn’t suit up. In Week 16 against the Bears they didn’t sack Josh McCown once and only hit him twice. The game before that, the loss at Arrowhead, again they were shutout against Kyle Orton and only hit him once.
At Lambeau on Sunday, against a very confident offensive line, the Packers must hit Manning often and sack him once or twice. You can bet Ted Thompson will make the pass rush his first priority in the offseason. You can also bet Dom Capers will have a lot of different looks for Manning–they’ve been playing pretty vanilla for the last month. Except a lot more blitzing Sunday, especially if the defense is able to contain the run early. The Packers may give up a few big plays, but they know they have to make Manning uncomfortable from the outset.
The other important element on Sunday is the first quarter. The Pack has to come out firing. In recent years, rested teams coming off a playoff bye have been rusty and fallen behind early. We saw it in Atlanta and New England last season with the top seeds falling in their first playoff games. With a full complement of weapons on offense, including James Starks who proclaimed himself ready to go after practicing fully on Wednesday, you get the feeling Aaron Rodgers can’t wait to take back the reins and remind people what his offense can do. He hasn’t played since Christmas and Drew Brees and the Saints have stolen some of his thunder.
Stop the run, rush the passer and get off to a fast start. I know it seems rather obvious, but take care of those three things and the Pack will be hosting the NFC title game one week later.