Pack at Bills: Let the Nail Biting Begin

Gang, I'm worried about this one. To me, the game that stands between the Pack and home field advantage throughout the playoffs is Sunday's game against the Bills.

OK, so the Packers have never won in western NY, they're 0-5. Granted, the last visit was in '06 and virtually no one remains on either team from that one. But Buffalo is always a tough place to play; they're the AFC's version of the Packers: a small, blue collar community that lives and dies with its team. Of course their Super Bowl record is much more Viking-like than Packer-like.

Consider: they're 7-6 and clinging to life in the wide open AFC playoff race, despite benching their supposed franchise QB early in favor of journeyman Kyle Orton (more on the Packer killer in a moment). They lost last year's defensive rookie of the year Kiko Alonzo for the season during training camp, yet their defense hasn't missed a beat, ranked fourth in points and fifth overall.

They opened our eyes early, by winning their season opener in Chicago, which seemed a lot more impressive a couple of months ago. They also won in Detroit, something the Packers weren't able to accomplish. Their loss in Denver last week has them on the outside looking in at the postseason. They'll likely look at this one like a playoff game.

They get the Pack on a short week, coming off a sobering win, if you can call it that. The 31-7 halftime lead got lost in the second half defensive collapse; a half that looks like it cost them corner Davon House for the long haul and possibly Eddie Lacy in the short term.

Lacy's hip injury is concerning, because it sounds like a muscle strain which takes time to heal. Look for hometown hero James Starks to get the lion's share of the duties in the running game. The former University of Buffalo star grew up in nearby Niagra Falls, NY. Coming home with a chance to start could be looked at both ways: he's ultra motivated to play in front of family and friends or he tries to hard and fails miserably.

The running game is essential in this matchup, to keep the NFL's leading sackers away from Aaron Rodgers. Look for Mike McCarthy to move Rodgers out of the pocket quite a bit and for a lot of quick throws. The Bills' defense is strongest up front and gets weaker as you move to the back end. They have two guys picked in the top three on the line: Mario Williams on the outside and Marcell Dareus on the inside--both are playing at Pro Bowl levels. Throw in the extremely loud environment and the offensive line will be tested like it was in Seattle and Detroit.

So I don't expect the Pack to sniff 30 points, unless the defense and special teams helps out. Where the Pack should have an edge is when the Bills have the ball. Rookie Sammy Watkins is special and will be a perennial Pro Bowler, but has slowed down since the first six weeks of the season and is the only real threat in the passing game. Robert Woods is a solid #2 and dangerous on third downs and in the red zone; tight end Scott Chandler has become a favorite target for Orton and the Pack will need to keep an eye on him.

Back to Orton: he knows how to beat the Packers. He's 5-2 overall, including a 4-1 record as the Bears QB. We all can remember him making unlikely plays in the past that had you skating your head saying, 'I can't believe Kyle Orton just beat us.' He was signed on August 30th and within a month he was the starter as the team realized they had a playoff caliber team, but a young QB who wasn't ready for the job at that level.

So Orton has steered them to a winning record but if you look at their results at home something stands out. They beat the Dolphins, Vikings, Jets and Browns and have lost to the Chargers, Patriots and Chiefs. Do you see it? They've handled the lousy teams at home (save Miami) and got beat by playoff caliber teams. And here come the Packers.

This one is going to be a struggle. You hope the defense got a kick in the pants after the way Monday's game ended and will bring a focused effort like we had seen in the weeks before that fateful second half. The Bills, with a pedestrian running game and a lackluster passing game (to go along with an average offensive line) shouldn't be able to move the ball with ease. In their three home losses they scored 10, 22 and 13. Green Bay should be able to keep them in the teens.

I expect a slugfest, with points at a premium. If Lacy doesn't play, it gets even tougher. Starks gave us hope on Monday that he's ready, if needed. The weather should be very familiar, with temperatures in the mid-30s and no snow in the forecast (they've had enough to last them till the end of the decade).

We may not see the typical fast start in this one, but hopefully Rodgers and company will do enough by the time it's finished.

Pack 20 Bills 17


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