The Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals will face off Sunday in a cross conference showdown between two 1-1 teams with legitimate aspirations of the postseason and beyond.
Both clubs rebounded with important wins in Week 2, as the Packers comfortably handled the Washington Redskins and the Bengals continued the changing of the guard in the AFC North with a 10-point win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.
As was the case last week, when we highlighted the rarity of 0-2 teams making the postseason, a win remains historically important for 1-1 teams, at least in terms of playoff percentages. According to Trey Wingo of ESPN, 2-1 teams have made the postseason at a 54 percent clip since the introduction of the current playoff format. For 1-2 teams, the playoff percentages drop to just 24.
The Packers made the postseason in 2012 after falling to 1-2, so a loss in Cincinnati Sunday wouldn't subject Green Bay to an early hole that has no escape. But 2-1 is obviously a more stable playoff position to be in after three games, especially considering how difficult the late schedule could be for the Packers.
Here’s five important questions that the Packers need to answer during Week 2:
1. Can the Running Game Keep Rolling?
Only a select few times in the Mike McCarthy era have the Packers been as dominant in the zone running game as they were in Week 2 against the Redskins. From start to finish, Green Bay created giant cutback lanes for Eddie Lacy (one carry, 10 yards) and James Starks (20, 132), who ended the offense's 44-game drought without a 100-yard rusher. Week 3 will answer whether last Sunday's mauling up front was more the Packers gelling on the offensive line or the Redskins simply being horrible in the front seven. Anchored by All-Pro Geno Atkins and two active defensive ends (Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap) worth nearly $25 million, the Bengals feature one of the game's most disruptive defensive lines. Atkins will demand double teams, so expect Starks to see more traffic in the hole Sunday. The linebackers that were blocked at the second level against Washington should be free in Cincinnati to plug up gaps. If the quality of blocking is at a Week 2 level, the Packers can run on anyone (seriously). If not, Starks might have to get creative in making the free hat miss (more likely).
2. Will the Green Bay Secondary Handle a Top WR Better?
The Packers have had problems dealing with the opposition's top receiver over the first two games. Anquan Boldin destroyed Green Bay's zone-heavy scheme in Week 1 for 13 catches and 208 yards, and Pierre Garcon muscled his way to eight and 143 last Sunday, although a majority of those yards came in garbage time. Boldin and Garcon are both nice players, but neither can compete with the overall skill level of Cincinnati's A.J. Green, who is one of the game's few elite receivers. The Packers will again be without safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) on Sunday, leaving Green Bay's trio of young safeties the important task of keeping bracket coverage on Green. There can't be an overcommitment, however, as the Bengals have two tight ends capable of exploiting the middle of the field, which can be susceptible when safeties are in two-deep, bracket coverage. But the Packers will still want to see the likes of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham doing the heavy lifting instead of Green, who is a touchdown waiting to happen on any Andy Dalton drop back. He'll be the focal point.
3. Can the Packers Make a Statement on the Road?
You'd probably have to go back to Week 6 of last season to find a statement win away from Lambeau Field from the Packers. Under the Sunday night lights in Houston, a 2-3 team in desperate need of a win blazed through the 6-0 Texans with relative ease. However, there were disappointments on the road before and after that win. Since the start of 2012, the Packers have lost games in Seattle, Indianapolis, Minnesota and San Francisco by close margins, and by wider gaps in New York and San Francisco. Sunday in Cincinnati provides another opportunity for Green Bay to go on the road and beat a postseason-quality opponent away from the friendly confines of Lambeau Field, where the Packers have won 21 of their last 22 regular-season games. No surprise here, but the key to unlocking the road woes is likely found in cleaning up the turnovers and playing better on defense. In the six road losses mentioned above, the Packers averaged nearly 1.5 giveaways (while going 0-4-2 in the turnover battle) and 435 yards allowed. Hard to beat good teams on the road when those two trends appear.
4. Will Green Bay Score More Than 20 Points on Offense?
A fascinating clash of streaks will collide Sunday. The Packers have scored at least 20 points in nine straight games (including playoffs), while the Bengals haven't allowed 20 points at home in five straight. Might this otherwise meaningless number provide the game's breaking point? Green Bay hasn't won a game in which it scored 20 or fewer points since Week 17 of the 2010 season (vs. Chicago, 10-3), a span of four occurrences. The fact that the Packers have been held at 20 points or under in only four games over a 43-game stint is amazing on its own, but the struggles winning those dogfights also highlight how important the offense is to keeping this ship upright. Sunday will be a stiff test, as the Bengals have proven tough to score on in Cincinnati since Mike Zimmer arrived as defensive coordinator in 2008. Over that 41-game span, the Bengals are allowing just 19.5 points per game at home.
5. How Can Aaron Rodgers Stay Red Hot Throwing the Football?
A couple of factors have contributed to what can only be considered a sizzling start for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (813 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT, 127.2 passer rating). First, a makeshift offensive line featuring two inexperienced tackles has protected better than anyone could have ever imagined, especially given the first two opponents. There have been sporadic lapses, but also long stretches of really good pass protection. But even when the work up front hasn't been sound, the Packers have adjusted to quicker throws that allow a quartet of talented receivers room to run after the catch. Green Bay leads the NFL in YAC with 453, or over half of Rodgers' season total. Defenses really have to pick their poison against Rodgers; either protect against "shot plays" down the field with two-deep safeties and risk the underneath stuff, or cramp the space and watch Rodgers revert to his 2011 form in which he made all sorts of plays in the vertical passing game. The Bengals have some cover people on defense—namely Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson—but there are very few units in football that can take away it all.
Prediction: Green Bay 28, Cincinnati 27 (2-0)
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.