The Green Bay Packers are entering a two-game stretch that will likely decide whether Aaron Rodgers will return to a team still fighting for the postseason or one mostly dead in the water.
First up, the 3-6 but very much alive New York Giants.
Without Rodgers, the Packers have turned what could have been a 7-2 start into a 5-4 lull. The Packers' four losses are the most this early into a season since 2009, when an eventual 11-5 club dropped two early home games, one in the Metrodome and another to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That team gelled and rattled off wins in seven of the final eight games. These Packers might have to win at least six of their final eight, and they'll need to do so without Rodgers until at least Thanksgiving.
Here's five questions the Packers need to answer against the Giants in Week 11:
1. Can Scott Tolzien Build on a Surprising Debut?
Off the bench cold, Tolzien was equally fearless as he was effective in his NFL debut. The Packers consistently moved the football with Tolzien under center, but a variety of mistakes—including two interceptions and some struggles inside the red zone—prevented Green Bay from scoring more than 13 points. Tolzien will now get the start Sunday, becoming the third Packers starter in as many weeks. A week of live reps with the No. 1 offense and a gameplan built around his strengths will help, but the Giants also have a full game's worth of tape to break down. Expect New York to blitz—Tolzien had a passer rating of 38.9 on nine blitzed dropbacks against the Eagles—and load up to stop Eddie Lacy and the run game. The new Packers quarterback will need to stay on the attack, especially against a beat up Giants secondary, while also cutting down on the mistakes. He's capable.
2. Will the Packers Make a Key Fourth Quarter Stop?
The struggles getting off the field in the fourth quarter the last two weeks have been jarring. In back-to-back games, the Packers defense was pushed around and bullied during the game's biggest moment. Breakdowns in the run game and tackling at every level have been the biggest problems late in games. Unless we are to believe Tolzien and the offense will score a bucketload of points, expect Sunday's game to feature another opportunity for the Packers defense to make an important stop in the fourth quarter. Mike McCarthy spoke at length this week about cleaning up the performance late in games, and historically, he's been very good about focusing attention on an area and getting it fixed. To win in New York Sunday, the Packers will likely need to prove that the previous two weeks are in the past.
3. The Packers Defense Has to Get a Few Turnovers, Right?
Maybe the most surprising stat of Green Bay's season—even more so than the dominance of the run game—has been the utter lack of turnovers, and especially interceptions. The Packers have just three picks (32nd in NFL) and eight total takeaways in nine games, both far cries from the pace typically seen by Dom Capers' defenses. In fact, from 2009-2012, the Packers intercepted 103 passes, which led the NFL by a whopping 17. This season, only three have come on 303 passing attempts against Green Bay. Here's the statistical difference: From 2009-12, Green Bay averaged one interception for every 20 attempts. This season, it's been one every 101. There would seem to be no better week to change that trend than this one, as the Packers take on the NFL's interception leader in Eli Manning (16). On the road and starting a young, inexperienced quarterback, Green Bay will likely need one or two takeaways to win.
4. How Do the Packers Contain New York's Three Receivers?
A secondary that is struggling mightily won't get a rest in Week 11. In fact, Sunday might be its most difficult test of the season. The Giants haven't been great passing the football this season, but Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle are as good as it gets in terms of a three-receiver set in the NFC. Cruz is a master of the slot, and both Nicks and Randle are the kind of big, physical receivers that have occasionally given Green Bay troubles. Just a season ago, Cruz, Nicks and Randle all caught touchdown passes during the Giants rout in New York. And during the previous three meetings alone, Nicks hauled in 19 catches for 330 yards and five scores. Somehow, a confidence-shaken secondary needs to shake off the troubles and get sticky again. If not, Manning and his trio of receiving weapons could tear the same kind of holes in the Packers defense that both Josh McCown and Nick Foles—not exactly two world-beating quarterbacks—have in back-to-back weeks.
5. Which Offense Will Run For More Yards?
Two stats might have a strong say in who wins in New York Sunday. Turnover differential is an obvious one. But the other is likely in the running game, which you wouldn't always expect in a game featuring the Packers and Giants. Green Bay has been dominant throughout this season on the ground, but the sledding will continue to get more and more difficult as defenses stack the box and force Tolzien to win in the passing game. The Giants are also allowing an average of just 61.7 rushing yards over the last three games, all ending in wins. New York has suddenly found a capable runner in Andre Brown, who went for 115 yards against the Oakland Raiders last week. The Packers' stone wall against the run has been gashed wide open in recent weeks, as the Bears and Eagles combined to rush for 375 yards. To beat the Giants Sunday, the Packers might need to be +1 or +2 in the turnover category and have a big advantage on the ground.
Prediction: New York 31, Green Bay 20 (6-3)
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