The Green Bay Packers (10-4) are two wins and one San Francisco 49ers’ loss away from securing a first-round bye in the 2012-13 NFC playoffs.
The first part of that equation begins Sunday, when the Tennessee Titans (5-9) travel to snowy Green Bay for a Week 16 matchup. With a win over the Titans and another next Sunday against Minnesota Vikings, plus a 49ers’ loss to either the Seattle Seahawks or Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay would jump ahead of San Francisco for the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
The Packers could also jump the Atlanta Falcons (12-2) for the top seed, but Atlanta would need to lose both its final two games (Detroit, Tampa Bay).
For any byes scenarios to have a chance of unfolding in Week 17, Green Bay first needs to take care of business against the Titans Sunday.
Here are some other things you could watch:
Cobb Approaching Historic Numbers
With two games left, Packers receiver Randall Cobb is approaching some lofty numbers. The 22-year-old has 2,241 all-purpose yards this season, which leaves him nine yards short of Ahman Green’s franchise record (2,250) and 454 of the NFL’s all-time record (Darren Sproles, 2,696). Sproles’ record might be tough to get, but the franchise record could fall on the opening kickoff Sunday.
Cobb could also become the first in NFL history to accomplish a production double Sunday.
With 108 receiving yards and 36 kick-return yards against the Titans, Cobb would become the first player in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 kick-return yards in the same season. Considering kickoffs are on the NFL’s endangered species list, and only a handful of returners have reached 1,000 return yards since kickoffs were shortened last season, Cobb could become the first and the last to pull off the feat.
The Titans are allowing 368.9 yards and 28.3 points per game on defense, but this is a unit that is playing much better than its overall numbers indicate. According to ESPN, Tennessee is third in total defense (285.3 yards) and fourth in scoring defense (17.6 points) since falling 51-20 to Chicago in early November.
In linebackers Colin McCarthy, Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers, plus defensive end Derrick Morgan and cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty, the Titans have young, encouraging building blocks on defense. And after facing slower, older defenses from the NFC North the past three weeks, it will interesting to see how the Packers handle a fast but inexperienced look from the Titans’ improving defense Sunday.
The Titans have a very Vikings-like feel on offense. Chris Johnson, maybe the game’s top home-run hitter at the running back position, is the focal point of Tennessee’s entire operation. He’s obviously not having a season that approaches Adrian Peterson’s, but 1,159 rushing yards and a 4.8-yard average is nothing to sneeze at.
Despite Johnson’s presence and production, the Titans still win and lose games via the arm of young quarterback Jake Locker. Drafted four spots ahead of Christian Ponder, Locker has two games with a passer rating over 90.0 this season. The Titans are 2-0 in those games. And in games where Locker had a final passer rating under 70.0, Tennessee was outscored by an average of almost 22 points.
Johnson can get his 100 yards rushing, but frustrating Locker in the passing game is the winning key for the Packers’ defense. It’s the same blueprint against Ponder, Peterson and the Vikings.
Thanks to injuries, the Titans have been forced to shuffle the interior of their offensive line. Fernando Velasco is likely to start at his original position of center, while recent signing Mitch Petrus would then start at left guard. Petrus was claimed off waivers from the Patriots, who released him on Dec. 3.
The shuffling could open up an opportunity for B.J. Raji to continue his late-season surge. Raji might have played his best game of the 2012 season against the Bears last Sunday, but he’s been playing well for the better part of the last two months. Another dominating performance would be a welcome sign for a Packers defense that needs Raji to be the pocket collapsing force he was during the Super Bowl run.
Matchup to Watch: Titans DE Derrick Morgan vs. Packers RT Don Barclay
The Titans have struggled rushing the passer for most of the last two seasons, but don’t fault Morgan in 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, the left defensive end has six sacks, 19 quarterback hits and 38 hurries this season. Morgan’s 63 total quarterback disruptions are in the top 10 for 4-3 defensive ends. Opposite Morgan Sunday will be Barclay, who should make his third straight start at right tackle. Over 183 snaps there this season, Barclay has allowed just one sack. More help should come Barclay’s way Sunday, but he’s proven capable of handling his duties against good pass rushers this season. Morgan is his latest test.
With the division title in hand and an uncommon opponent on board, the door might be cracked open for the Packers to stumble early. But Green Bay is a better team, with a lot still to play for and a home-field advantage amplified by the northern weather. As Bob McGinn pointed out this week, the Titans were served a 59-0 throttling in their last cold weather game. This scoreline won’t come close to that, but the Packers should get to 11-4 with a comfortable win.
Packers 30, Titans 13 (Season record: 9-5)
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.