Welcome to the second playoff edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the Packers wildcard opponent, the NFC East Champion Philadelphia Eagles. It has been a long and winding journey for each team since their Opening Day match-up. The Packers came out of that 27-20 win without a ground game. The Eagles, meanwhile, lost their starting quarterback (Kevin Kolb) and found a superstar.
Four months later, the teams meet again in the postseason.
Obviously, there’s no shortage of coverage or attention to this matchup. Let’s sort through the bylines, shall we?
Coming into this game, the Eagles are… making rationalizations about why they dropped the last two games of the regular season. Yes, they dropped a home game against the Joe Webb-led Vikings, 24-14….but the game was on Tuesday night for cripes sake – who was prepared for that? The 14-13 loss in the finale to Dallas is far easier to explain away – none of the starters were on the field!
Sure, if they’d beaten the Vikings, they might have earned a bye. But they didn’t, so they’re here…on wildcard weekend…one of the league’s youngest teams…in the playoffs for the ninth time in 12 years. Ho hum.
Holly’s Inexpert But No Less Know-It-All Opinions:
Just as I did last year for the wild card matchup with Arizona, I’m going to take the opportunity to ruminate on a few things I think are important going into this game.
What killed the Packers in the 2009 wildcard playoff game was the same thing that killed them during the 2009 season – as Rodgers said, “we ran into a hot quarterback.” The only truly “hot quarterback” the Packers faced in 2010 was Tom Brady, who only put up 24 points with the help of a freakishly long kickoff return by a lineman. You could argue Matt Ryan is elite, but even he – bolstered by a solid rungame –managed to score only 20. So, it seems the Packers have shored up their biggest weakness from last year. [DISCLAIMER: there’s no guarantee that Drew Brees or Peyton Manning wouldn’t be able to dissect the Packers blitz scheme this year. We may yet find out.]
Despite being the Pro Bowl starter, I will disagree with the gurus at Yahoo and declare that QB Michael Vick is not an elite quarterback. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very very good one – his passes have a lot of zip, and he’s grown by leaps and bounds under Andy Reid’s tutelage. He’s developed eye-popping chemistry with both his receivers and LeSean McCoy (who leads the team in receptions). When nothing’s open downfield, his ability to make plays with his feet is frightening. He’s got a ton of confidence in himself and the guys around him, and he’s turning into a locker room leader. All these things must be taken into account.
But, there are caveats. As Adam Caplan noted on Tuesday night, Vick’s pre-snap reads aren’t good, and he’s still struggling to pick up blitzes. It’s a darn good thing that he’s mobile, or his leaky offensive line would likely get him killed. Seriously, I love the snark from Philly.com’s Paul Domowitch (seriously, read the whole thing):
In a strange, perverted sort of way, Vick owes his success this season to the Eagles’ offensive line. Not because it has done a very good job of protecting him – it hasn’t. But because the main reason Andy Reid even made the abrupt switch from Kevin Kolb to Vick in the first place was because he felt Vick’s mobility at least might give him a fighting chance behind the Eagles’ unreliable line.
Vick has saved the o-line’s bacon time and time again this season with his Houdini act. On Sunday, it’s time for the line to actually help him out a little and block somebody.
It’s not going to be easy. The Packers own one of the league’s best pass rushes. Finished the regular-season with 47 sacks, including 6 of the Bears’ Jay Cutler on Sunday, and are third in the league in sacks per pass play.
The good news is that Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who finished second in the NFC in sacks with 13 ½, including  against the Eagles in Week 1, should be easier for both the line and Vick to find than itty-bitty Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who did all that damage with those slot blitzes last week. Just look for the guy with the Fabio hair. Finding him, though, is one thing. Blocking him is another.
Vick is recovering from a quad contusion, and even a week’s rest may not get him to 100%. Vick at 75% is still more dangerous than the rest of the field, but a fraction of a second may be all the Packers pass rush needs to get home. Throw in the fact that Capers has more tricks than one sleeve can hold (plus the fact that – Vince willing – Cullen Jenkins sees the field), and the Vick juggernaut becomes a smidge less daunting. (But only a smidge.)
In a chess match where Capers knows Vick started studying for the Packers defense a full week ago, will the Packers dial up exotic pressures using Nick Collins instead of Charles Woodson? Or, does Capers trust his defensive playmakers to win their matchups no matter what? So much of this game will be decided in the game-planning on both sides — at what point do you run your best plays and dare the other team to stop you, even if they know what’s coming? At what point do you abandon entire sections of the playbook and hope that your creativity will turn out in your favor? How much of the plays you know will be successful do you keep in your back pocket, for use in the next round?
This is the dilemma for Andy Reid.
If I’m Andy Reid:
When the Eagles are on offense, expect to see a lot of tight ends Brent Celek (#87) and Clay Harbor (rookie, #82). Celek’s had a down year, but if DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are held in check by the Packers DBs, it would make sense for Andy Reid to attack the soft underbelly of the Packers defense. The Packers rank 22nd against TEs, according to Football Outsiders, and Celek has become an increasingly bigger part of the Eagles offensive scheme as he’s recovered from injury – to the tune of 12 targets against the Vikings. Harbor flashed some serious potential against the Vikes, and it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if he is targeted on Sunday.
Between his pass-catching and runs, expect RB LeSean McCoy’s number (#25) to get called more than any other (this fan agrees, in a must-read post). In fact, ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha thinks that McCoy will be the difference-maker:
If Philadelphia didn’t already have two superstars on its offense (Vick and Pro Bowl wide receiver Jackson), McCoy would be its most valuable player. All he did this season was rush for 1,080 yards, catch a team-high 78 passes and score nine touchdowns. In other words, he made Eagles fans think there could be life after Brian Westbrook.
It’s also worth noting that McCoy is more than a bounce-it-outside runner. You would never guess that McCoy was the best back in the league versus a loaded box…I know I wouldn’t. I don’t know how often the Packers will put eight in the box, but if the Eagles get a lead, McCoy has proven himself as a clock-munching weapon. If I’m Reid, I know the Packers have struggled against powerful runners like Adrian Peterson (131 yds) and Michael Turner (110 yds), who are both capable of bouncing plays to the outside and running after contact. I anticipate that McCoy will be involved early and often, both as a runner and in the screen game — anything to slow down the Packers pass rush.
Naturally, if I’m Andy Reid, I’ll also throw deep to DeSean Jackson whenever I get a first down between the 40s, coverage be damned.
When the Eagles are on defense, we know that they’re already concerned about the Rodgers-led passing attack:
Facing any talented quarterback, the Eagles have the same approach: Get in his face and knock him down. But there are two problems with that philosophy against Rodgers. The Eagles’ pass rush slowed down late in the season, and Rodgers, according to McDermott, has fared even better against the blitz than not.
Therefore, I’m going to let the guys over at Eagles Fancast give Andy Reid – and Sean McDermott – some advice going into Sunday’s matchup:
We have Green Bay coming to town, which was the LAST team of those last three that I wanted to see coming back. … I see a very easy strategy against Green Bay, I think that, one, [the Packers] don’t run the ball. They don’t even try to run the ball. So, [instead of playing any 4-3 concepts,] I think we should be playing a 3-8. We should have three linemen and eight D-backs, and blitz three of them every down.
Ignoring the fact that the Eagles don’t have eight healthy DBs…
I Like Our Chances Against:
The right side of the Eagles secondary. No one has given up more red zone passing touchdowns than the Eagles, and much of the blame lies with the carousel of cornerbacks coordinator Sean McDermott has placed opposite LCB Asante Samuel. Dimitri Patterson was utterly abused by the Giants and Vikings, but is that enough to start a rookie (Trevard Lindley) in his place? The other option is Joselio Hanson, who, though he has playoff experience, is far better suited for the slot than outside. The Packers are likely to spread out the Eagles defense so that two or even three of these guys are on the field. Samuel led the NFC with seven interceptions, and he and SS Quintin Mikell are excellent players. That still leaves nearly half the field. If Rodgers sees one-on-one matchups with Patterson, he’s sure to take advantage.
The right side of the Eagles offensive line. While not impenetrable, the left side of the Eagles O-line is stout. It’s the right side that continues to cave in. RT Winston Justice sat last week to help his knee heal, but he’s struggled against bull rushes all year (and was responsible for one sack and five QB pressures on opening day). RG Max Jean-Gilles is coming off an ankle injury, and may not be strong enough to give Vick the 4-5 seconds he’ll need to hit Jackson/Maclin deep. Matthews could have a huge day, especially if Cullen Jenkins plays. It’ll be a tough task for the Eagles line to keep Matthews, Jenkins, Raji, and anyone else Dom brings, off Vick for long.
DeSean Jackson in the return game. As long as Masthay follows a career game (against Devin Hester) with a career game against the most explosive player in the league, we’re money.
I’m More Concerned About:
Chad Clifton’s match-up with Trent Cole. Even though he’s faced double-teams for most of the season, Cole has turned in another masterful season at right defensive end. He abused both Clifton and Colledge in W1, and while I’d like to believe that Cliffy wants to prove himself, I wouldn’t bet on his chances. Clifton is coming off a tough game against Julius Peppers…Cole’s coming off a week’s rest.
Green Bay’s resolve going into the game. My biggest beef last year was that the Packers sounded overly confident, even cocky. My fears looked to be well-founded when Rodgers was picked on the first play and the defense immediately gave up a score to Kurt Warner. Well, once again, the Packers appear to be the sexy pick to advance past the wildcard round. Scouts Inc. puts the Packers on top, as do several experts (one, two, three) on NFL Network. SI’s Peter King “really really” likes the team to make the Super Bowl, and Don Banks ranks Green Bay #6, three spots ahead of Philly. My least favorite word – confidence – is again being thrown around by guys in the locker room. McCarthy can warn his team not to buy in the hype until he’s blue in the face, but we saw, in Detroit, what happens when players only pay lip service to an opponent. We also saw, in New England, what happens when players feel like they’ve been completely written off. If the coaching staff can somehow manufacture that kind of passion and drive in that locker room, ain’t no stopping us now. That’s a mighty if, though.
If the Packers Players do read their own press, I hope they find this nugget in SI:
The Cold, Hard Football Facts: There’s something wrong in the state of Wisconsin.
The Packers are the Chargers of the NFC: a paper tiger that simply can’t translate dominance on the stat sheet into dominance on the scoreboard.
While they couldn’t compete in a boo-hoo battle with the Packers, the Eagles have suffered a number of key injuries since Week 1 that may affect Sunday’s game. The Packers themselves ended the seasons for FB Leonard Weaver and C Jamaal Jackson. Corner Ellis Hobbs left the field on a stretcher after a horrific helmet-to-helmet hit in W11. First-round pick Brandon Graham, who’d been coming along at defensive end opposite Trent Cole, tore his ACL and was put on IR in mid-December. The Eagles’ 2nd pick, safety Nate Allen, joined him there a week later. MLB Stewart Bradley has missed several games with an elbow injury but says he’ll be back for Sunday’s game – don’t bet on it.
What does this mean for Sunday’s matchup? Well, it sheds light on why Philly’s starting defense has allowed 25.75 points to opponents since the bye. Heck, Seattle and Indy are the only playoff teams who’ve given up more points than Philly. Still, Andy Reid is right to be proud of the way his team has handled these setbacks – their offense is humming along beautifully, which takes a lot of pressure off a defense that’s trying to hide its soft spots.
ESPN’s Matt Mosley warns against fans counting on Philly to hang with Green Bay in a shootout, not only because Dom Capers runs a far better pass defense than does Eagles coordinator Sean McDermott:
If Rodgers gets in a groove early, the Eagles could be in trouble. The Eagles have given up 31 passing touchdowns this season, which ranks them right behind the Cowboys in terms of worst in the NFC. Rodgers thrives on finding his receivers on crossing routes and watching them add 20 or 30 yards to the play.
He notes, however, that the Eagles may catch a break on defense. If defensive ends Trent Cole and Juqua Parker can use leverage take advantage of the Packers “struggling offensive tackles,” they may be able to keep pressure off of the Eagles’ struggling secondary. Otherwise…
I can’t imagine a better first-round matchup than this. If you can think of the last No. 6 seed that looked this scary, let me know.
Something to chew on… Late last month, President Obama called up Jeff Lurie (Eagles owner) and commended the team for giving Michael Vick another chance:
The president told owner Jeffrey Lurie that while he condemns the crimes Vick was convicted of, he believes people who have paid for their crimes should have the opportunity to contribute to society again.
Not everyone thinks Obama’s foray into this delicate issue was wise. Not only were the PETA/animal rights folks upset (and believe me, they were), but one SI writer went further:
First of all, Obama’s call to Lurie was simply a wrongheaded gesture. It’s not like the Eagles’ owner gave an orphan a home, a newspaper route and a shot at the American dream. He gave a chance to someone he hoped could win him some games, which is exactly what happened. Obama’s call was a slap in the face to all those who find Vick’s torturing of dogs an offense undeserving of redemption.
Now, while I agree with McCallum’s point that Obama shouldn’t’ve waited until December to pick up the phone, I think his outrage that Obama didn’t also call up Wes Welker and ask how his knee was doing is misplaced.
Political loyalties aside — and, please, put your political loyalties aside — is it right for national politicians to get involved in sports? Does it make it easier for “normal folks” to relate to them? Conversely, do such statements give Obama (or other pols) the stench of “guy who watches too much TV and isn’t paying attention to bigger problems?”
Personally, I don’t have a problem with Obama being a sports fan. I like that he knows at least a little bit about the teams that come to meet him after championships. I don’t like that ESPN devoted a TV special to his March Madness picks (which everyone then picked apart ad nauseum: “No love for Cinderellas?” “What these picks say about Obama,” etc.), but I don’t begrudge the guy’s love of basketball — or his desire to maintain some semblance of sanity in remaining a fan.
I think, when all’s said and done, the only thing I can’t forgive is that he’s a Bears fan. Speaking of which, Mr. President, the Bears Still Suck.
Who Will Win & Who Will Go Home?
Writers across the country are flexing their fingers eagerly to take on this matchup. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo!, National Football Post, everyone will opine. Naturally, you’re going to get the standard (and superlative) game previews from the Journal Sentinel (both the matchups and McGinn’s scouting report) and the Press Gazette (Dougherty’s scouting report).
Among Packers fans, you can’t ever go wrong with Brandon’s game previews at Acme Packing Company (looking at the offense when Vick’s healthy, looking at the defense’s struggle with injuries). This game preview from d-jackson10 over at Bleeding Green Nation is also excellent. If you have some time, I highly recommend you take a look. At some point, I’m sure you’ll have run out of energy to read about these two teams. It happens.
So, what do I think happens on gameday?
I think the Packers will be very aggressive on defense. I think it will hurt them at times, by opening holes behind a blitz for Shady McCoy and maybe Jason Avant. I think that the Packers will rediscover the screen game, and then promptly abandon it as soon as it starts working. I think a few well-blocked 6-yard runs by Green Bay will scare McCarthy into throwing it up 40 times. I think Bulaga will have at least one penalty, just to hear his number called.
But, in all seriousness, there are only a few things that I really think.
I think I’ll cut my nails before the game so that I’m not making gouges in my friends’ arms when the game gets close. I think I’ll bring the pompom I got at Lambeau in W2 with me to watch the game, for good luck. I think I’ll serve guacamole from my dad’s recipe inside hollowed-out green and yellow bell peppers. I think I’ll decide on Sunday morning whether to wear my #12 or #56 jersey, based on which one ‘speaks’ to me. I think I’ll be hoarse by the time the game’s over.
At the end of the day, I think we’re right where we want to be. Even with all of our injuries, I think the Packers can win this. I’ve thought the Packers could win every game (even if I thought they wouldn’t). This is no tougher a matchup, in its own way, than the Jets game…or the Patriots game. Hostile environment, unambiguous challenge, built-in underdog mentality. Everything’s scripted for a brilliant upset.
Can they pull it off? Sure. Will they? Tune in Sunday, at 4:30pm EST.