Clay Matthews may not have realized it, but on September 12, 2010, a routine quarterback sack would reshape the landscape of the NFC. A wrap-up tackle on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb resulted in Kolb’s helmet bouncing off the turf at Lincoln Financial Field, and, after Kolb was diagnosed at halftime with a concussion, then-backup quarterback Michael Vick was inserted into the game. Although the Eagles lost 27-20, Vick nearly led a miraculous comeback, and then played so well against the Detroit Lions the following week that coach Andy Reid made Michael Vick the starter going forward. Vick’s second life in the NFL has transformed the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense into one of the most varied in the league, and it may never have happened if not for Matthews’ sack. Both teams have endured injuries and costly losses, but find themselves meeting Sunday in what is a most promising rematch from opening day.
The Eagles had to undergo a somewhat-serious facelift after the loss to the Packers. As mentioned, Kolb’s concussion led to Vick taking the reins, and proved to be for the better. Also, two Pro Bowl players (fullback Leonard Weaver and center Jamaal Jackson) suffered season-ending injuries, and were replaced by Owen Schmitt (a late roster cut by Seattle who’s proven to be effective) and back-up guard Mike McGlynn (more consistent than some of the veterans on that line). These forced changes have kept the Eagles alive, thriving more than previously expected. On the Packers side of the ball, the Eagles managed to shoot down one of their biggest threats. Running back Ryan Grant suffered a leg injury in the game and was put out for the season, replaced by the average Brandon Jackson. The Packers have adapted, however, by using blue-collar fullback John Kuhn as a battering ram when needed.
2. Does Aaron Rodgers have any lingering effects from his concussion?
Rodgers received the news Tuesday that his concussion suffered against the Lions on December 12 has fully healed. However, Rodgers also sustained one back on October 10 against the Redskins. Generally, a player sustaining two brain injuries in a season is enough to put him out for an indefinite amount of time, and, sometimes, end their season. Rodgers getting the all-clear on Tuesday provides a huge sigh of relief for Green Bay, but there are questions. Concussions have been investigated and studied more in recent years for the effects on long-term health. NFL players like Mike Webster and Andre Waters became studies for worst-case scenarios regarding brain injuries. Does having two concussions in the past three months indicate a susceptibility to having a third one come from a much weaker blow to the head? For the time being, Rodgers appears to be okay, but Green Bay has to be careful.
3. Is Michael Vick healthy enough to be effective?
Michael Vick’s body has taken a hellacious beating these last several weeks, and the results have been a deep thigh bruise and general soreness. His play against the Minnesota Vikings on December 28 was not indicative of the Vick who ran rampant through much of the autumn. In twelve games, Vick has taken 34 sacks, and has run the ball 100 times. While several of his rushing gains have ended with slides and taking the ball out of bounds, Vick’s taken his share of hard hits. A tackle by the Redskins on October 3 nearly split his ribcage open like a wooden birdfeeder being smashed with between two paint cans. At one point, the hits on Vick were so serious that Andy Reid contacted the NFL to complain about the late nature of many of them. With twelve days to rest, Vick swears he’s healthy, which remains to be seen.
4. Which team is worse off with injuries?
Hard to say. Is syphilis worse than gonorrhea? A look at the Packers sees why a team once projected to be clear Super Bowl reps for the NFC had to stagger into the playoffs in week 17. In addition to Grant, the Pack have lost Jermichael Finley for the season, as well as reliable veterans Mark Tauscher, Brady Poppinga, Nick Barnett, and Brandon Chillar. For the Eagles, in addition to the opening day losses of Weaver and Jackson, top rookies Brandon Graham and Nate Allen were both lost for the year with leg injuries. Veteran Ellis Hobbs sustained his second neck injury in two years, which is likely a career ender. Getting away from IR, each team has injury concerns in their secondaries going into the game. For Green Bay, Atari Bigby and Nick Collins have been limited in practice, while the Eagles’ Asante Samuel is still battling knee issues.
5. Would the Philadelphia Eagles starters rather have momentum instead of the 12 days off?
Two years ago, the Eagles understood the benefits of being the #6 seed, and sneaking improbably into the playoffs in week 17. After brutalizing Dallas for the final spot, the Eagles went to Minnesota and embarrassed Tarvaris Jackson, and then went into New York, stifling Eli Manning to upset the Giants. Go back three years earlier, and you’ll see a Pittsburgh Steelers team that, other than a near-costly Jerome Bettis fumble and a poorly played Super Bowl, obliterated everyone in sight to become champions. And, yes, they were the #6 seed. The Packers clearly have more momentum right now, dominating the Giants to move ahead of them for the tiebreaker, and then holding off the Bears in a defensive showdown to clinch. Meanwhile, the Eagles starters sputtered in the Tuesday game vs Minnesota, Michael Vick struggled mightily, and then they watched their understudies get nipped by Dallas. Not looking good.
6. Which team has the weaker offensive line?
Rodgers and Vick are two of the nimblest quarterbacks in the NFL today, and that’s fortunate for both men. Due to injuries and inconsistent play, both offensive lines are about as useful as having five gerbils guarding Fort Knox. Statistically, the Eagles have the 2nd worst line in the league, while Green Bay has the 14th worst. What’s deceiving about Green Bay’s line stats, however, is Aaron Rodgers style of play. While he’s only been sacked 31 times this season, he’s more apt than Vick to scramble for a first down, as opposed to try and shake off pass rushers. Vick gambles more, which isn’t always smart, figuring if he can make the first guy miss, he’s okay from there. Rodgers rarely takes that chance and just guns it when he has to. Given that both lines are a mess, I’m setting the combined sack over/under for Sunday at 9.5
7. How do the Eagles keep Clay Matthews in check?
Matthews is one of the strongest open-field tacklers in football currently. Very rarely does he assist in his tackles, as he’s generally the first man on the scene, and he completes it himself. This puts a strain on one of Vick’s favorite weapons, LeSean McCoy. “Shady” led the Eagles in receptions this year with 78, serving as Vick’s dump-off option when the likes of DeSean Jackson would draw double coverage, and that plays into Green Bay’s hands. The overreliance on McCoy in the flat will allow Matthews to chase him down and stop him for minimal gains. The Eagles have to alternate between four wide-out sets (exploiting Green Bay’s suspect secondary) and double tight end sets with Brent Celek and Clay Harbor to maximize McCoy’s output. You never want to leave Matthews unguarded, especially on linebacker blitzes, so Owen Schmitt will also have his hands full keeping his quarterback upright.
8. How do the Packers keep DeSean Jackson/Jeremy Maclin in check?
Despite being fourth on the team in receptions (47), DeSean Jackson still excelled with 1056 and six scores. Jeremy Maclin led receivers with 70 grabs and 10 touchdowns, falling just short of 1000 yards. Defenses have left Jackson stranded a few times this season, as he’s had games where pulling in even two catches is a struggle. That’s generally due the attention he draws with his dynamic ability, and thus double coverage is the order of the day for him. In doing that, Maclin and Jason Avant can get open and, yes, McCoy owns the flat as mentioned. Green Bay’s secondary isn’t reliable, so I look for the Packers to blitz heavily. Minnesota set the template in week 16 with corner blitzes that resulted in fumbles and hurried throws. Giving Vick time to read and react is generally trouble, so keeping him hobbled and flinching can take that function away.
9. How is Green Bay allowing 4.7 yards a carry?
Only four times this year have the Packers allowed a rusher of 90 yards or more: Vick (103), Adrian Peterson (131), Matt Forte (91), and Michael Turner (110). So how is it that Green Bay is allowing such a lofty average per attempt? My guess would be their dominance in the passing game. With an impressive 24 interceptions this season, the Packers have a knack for ending drives. While their pass coverage is stellar, they can get burned on big runs. The problem for opposing teams is that Aaron Rodgers is rather adept at turning those turnovers into touchdowns. By halftime, Green Bay can build such a significant lead that running the ball (except for desperation QB scrambles) is no longer an option. A team that can control the clock and not make mistakes will have an easier time against the Packers, because the running game remains a viable weapon.
The good news is that Asante Samuel will play, and he’d be a perfect safety if he had some muscle on him. As is, he’s one of the most brilliant cornerbacks when it comes to reading the passer’s eyes. Ask the Mannings how much damage he’s done to them by reading their patterns and jumping their routes. Other than Samuel and the serviceable Quintin Mikell, the Eagles have their work cut out for them. Losing Nate Allen for the year necessitated in underrated seventh rounder Kurt Coleman filling in, with amiable results. The biggest issue, however, has been Dimitri Patterson filling in for Ellis Hobbs. Patterson’s earned Izell Jenkins’ old nickname of “Toast”, because it doesn’t take much to burn him. The Eagles need to stack an extra safety in the secondary to keep Patterson from being a liability. Also, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott better lay off the safety blitzes.
Vick said if he had played all sixty minutes against Green Bay on opening day, that the Eagles would have won. If you doubled Vick’s stats and replaced Kolb’s scattered first half with them, he may be right. But here we find ourselves four months later, with both teams 10-6, wrought with injuries, a pair of banged-up starting quarterbacks, and a chance to make it to the second round. The two teams mirror each other in almost every category (except the Eagles have a better running game, and the Packers have superior pass coverage), so I think it comes down to the quarterbacks. Rodgers hasn’t always handled big games well (his turnover to Arizona knocked Green Bay out of the playoffs last year), but he’s won this year when it’s mattered. I’ll take the Eagles in a close one, just because I think Vick will prove to be more consistent.
SCORE: Eagles 24, Packers 20
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