It would be a shame if the Packers fail to make the playoffs in a year when the NFC is unusually weak. Philadelphia looked to be the real deal until they lost to Washington at home on Monday night. As for Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and the Giants, they are flawed teams led by flawed quarterbacks. Of course, you could say the same thing about Green Bay. The difference is that those teams are much more likely to be still playing in the middle of January.
If the Packers are to beat the Titans (6-3) and keep their flickering hopes of a postseason berth alive, here are five keys to victory:
1) SLOW DOWN DERRICK HENRY
The two-time All-Pro leads the AFC in rushing with 923 yards (4.6 per carry). How important is he to the Titans? In their six wins, he’s gained 701 yards. In their three losses, he’s gained 222 yards. Green Bay’s defense did a very good job against Henry two years ago, holding the former Alabama star to under 100 yards. But that was then, and this is now. In 2020, the 11-3 Packers dominated time of possession 36:37 to 23:23. That’s unlikely to happen again. Plus, it snowed that December day, and Henry never looked comfortable with his footing. No white stuff is expected on Thursday.
2) WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
The Packers were 30-0 entering this season when winning the turnover battle, something they’ve done only once in 10 games, and even that deserves an asterisk. While they were plus-1 against Buffalo, both turnovers happened when the outcome was pretty much decided. Getting to 31-1 won’t be easy against an opponent that’s only given the ball away 10 times. Ryan Tannehill hasn’t thrown a pick in his last four starts, and Henry has fumbled only twice in over 200 carries. Perhaps Rudy Ford will continue to pay dividends. The new starting free safety showed a real nose for the football last week.
3) COMMIT TO THE RUN
The Packers ran the ball a season-high 37 times in their OT win last week. That had to get the attention of defensive coordinator Shane Bowen, who’ll probably crowd the line of scrimmage and dare Aaron Rodgers to beat him through the air. As tempting as that might be, Matt LaFleur needs to keep calling plays for Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. With all due respect to Christian Watson and his three TDs against the Cowboys, the two veteran running backs are still the best skill players on the roster. For them to do damage, the line must be able to handle star defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons.
4) HOLD UP IN PROTECTION
The Titans’ pass rush has been ferocious lately. In the past two games, they’ve recorded 77 pressures. For the sake of comparison, the Packers had 20 pressures against Detroit and Dallas. Simmons is the biggest threat, but unheralded players like Mario Edwards Jr., Denico Autry, and DeMarcus Walker, whom I desperately wanted Ted Thompson to draft in 2017, have really been coming on. The Packers preferred offensive line finally played an entire game together vs. the Cowboys, and the results were positive. It’s imperative that the same quintet starts and finishes on Thursday night.
5) FIELD PUNTS CLEANLY
Wide receiver/returner Amari Rodgers was finally waived after his fifth fumble of the season last Sunday. That’s the most by a non-quarterback in the league. What’s amazing about that stat is how few times the former Clemson star touched the ball in eight games (30). He’ll likely be replaced on punts by journeyman cornerback Keiseasn Nixon, whose two returns a week ago were the first of his career. The Packers were fortunate to overcome Rodgers’ gaffe against Dallas, but they’re probably not good enough to do it again. This relatively routine play continues to be an adventure.
PREDICTION: Are the Packers the team that came back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Cowboys, or are they the team that lost five straight games prior to last Sunday? The former would certainly stand a decent chance of beating the Titans at Lambeau on a short week. The latter would get whipped at the line of scrimmage and lose by double digits.
For what it’s worth, this game is much more important to the Packers. They can’t afford to lose more than one or two games if they want to have a realistic chance of making the playoffs for the fourth straight season. On the other hand, Tennesse is already two games ahead of second-place Indianapolis in the mediocre AFC South. But if the Titans need extra motivation, they’ll get it from their fiery head coach, Mike Vrabel, who probably still hasn’t gotten over losing to LaFleur, his former offensive coordinator, by 26 points in 2020. Reportedly, the two didn’t have a particularly close relationship.
The Packers are favored by a field goal. I still don’t have a lot of confidence in them, but desperation, home field, and a very short week has to mean something, doesn’t it? GREEN BAY 23-21 (Season record: 5-5-0 straight-up; 4-5-1 vs. the spread)