Sunday, October 21, 2012

Packers vs. Rams: preview and prediction

Coming off their much needed victory against the Houston Texans last Sunday evening, the Green Bay Packers make a stop in St. Louis today as the third of their back-to-back-to-back road trips on the schedule. Sitting at 3-3, the Pack has yet to win back-to-back games. Today offers an opportunity to get on a roll and go into their bye a few weeks down the road at 6-3.

But first, the Rams. Also sitting at 3-3, but one could -- and I will -- make the argument that these are very different 3-3 teams facing each other. The oddsmakers apparently have a similar view as they have the Pack installed as 5.5-point favorites. Granted, the Packers will be without five key starters in this game: WR Greg Jennings, NT B.J. Raji, LB Nick Perry, CB Sam Shields and LB D.J. Smith. Note that four of these five are on the defense. For a unit that seemed to just be getting its mojo in gear, it's not ideal. The Packers have become particularly light in the linebacking corps; don't forget that Smith was starting in place of the injured Desmond Bishop. So look to Brad Jones and Robert Francois to plug in the gap. Replacing Sam Shields will likely be Casey Hayward, the rookie who had two interceptions in last week's game and already has three on the season in a backup role. He always seems to be around the ball, and may have opportunities again today, particularly if the Pack's front seven can hold down the Rams' running game and then create the kind of pressure on third-year QB Sam Bradford the way they did against Matt Schaub. Also look for CB Davon House to get some action today for the first time this season. He was showing great promise in camp before being injured.

On the offensive side of the ball for the Packers, with the exception of Jennings, QB Aaron Rodgers will have his full complement of receivers. James Jones seems to be finally rounding into the player that everyone thought he could be. Jordy Nelson had his belated season coming out party last week with three TD catches after only one in the preceding five games. Randall Cobb continues to emerge as a threat on many levels. RB Alex Green will again get the start. Green did a servicable job last week keeping defenses honest and thus opening up the passing game for Rodgers and crew. If he can continue to do that this week, the offense gets a boost. If not, there are really not many options for the Packers at running back right now, especially with the season-ending injury to backup RB Brandon Saine...and of course, Cedric Benson was lost the week before for at least a couple months if not the season. That pretty much leaves James Starcks as the primary replacement, and he hasn't seen much action at all this season, nor can he seem to avoid nagging injuries and stay on the field when given the chance. The Packers did claim RB Johnny White off waivers from Buffalo this week, but don't expect him to probably even be active today.

The Packers' offensive line will have its collective hands full with a very good defensive front on the part of the Rams, led by Chris Long. The Rams have also drafted DE Robert Quinn (2011) and DT Michael Brockers (2012) to help bolster the D-line. Given how well the Packers' offensive line handled JJ Watt et al in Houston, if they can reprise that effort today, Rodgers could have another big day. Remember: this is another dome game and Rodgers and the receivers like that fast track as it opens things up downfield. While mis-firing in that regard a bit too often early in the season, it seemed as if things started to finally click last Sunday night. Again, that pattern should continue today.

I'm a big fan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Packers beat writer, Bob McGinn, as frequent readers of this space know. Here's his take on today's game: "In three of their six games, the Rams have faced rookie quarterbacks. They're 2-1 there, and they've also defeated Arizona's Kevin Kolb. Given their voids in the offensive line, at wide receiver and at safety, the Rams should not compete with, let alone defeat good teams. It's the Packers in a rout."

I concur with McGinn. It's a big "if" given the Packers injuries in key spots. But it seemed as if last week was the Pack's first complete game of the season; it was how we expected this team to be. I think they've found their groove, injuries aside.

I'm calling it 38-24 in favor of the Pack. Don't know if that qualifies as a rout or not, but it's a win and that's all that matters.

With the Jaguars and Cardinals coming to Lambeau Field over the next two weekends, this game is the key to being 6-3 heading into the bye. Then, with five of their remaining seven games coming against NFC North Division opponents -- twice against both the Lions and ViQueens and once against Da Bearz -- the Packers would be well set to make a playoff run -- if not outright division title -- down the stretch.

First things first, though...say it with me: GO PACK GO!!!