As you may have noticed, last week's ‘5 things to watch' was sidelined from these pages with a chronic case of "work." But in retrospect, it's probably a good thing we took the week off because that's pretty much what it looked like the Bears did themselves. I've been watching football since I was 10 (I'm 12 now) and other than the 2007 Patriots in Eff You mode, I can't remember another professional football team embarrassing another so thoroughly. In terms of beatdowns, this was as brutal as it gets. We all like to rag on divisional opponents but if the Bears would have just packed their crap at halftime and said "screw this, we're leaving" I wouldn't have been the least bit mad.
Now, I'm not one to make ridiculous presumptions or get into wild speculation, but I feel fairly certain this week's matchup versus the Eagles will be just a tiny bit more difficult. For the Packers, it's the first time since Week 1 they're facing an almost-certain playoff team, so this one should be a good test of just where the team is at. Will Mark Sanchez continue his un-Mark Sanchez like play? Will Aaron Rodgers declare the NFL beneath his skill level and retire after the game? Lots of questions remain, so let's get to our 5 things to watch this week.
Clay at Inside Linebacker
The Packers came onto the field last week with a rather obvious wrinkle in their defense. Clay Matthews was lined up inside. Many people did not like this:
But you know what? It worked. Holy hell, did it work. In some ways, Clay's effectiveness was bittersweet in that it underscored just how woefully inept the Packers inside linebackers have been. Here was Clay, playing inside for the first time (in the NFL) running around like someone on a crime spree, decking running backs and performing WWE style moves on the quarterback. This was a violent and unleashed Clay which is to say, a good Clay. Will we see more of that this week? Until another team figures it out, I can't see why Dom Capers would do anything different.
Now that Mark Sanchez has the Jets stink washed off him, he actually looks like a fairly competent quarterback. A good quarterback, even. Remember, this is a guy not that far removed from one of the single most humiliating plays in NFL history. Now, I always thought Sanchez was better than what he was with the Jets, but for old time's sake, let's take a look back at that time where Sanchez got smacked with a Kardashian-sized ass right in the helmet:
Good times, guys. Do I expect Sanchez to play as well as he did against Carolina last week? Not exactly. But even a version of the Sanchez we saw last week makes this Eagles team a tough out. Ultimately, Sanchez remains the single biggest factor going into this game.
The Packers run defense looked pretty great last week, but it was against a team that was making post-season vacation plans by the 2nd quarter. This week, the Packers face the most dangerous running back they've seen all season - LeSean McCoy. Marshawn Lynch was a nightmare in Week 1, yes, but even he doesn't have the same elusiveness as McCoy. Speaking of elusiveness, the Eagles also have a guy named Darren Sproles. It's not just that I'm concerned about the Packers last-ranked run defense. I'm legitimately concerned that A.J. Hawk's ankles may cleanly detach from his legs. Seriously guys, this could get ugly. Fortunately, the Packers have a few speedsters of their own so if either McCoy or Sproles gets to the second level, all hope isn't completely lost. But still, pray that Chip Kelly forgets that running the ball is even an option.
This could actually be one of the more fascinating games in recent history since both teams abide by essentially the same philosophy - run the defense ragged. For the Packers, they haven't quite hit their 75-play per game quota set in the off-season (currently just 59.7), but that's been largely a function of their razor sharp efficiency. The Eagles on the other hand, are business as usual under Chip Kelly, recording the second most plays per game in the league (71.0) just behind the Colts (which, who guessed that?) While the Packers aren't the frenzied, fast-paced offense McCarthy might have envisioned, they're still plenty capable of throwing a defense into complete pandemonium when they get going. And while it'd be silly to think they might temper their offense in order to preserve the defense's legs, it stands to reason that the winner of this game may very well be the one that dictates the tempo more.
Eddie Lacy Mauling Fools
As much as I love the idea of both teams trying to out Chip Kelly one another, these things never go quite as planned. Lots of "shootout" games end up being lumbering snoozers, while Cincinnati and Carolina - two teams with defenses we thought would be good - ended up laying 37 points a piece on each other just a few weeks ago. So while it'd be fun to see Aaron Rodgers toss touchdown passes to everyone in the stadium but the Dippin' Dots guy, my hunch is this game will come down to the more fundamental basics of football. Blocking. Tackling. And Eddie Lacy consuming all physical matter that exists between him and the end zone. Lacy hasn't quite been the force of nature he was last season, but as we saw last week, he's still plenty capable of wrecking defenders when they foolishly get in the way.