Green Bay's chances in Pittsburgh

I would understand if you’re nervous over in Green Bay. On the surface, the prospect of winning a December game in Pittsburgh doesn’t seem promising. And as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the Steelers are spitting mad and uninterested in becoming the first defending Super Bowl champion to lose six consecutive games.

Me? I just don’t see it that way. It’s true: The Packers will play the Steelers in a tough environment Sunday at Heinz Field. A victory most likely will assure Green Bay of a playoff spot. But many of the elements that normally would suggest a tough matchup in these situations don’t seem to apply. I never make predictions on this blog, but today I’m feeling frisky and will go this far: The Packers have a great chance of winning win Sunday unless they deviate from a few key patterns they’ve established over an extended period of time.

Let me explain:

1. The Packers have been extraordinarily careful with the ball this season, avoiding the kind of mistakes that can doom a team on the road late in the season.

Led by the their two primary ball-handlers, the Packers have committed the third-fewest turnovers in the NFL (15). Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is throwing one interception for every 63.4 passes and tailback Ryan Grant hasn’t fumbled in 247 carries. There are 22 NFL running backs who have at least 156 carries this season, and Grant is the only one among them without a turnover.

Meanwhile, the Packers are causing turnovers at a faster rate than all but one NFL team. Their 33 takeaways rank second behind New Orleans (37).

Put together, Green Bay has an NFL-best turnover ratio of +18. There might not be a more important measure to judge a team’s aptitude for winning a December road game.

2. The Packers have been one of the NFL’s best December/January road teams during this decade. Here are the top 5 teams in this category, courtesy the Elias Sports Bureau:

I’m sure there are a number of explanations for this performance, but one of them makes intuitive sense. The Packers are used to playing (and now practicing) in elements that rival anything they will face on the road. If you’re curious, the Weather Channel is predicting cloudy skies Sunday in Pittsburgh with a high of 33 degrees. That’s known as “spring” in Green Bay.

This isn’t to say the Packers have it easy on the road. Playing in another city this late in the season is a tough task. But on a relative scale, the Packers have done it better than most teams for nearly 10 years.

3. The Packers haven’t played the Steelers since 2005, and they haven’t played in Pittsburgh since 1998. Often, the Steelers capitalize on that lack of familiarity to surprise opponents with their unpredictable 3-4 scheme.

In this case, however, the Packers have two important factors working for them. First, defensive coordinator Dom Capers can trace his roots back to the inception of the Steelers’ current system. Capers was the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh from 1992-94, and much of the Packers’ defense draws on the Steelers’ concepts. If anyone can lend some familiarity, it’s Capers.

In a related second point, the Packers are 4-0 this season against 3-4 defenses. Typically, I don’t give much credence to the idea of a 3-4 team gaining an advantage by “practicing” against its own 3-4 scheme. During the regular season, scout teams play the scheme of the next opponent. But I do think it can only help in the game-planning process. No matter what the reason, the Packers have been perfect against the 3-4 this season.

Where will all this lead? I’m stopping short of calling this a prediction. I’m just saying the stars are aligned for the Packers to win Sunday and, most likely, clinch a playoff berth in the process.