Saturday, December 18, 2010 Updated: December 19, 3:19 AM ET
10 things for Patriots-Packers
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
A look at 10 areas that project to be crucial, from a New England Patriots perspective, in Sunday night's game against the visiting Green Bay Packers at Gillette Stadium (NBC, 8:20 p.m. ET):
1. Avoiding the mental pitfall with Packers' QB change. The Patriots know they've caught a break with Green Bay ruling Aaron Rodgers out because of a concussion. At the same time, it's not as if the growing-on-the-job Patriots defense is without flaws (e.g., 32nd in the NFL on third down), so this will be a test of the unit's maturity to see how it mentally handles the situation.
With Aaron Rodgers out, the Patriots will have to keep their focus against Matt Flynn on Sunday.
2. Blocking Clay Matthews. The Patriots rank seventh in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play, and Matthews is a top pass rusher, leading Green Bay with 12.5 sacks. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer could see the most of Matthews, although the Packers have also moved the second-year, high-motor rusher around. Though a different style of player, Matthews can disrupt a game similar to Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
3. Limiting Packers' yards after the catch. Because they don't feature a consistent traditional running game, the Packers sometimes turn to their short passing game by putting the ball in the hands of their explosive pass-catchers where they can gain yardage after the catch. This will challenge the tackling of the Patriots' secondary, especially if top cornerback Devin McCourty does not play.
4. Winning early downs, then showing Matt Flynn different looks. The Packers average 5.75 yards per first-down play, which ranks 11th in the NFL. The Patriots need that number to be lower, keeping Flynn in longer-yardage passing situations. In theory, that will set up the Bill Belichick-coordinated defense to show Flynn different looks that make it harder for him to decipher what is unfolding in front of him.
5. Depth on the D-line to deliver. The Patriots are thin on the defensive line with Mike Wright (concussion), Myron Pryor (back) and Ron Brace (concussion) looking unlikely to play. With veteran Gerard Warren (knee) also a question mark, a heavy burden falls on the rest of the line -- Vince Wilfork (7th year), Brandon Deaderick (rookie), Kyle Love (rookie) and potentially new signee Louis Leonard.
6. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the running game. The Packers have two excellent cornerbacks in Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, and they are a big reason the Packers rank third in the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed per game (196.8). The run defense, on the other hand, isn't as strong, with opponents averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 117.3 yard per game. That's why this could be a productive game for Green-Ellis & Co.
7. Safety over the top of Greg Jennings. It's unusual to see a team's leading receiver averaging 16.3 yards per reception, but that's what the Packers have with Jennings, a five-year veteran. He's a big-play threat, with 11 touchdown catches, and it's hard to imagine the Patriots won't keep a safety over the top of him, even without Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball.
8. Capitalizing on opportunities in the punt return game.Julian Edelman had a punt return for a touchdown called back last week because of a holding penalty, a reflection of how close he is to breaking one. The Packers have already allowed one punt return for a touchdown this season (62 yards) and rank 26th in the NFL when it comes to punt coverage.
9. Rob Gronkowski in the red zone. Teams facing the Packers have been limited to 27 trips inside the red zone, the lowest total in the NFL (opponents have scored just 13 touchdowns in those trips). So maximizing opportunities in the red zone takes on added importance, and that's where rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski is a big presence at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. He has seven touchdowns on the season and seems to do some of his best work inside the 20.
10. Winning the first quarter. The Packers are one of the NFL's best first-quarter teams, outscoring opponents 57-26. The Patriots are also strong in this area, getting out to quick starts while outscoring foes 75-33 in the first 15 minutes. Naturally, this will go a long way toward determining which team dictates control of the game.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.