8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Green Bay -5.5
Before the temperature turns the playing surface of Lambeau Field into a “frozen tundra”, a blast from the past helps bring Week Three to a close as the Green Bay Packers host the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football. For those unaware, the NFL is celebrating their fiftieth season of the Super Bowl Era with a “Gold 50” at the center of every field around the league, and what better way to truly pay homage to half a century of Super Bowls than by having it’s very first representatives clash in a prime time matchup? That’s right folks, way back on January 15th of 1967, Vince Lombardi’s Packers trounced Hank Stram’s Chiefs in a 35-10 rout which would serve as the first installment of our country’s biggest sporting event. Hall of fame Quarterback Bart Starr outgunned his counterpart Len Dawson, leading Green Bay to twenty-one unanswered points in the second half en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. Flash forward fifty years, and it’s not outlandish to think that these two franchises could meet on Super Sunday once again; at 2-0 the Packers look like the class of the NFC, while the Chiefs could very well be sporting that same record if not for some calamitous clock management at the end of their last outing. Ah, but there are also a number of parallels running between these storied clubs, with the most obvious found in the their respective front offices. Kansas City Head Coach Andy Reid spent the first seven years of his coaching career in the league learning his craft in Green Bay, guiding the Tight Ends and Offensive Line, before coaching the Quarterbacks in his final two campaigns. It was a largely successful stint in which the Packers won a Super Bowl (1996) and went to another (1997), which ultimately led to Reid taking over in Philadelphia, where he led the Eagles to a 130-93-1 record in fourteen years at the helm, including five NFC Championship Games, highlighted by a trip to the Super Bowl in 2004. Upon arriving in Kansas City three years ago, Reid established former Packers’ executive John Dorsey as General Manager, and proceeded to install the same West Coast Offense that brought so much success in his previous stops. Many franchises have adopted the Front Office structure created by Ron Wolf and Co. back in the early 90’s, with the Chiefs the latest to follow that blueprint with designs of building a champion.
However, that’s not the only common thread between these teams, for the other can be found between the respective Quarterbacks. Back in 2005, Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers entered the NFL Draft as the top two prosepcts, with the San Francisco 49ers owning the No. One Overall Pick. Early in the draft evaluation process many believed that Rodgers, the Northern California native who played his collegiate ball at Cal, the Niners’ back yard, would be a shoe-in for the selection, but over time sentiment slowly swayed in the direction of Smith, who was inevitably the selection for San Francisco. Rodgers, on the other hand, slipped all the way to twenty-fourth where the Packers thankfully put his overpublicized wait in the Draft’s Green Room to a halt. While Smith struggled in his first three years with the 49ers, Rodgers held a clip board behind Brett Favre, all the while retooling his mechanics and footwork. Once he earned the starting job in 2008, Rodgers has since gone on to establish himself as arguably the top signal-caller in the game today, raking in four Pro Bowl nods, a pair of MVPs, and a Super Bowl Championship in 2010, all the while amassing a 72-33 record as a starter, with his team poised for big things once again. Smith on the other hand is a different story; after nearly falling out of favor with the coaching staff, management, and the fans, Smith enjoyed a renaissance under new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, posting career-highs in a number of categories while leading the Niners to a 13-3 record and an appearance in the 2011 NFC Championship Game. The following season, the seventh-year veteran got off to a blistering start, but suffered a concussion in a loss to the Rams, and was never able to regain his starting job due to the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, who piloted San Francisco to one completion away from a Super Bowl Championship. During the Offseason, Smith was traded to Kansas City for a second Round Pick, and under Reid’s guidance immediately restored the flailing Chiefs to respectability. Now these Quarterbacks will face off for just the third time, with Rodgers taking the first meeting in 2009, a 30-24 victory at Lambeau Field, with Smith settling the score in the 2012 Season Opener at Monster Field, a 30-22 triumph.
But enough of the past, let’s take a look at these two teams as presently constructed. Despite suffering a number of injuries, the Packers (2-0, 1st in NFC North) have been undaunted, largely due to the ridiculous play of Rodgers. The reigning MVP has been on a tear, completing a ludicrous 76.8% of his passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions, despite a new skill position player seemingly biting the dust each week. In the Preseason it was Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Jordy Nelson, who tore his ACL, before fellow Wideout Randall Cobb injured his shoulder two weeks later, followed by Offensive Tackle Bryan Bulaga, who sprained his MCL and is expected to miss six weeks. It didn’t stop there though, as the likes of Davante Adams and Eddie Lacy who each suffered ankle injuries in last week’s 27-17 victory over Seattle. Usually, losing players of such caliber would bring adverse effects to a Quarterback, but Rodgers is no mortal man folks, for No. 12 proceeded to shred the two-time NFC Champions like parmesan cheese. The 32-year old completed 25-of-33 passes for 249 yards, and two touchdowns, while rushing for another twenty-three yards on six carries. No Nelson? No problem; Rodgers found Cobb eight times for 116 yards and the recently returned James Jones for a twenty-nine yards touchdown. No Lacy? No problem; James Starks, the unsung hero of the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run calmly stepped in to churn out ninety-five yards on twenty carries. And then there is the defense, which Mike McCarthy and Co. have been gradually building over the past three years; Green Bay held Seattle’s sputtering offense in check for the majority of the contest, relinquishing 324 yards, and forcing a pair of turnovers. Second-year Linebacker Jayrone Elliott emerged as a playmaker, picking off Russell Wilson while also forcing a fumble which was recovered by teammate Mycah Hyde. With Lacy (22 carries, 94 yards, 1 touchdown) and Adams (9 catches, 92 yards) both a possibility to return tonight, Green Bay could look even more formidable on offense, which spells trouble for even the best of defenses.
Ah, but if there was a defense that could possible trade blows with the Packers’ vaunted offense, it would be the Chiefs (1-1, 3rd in AFC West), who through two weeks have looked very stout on that side of the ball. The numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story in this case, for Kansas City has allowed an average of 25.5 points (21st Overall) thus far; in each of their two outings this season, the defense yielded the bulk of their yards in garbage time, with the Texans scoring eleven of their twenty points in the Fourth Quarter, while the Broncos appeared stuck in the mud until they were able to take advantage of a series of mistakes in the second half. Five turnovers will kill most teams’ chances of victory, let alone against Peyton Manning, whether or not he can consistently throw the ball twenty yards or not. Do be fooled by all that folks, for this defense is loaded with talent, and is well equipped to attack their opponent tonight. First and foremost, Reid’s pass rush is the envy of most around the league; in two games they have already amassed eight sacks, led by Outside Linebacker Justin Houston, who after compiling a staggering twenty-two sacks last season, has already dropped opposing Quarterbacks three times in 2015. Then there is the emergence of First Round Pick Marcus Peters, who is looking more and more like the steal of the NFL Draft. After being abruptly dismissed from the University of Washington, the Cornerback was a pariah entering the Draft, but has made play after play thus far, leading the Chiefs in tackles (12), interceptions (2), and pass break-ups (7). In last week’s loss to the Broncos, he picked off Manning midway through the Second Quarter, and returned it fifty-five yards for a score. Not bad for a kid in his second start, huh? Lastly, the Secondary (and the entire team as a whole) has enjoyed a boost with the return of Eric Berry, who missed seven games last season with a high ankle sprain followed by the remainder of the campaign after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The three-time Pro-Bowler and 2013 All-Pro Safety has racked up six tackles and deflected a pass in his return, and will be essential tonight in keeping his teammates organized against Green Bay’s litany of receiving threats.