4:25 PM EST, FOX – Line: Packers -5.5, Over/Under: 43.5
Division leaders traveling in very different directions face off tonight in Charm City, as the surging Green Bay Packers clash with the fading Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. With four games left in the regular season, the Packers (10-3, 1st in NFC North) finally broke through in the top-heavy NFC and moved into first place over the weekend as they look to secure home field advantage for the second consecutive postseason. Of course, that luxury didn’t work out so well for them a year ago; Green Bay narrowly lost to the (eventual Super Bowl Champion) Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an entertaining 31-26 NFC Championship Game from Lambeau Field. Fast forward nearly twelve months and the cheese heads have vaulted past the Arizona Cardinals following their defeat on Monday Night Football and the tiebreaker from their previous encounter with (Head Coach) Matt LaFleur’s troops back in late October, a 24-21 triumph in the desert. Now gunning for a third consecutive 13-win campaign, the question prevailing around Eastern Wisconsin is this: are these Packers better suited to finally get over the hump and into Super Bowl LVI? Well, anytime you have (three-time MVP) Aaron Rodgers (67.3%, 3,219 YDS, 7.04 NY/A, 27 TD, 4 INT, 64.9 QBR) as your starting Quarterback you have a great chance of success, even if the 38-year-old entered into a cold war with the front office during a Summer in which he demanded to be traded. While the reigning Most Valuable Player hasn’t been quite as prolific as he was in 2020, he’s still one of the favorites to claim that prestigious award once again. Surrounded by a supporting cast that has been plagued with nagging injuries, Rodgers is leading the league in passer rating (108.8) for a second consecutive season despite playing through an ailing toe for a number of weeks now. Bumps and bruises aside, the 9-time Pro-Bowler has really begun to heat up of late, completing nearly 70.0% of his passes for an average of 344.3 passing yards on a healthy 8.68 net yards per attempt with ten touchdowns and zero interceptions over the last three games, which of course includes his most recent performance, a 45-30 outburst against the Chicago Bears, whom he once again reminded in not-so-subtle fashion that he “stills owns them”. Believe it or not, this latest entry into the NFL’s oldest rivalry (which just so happened to be the highest scoring in series history) started off inauspiciously with only three points between the two teams in the first quarter. However, the action would pick up considerably in the second, with two sides combining for a whopping FORTY-FIVE points before halftime. Unfortunately for Chicago, only one of these combatants would maintain that momentum into the second half and it certainly wasn’t the visitors; Rodgers & Co ran off another seventeen points in the third period before adding another touchdown in the final stanza before it was all said and done. In the end, the Packers totaled 439 yards of offense on twenty-seven first downs and possessed the football for a commanding 35:00, thanks in large part winning the turnover battle in decisive fashion 3-0. Sure, Rodgers was a stellar 29-of-37 passing for 341 yards and four touchdowns with (All-Pro Receiver) Davante Adams (90 REC, 1,204 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 7 TD) hauling in ten receptions on thirteen targets for 121 yards and a pair of scores, but the real story continued to be the play of an ascending defense that has been Green Bay’s trump card throughout 2021. Indeed, (Defensive Coordinator) Joe Barry has pushed all the right buttons in his first season with the franchise, with his charges allowing 20.9 points per game (7th Overall) on 323.7 total yards (6th Overall) and logging twenty-two takeaways (8th Overall), which when coupled with their ever-efficient attack has parlayed to a turnover differential of Plus-12. And that’s been the barometer for success for this team, who when they get their hands on the football deal in volume; all of their takeaways have come in their ten victories with a margin of Plus-17, but in their three losses they forced none with a negative margin Minus-5. With that said, one of those losses was a 13-7 defeat at the Kansas City Chiefs in which Rodgers didn’t participate and the other was a puzzling 38-3 drubbing to the New Orleans Saints in which the Quarterback was picked off on two occasions. Against the Bears last weekend, they allowed 347 total yards, forced three turnovers, and relegated their rival to a combined 5-of-14 on third and fourth down. Opposing Quarterback, Justin Fields had another rough day on the job, completing just 18-of-33 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and interceptions apiece, while suffering a pair of sacks and a lost fumble. As a group, Green Bay had sixteen pressures and seven knockdowns, with (Defensive Linemen) Rashan Gary (37 TKL, 3 TFL, 21 QBH, 6.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR), Kenny Clark (42 TKL, 7 TFL, 13 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FR), and Preston Smith (27 TKL, 6 TFL, 13 QBH, 7.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 FR, 1 PD) accounting for eleven of those pressures and both sacks. Gary in particular has been a force this season, with the third-year standout filling the void left by the injured Za’Darius Smith, posting career-highs in a number of categories including starts (12), tackles (37), pressures (32), Quarterback hits (21), sacks (6.5) and forced fumbles (2). And then there is the Secondary, which very well may be the deepest group in the NFL. (Rookie Cornerback) Eric Stokes (40 TKL, 1 INT, 12 PD) appears on the track towards stardom, while the unheralded Rasul Douglas (39 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FF, 3 INT, 10 PD, 2 TD) has been a revelation since being released from the Houston Texans in late August, with a team-best three interceptions and two touchdown returns. If they can get (Pro-Bowler) Jaire Alexander (13 TKL, 1 INT, 3 PD) back from injury, then this unit will be even tougher to pass on. Though they currently sit atop the NFC, the Packers’ hold on the no. one seed is tenuous at best as both the Buccaneers and Cardinals are also 10-3, with the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams each sitting at 9-4. After this trip to Baltimore, Green Bay will welcome both the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings, with latter representing a rematch with one of the few teams that have bested them this season, before traveling to Detroit for the season finale. Rodgers has met the Ravens just three times in his career, winning twice with a completion percentage 58.6% and an average of 214.3 yards on 6.79 net yards per attempt with as many touchdowns (4) as interceptions.
Meanwhile, the postseason race in the AFC is FAR more convoluted with the Ravens (8-5, 1st in AFC North) just one of twelve teams that are currently jockeying for position within the seven-team playoff field. In case you were wondering, there are sixteen teams within the conference, folks, meaning all but four of them have a shot. Of course, no division has been more tightly contested than the AFC North, which has seen all four of its residents remain in contention for a division title, with just 1.5 games separating first place from last. Needless to say, the margin for error is now razor-thin for Baltimore, who can go from hosting a game on Wild Card Weekend to possibly missing out on the Playoffs altogether, which would be a first for the franchise since (2019 MVP) Lamar Jackson (64.4%, 2,882 YDS, 6.41 NY/A, 16 TD, 13 INT, 49.8 QBR) began his meteoric rise to superstardom back in 2018. However, since driving his team back from a 17-3 deficit to defeat the Vikings (34-31) back on November 7th, Jackson and the Ravens’ offense have been stuck in neutral, averaging just 16.6 points on 324.2 total yards over the last five weeks, converting a disappointing 34.2% on third down and committing ten turnovers along the way. So, what in the name of Ray Lewis is going in Charm City, you ask? Well, injuries and lengthy absences have decimated (Head Coach) John Harbaugh’s team throughout the campaign, with the Backfield and Offensive Line suffering some particularly heavy losses, while even Jackson himself has suffered his share of bumps and bruises as well, including a sprained ankle that caused him to exit last weekend’s 24-22 loss at the Browns. Trailing 10-0 early in the second quarter, the 24-year-old was carted off the field with what was initially thought to have been a high ankle sprain and did not return, though scans would reveal no further damage leading Harbaugh to expect the playmaker to be active for today’s affair with the Packers. With that said, it’s difficult to envision him being at his best, which is precisely where Baltimore needs him to be down the stretch if they wish to return to the playoffs. Over the last four games, Jackson has struggled mightily as a passer in completing 62.3% of his attempts for just 168.3 yards on a scant 5.18 net yards per attempt with three touchdowns and six interceptions. Apart from a dearth of playmakers surrounding him, he has been under intense pressure of late in suffering fourteen of his career-high thirty-eight sacks during this stretch. Opponents have blitzed him like never before (151 times), with the former Heisman suffering the most hits (29) and pressures (106) of his young career. Furthermore, shortening his time in the pocket has been the recipe for success for opposing defenses; when Jackson has fewer than 2.5 seconds within the pocket, he has averaged 5.74 net yards per attempt with five touchdowns and eight interceptions in comparison to eleven touchdowns and five interceptions on a much improved 8.56 net yards when he has more time to survey the field. Granted, this is what makes him special, for there is no greater threat at his position when using his legs; over four years he has averaged 63.3 rushing yards on a healthy 6.0 yards per attempt with twenty-one touchdowns, becoming the only Quarterback in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 in the same season. If he can’t take field tonight, then expect (Rookie Quarterback) Tyler Huntley (68.2%, 528 YDS, 4.99 NY/A, 1 TD, 1 INT, 42.0 QBR) to get the nod, for the youngster has handled himself well in the limited action that he’s seen thus far; Huntley led Baltimore to a tough 16-13 victory over the Bears as Jackson was sidelined with an illness, before nearly rallying them back to victory last weekend at the Browns. Huntley has proven to be an efficient passer thus far, and while he isn’t the explosive athlete that Jackson is, he can absolutely extend plays with his legs (16 CAR, 95 YDS, 5.9 Y/A). However, the injury bug hasn’t been exclusive to the offensive side of the football, for the defense has been ailing too in recent weeks. The Ravens lost one Pro-Bowl Cornerback in the form of Marcus Peters before the campaign even began and have now lost another in (All-Pro) Marlon Humphrey (44 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FF, 1 INT, 13 PD), who landed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in a narrow 20-19 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Needless to say, this a MAJOR issue for a defense like Baltimore’s, who have long been one of the most aggressive in the National Football League. With both Humphrey and Peters on the mend, (Defensive Coordinator) Don Martindale hasn’t been able to dial up the exotic pressure packages that have brought such success in the past, which has in turn led to a dearth of takeaways with eleven (29th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve logged just twenty-six sacks thus far (24th Overall) despite only two teams blitzing more frequently (34.7%), which when coupled with what has been the league’s second-worst pass defense (266.0 Y/G) should inform their plight. Basically, Martindale is bringing a plethora of pressure but without the personnel to play man coverage is seeing his troops get burned with regularity. Of course, this MUST be a concern heading into tonight’s encounter with the aforementioned Rodgers, who has absolutely TORCHED defenses when they attempt to pressure him throughout the course of his career, completing 73.8% of his passes for a net average of 6.71 yards per attempt with FIFTY-EIGHT touchdowns opposed to a mere four interceptions when he has fewer than 2.5 seconds within the pocket. With four games left in the regular season, the Ravens have arguably the toughest path to the postseason, with return legs against the Cincinnati Bengals and Steelers (who have already beaten them) bookending a date with the Los Angeles Rams, with those four opponents owning a combined win percentage of .634