As with all the primetime games – if not all the games in general – Sunday night’s Patriots/Packers game is getting boiled down to Tom Brady vs Aaron Rodgers. I mean, NBC even brought in Michael Jordan for the ads for this one. Michael Jordan!
While simplifying in like that is necessary for 30-second commercials, in this case in grossly understates the ramifications for this game. Because there’s plenty on the line for both sides.
Featured Pick #1: Who will score the Packers’ first touchdown? (Any other player)
The Pats defense keying on Adams and Geronimo Allison presumably out with an injury, this is a prime spot to grab some value. Marquez Valdes-Scantling stands to see the most benefit. But here’s the best part: Not only is the rookie wideout a value pick, but you’re getting the field as well, outside of Adams, running back Aaron Jones, and tight end Jimmy Graham.
Graham has a reputation of being a ridiculously good red zone target, which he has been. But Green Bay still hasn’t really figured out how to use him well in the context of the rest of their offensive scheme. As it stands, the star tight end only has one touchdown grab on the season. And Jones only has two.
Over the past five weeks, Valdes-Scantling’s action has increased, albeit not in a perfectly linear fashion:
Week 3: 1 target, 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
Week 4: 3 targets, 1 catch, 38 yards, 0 touchdowns
Week 5: 10 targets, 7 catches, 68 yards, 1 touchdown
Week 6: 6 targets, 3 catches, 130 yards, 0 touchdowns
(Week 7 bye)
Week 8: 5 targets, 2 catches, 45 yards, one touchdown
With the defense focused on Adams, the next best options are Randall Cobb, Jimmy Graham, and Valdes-Scantling. Graham has largely been a disappointment so far in his inaugural season in Green Bay. They just haven’t quite figured out how to use him yet. And Cobb has been on the injury report for the last couple weeks with a bum hamstring. He did manage to play last week and figures to suit up again this week, but this is a golden opportunity to grab some value with Valdes-Scantling in the “Any other player” category.
Furthermore, Green Bay has scored 2.07 points/drive this season. That ranks 16th in the league, per Football Outsiders. The same source also has the Packers ranked 21st in points/red zone visit with 4.70 points/appearance. Meaning even if Aaron Rodgers & Co. put a solid drive together, getting to the red zone doesn’t even guarantee points for the Packers. That doesn’t bode well for Jones or Graham, really. The Packers stand just as good a chance to score from outside the red zone as in. Which makes the big play ability of their “Any other player” a very tempting choice.
Featured Pick #2: Will all kickoffs be a touchback? (No)
Whoever the Packers put back to return kicks might be hesitant to bring the ball out of the end zone. Especially since doing so pretty much led to Green Bay trading away their previous kick returner Ty Montgomery. It also denied them a chance at a potential game-winning drive against the L.A. Rams.
But isn’t that something New England might try to take advantage of? The NFL has reformed the kickoff rules to incentivize more and more touchbacks. Or so they think. There are unintended consequences with that, though.
Now, teams and kickers are more motivated than ever to try and have their kickoff land at the goal line, leaving the returner little choice but to return it. (Coincidentally, that’s the exact reason Montgomery said he defied coach Mike McCarthy’s orders to return the kick last week, he didn’t know – based on the trajectory of the ball – if he’d have room inside the end zone to take a knee.)
As if that wasn’t enough, the Packers and Patriots rank 23rd and 24th in the percentage of kickoffs that result in touchbacks, per TeamRankings.com. Kickoffs for the Packers result in touchbacks a mere 56.1% of the time while the Patriots avoid a return against them on 54.9% of kickoffs. As mentioned, part of that is by design. Trying to bait teams into returns is part of special teams now. The icing on the cake for this pick is that it stands to be a high-scoring game. Which means kickoffs aplenty.
Featured Pick #3: Who will win the game? (New England)
New England can’t really afford to lose because they need to keep pace with Kansas City for home-field advantage in the AFC. Especially considering the L.A. Chargers are coming in hot and threatening to take over one of those top-two spots should the Pats or Chiefs slip up.
Green Bay desperately needs a win to stay in the NFC playoff hunt. Obviously, a loss wouldn’t knock them out totally, but the Packers are a team that has struggled all season to find an identity. Their offense has looked great; their offense has looked bad. Ditto for the defense … especially the defense.
All things considered, the most likely scenario that plays out is that the Patriots spread the ball around and try to control the pace to keep Rodgers off the field. However, the flip side of that is the Packers are forced to play from behind (again) and look for big plays from players other than their go-to in Adams. Which is why Jones and Valdes-Scantling are intriguing.
In the end, though, it’s unlikely Green Bay will come up with the firepower – or gameplan – to match wits with Brady and Belichick.
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