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Game Matchups: Patriots will be hard to defend through the air



The New England running game has a different look these days. First Jonas Gray burst onto the scene by rushing for 201 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-20 triumph over Indianapolis on Nov. 16, then, three days later, the Patriots brought back running back LeGarrette Blount after Pittsburgh released him. Blount rushed for 772 yards with New England during the 2013 regular season, and then added another 172 yards on the ground in the playoffs. He rushed for 78 yards and two touchdowns last week in the 34-9 victory against Detroit. New England should find plenty of running room against a Green Bay defense that has struggled against the run for most of the season, whether it's Blount, Gray or anyone else doing the running. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS



The Packers are a pass-happy offense. Eddie Lacy, the team's top rusher, enters this game with 672 yards on the ground. As the temperature drops, you can expect Lacy's carries to increase, as he seems to do his best work in cold weather. Last season, when he earned the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, he scored eight of his 11 rushing touchdowns in November and December. His best effort this season came last week, when he ran for 125 yards on 25 carries against the Vikings. New England gave up significant rushing yardage against the Dolphins (191 yards), Chiefs (207), Jets (218) and Bears (153) this season, but held the Colts to 19 yards rushing two weeks ago, and limited the Lions to 91 yards rushing last week. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS



Until someone finds a way to limit a healthy Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots will be hard to defend through the air. Gronkowski presents opponents with a difficult matchup because of his size (6-6, 265 pounds), and has proven to be an exceptional weapon in the red zone. Gronkowski has caught 45 passes for 665 yards and six touchdowns during New England's seven-game winning streak. New England quarterback Tom Brady has 26 TD passes and been intercepted four times in those seven victories, and the Patriots averaged 39.5 points per game during that span. Perhaps just as important is the fact that the Patriots offensive line has held opponents to five sacks in those seven games. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS



No quarterback has been more efficient than Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers this season. Rodgers is threatening to equal or better his production in the 2011 season, when he tossed 45 touchdown passes and was intercepted five times, and seems to be the name mentioned most when the discussion turns to candidates in the running to be this season's NFL MVP. Entering Sunday's contest, Rodgers has thrown for 2,957 yards and 30 touchdowns. He's had three passes intercepted. His numbers would be even better had he not exited early in Green Bay's last four home games, all of which were lopsided victories. His favorite target is wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who is among the top handful of pass-catchers in the game. He and Reggie Cobb combined for 19 touchdown receptions and represent the next great challenge for Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. ADVANTAGE: PACKERS



It's been a rocky season for the Packers in terms of special teams. A good example came two weeks ago during Green Bay's 53-20 victory over Philadelphia. Micah Hyde returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, but the Packers failed on two extra-point attempts and Packers punter Tim Masthay had a punt blocked in the fourth quarter. The Patriots have turned in some huge plays on special teams this season. Danny Amendola returned a kickoff 81 yards to set up a TD last week against Detroit, and Julian Edelman returned a punt 84 yards for a TD against Denver. In addition, Chris Jones blocked a field goal attempt as time expired that preserved a 27-25 victory against the Jets. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS



No one has beaten Green Bay at home this season, and the Jets are the only team that's come close. Since beating New York 31-24 in its home opener, Green Bay has gone 4-0 at Lambeau Field and turned in four dominating performances. Those victories came against Minnesota (42-10), Carolina (38-17), Chicago (55-14) and Philadelphia (53-20). The Packers outscored those four opponents 66-0 in the first quarter, and 128-9 in the first half. QB Aaron Rodgers had thrown 29 TD passes and attempted 322 passes since he was last intercepted during a home game. Both streaks that date to the 2012 season are the longest in NFL history, the latter surpassing Tom Brady's streak of 288 set from 2002 to 2004. ADVANTAGE: PACKERS


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