The 6-3 Patriots lost to the Jets last week for the first time in eight meetings. Not only did they fall to a divisional opponent, they also entered their first losing streak in four years. The 4-5 Packers have won three of their last four games, including last week against the Vikings. Tom Brady and a number of other Patriots have never played in Lambeau Field, because the Pats haven't played a regular season game there since 1979. Here are five things the Patriots must do this Sunday if they want to beat the Packers:
1. Attack with the passing gameThis is a big game for Brady and his offense. They have been struggling to come through when they need to. He's thrown five interceptions in the last two games. So far this season, a number of receivers have shown they can make big plays. It's time for things to come together for the Pats passing game this week, because Green Bay has the worst pass defense in the league right now. Communication seems to be at the root of their coverage problems, and they've allowed big plays in almost every game. Corners Al Harris and Charles Woodson are both tough, physical guys who'll want to push Brady's wideouts off their routes at the line. Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell both had big games last week despite the loss. Doug Gabriel had a good game against Cincy a few weeks back and caught a 45-yarder against Minnesota. Hopefully these guys have built enough chemistry with Brady to adjust their routes and still be open when Brady expects them to be. This is a big test for the Pats passing game, but don't expect them to throw the ball as much as they did against Minnesota. Corey Dillon has the hot hand after taking off for a 50-yard run last weekend. The Patriots need to take advantage of this weakness and regain some confidence in their ability to execute drives.
2. Regain the swaggerQuite a few Patriots are in uncharted waters right now; they've never "been losing" before in the NFL, because the Pats haven't lost consecutive games since 2002. Last week, it seemed to be a no-brainer that they were going to stomp the Jets like they always do. Losing to the Colts and Broncos somehow seemed understandable. Unfortunately, they learned that a loss is a loss and that the Jets could hand one to them. The Pats practiced in full gear all week for the first time in recent memory. Today, Belichick said that was because they were just getting back into a routine after having a Monday night game. It seems more likely that they were trying to get back into the routine of preparing like a winning team. Neither of the last two losses were blowouts. The Pats still lead their division. They don't have a reason to hang their heads, yet. But a loss to the Packers and 37-year-old Brett Favre could be terrible. The locker room had an aura of seriousness this week that wasn't there last week. A lot of players wouldn't even talk about the history in Lambeau Field, because winning was the only thing on their minds. They've got it in them; they just need to bring it when they take the field. Most of all, they need some big plays. Perhaps a strip-sack, a pick, a long touchdown pass, or a kick returned for a touchdown at a key point in the game – these are all things that have been missing at crucial times. It could take as little as a solid third-down stop by the defense. Once they're flying around, they'll remind everyone who they are. They just need to get to that point.
3. Pressure Favre
Brett Favre is having a great season, though it was only last season that he threw a career-high 29 interceptions. He's only thrown two interceptions over his last five games. Giving up interceptions used to be his biggest criticism, and pressuring him is the best way to ruin his game. Favre is still just as big. He's strong enough to throw bombs and fast enough to evade pursuers. He also throws the ball more than any other NFL quarterback (352 attempts this season). New Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy wants Favre to stick to the plays and check down to the next receiver when one's covered up. With all that athleticism, Favre's specialty has been making something out of nothing – getting away from the rush and letting it rip. That tradmark can be his downfall, however, because he doesn't always make the best decision in those situations and will throw it into traffic. The defensive line may be missing Ty Warren again this week. He's still listed as questionable, as is Richard Seymour. But they'll be going up against three rookies on Green Bay's offensive line, including Tony Moll, who's expected to get his first start with Mark Tauscher suffering from a groin injury. Vince Wilfork and the other big men could have a field day and if they can pressure Favre, he'll make a bad throw. Then it's just up to the guys in the secondary to get their hands on it.
4. Play tough in the secondary
If there's anywhere the Patriots are being bitten by the injury bug, it's in the defensive backfield. Veteran linebackers like Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin, Tedy Bruschi and even Junior Seau, now in his 17th season, are all going strong. But Rodney Harrison still hasn't spoken about the timeline for his broken scapula, and Eugene Wilson has been plagued by a hamstring injury all season. Stand-ins Chad Scott and Artrell Hawkins have done a good job of replacing those two safeties, and their resumes are solid, so they should continue to be solid as well. Unfortunately cornerback Ellis Hobbs' wrist still isn't completely healed from the break he suffered in September, and suddenly cornerback Asante Samuel is listed on the injury report with a knee injury. These guys are going to need to play tough, perhaps enlisting the help of James Sanders and recently acquired Rashad Baker, because Green Bay's passing game is the focal point of it's attack. Wideout Donald Driver is red hot right now, and he's caught almost twice as many passes as any of the other receivers on the team. Favre is going to be looking for him. They'll have to cover him well without letting the other receiver, Greg Jennings get open. He's averaging 16.7 yards-per catch, which makes him dangerous, even if he doesn't get the ball too many times. If the Patriots secondary can shut down the passing game while the defensive line chases Favre, they'll have to rely on 29-year-old Ahman Green. He's still good, but they'll be one-dimensional.
5. Be consistent on the offensive line
The Patriots offensive linemen started out strong this sesaon. The group is tight-knit, all growing (or trying to grow) beards as a sign of their unity. They work hard, and coach Dante Scarnecchia is one of the best in his business, assembling excellent offensive lines for 20-some-odd years now. Unfortunately, the right guard position has been something of a revolving door for the Pats line with Stephen Neal missing the last three games. They seem to have the depth to cover for him, and the Patriots signed Gene Mruczkowski this week to add to it. They'll really need to work together and keep communication flowing or they could have some serious trouble with the Packers defensive line. Defensive end Aaron Kampman has 9.5 sacks this season on a Green Bay defense that ranks third in the NFL in sacks-per pass play. He'll likely be matched up with Nick Kaczur, who appears to have finally recovered from a bad shoulder injury he sustained last season. When Kaczur needs a breather, rookie Ryan O'Callaghan will be filling in. Both of those guys are good, but the offensive line as a whole is going to have to work together to keep Brady safe. The Packers secondary can't cover anybody, so if the line can give Brady time to throw, he should be able to find an open receiver.
Patriots-Packers connectionsPatriots assistant secondary coach Joel Collier coached with Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders with the Miami Dolphins (2000-2004). … Packers tight ends/assistant offensive line coach Joe Philbin coached at Northeastern University (1995-96) and Harvard University (1997-98). … Packers offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski served as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Boston College from 1997-1998. … Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees and Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements coached together at Notre Dame in 1994. … Patriots center/guard Russ Hochstein and Packers running back Ahman Green were teammates at the University of Nebraska in 1997. … Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Packers cornerback Charles Woodson were teammates at the University of Michigan from 1996-1997. … Patriots defensive back Rashad Baker and Packers center Scott Wells were four-year teammates at the University of Tennessee from 2000-2003. … Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins and defensive back James Sanders played with Packers safety Tyrone Culver at Fresno State for three seasons from 2002-2004. … Patriots wide receivers Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gafney were teammates with Marquand Manuel at the University of Florida for three seasons from 1999-2001 before all being drafted in the 2002 NFL Draft. … Patriots offensive lineman Wesley Britt and Packers safety Charlie Peprah played together at the University of Alabama. … Former Boston College standout Will Blackmon was drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Packers. … Patriots guard Stephen Neal made his first career NFL start against Green Bay on Oct. 13, 2002.