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Packers-Raiders: 5 Things To Watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (12-0) vs. the Oakland Raiders (7-5).

The time: 3:15 p.m. CST Sunday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

The TV coverage: WDJT (Ch. 58 in Milwaukee) and WISC (Ch. 3 in Madison).

The announcers: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms in the booth.

The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 66-34 (including 5-2 in the postseason) in his sixth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Raiders? Hue Jackson is 7-5 in his first year as the Raiders? coach and as an NFL head coach.

The series: The all-time regular-season series is tied, 5-5, with the Packers having won five straight.

The rankings: The Packers? fourth-ranked offense is No. 29 in rushing and No. 3 in passing. Their 31st-ranked defense is No. 13 against the run and No. 31 against the pass. The Raiders? 12th-ranked offense is No. 4 in rushing and No. 16 in passing. Their 26th-ranked defense is No. 28 against the run and No. 17 against the pass.

The line: The Packers are favored by 11.5 points.

The injury report: Packers ? RG Josh Sitton (knee), LT Chad Clifton (hamstring/back), ILB Desmond Bishop (calf), RB James Starks (knee/ankle) and OLB Vic So?oto (back) are out. ILB A.J. Hawk (calf) is questionable. CB Charles Woodson (concussion) is probable.

Raiders ? QB Jason Campbell (collarbone), WR Jacoby Ford (foot), RB Taiwan Jones (hamstring), RB Darren McFadden (foot), WR Denarius Moore (foot) are out. DT John Henderson (knee) is questionable. TE Kevin Boss (hip), S Michael Huff (ankle), DT Tommy Kelly (toe), DE Jarvis Moss (hamstring), DE Trevor Scott (shoulder), DT Richard Seymour (knee), WR Chaz Schilens (foot) are probable.

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Running for cover: Running back Ryan Grant doesn?t know how many carries he?ll get Sunday, but the combination of the Raiders? 28th-ranked run defense and winter temperatures arriving in Green Bay have Grant hoping for a run-heavy game. Given coach Mike McCarthy?s pass-oriented offense ? and the play of NFL MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers ? the Packers will never be a run-first outfit, but this could be a game where the commitment to the run is greater.

With second-year running back James Starks out with an ankle injury, Grant figures to get the bulk of the carries. While Grant has started 10 of the Packers? 12 games so far, Starks has carried the ball 127 times for 565 yards this season, while Grant has 92 carries for 316 yards. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Starks has played 428 snaps to Grant?s 228.

Having taken a $1 million pay cut in August to stay with the team and coming off the season-ending ankle injury he suffered in the 2010 regular-season opener, Grant can also showcase himself to prospective employers for next season, assuming he doesn?t return to Green Bay.

?I think it?s an opportunity, no matter what,? Grant said Friday. ?Take it how you want. It?s an opportunity to be productive on a lot of levels.?

Asked directly if it was a chance to audition for other teams, Grant smiled and said: ?It?s an opportunity to be productive on many levels.?

Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said the Raiders? problems against the run are in part because of the chances they take with pressure.

?Every once in a while, a team will catch them. They?re not afraid to pressure, and once in a while if you?re going sideways, sometimes you can get creased,? Philbin said. ?They?ve got a big, physical defense. Their front seven, they?re big guys.?

Ground and pound: Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers expects a run-heavy offensive approach from the Raiders, even without starter Darren McFadden. And with big Michael Bush carrying the load, that could present a challenge to the Packers, who have struggled against big backs historically, including against Tampa Bay?s LaGarrette Blount last month.

According to Capers, the Raiders went away from what they do best when they fell behind Miami last week, and he expects them to return to their running roots Sunday.

?Those are the first two things that jump out on you: big offensive line, big backs. I?ll say this: the three games before this last game (against Miami), I think they ran it 40, 39 and in the mid-30s, so they?ve been running it 35 times on average,? Capers explained. ?The Dolphins got up on them and they got away from the run. It was a different style game. I?m sure they?ve gone back and looked at the tape and they say, ?We?ve got to get back to what we are.?

?All you?ve got to do is look at their last four games. They won three in a row and they were pounding people running the ball and then making plays. Even in the Bears game, it was a close game and they threw the ball over the top at the end to make the play that really won the game. ? I would anticipate them coming back in here and wanted to run the ball 35 times.?

That means the Packers? inside linebackers will be vital, and even if A.J. Hawk (calf) plays, they?ll still be without Desmond Bishop (calf), and while rookie D.J. Smith has shown promise and terrific effort, he?s undersized and will have to tackle well.

Safety in numbers: Amid all the concerns about the play of the Packers? defense, the safety play has been a factor. Charlie Peprah is a fill-in starter for the second straight season, while second-year man Morgan Burnett played just four games last season before blowing out his knee.

While the Packers? next-man-up mantra got them a Super Bowl XLV title, it?s hard to deny that the defense sorely misses three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whose NFL future is in question after his season-ending and career-threatening neck injury Sept. 18 at Carolina.

?I think anytime you lose a Pro Bowl player, a guy who?s been extremely productive ? Nick?s been consistent the whole time I?ve been here in terms of producing,? Capers said. ?That?s no reflection on the guys we have in there. You?re always going to miss a guy (like Collins). I think Morgan?s right on schedule. I like him a lot. He?s smart, he?s big, he can cover ground. I don?t think you want to lose sight of the fact the doggone guy?s been playing with a big old cast on his arm. He?s got that off now. He was off to a tremendous start with three interceptions early in the season. It?s just hard to play that way when you?ve got that cast on your hand.

?Yeah, you lose a Pro Bowl player it?s always going to affect you. There?s a reason why Nick?s been so productive. Charlie had the play last week on the first series where they threw the ball over the top of him. You don?t ever want to that.?

Last week, Peprah was responsible for Giants tight end Travis Beckum?s 67-yard touchdown, biting on a play fake before Beckum ran past him.

Asked to evaluate his safety play this season, coach Mike McCarthy replied: ?Morgan. I think he?s done an excellent job playing with the injury. I think Charlie has played solid football. He?s probably not grading out as higher as he did last year. I would say their play has been solid. I would look for Morgan to make even more plays as we move forward, just with the ability of playing without the cast. I would say that they?ve had a solid season, if you?re looking for a grade.?

Reluctantly Blitzburgh: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers are sending five or more pass rushers 45.4 percent of the time this season, the fourth-highest total in the league. That?s a significant increase over the last two years, as Capers sent pressure only 35.6 percent of the time in 2009 and 2010 combined. In truth, despite his Blitzburgh reputation, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers believes that his defense is at its best when he can be more discriminating about how often he dials up the pressure.

?I?ve always been a guy that to be an outstanding defense, it starts with rushing four. And then how much five you do comes off of that,? Capers said. ?Because it makes it more effective when you do it. People prepare for it. If you?re doing it 50 percent of the time, they?re going to spend a lot more time preparing for it.

?I think if you have to rely on pressure all the time, you?re barking up the wrong tree. You?ve got to be able to play your stuff, and then mix that pressure in at the right time and come up with the big plays. I like where we?ve been the first two years. What you have to be careful of is if you rely too much on pressure, you?re probably going to see more big plays, and that?s, to me, that?s not a great tradeoff. Because what wins games is keeping people out of the end zone.?

Worth the price?: The Raiders paid a king?s ransom for quarterback Carson Palmer, who ?retired? from the Cincinnati Bengals over his frustration with the team?s direction, only to ?unretired? when the Bengals found him a new address. Oakland gave up one first-round pick and the other pick is conditional and could rise to another first-rounder. That said, Palmer would have to start playing significantly better than he has to this point.

Since joining the team Oct. 18, Palmer said he is ?Starting to get more and more comfortable every chance I get to step on the practice field or game field. Obviously we have a big one this week, heading out there. But feeling more and more comfortable every chance I get.?

With a wide receiver corps beset by injuries, Palmer has struggled not only with knocking off the rust after his pseudo-retirement, but with uncertainty with where his receivers might be.

?It really hasn?t been one thing that?s been more difficult than anything else,? Palmer explained. ?It?s just kind of been a whole bunch of stuff ? studying a new playbook, new terminology, new formations. And then new guys ? different route runners and different speeds and different body language at tops of routes. It?s been just kind of getting on board with everything, starting over again.?

THE PREDICTION

The Packers clinch a first-round playoff bye with a victory, the latest milepost on their road to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. If they win and win next week at Kansas City, they could lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Then, things really get interesting. Packers 31, Raiders 13. (Season record: 9-3.)


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