The teams: The Green Bay Packers (4-3) vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-3).
The time: Noon CDT Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: CBS – WDJT (Ch. 58 in Milwaukee), WISC (Ch. 3 in Madison) and WFRV (Ch. 5 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 72-39 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Jacksonville's Mike Mularkey is 1-5 in his first year as the Jaguars' coach after going 14-18 in two years as coach of the Buffalo Bills.
The series: The all-time regular-season series is tied, 2-2. The Jaguars have won the last two meetings, including a 20-16 in 2008 in Jacksonville and 28-25 at Lambeau Field in 2004.
The rankings: The Packers' 14th-ranked offense is No. 24 in rushing and No. 10 in passing. Their 14th-ranked defense is No. 17 against the run and No. 17 against the pass. The Jaguars' 32nd-ranked offense is No. 25 in rushing and No. 32 in passing. Their 28th-ranked defense is No. 29 against the run and No. 24 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 14.5 points.
The injury report:
Out – S Charles Woodson (collarbone), WR Greg Jennings (groin), FB John Kuhn (hamstring), LB Nick Perry (knee), CB Sam Shields (ankle).
Questionable – WR Jordy Nelson (hamstring),
Probable – TE Jermichael Finley (shoulder), LG T.J. Lang (elbow/wrist), C Jeff Saturday (neck), WR Donald Driver (neck), DT B.J. Raji (ankle), QB Aaron Rodgers (calf), RB James Starks (illness).
Out – RB Maurice Jones-Drew (foot), S Dwight Lowery (ankle).
Doubtful – RB Montell Owens (shoulder), WR Laurent Robinson (concussion).
Questionable – CB Derek Cox (back), FB Greg Jones (hip), CB Rashean Mathis (groin), WR Laurent Robinson (concussion).
Probable – QB Blaine Gabbert (left shoulder).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Trap game: McCarthy and Rodgers did what they were supposed to do: They spoke respectfully of the Jaguars, dismissed suggestions that this is a so-called "trap game" and accorded them all due professional courtesy. But the fact of the matter is, the Jags just aren't very good. But don't take our word for it – take the word of their head coach.
"We understand the situation we're in here," Mularkey said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters this week. "It is, obviously, a new staff, a new system offensively, new players that we're learning a lot about each week. But we're staying the course. Unfortunately and fortunately, I've been in this position before, my first year in Buffalo. Like I told that team, ‘When I started 0-4 there, there is no 0-4 folder I'm going to pull out of my file and make this the solution.' This is what we know, this is what we believe in.
"You know, this is what has shown up in a lot of our games. Most of our games, at periods, at some point or another in the game, we can be a good offense or a good team. We've just been very sporadic. If we hadn't had signs of it at any time, including even in the preseason, then there'd be some concern. But no, we're not (concerned) as far as most people view us from outside this building. So we're sticking with it."
That said, even though the "Any Given Sunday" applies, this is not a game the Packers should lose, facing the NFL's least-productive offense and fifth-worst defense. Nonetheless, the coaches insisted that the Jaguars didn't look like a god-awful team on film. Then again, the Packers were heavily favored at Indianapolis on Oct. 7 and lost, so
"All you have to do is watch the tape," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I'm sitting there this morning and I'm watching the opener against the doggone (Minnesota) Vikings and they score with 27 seconds to go a touchdown and they're going to win the game. Last week, they're up 17-6 on the Raiders at halftime. They moved the ball right down the field – touchdown, touchdown. In this league, you better be ready to take care of business because they've been in most of their games.
"All you've got to do is go back and look at our Colt game. We're up 21-3 and we're looking pretty good and we lose the doggone game. You can't ever relax. To me, the challenge every week is more about us and what we do."
In the House: While Casey Hayward has deserved every bit of credit and attention he has received – the rookie second-round pick has registered four interceptions in the past three games and will make his second straight start at cornerback with Shields sidelined – the Packers have another cornerback in the mix who gives them valuable depth: Second-year man Davon House.
House saw action in only two games last season as a rookie fourth-round pick, then suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason opener when he was leading the race for the starting gig opposite Tramon Williams. Against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday, he played his first NFL regular-season snaps on defense and played well, even though he gave up a late touchdown – the only blemish on an otherwise solid performance.
"I was graded at 95 out of 100. Besides that last play, I was at 100 percent," House said. "For me, I'm going into this game not to give up a touchdown, not to give up any big plays and not give up any first downs. That's my goal. That's my idea of pitching a shutout. Especially the touchdowns and the big plays, and third downs are huge because it gets us off the field."
Hayward has been fantastic and likely will merit consideration for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year if he keeps it up. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Hayward leads the NFL in quarterback rating into his coverage: zero TDs allowed, four INTs, a 23.7 passer rating. But a healthy House gives the Packers even more pass-defending talent, which they lacked a year ago.
"You always have the feeling of, ‘I know I can play at this level,'" House said. "But when you go out and actually do it, it's like, ‘Man, I was right. I know what I can do. I'm here for a reason.'"
Money for nothing, plays for free: Rodgers has long loved the so-called free play, when he gets a defender to jump offsides and his center snaps him the ball while his receivers all go deep. If he completes the pass, great; if it's intercepted, it doesn't matter; if it falls incomplete, there's no wasted down.
But it's hard to imagine things going better than they did last Sunday in St. Louis, when Rodgers' free plays resulted in a 52-yard completion to Nelson and a 39-yard touchdown to Cobb – both of which were a continuation of a trend that dates back awhile (and even further back than the upcoming stat).
Since the start of the 2011 season, no quarterback has attempted more big passes in such situations than Rodgers. According to John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, and thanks to ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert, you now know this: Rodgers has attempted an NFL-high 14 post-encroachment passes since the start of 2011. They have averaged 25.8 yards past the line of scrimmage, the highest total of any quarterback with more than two such attempts. Five have been completed for a league-high 128 yards, including two touchdowns. He has thrown two interceptions, but both were of course nullified by the penalty.
Cobb's touchdown was absolutely remarkable last Sunday, and not just because Rodgers made a sick throw while rolling left. Rather, it was the fact that the Packers stepped to the line with really no play called – essentially hoping for an offsides call – that made it so remarkable.
"There was about 3:45 left on the clock and it was third-and-long. Third-and-9 there. We had just had a negative run. We had ran two plays. We got the call in and there was a little bit of confusion and I couldn't exactly hear just what the call was," Rodgers explained on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. "I said, 'Hey let's line up and I am going to just try to run the clock down and see if they jump. But if they jump, let's get open.' We are in our empty shotgun formation and I did my leg kick a couple times and they ended up jumping. But it wasn't a major jump so my immediate reaction was (to wonder), 'Did they throw the flag or not?'
"I couldn't tell if there was a flag going up on my right. I figured the guy on left wasn't. I peeked to the right, but I couldn't tell if a flag had been thrown and then my next feeling was that the left side of the line had kind of collapsed. I moved to my left. As I moved left, my first thought was I might be able to run this one for a first down. My calf was feeling pretty good at this point in the game and I knew at bare minimum I could stay in bounds and a field goal gets it to a 10-point game even if I just get five yards."
Rodgers said most of the credit should go to center Jeff Saturday, who snapped the ball because he saw the Rams were offsides.
"Yeah, he figured they were offsides. But I was kind of looking off to the left so I couldn't tell if he was offsides or the end just rocked in his stance a bit," Rodgers explained. "My next look was to the left as I thought about running. Randall put his hand up as he was running and that is something we have talked about in meetings: Let me know what you are thinking. If you are putting your hand up in a certain direction or way, I know you are going to continue on that path and not come back or swim them.
"He went inside of [the defender] and then kind of came around him and put his hand up and I actually double clutched it, because I wasn't sure where the safety was. I was able to put the ball in a decent spot and he was able to make a great catch."
Asked about getting opposing defenses to jump, Saturday said Rodgers is as good if not better than his old QB, Peyton Manning, at it.
"You definitely try to keep your eyes where you can see any kind of movement and try to make them pay if they try to jump your count," Saturday said. "It's one of those things you focus on in practice you make it part of your offense, so when it does happen, everybody's in the same rhythm and you just have to make sure you're finishing the plays. More than anything, you have to make sure you're not anticipating it and doing it when it doesn't happen. it's a great thing that the Packers have done for years and it's one thing we do. (Rodgers) does a great job of mixing up counts, anticipating blitzes and making sure we're ready and prepared for what they're going to give us."
Blockin' tackle: Cobb's performance against the Rams won him the team's offensive game ball, and he certainly deserved it with his eight receptions for 89 yards and two touchdowns. But one of the other nominees was right tackle Bryan Bulaga, whom McCarthy said had "probably one of his best performances of his career" against the Rams but lost out on the award.
"Life of a lineman," McCarthy said.
All kidding aside, Bulaga has rebounded impressively from a nightmarish first half against Seattle on Sept. 24, when the Packers surrendered eight sacks and Bulaga was charged with two sacks, one quarterback hit and eight pressures by ProFootballFocus.com. But after not looking anything like the player McCarthy predicted would play at a Pro Bowl-caliber level, Bulaga has responded by doing just that.
"Done very good. He had a very good game last week, against a good opponent," offensive line coach James Campen said.
While the Jaguars defense has struggled, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's 4-3 scheme can produce pressure at times. Having Bulaga back to himself will help.
Safety in numbers: With starter Charles Woodson out at least a month with a broken collarbone, the Packers must turn to two young, unproven options in his place: M.D. Jennings, who's the odds-on favorite to take Woodson's safety spot in the base defense, and rookie Jerron McMillian, who figures to fill Woodson's role covering slot receivers. Hayward was the other slot corner last week against the Rams and figures to stay in that spot with McMillian.
So, are McMillian and Jennings ready to replace the 36-year-old veteran?
"They better be. They don't have a choice," safeties coach Darren Perry said Friday. "We're going to stick them out there and give them an opportunity, and hopefully they'll go out there and proceed and give us what we want."
Of late, McMillian and Jennings have been job-sharing the nickel/dime safety job when Woodson would shift to the slot. That's been the result of neither player seizing control of the job, but in some ways it'll have worked out for the best: Now both players come into Sunday having contributed in the weeks leading up to Woodson's absence.
"I think right now you have two guys who are really close. The decision has been tough in terms of going with one or the other, so we figured both of them deserve the opportunity to show what they can do. We've been able to do that," Perry said. "When you're playing the other guys every week, it's a growth amongst them. Hopefully, those guys can continue to keep improving and get to where we want to finally have those guys in terms of being at a certain level and certain standard we need them to play at."
The Packers' next-man-up approach to injuries is admirable, but sometimes, it results in more than a few folks not appreciating the significance of some of their injury-related losses. The idea of an offense without Jennings, Nelson and running back Cedric Benson should be frightening, but it's just business-as-usual for the Packers. That said, the team is fortunate that it's playing an overmatched Jaguars team this week. An inferior opponent makes living with injuries that much easier. Packers 34, Jaguars 10. (Record: 3-4).
– Jason Wilde