If anybody tells you they know what to expect when the Packers take the field in Denver Sunday afternoon, hook them up to a polygraph machine.
You’d like to think that the Packers, playing for just the second time in the last 23 days, would be healthy and hungry to put their last two performances, both in prime time, firmly in the rear view mirror.
Hungry? I would hope so. Healthy? Yeah, about that…
How does a team that hasn’t played in two weeks feature ten, count them ten, players on the injury report? I’ve never seen anything like it. Nine are questionable, the other, De’Vondre Campbell, is doubtful and will likely miss another game. Of the questionable guys, the guys most in jeopardy of being out are two guys we weren’t worried about a few days ago. Jaire Alexander’s back injury flared up and Elgton Jenkins’ knee is barking again—neither practiced on Friday.
The others appear to have a decent shot to play. I rank them like this for their importance in this matchup: Quay Walker, Aaron Jones, Darnell Savage, Devonte Wyatt, Eric Stokes, Yosh Nijman and safety Zayne Anderson.
No matter who is able to suit up, this is a game the Packers absolutely must win if they believe they can be in the mix for the final wildcard spot in the NFC. This game, along with matchups later in the season with the Panthers and Bears, should be the most winnable games.. The rest of the schedule? Who knows.
That said, the Broncos’ much maligned defense showed signs of life in its most recent game in Kansas City, holding the Chiefs to 19 points. The pass rush has improved by subtraction, as the Broncos jettisoned expensive veterans Randy Gregory to San Francisco and cut Frank Clark. They’ve gotten a spark from Nik Bonitto and Jonathan Cooper and they expect to have Baron Browning, a projected starter, on the field for the first time this season on Sunday.
Where you can really make hay is running the ball on Denver’s 32nd ranked run defense. Whether it’s a Jones-Dillon combo platter, or whether it’s mostly Dillon, the Packers must exploit the Broncos with the running game—something they’ve not done well all season.
There should be opportunities for Christian Watson to finally have that breakout game, as the Broncos have given up a number of big plays all season. The snap counts and targets for Romeo Doubs and Jayden Reed have decreased the last two weeks and they both need to see their touches increase. Same goes for Luke Musgrave who has a favorable matchup against the defense that gives up the most yards and catches to tight ends this season.
The last time we saw Russell Wilson, he managed a grand total of 95 yards passing against the Chiefs, but that was actually the outlier this season. He’s been a lot more productive under Sean Payton, with 12 TDs, 4 picks and a 99 passer rating. That said, Denver would gladly get rid of the fading Wilson and his bloated contract if they could. For the moment, he has a decent pair of receivers in Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, both of whom could be shipped out before the trade deadline, though the Broncos have denied they’re shopping them.
A player to watch Sunday, is rookie WR Marvin Mims, who’s been used mainly as a dangerous returner, but could be in line for more work on offense. The former Sooner is an electric athlete who seems primed to take on a larger role, especially with Jeudy struggling to get open.
Like the Pack, the Broncos hope to take advantage of a mediocre to poor run defense. Oft injured Javonte Williams is starting to look like his old self and they really like undrafted rookie Jaleel McLaughlin. With Campbell out, the Pack could really use Walker back patrolling the middle gobbling up tackles.
It should be an unseasonably warm day in Denver and with the altitude issues, expect the Packers to work deep into the depth chart to divvy up the snaps and try to keep everyone fresh. It goes without saying Green Bay has to, at worst, not lose the turnover battle and it would be nice to see an offensive game plan that puts Jordan Love into favorable situations.
A strong running attack is the first order of business. Then, use play action and move Love out of the pocket and get the ball out of his hands quickly and give Watson, Doubs, Reed and Musgrave some YAC opportunities.
Until I see the offense hum, I’m not going to make any grand pronouncements. If Jones and Watson are close to 100%, they won’t have an easier matchup than this one. But after watching this team play five times, I have no idea what to expect. I’m just gonna believe they figure out a way to get it done. A late turnover seals it for the Pack.