Back in the early days of May, there were some NFL fans, myself included, who didn’t think we would be able to reach this day with the kind of excitement and anticipation we feel now. I thought those feelings would be replaced by disappointment and uncertainty. Such was the stranglehold the lockout held over the NFL season. After a third of the calendar year was wasted in lockout, the light came at the end of the tunnel and teams were forced to scramble and make a whole off-season worth of transactions in just over a month. All of these things put aside, the NFL season will kick off today as scheduled, with the Packers hanging their fourth Super Bowl banner in the legendary confines of Lambeau Field.
The kick off game features the previous two Super Bowl Champions, as well as two Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. It is a fair assumption to make that these two players will have a huge impact on the winner of tonight’s game. Rodgers will be throwing to a full corp of wide receivers, save perhaps Jermichael Finley. Brees will be missing WR Lance Moore who is out with a groin injury. Replacing him on the starting lineup will be Devery Henderson.
While we can expect pass oriented offenses tonight, it would be unwise to overlook or underestimate the impact that the running backs will have. Both Head Coaches, Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton understand the importance of controlling the match by running the football. Ryan Grant should get somewhere between 15-20 carries, while the Saints will have Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas splitting carries, with the possibility of rookie Mark Ingram coming in for short yardage situations. McCarthy will be sure to keep the Saints one dimensional on offense by trying to stifle the running game and forcing them to pass into the Packers world class secondary.
The Packers still face some depth questions on the offensive line. Derek Sherrod has not so much struggled this preseason, but simply growing into the pro football speed and strength. Either way, a single injury tonight and McCarthy will again have to shuffle players into different positions. If the Packers cannot protect Aaron Rodgers from the Saints infamous blitzes, then the advantage of this game will tip to the Saints.
As for the Packers getting pressure on Drew Brees, DE Mike Neal is still listed as questionable. If he is not ready to play, we will see Jarius Wynn start. Wynn has not been disappointing during the preseason, and has shown he is more than capable of stepping into a starting role. However, Neal is athletically and physically more fit for the defensive end position than Wynn. Other than Neal, there are no significant injuries in the Packers starting defense, and we will likely see a very strong performance from them.
The two biggest keys to this game will be how well Drew Brees throws against the Green Bay secondary, and how many times the Saints can get to Aaron Rodgers. If Brees is given the chance to throw 40+ times, we can assume that the Packers defense has shut down the Saints’ running game, which means that the Saints will be playing from behind for a decent portion of the game. If Rodgers is sacked any more than 5 times, that will mean that the Packers will have to rely more on a running game that doesn’t always produce the numbers required to win games against teams as good as the Saints.
My prediction is a 31-17 Packers victory. Aaron Rodgers has been playing like an MVP his entire career, and under the Thursday night lights, he will outshine Drew Brees. I expect at least three touchdown passes from Rodgers, and more than likely 250+ passing yards, all coming under 30 pass attempts. While on the other hand Drew Brees will throw over 35 times, and will have probably more than 300 passing yards.
From the perspective of the running game, the Saints will try to run the ball often and early. However, once the Packers jump out to a good lead, they will be forced to run the ball less, so do not expect big days from any of the Saints running backs.
I believe the Packers defense to be far better than the Saints defense, which is why I don’t think the Saints will score more than 20 points. With healthy starting corner backs, linebackers, and safeties, you can expect the Packers to frustrate Sean Payton’s offense into a lot of third down situations. On the other hand, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver should have a decent challenge facing Jabari Greer and Tracey Porter. However, with effective slot receivers like James Jones and Jordy Nelson, I don’t foresee the Saints secondary being a huge factor in this game. As far as turnovers are concerned, we will likely see two or three coming from both squads. The first game of the season always has it’s sloppy and unfocused plays.
In case you were wondering, NBC’s pregame show has been moved to the NFL Network, Syfy Channel, and any other NBC Universal networks. This is of course, due to President Obama’s special speech to Congress which he has chosen to make before the game. I encourage all of you to watch both the speech and the game tonight. I can not think of a less American evening than Presidential speeches and the kick off of a brand new football season.
GO PACK GO!