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Bills vs. Packers preview


When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park TV: Fox

The Green Bay Packers are winless in five trips to Buffalo, so naturally Aaron Rodgers wants to make history.

"I'm surprised we've only played them five times up there," Rodgers said Wednesday. "It's going to be great to be a part of the first win in Buffalo, I guess."

While the Packers (10-3) are cruising toward home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, the underdog Buffalo Bills (7-6) are hanging on by a thread in the AFC playoff race, needing a win in their home finale Sunday to stay in the picture.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break it all down:

Rodak: Rob, not only are the Packers probably the NFL’s best team, they’re also the NFL’s hottest team, winning their past five games. What have they done better over that stretch that maybe they weren’t executing as well early in the season?

Demovsky: First of all, Rodgers has been on fire, and it’s not just Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb anymore. They’ve developed other weapons, such as rookie receiver Davante Adams and rookie tight end Richard Rodgers, and they have finally found a way to balance the passing game while still getting running back Eddie Lacy the football. His touches have gone way up. And until the second half against the Falcons on Monday night, you would have said their defense had turned the corner. Early in the season, they couldn’t stop the run, missed too many tackles and had breakdowns in deep coverage. That all seemed rectified until Matt Ryan and Julio Jones picked them apart. Maybe it was an aberration; we’ll find out.

Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have both raved about the Bills’ defense, especially the defensive front. What do the Packers have to prepare for from this group, which includes three players (Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes) with at least 9.5 sacks each?

Rodak: They'll have to pick their poison, in a sense. Teams have taken different strategies in double-teaming and trying to slow down the Bills' defensive line, which also includes Kyle Williams, who made the Pro Bowl last season. But there's no way to stop all of them. That's part of why we've seen so many multisack games from them this season: You can double-team one or two of them, but it's only creating opportunities for the other stars across the line. For example, we saw Dareus rack up three sacks in Week 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs, while Mario Williams had just one sack in that game. The next week in Miami, Williams went off for 3.5 sacks, while Dareus didn't have one. It all depends on the week-to-week strategies for offensive lines. The Broncos managed to avoid any sacks of Peyton Manning last week by getting rid of the ball quickly and leaning on their running game more than usual.

Aaron Rodgers has been the NFL’s best quarterback this season (he leads the league in Total QBR) and could be the NFL’s MVP. Still, the Bills’ defense was able to hold Manning without a passing touchdown last week. What would be their formula for doing that against Rodgers?

Demovsky: If there’s a formula for slowing down Rodgers -- and there might not be one -- it’s probably this: Get pressure on him but don’t blitz. He tears apart teams that blitz. But if your front four can get home, which it looks like the Bills’ front can do, then you can commit to coverage on the back end and limit Rodgers’ ability to throw the ball down the field. And then you better also have good coverage on the underneath routes, because he’ll gladly take the checkdowns, as we saw him do against the Falcons. He’s not going to make many mistakes, so you can’t count on him turning the ball over (his three interceptions this season all came on balls that went off the hands of the intended receiver). This might be the best overall defense the Packers have faced this season, so it will be interesting to see how Rodgers and McCarthy try to attack it.

The Packers probably remember Kyle Orton as a game manager from his days as the Bears’ starter. What’s his game like now, and what are the Bills asking him to do?

Rodak: The Bills have a 5-4 record under Orton this season, and when they've won, he's either been able to lead late comeback drives (against Detroit and Minnesota), blow the top off a poor defense (twice against the Jets) or get a lot of help from his defense (against Cleveland). I wouldn't call him a game manager, as he's still prone to interceptions and bad decisions. He's thrown at least one interception in five of his nine starts and has also taken some sacks for which the offensive line really wasn't to blame. The more glaring problem is that his completion percentage and yards per attempt have generally declined since he took over, while he's had a QBR under 30.0 in four of his past five starts. He's still a better option than EJ Manuel, whose QBR was under 10.0 in his final two starts, but to call Orton effective wouldn't be accurate.

Statistically, the Packers are middle of the road defensively, allowing 23.4 points per game (18th in NFL) and 374.4 yards per game (26th in NFL). Are those numbers skewed because of how efficient the Packers’ offense is at scoring?

Demovsky: That’s what defensive coordinator Dom Capers would like you to think. He always points to two stats he believes tell the story of a defense: points allowed and opponent passer rating. As you mentioned, they’re 18th in scoring defense, which is quite a bit better than they are in yards allowed. And they’re 17th in Total QBR by opposing quarterbacks (55.6) and ninth in opponent passer rating (84.9). He believes the latter is best measure of a defense because it takes into account takeaways, and Capers’ defenses almost always rank high on the interception lists.

The Packers have a rookie, second-rounder Davante Adams, who is getting plenty of playing time as the No. 3 receiver, but he’s certainly no Sammy Watkins. After what Julio Jones did to the Packers' defense Monday night, what are the chances Watkins has another big game like he did last week against the Broncos?

Rodak: I'd say it's still 50-50. Watkins fumbled his first catch of the game Sunday in Denver, and then we essentially didn't hear from him again until the second half. He finished with his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season, yet there's hardly been a consistent output by the rookie on a week-to-week basis. He's admitted that part of it is mental -- he's been frustrated, at times, with the focus that defenses put on him -- but you can't discount the effect of his quarterback's play. You never know what you're going to get from Orton, so it's hard to predict how Watkins will perform each week.