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Rodgers, Manning vs. top defenses in SNF stunner

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The Sports Xchange

GREEN BAY, Wis. — For only the second and possibly the last time, two of the league’s premier quarterbacks of their generation will be playing on the same field Sunday night.

Ah, barring a playoff matchup, of course.

As much as NBC is salivating in anticipation for the showdown between the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, much talk in the teams’ locker rooms this week has diverted from those star players.

With good reason.

Besides this being only the fourth matchup in NFL history between undefeated teams with at least six wins – each are 6-0 – and the first such encounter in prime time, the heavyweight opponents have stayed perfect in great part because of their stellar defenses.

“Everybody says they’re the best defense in the league, one of the best defenses in the league,” Packers cornerback Casey Hayward said about the Broncos. “Their numbers show they are one of those defenses, but we’re (ranked) number one in scoring defense right now. So, hopefully, we can keep that going. It’s going to be a good defensive game, hopefully. We know it could be a low-scoring game.”

That’s quite a statement regarding a game that features Manning vs. Rodgers, two of the most prolific passers of all time.

Packers all-star linebacker Clay Matthews echoed Hayward’s sentiments about the unlikely subplot for this doozy of a midseason meeting between Super Bowl contenders. The Packers are allowing an average of only 16.8 points per game to lead the league. The Broncos are right behind, tied for second by yielding just 17.0 points.

“It should be a good defensive performance by both teams,” Matthews said. “As a pass rusher, it’s fun to watch guys like (Broncos linebackers) Von (Miller) and DeMarcus (Ware) coming off the edge and watching the defense make plays with (cornerback Aqib) Talib and the interceptions and touchdowns he’s had.

“They’re a fun defense to watch. Hopefully, that’s not the case this Sunday. Hopefully, it’s just our defense” excelling.

For their part amid some rocky moments in leading their respective offenses thus far this season, Manning and Rodgers know they will be challenged Sunday.

The Broncos’ sack-happy and high-takeaway defense has kept Denver on its winning track despite the 39-year-old Manning’s unbelievably woeful numbers of a league-high-tying 10 interceptions and a 72.5 passer rating.

The Packers figure to try to unnerve Manning even more by using an aggressive pass rush to force him into putting the ball up for grabs.

“We’re going to have to do our job against a really good defense,” Manning said Wednesday. “So, you always want to try to do your part. I know our defense has a tough challenge in stopping their offense and Aaron. He’s been playing well this year. He’s been playing at a high level for a long time.”

Even though Rodgers’ knack for performing at high efficiency hasn’t suffered, ranking second in the league with a 115.9 passer rating, his opportunities to put up big passing numbers have dwindled in recent weeks.

Green Bay has started games in a scoring flurry but has struggled thereafter to put together sustained drives and pile up the points. A combination of an injury-depleted receiving corps and hit-and-miss production from the running game has contributed to unsatisfactory snaps for the offense, which has averaged 54 plays the last two games.

Now, the Packers have to try to contend with a suffocating Broncos defense that relies on its pass rush (league-high 26 sacks) and penchant for creating turnovers (17).

“There’s no weak spot – it’s a great defense from the front line to the back,” Rodgers said. “You’ve got to be very efficient and take care of the football. They’ve been very opportunistic, obviously holding teams to very low points per game, but they’ve also taken the ball away really well.”

SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 6-5-1. Green Bay has won three straight, going back to 2003. The most recent meeting between the interconference opponents resulted in a 49-23 rout inflicted by the Packers at home in 2011. The Broncos have won five of the six matchups played in Denver, but Green Bay prevailed in its last visit, 19-13 in overtime in 2007 as Brett Favre threw an 82-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on the first play of the extra period. The teams’ only postseason encounter came in Super Bowl XXXII, when the Broncos stunned the heavily favored Packers 31-24 at San Diego to end the 1997 season.

GAME PLAN

–Two of the five remaining unbeaten teams in the NFL get together in Denver for a compelling midseason matchup Sunday night. Adding intrigue to the obvious storyline of the two future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the field with Peyton Manning for the Broncos and Aaron Rodgers for the Packers is the formidable counterattack from both teams with their defense. Green Bay is allowing a league-low average of 16.8 points per game.

If not for the bye week getting in the way for both teams, the Packers would be getting a surprisingly struggling Manning at the right time. However, the extra rest and time for adjustments to be made doesn’t guarantee Green Bay can prolong the misery for Denver’s 29th-rated offense. To do so, however, defensive leader Clay Matthews knows the recipe includes a whole lot of frustrating Manning, as the Packers did when they last played the five-time league MVP.

Still with the Indianapolis Colts, a highly pressured Manning completed only 21 of 42 passes for 229 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions in Green Bay’s 34-14 win at Lambeau Field in 2008. Manning avoided being sacked in that game, but he’s not immune to being dropped this season even with his quick release. More important, a good dose of blitzing by defensive coordinator Dom Capers could lead to the mistakes that have hounded Manning, who is tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions and has an abysmal passer rating of 72.5.

“It’s disrupting them, forcing incompletions, bad passes, interceptions and obviously giving (the football) back to our offense,” Matthews said. “We’re up there (in the league rankings) as far as sacks (23), hits, hurries and pressures. It starts with a great pass rush as well as guys on the back working to contain (the receivers).”

The same can be said for Denver’s stout defense, which has a league-high 26 sacks. The Broncos also rank second with 17 takeaways, of those nine interceptions, led by highly resourceful cornerback Aqib Talib with two of his three picks returned for touchdowns. Green Bay’s pass attack sputtered the last three games before the bye, but Rodgers’ chances of getting back on track in a prime-time showcase he relishes are helped by the likely return of Davante Adams. The dynamic second-year wideout has missed the last three games because of an ankle injury.

The onus falls on Green Bay’s offensive line to withstand what should be steady pressure from the Broncos’ stable of pass rushers, led by linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. What may disrupt the Packers’ ability to sustain drives is uncertainty at running back. Speculation has swirled around feature back Eddie Lacy and whether an early-season ankle injury continues to bother him. His dependable understudy, James Starks, is beset with a hip injury this week, leaving his status for game night in question.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Packers cornerbacks vs. Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

The Green Bay secondary, in particular, has had plenty of time to lick its wounds since San Diego’s Philip Rivers torched the previously sturdy Packers defense for 503 passing yards in their pre-bye game Oct. 18. No matter that Peyton Manning thus far in 2015 has been a shell of his famously stellar self, the Packers’ defensive backs can’t sleep on the firepower that continues to be possible with Denver’s pass attack. In his first game against Green Bay, the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Thomas (team-high 48 catches for 527 yards and one touchdown) presents an imposing matchup for a cornerback group that stands 5-11 across the board.

The Packers’ best cover man is Sam Shields, who has a co-team-high two interceptions, but he’s also the position’s lightest player at 184 pounds and usually sticks to patrolling just the right side of the field. Going against the 5-11, 180-pound Sanders (38 receptions for 527 yards and three touchdowns) suits the Packers better, but the veteran wideout can wreak havoc downfield with his speed.

–Packers LT David Bakhtiari and RT Bryan Bulaga vs. Broncos OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.

Perhaps the NFL’s most dynamic pass-rushing duo has been integral to the Broncos’ leading the league with 26 sacks after six games. Consider it the biggest challenge Green Bay’s ‘bookend B’s’ should face during the regular season.

Bakhtiari, who has been prone to lapses and penalties, figures to get a lot of one-on-one work with Ware, who has a team-high 4 1/2 sacks and 12 quarterback hits. In five previous games against Green Bay, the 11th-year pro Ware had four sacks in five games with the Dallas Cowboys. In his only appearance against the Packers, fifth-year standout Miller had two sacks in the Broncos’ lopsided road loss in 2011. Bulaga will be on the spot to try to dodge the pocket advances by Miller, who has three sacks and eight quarterback hits this season.


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