Packers face a turnaround moment in Houston
By Thomas Silverstein, Journal-Sentinel
~GREEN BAY – If the Green Bay Packers lose to the Houston Texans Sunday night in front of a national television audience, it won’t mark the end of their season.
How they play against the Texans is another matter.
Under coach Mike McCarthy, the one thing the Packers have done fairly consistently when things are falling apart is raise their level of play to match that of a quality opponent.
“The crazy thing about it,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “I’m not really concerned about us in these type of games. I’m more concerned about us in games we should win. We’re going to show up for this game.
“It’s ‘Sunday Night Football.’ We’re going to play well. Since I’ve been here, that’s how we’ve played in big-time games.”
Raji, who is nursing an ankle injury and whose status might not be determined until hours before kickoff, isn’t far off in his analysis. The Packers have risen to the occasion a number of times under McCarthy.
But if they instead lay an egg against the 5-0 Texans, it would be a pretty good sign this season is going to be a dud.
At 2-4, they would probably be three games behind the leader in the NFC North (Chicago and Minnesota are both 4-1) as they prepare for a third-straight road game inside a dome. They might be able to survive a loss if they play well, but if it’s a repeat of the second half against Indianapolis last week, there’s no telling how deep of a funk they’ll be in.
“It’s a big game,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “You’re excited. We look forward to it. We know it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere so we’re pumped up and excited for it.”
In McCarthy’s history, there have been several notable midseason rebounds. For instance:
2011 – After barely surviving a home game with the 4-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers went on the road and slugged out a 27-17 victory over the 7-3 Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day to remain undefeated.
2010 – After a horrible loss to a 2-10 Detroit team in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers was knocked out with a concussion, the 8-5 Packers played one of their best games of the year on “Sunday Night Football” the following week against New England with Matt Flynn at quarterback. Though they lost, 31-27, their strong performance built confidence for a run to the Super Bowl.
2009 – After losing on the road to an 0-7 Tampa Bay team, the 4-4 Packers came home the following week and beat the 6-2 Dallas Cowboys, 17-7, in a Fox national doubleheader game. The Packers won six of their next seven to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs.
To say any of the big-game performances of the past guarantees a sterling effort Sunday night against the Texans would be foolish.
Houston has won by a margin of 68-24 in its two home victories this year, and the Packers have been outscored, 34-18, in the second half of their two road losses. The Texans have not turned the ball over at home and the Packers have forced one turnover on the road.
Plus, the Packers will probably be without receiver Greg Jennings and could be missing Raji, tight end Jermichael Finley (shoulder) and tight end D.J. Williams (hamstring). It will be their first game without leading rusher Cedric Benson (foot, injured reserve) in the backfield.
The common thread through the rebound victories was defense.
In the Detroit victory in ’11, they picked off quarterback Matthew Stafford three times and held receiver Calvin Johnson to 49 yards. In the New England loss in ’10, the defense held quarterback Tom Brady to 163 yards passing. In the Cowboys victory in ’09, they forced three turnovers and sacked quarterback Tony Romo five times.
This year, the Packers rank 16th on defense and have played well only in spurts. They were run over by San Francisco’s Frank Gore in the opener but then dismantled Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler four days later.
They handcuffed Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson but didn’t finish off the game. They played poorly against New Orleans and then were solid for one half against Indianapolis.
“I think at some point we just have to make it happen,” Raji said. “The coaching staff puts a lot of time into a game plan and the messages we’re receiving. But ultimately, it’s a player’s game. The players don’t do it; it’s not going to get done.
“It’s kind of on us.”
Missing more than anything is the turnovers coordinator Dom Capers’ defense is known for. Through five games last year, the defense had forced 13 turnovers, including eight on the road.
This year, the number is five, including just one on the road.
“You can’t press for turnovers,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Turnovers are going to come. Once they come, they come in bunches. You can’t over-react to it. Just keep doing your job and trust the defense.
“The defense will put you in a situation where you can get a turnover.”
Still, this game has a lot of meaning for the Packers’ defense, especially with the offense sputtering and banged up. The onus is on that group to bottle up quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and the rest of the Texans’ formidable lineup.
And it’s on Capers and his staff to find a way to get more from rookies Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, Jerron McMillian and Casey Hayward as well as Burnett and D.J. Smith, a pair of young starters without an interception or forced fumble.
“Just play speed,” Smith said, when asked where young players have to match the veterans. “I think I play fast, but just that step closer, it’s the difference between getting a sack and just getting a hit. You have to see things before they happen.
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