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Without Rodgers, Pack would be lacking

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — As magical as this Patriots season feels, there are still two big questions to be answered about their defense.

Can they stop an offense that can run the ball behind a good offensive line and execute play-action passes? In losses to the Jets and Browns, and their overtime victory over the Ravens, that gave the Patriots problems.

And can the secondary get off the field if it doesn’t get interceptions? The Patriots failed to get one against those three opponents. They have 20 against the others (10-0).

As to the former question, an answer was to be provided against the Packers and their high-powered passing attack Sunday night. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered his second concussion in 10 weeks during a 7-3 loss to the lowly Lions on Sunday.

Coach Mike McCarthy said yesterday that there is a “slim to none’’ chance Rodgers will practice this week. A decision on his availability for the game will be made on Saturday.

“We’re not going to make a decision medically off of one game,’’ McCarthy said. “Everybody knows this is an important game and our opponent is a very good opponent. So, this is clearly a medical decision in Aaron’s best interest. Once we pass that hurdle and that decision is made that he is healthy, then we’ll talk about Aaron Rodgers as part of what is the best football decision.’’

If Rodgers can’t go, 2008 seventh-round pick Matt Flynn will make his first career start.

For the Patriots, that would be a shame. It would rob them of their first and only chance to play against a top-flight quarterback with all of his weapons before the playoffs. The closest they came was against the Chargers, but Philip Rivers didn’t have left tackle Marcus McNeill or wide receiver Vincent Jackson because of contract disputes.

For all of the Packers’ injury problems — and losing tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant were big losses — they had regained their swagger, similar to how the Patriots adjusted after the Randy Moss trade.

Rodgers had reconnected with receiver Greg Jennings, again forming one of the best combinations in the league. Donald Driver still gets it done in the slot, and James Jones and Jordy Nelson seemed to have turned a corner.

In the four games before the loss to the Lions, Rodgers was the hottest quarterback west of Foxborough: 96 of 130 (73.8 percent), 1,232 yards, with 11 touchdowns and a passer rating of 131.3.

He had gone five games without an interception, and has just 10 on the season. He was picked off nine times last year.

Rodgers doesn’t throw into traffic and will run for a first down when the coverage doesn’t look right. Combine that with McCarthy’s quick-paced scheme with multiple formations and personnel packages, and a big challenge was awaiting the Patriots.

“Offensively, this is an outstanding unit,’’ Bill Belichick said. “Rodgers has been very impressive. This guy’s really come into his own and been as productive as anybody in the league. They do a real good job of using their personnel and giving you different formations and looks and of course, the quarterback makes it all go. [He’s] very active with his legs as well as his arm, his accuracy and utilizing all of his weapons offensively.’’

There’s an outside chance Rodgers takes the field against the Patriots. There is nothing in the NFL’s guidelines about multiple concussions in the same season. The pamphlet given to every player says research “has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly.’’

Rodgers is under orders not to do any film or playbook study, although the Packers can’t police what he does away from the facility. He could be cleared to resume study today.

When Rodgers played against the Dolphins Oct. 17, a week after his first concussion, he only took part fully in Friday’s glorified walkthrough practice. He completed 18 of 33 passes for 313 yards and one touchdown in a 23-20 loss to the Dolphins. He had one interception and his 54.5 completion rate is his lowest of the season.

Rodgers did not practice in ’08 after suffering a shoulder injury against the Buccaneers, but started the next game against the Falcons. He turned in probably his gutsiest performance to date in a 3-point loss: 25 of 37 passes for 313 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.

If Flynn has to start, it will be difficult for the Packers (8-5) to win a game they almost have to have to stay in the NFC playoff race.

With no running game to speak of (the Packers are ranked 24th), Flynn will be relied upon in McCarthy’s “quarterback-driven system.’’ Flynn, who led LSU to a national title in ’07, is smart, tough, and mobile.

“He can throw outside of the pocket,’’ said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “He was a good leader for their team, made good decisions with the football, was fairly accurate with it.’’

But Flynn’s arm strength is lacking. And he can be inaccurate when the pocket is pushed. He was 15 of 26 for 177 yards against the Lions after Rodgers went out, and threw a crushing interception in the red zone.

Still, the Packers will come in fully charged to take on the league’s best team on a national stage.

They’ve been besieged by injuries on defense, but coordinator Dom Capers can scheme with the best of them. And the league’s third-ranked passing defense, featuring outstanding corners Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, along with Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, will not give ground against Tom Brady and Co.

Whoever is at quarterback, the Patriots will have a fight on their hands.

“We’re nobody’s underdog,’’ McCarthy said. “We have all the confidence in our abilities. We’ve had challenges throughout the season. We’ve stepped up to those challenges, and we feel the same way going into this game.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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