Although they’ve faced little resistance during a supposedly daunting stretch, the New England Patriots could be heading into their toughest test yet at Lambeau Field.
The top two scoring teams in the NFL meet Sunday when AFC-leading New England seeks its eighth straight win and the first-place Green Bay Packers look to remain unbeaten at home.
The Patriots (9-2) have continued to roll in the midst of a challenging portion of schedule against four consecutive division leaders. They won the first three by an average of 23.0 points, defeating Detroit 34-9 at home Sunday to allow Green Bay to move past the Lions for the NFC Central lead.
New England also beat Denver 43-21 on Nov. 2 and Indianapolis 42-20 on Nov. 16.
”It’s not realistic for us to expect to continue to blow teams out like that, or, I don’t want to say blow out, but win by a large margin,” coach Bill Belichick said. ”I can’t really put my finger on what it is. I think it’s a culmination of things and preparation, I think, is at the forefront of that.”
The Patriots are scoring at an exceptional rate, averaging 39.5 points during their winning streak – 7.0 better than their league-leading average. Tom Brady has shined during the run with 315.3 passing yards per game, 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions, though all of those picks have come in the past four games.
Rob Gronkowski has 27 receptions for 403 yards and five touchdowns in his last four contests, while fellow tight end Tim Wright caught two touchdown passes Sunday and has scored on six of his 23 receptions.
”I would just say taking it one play at a time, not looking at the scoreboard, keeps the offense rolling," Wright said. ”It all builds up at the end of the game when you look at the scoreboard at the points that we’re beating teams by.”
The Patriots would certainly like to get off to a fast start against Green Bay (8-3), which has outscored opponents 66-0 in the first quarter and 128-9 in the first 30 minutes of their last four home games.
”We’re playing Green Bay in Green Bay,” Belichick said. ”That’s where they’ve been very dominant, really, in terms of getting ahead and playing from ahead, first quarter. The numbers are staggering.”
The Packers have won their first five at Lambeau by an average of 26.8 points after scoring a combined 108 in one-sided victories over Chicago and Philadelphia. It wasn’t easy on the road last week, however, as they held on to win 24-21 over Minnesota to jump past Detroit for first place.
Aaron Rodgers has thrown for 656 yards in the last two home games and 18 touchdowns without an interception in 144 attempts in Green Bay on the season.
Overall, he’s thrown for 2,957 yards with 30 scores and three picks for a league-high passer rating of 119.3.
Jordy Nelson leads the league with 123.2 receiving yards per game at home and has scored at least one touchdown in all five at Lambeau. Randall Cobb has 20 catches for 322 yards and two scores in his last three at home.
”Teams are going to take away what we do best, and what we’ve done best is get the ball to Jordy and Randall,” Rodgers said. ”They’ve had big statistical seasons so (opponents) try to take them out of the game.”
The Patriots appear to match up well with Nelson and Cobb because of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, meaning Green Bay could need another big game from Eddie Lacy.
The bruising back rushed for a season-best 125 yards and a touchdown on a season-high 25 carries against the Vikings while playing through a stomach illness.
”He’s a workhorse," said Rodgers, who faces a New England defense that has five interceptions in the last four games. "We need him in the winter months."
A week after Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns, recent New England signee LeGarrette Blount made the most of his opportunity with two scores Sunday after Gray missed practice two days before the game.
The Packers are vulnerable against the run, ranking 30th with 136.7 yards allowed per game.
Star linebacker Clay Matthews and offensive guard T.J. Lang are battling through injuries, but expected to play.
Rodgers missed the most recent meeting with New England due to a concussion as Brady threw a pair of touchdown passes in a 31-27 home win Dec. 19, 2010. Brady threw for four scores in a 35-0 victory in his only game at Lambeau on Nov. 19, 2006.