Lambeau Field doesn’t have a roof or a chimney, but Santa will still be coming to town to bring an incredible present worth opening in Green Bay on Christmas Day: A fascinating matchup between two of the most talented teams in football in a nationally televised matchup with playoff implications on both sides.
The Packers, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, will rock around the Christmas tree by hosting the Cleveland Browns, who are hanging on for dear life in the AFC postseason race.
Here are five things to watch and a prediction for Saturday’s Christmas Day showdown between the Packers and Browns.
No Christmas vacation for Clark
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
The Packers should return Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kenny Clark, whose absence last week in Baltimore brilliantly illuminated his value to Joe Barry’s defense. Not only did Tyler Huntley scramble around and create plays with his legs, but Ravens running backs gashed the Packers for 70 yards and had two explosive runs on just 13 carries. The timing of Clark’s return is ideal considering Saturday’s visit from Nick Chubb, one of the NFL’s best backs. The Browns are third in rushing average (4.9 per carry) and fourth in rushing touchdowns (18) this season, and Chubb is averaging 5.4 per rush, the fourth-best mark among running backs. Clark needs to control the action in the middle of the front, especially with Browns center JC Tretter out (COVID-19 reserve list). It’ll be tough for the underdog visitors to win the game without dominating the game on the ground, so Saturday is a chance for Clark to make sure Chubb and the Browns are sent home with nothing more than a membership to the “Jelly of the Month Club.”
On the naughty list
Green Bay Packers Maurice Drayton.
No need to check this list twice; special teams could be a real adventure for both teams. The Packers’ issues within the third phase are well-documented and run deep, and you can beat coal is sitting in Maurice Drayton’s stocking inside Lambeau Field. But consider this: Browns kicker Chase McLaughlin has missed a field goal in four straight games and is just 2-for-6 on kicks since Week 11, and the team made a switch at punter mid-week, waiving Jamie Gillan in favor of Dustin Colquitt. Cleveland is coming to town with an advantage on special teams, especially in terms of covering and returning punts and kicks, but don’t look away when the punters and kickers are on the field on Saturday. Game-altering mistakes are possible. Can the Packers finally be good on special teams, for goodness sake?
Will the Packers “sleigh” the pass rush?
Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Yosh Nijman (73)
The Packers are down four starters along the offensive line, but with coach Adam Stenavich leading the way and quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing fast, all troubles will be out of sight, right? Saturday brings another big test. All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett is questionable to play and Jadeveon Clowney remains on the COVID-19 reserve list, potentially lessening the pressure on the starters up front. But if Garrett plays, all Packers left tackle Yosh Nijman will want for Christmas is help, and he’ll need to play the best snaps of his life when he doesn’t get it. Garrett and the Browns could threaten an upset if the defensive line starts to Grinch up the place. Nijman, to his credit, is no elf; he’s the rare type of athlete with the size and movement ability to counter some of Garrett’s incredible talent. The Packers can’t afford to let Rodgers get run over by a Garrett-sized reindeer.
No reindeer required?
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
The Browns will be without starting safety John Johnson, and cornerbacks Troy Hill and Greg Newsome are both on the COVID-19 reserve list. If the Packers can protect Aaron Rodgers, the passing game probably won’t need magical reindeer to get off the ground on Saturday. There must have been some magic in that fractured pinky toe because Rodgers, with 13 touchdown passes and zero interceptions over the last four games, is really dancing around in Matt LaFleur’s scheme. Like Santa in the sleigh, Rodgers is in complete control, and LaFleur, his Rudolph, continues to point the way to easy, on-time throws. A potential battle between All-Pro receiver Davante Adams and Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward is appealing, but Rodgers and the Packers passing game are starting to dance around in a new-old fashioned (2020 season) way.
The Post Crescent
It’s the most wonderful time of the year to break prestigious team records. Aaron Rodgers needs just one more touchdown pass to Brett Favre’s record for most touchdown passes in team history, a mark that has stood for 14 years. Who will catch the record-breaker? Davante Adams is a good bet, but any number of options are possible. Will it be another very Merry Christmas for No. 12? The last time the Packers played on Dec. 25 at Lambeau Field, he threw five touchdown passes in a win over the Bears. He’ll have a Blue Christmas without a record-breaking touchdown.
Prediction: Packers 34, Browns 24 (8-6)
The Browns have question marks all over the offense, including (and especially) at quarterback, and the defense’s pass-rush doesn’t look as frightening if Myles Garrett doesn’t play or is limited by a groin injury. Consider this: Cleveland has scored more than 17 points just twice in the last nine games. If you can’t score, you can’t beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field. The Browns are talented on both sides, and a desperate and talented team can never be overlooked, but this is also a depleted team playing on a short week. The guess here is that Matt LaFleur’s team will simply have a wonderful Christmas time, unwrapping a relatively comfortable win in front of cheerful fans at the NFL’s version of the North Pole.