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Patriots-Packers What To Watch For: Can running game carry the offense?

Patriots 1st Down: How can Pats pull off an upset over Packers in Green Bay?
Patriots 1st Down: How can Pats pull off an upset over Packers in Green Bay? 00:55

BOSTON -- What a weird week. It seemed pretty obvious that Mac Jones wasn't going to play in this one as he hobbled around on one leg late in last week's loss to the Ravens.

But the Patriots tiptoed around the injury all week to the point where we don't even know if Mac will have surgery, or if he did have surgery, or if he wants to have surgery on his severe high ankle sprain. We heard reports that Mac was preparing to play, even though he didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday.

Now the Patriots likely have to go to Green Bay and play the Packers without their starting QB. Granted, the Packers are not the Packers at the moment, but this is not going to be an easy one for the Patriots. It's tough enough to head into Lambeau Field under normal circumstances, with the Packers having won 14 straight home games during regular-season play. 

No one has much faith that the Patriots can be the streak-busters this weekend, especially with Brian Hoyer getting his first start in two years. Green Bay is favored by as much as 10 points depending where you look. 

At least New England's schedule eases up a bit over the next seven weeks, with a bye week mixed in. But first, the Patriots have to get through the Packers. Here's what we'll be watching for when the two teams kick off on WBZ-TV on Sunday.

The Brian Hoyer Show

Hoyer is expected to start for the first time since Week 4 of the 2020 season. That was an odd one, since Cam Newton had tested positive for COVID-19 just two days prior to New England's Monday Night Football showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs, thrusting Hoyer into action.

He wasn't terrible, but he wasn't great either, completing 15 of his 24 passes for 130 yards and a pick. He was sacked twice and lost a fumble, making several mental miscues along the way that cost the Patriots a chance at the game.

Maybe he'll be better this time around, now that he has a full week to get ready for this start. And with a talented running game with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson (more on them in a minute), the Patriots won't ask Hoyer to do much. All they are really asking of him is to keep them in games. 

But Hoyer is on one heck of a losing streak, with his teams dropping the last 11 games that he's started. He may catch a break with Jaire Alexander -- Green Bay's top corner -- dealing with a groin injury. But the Packers create a lot of pressure on the quarterback despite only having seven sacks through the first three games, so Hoyer will have to get the ball out quick.

The veteran did look pretty good in the new offensive system during his limited snaps this summer, so maybe Hoyer will surprise us all. But he's a career backup for a reason; for every good thing he does, he usually makes a couple of mistakes shortly after. 

And if there is one thing the Patriots can't do this weekend, it's continue to turn the ball over. Just stop it. They're making life so much more difficult on themselves with those eight -- eight! -- turnovers over the first three weeks.

We'll see what Hoyer has on Sunday. Maybe he can keep the ball away from the defense.

Run Wild

Green Bay's run defense has only given up 113 yards per game on the ground. That's pretty good. But they're giving up nearly five yards per carry, which is not so good. 

This seems like a defense that Harris and Stevenson could feast on, after both had an efficient game last week against the Ravens. Harris ran for 41 yards on his 11 carries, but Stevenson averaged a robust 6.1 yards per carry, racking up 73 yards on a dozen attempts. Stevenson is averaging just under five yards per carry for the season, as he seemingly gets a few extra yards every time he touches the ball. 

A strong afternoon from either running back in Green Bay would greatly help Hoyer and the offense's chances. It would help the defense, too, since controlling the clock would keep Aaron Rodgers off the field.

A lot will hinge on the New England offensive line, which had some lapses against the Ravens. The Packers have a stout nose tackle in Kenny Clark, and a rambunctious run-stuffing linebacker in De'Vondre Campbell. So racking up rush yards won't be easy.

The Packers are also coming off a game in which they allowed the Buccaneers just 34 rushing yards on 14 carries, good for a 2.4 average. That's a huge improvement from Week 2, when they allowed Chicago's David Montgomery (8.1 yards on his 15 carries for a total of 122 yards) and Khalil Herbert (9.5 yards on his four carries for 38 yards) run absolutely wild. (We should also note that the Packers won that game, 27-10.)

Running against the Packers defense is one area of the game where the Patriots hold an advantage, and they should try to take full advantage of it come Sunday at Lambeau Field.

The Aaron Rodgers Show

While the Packers didn't install a new offense, Aaron Rodgers is still getting used to life without All-Pro receiver Davante Adams. It hasn't gone particularly well. Rodgers is completing over 72 percent of his passes, but he's averaging only 229 yards per game. The big plays just haven't been there, aside from a 55-yard connection with Sammy Watkins.

The future Hall of Famer still has Randall Cobb as his old reliable receiver, but he's still figuring things out with rookies Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson. Doubs currently leads the team with 14 receptions (on 16 targets) for 137 yards. 

What will make things difficult for the New England secondary is that the Packers don't have a true No. 1 receiver, but because it's Rodgers throwing the passes, everyone has to be accounted for. If someone is open, Rodgers is going to find them. And because Rodgers is back there, any Packers receiver could have a breakout game.

Mix in the injuries in the New England secondary to Jalen Mills (hamstring) and Kyle Dugger (knee), and it could be a get-right week for the Packers aerial attack. 

Getting to Rodgers

What would help the secondary is if the defense can get to Rodgers. He's been sacked eight times and fumbled twice in the first three games this season, and the Packers' offensive line seems susceptible to the New England pass rush.

That New England pass rush has been pretty solid at generating pressure so far this season. The Pats have 15 QB hits over the first three games, while Deatrich Wise is leading the charge with four sacks, including three last week against Baltimore. Matthew Judon is next with three sacks, while Ja'Whaun Bentley, Christian Barmore, and Jahlani Tavai all have one. 

If the Patriots can get to Rodgers on Sunday, they may be able to get a free possession out of it. Every possession is important this weekend, so getting an extra one could make things a lot more interesting.

Tune in to Sunday's Patriots-Packers game on WBZ-TV -- your home of the New England Patriots! Coverage continues Friday night at 7 p.m. with Patriots All Access on WBZ-TV. Pregame coverage kicks off at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday morning with Patriots GameDay, the Pats and the Packers kick off at 4:25 p.m., and we wrap it all up with Patriots 5th Quarter after the game over on TV38.

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