Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Contrast Bowl.
When the St. Louis Rams visit Lambeau Field on Sunday for a Week 6 date with the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, it'll be as perfect an example as the NFL can have of two teams traveling in opposite directions.
The host Packers are, well...the defending Super Bowl champions. And if it's indeed possible to improve on postseason perfection, it appears Mike McCarthy's team has done so in starting its 2011 encore with five straight victories -- each as or more impressive than the last.
Win No. 5 came in last Sunday's primetime game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome, where the Packers shook off an early 14-point barrage from the expected NFC challenger Falcons before rallying to vanquish the hosts by a 25-14 score.
The Packers continued their title run last winter by defeating top-seeded Atlanta, 48-21, at the Georgia Dome in an NFC Divisional Playoff.
"[Being] 5-0 feels great, but we're looking at greatness," said Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson.
The Packers are 5-0 for the seventh time in their history and have won world championships each of the first six times.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers continued his personal ascent to the upper echelon of signal-callers with a 26-for-39 performance for 396 yards, a pair of scores and no interceptions against the Falcons, completing passes to an almost preposterous 12 receivers.
Yes folks, that Brett Favre guy's understudy is pretty good. And if Rodgers' assessment is correct, there may be room for even more improvement for his team.
"We just stayed patient," said Rodgers following last week's win. "It's just one of those games. The rhythm wasn't there all the time, but we just stayed with it."
As for the Rams, pretty much any improvement would be welcome.
A playoff contender last season until the schedule's final game, coach Steve Spagnuolo's team has not replicated the magic so far this year. St. Louis currently stands 0-4 and has lost three of four games by double digits on the brink of a post-bye stretch that includes Green Bay, Dallas and New Orleans between now and Halloween.
The Rams are last in the league in scoring, second to last in total yards and near the bottom in both rushing and passing yards, a far cry from the offensive prowess shown last year under rising quarterback Sam Bradford.
The 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is a tick less than 50 percent on his completions for the season after making good on exactly 60 percent in his debut, and his three touchdown passes in four games have him off the pace after recording 18 a year ago.
Still, optimism abounds.
"The more I thought about things, the more I realized I think we've got the right people here, the right players, the right coaches," Bradford said. "We've all just have to continue to work no matter what happens, buy in, and we'll get this thing figured out."
On the injury front, Green Bay will be without offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) and defensive end Mike Neal (knee) and may have slowed versions of linebacker Clay Matthews (quadriceps) and Woodson (foot), both of whom missed practice time during the week.
St. Louis owns a 45-42-2 edge in their overall regular-season series with the Packers, which dates back to the 1937 season, but Green Bay has won the past two meetings between the teams. Both of those games were held in St. Louis, with the Packers posting a 33-14 victory at the Edward Jones Dome in 2007 and following up with a 36-17 decision two years later. St. Louis did prevail in its most recent trip to Lambeau Field, recording a 23-20 triumph there in 2006, but has lost six of its last eight as the visitor in this set.
The Rams and Packers have also squared off twice in postseason play, with Green Bay winning by a 28-7 margin in the 1967 NFC Championship Game held in Milwaukee and St. Louis returning the favor with a 45-17 home dismantling of the Pack in a 2001 NFC Divisional Playoff.
McCarthy is 2-1 against the Rams as a head coach, while Spagnuolo lost his only prior encounter with McCarthy and the Packers as a man in charge in that 2009 matchup.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford has posted a 100-plus rating three times in his career, and the Rams are 3-0 in those contests, but has yet to reach that mark this season. Running back Steven Jackson aims for a third game in a row against Green Bay with 100- plus rushing yards, and he's ran for 260 yards and a touchdown in his last two tests against the Packers. Jackson has 333 yards from scrimmage in those two games and since 2006, has averaged an NFL-best 115.3 yards per game in that category. Running back Cadillac Williams rushed for a career-high 158 yards against Green Bay while with Tampa Bay in 2005, and his teams are 8-1 when he has 100-plus rushing yards. Wide receiver Danario Alexander is averaging 24.5 yards per catch, the best mark in the NFL. Fellow wideout Brandon Gibson leads the club with 13 catches and is second among Rams with 171 receiving yards, while wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker has 133 career catches, 94 of which have resulted in a first down or a touchdown.
Woodson has 11 interception returns for touchdowns, tied for second in NFL history, and owns a club record with 10 defensive touchdowns (nine interceptions, one fumble recovery). Woodson has at least one interception for a score in all six of his years with Green Bay, and he and safety Morgan Burnett are tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions this season. Matthews has 12 sacks in his past 16 games at home, and on the front line, defensive end Jarius Wynn has 10 tackles and three sacks on the year.
The anemic Rams offense averages 11.5 points and 279.5 total yards per game, while their averages of 187 pass yards and 92.5 rushing yards per game are 28th and 25th in the league, respectively. On defense, the Packers are 11th in scoring (22.2 ppg), 21st in total yards allowed (375.6 ppg), 30th in pass defense (299.8 ppg) and third against the run (75.8 ppg).
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers won his only career start against St. Louis in that 2009 meeting and had a 126.9 rating for the game. He's won 11 starts in a row including playoffs and has a 100-plus rating in nine of them. In his past 14 outings at home, Rodgers is 13-1 and completed 313-of-459 passes for 4,017 yards, 33 touchdowns and a 111.2 rating. Fullback John Kuhn had a rushing touchdown and a receiving score in Green Bay's most recent matchup with the Rams. Wide receiver Greg Jennings averages 24.9 yards per catch in three career games against St. Louis and has eight receiving touchdowns in his past nine contests at home. Since the start of 2007, Jennings has 46 receiving touchdowns (including playoffs), the third-most in the NFL. Wide receiver James Jones had a career-high 140 yards on five catches and hauled in a 70-yard touchdown from Rodgers last week, while fellow receiver Donald Driver had four catches for 95 yards and a touchdown in Green Bay's last win over St. Louis. Rookie wide receiver/return specialist Randall Cobb is tied for the NFC lead with a 34.3-yard kick return average.
For the Rams, defensive end James Hall had a sack in his last game at Green Bay, which came while with Detroit in 2005, while linemate Chris Long has a sack in five of his past seven games and has totaled 11 in his past 15 contests. Linebacker James Laurinaitis leads St. Louis with 31 tackles to go along with an interception and a fumble recovery, while cornerback Justin King has 24 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery on the season.
Green Bay is first in the league in scoring (34.6 ppg), fourth in both total yards (428.6 ypg) and passing yards (329.6 ypg) and 22nd in rushing offense (99.0 ypg). The Rams are 31st in scoring defense (28.2), 27th in total yards allowed (404.5 ypg), 13th in pass defense (224.8 ypg) and dead last against the run (179.8 ppg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Packers' strength -- scoring -- matches up nicely with the Rams' greatest weakness, scoring defense. Green Bay is tops in the league in points, while St. Louis is second to last in points allowed.
Green Bay's defense has shown vulnerability to pass-happy teams, so the chance at an upset lies in the hands of Bradford, though he's shown little this season to indicate he's ready for such a win.
Woodson leads a Packers defense full of opportunists, if not shutout pitchers. Somehow, the veteran cornerback finds a way to make an impact. Bradford would be wise to avoid tangling with him.
Perhaps the Packers are ripe for a surprise, in between a primetime game with Atlanta and next week's meeting with a recently more intense rival, Minnesota. But it's more likely that a prolific Green Bay offense continues to put up numbers that no other NFL unit has come close to curbing this week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 31, Rams 14