GREEN BAY — Whatever safety Charles Woodson has been drinking this season in Oakland, some of the Green Bay Packers wouldn’t mind having the same.
“The surprising part is that most people don’t think that defensive players, kind of after the middle 30s, can still play,” Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday. “But, obviously, he’s played at a high level. There’s been a couple of guys over the history of the league who have been able to play at this kind of a level this late in their careers. That’s really impressive to see.
“But, nobody keeps themselves in the kind of shape that he does. There might be something in the wine as well.”
Rodgers came to appreciate Woodson’s strong love for wine – and his longtime entrepreneurship in the industry – when they were teammates with the Packers from 2006-12.
Whether the 39-year-old Woodson has continued to drink from a sweet-tasting fountain of youth, the Packers are hoping to avoid returning from Oakland late Sunday night with a sour taste in their collective mouth.
Green Bay (9-4) can clinch a spot in the playoffs for the seventh straight year by beating the Raiders at O.co Coliseum.
No easy task, however, as head coach Mike McCarthy is reminding his players as the team plays the first of two straight road games out West.
“This is a huge challenge for us,” said McCarthy, whose team has a one-game lead over the Minnesota Vikings atop the NFC North.
Oakland (6-7) remains in contention, albeit barely, for a wild-card spot in the playoffs after rallying to beat the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos on the road last Sunday.
The Packers then will play at the Arizona Cardinals, the NFC front-runners with an 11-2 record, on Dec. 27.
“You play uncommon opponents after Week 12 that are both vying for playoff position, just look it up, (historically) it’s a huge challenge, especially on the road,” McCarthy said. “I think we’re 2-4 in these types of situations as opposed to 7-1 at home (since 2006). Those are the kind of things we’re paying a lot of attention to.”
As they are to Woodson, whose Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy career has extended well beyond his remarkable seven seasons with the Packers, highlighted by the 2010 run to the Super Bowl XLV title.
Woodson’s return to the Raiders after Green Bay released him shortly after the 2012 season ended shows no signs of letting up.
“It’s hard not to watch Charles Woodson,” Rodgers said at the start of his assessment about the Raiders this season. “He’s obviously a former Packer, a great friend, he was a great leader for us at a time when we needed that type of leadership and he took us to a special place and had a lot of memories together. He’s playing great. I mean, he’s playing great football. It’s impressive to see. Obviously, I’m a little biased, but I think any fair opinion out there would say that he’s playing the position at the top of his game right now. So, he sticks out.”
After a return to productive football in its 28-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys last weekend, the Packers are wary of the devastation Woodson still can wreak in his 18th pro season.
He is tied for second in the league with five interceptions, has three fumble recoveries and forced a fumble.
“He’s excellent around the football,” McCarthy said. “He’s always clawing at the ball – very strong hands. His anticipation skills are obviously at a very high level. He’s playing very well.”
If the Packers can be mindful of securing the football in the vicinity of Woodson and keep NFL sacks leader Khalil Mack off Rodgers, they hope to be able to continue with the renewed good vibes on offense.
Green Bay amassed 435 total yards and chewed up nearly 38 minutes of the game clock on the strength of a season-high 230 rushing yards against the Cowboys. Eddie Lacy’s third 100-yard game in the Packers’ last four outings amounted to a season-best 124 yards in 24 carries, and James Starks contributed 71 yards in 11 carries as each scored a touchdown late in the game to cement the win.
“I think we’ve got to figure out exactly what we want to do,” said Rodgers, who efficiently threw for 218 yards and two touchdowns in the game. “I think you’re going to see some balance from us. We’ve always attempted to have balance, but we haven’t quite had the 1-2 punch that we have this year.
“We need to have both of them,” Rodgers added about Lacy and Starks. “Balance is going to be important for us – controlling the clock, keeping our defense off the field and then converting those situational football opportunities.”
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 6-5. Green Bay has won the last six games in regular-season play after the Raiders won the first five. The Packers’ winning streak started in 1990 with a road game when the Raiders played in Los Angeles. This will be only the third game for the Packers against the Raiders in Oakland. Green Bay’s last trip there was in 2003, a 41-7 Monday night rout led by an emotional Brett Favre after the quarterback’s father died of a heart attack the previous night. Green Bay won the last two games at home by lopsided scores of 38-7 and 46-16 in 2007 and ’11, respectively. The teams’ first meeting came in Super Bowl II, a 33-14 Packers win at the Miami Orange Bowl to end the 1967 season.
–Head coach Mike McCarthy’s return to offensive play caller for presumably the first time this season – he had been noticeably involved with the subsequently demoted Tom Clements in previous games – had promising results. The Packers ran the football 42 times (not including two kneel-downs at the end of the game), produced a season-high 230 rushing yards and dominated time of possession with 37 minutes, 48 seconds in their 28-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys at home last Sunday. Green Bay will look to achieve more of the same when it starts a pivotal two-game road trip. The Packers can clinch a playoff spot by winning Sunday at the Oakland Raiders. They also are trying to catch the Arizona Cardinals, the Week 16 opponent, for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Green Bay’s ability to continue to play keepaway with the football with Aaron Rodgers at the helm will hinge on whether Eddie Lacy and James Starks can replicate their 1-2 punch from the previous game. Lacy dazzled with a season-high 124 yards and a touchdown in 24 carries, and Starks was as potent with 71 yards in 11 carries, highlighted by a decisive 30-yard touchdown late in the game. Lacy and Starks will be tested to find the creases and running lanes against a Raiders defense that ranks in the top half of the league, allowing an average of just 101 rushing yards per game.
Ball control would be helpful to try to stem the strides being made by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in his second pro season. Carr has thrown for more than 3,300 yards and 28 touchdowns. He limits mistakes with a quick throwing release and having the wherewithal to break containment in the pocket. Though he’s thrown only nine interceptions and been sacked just 19 times, Carr is capable of struggling. He’s completed only 62.2 percent of his passes. The Packers figure to try to rattle Carr early with a good dose of blitzing against a revamped offensive line. They will need to get home to keep Carr from picking apart a secondary that could be without top cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) against a talented group of receivers, led by rookie star Amari Cooper.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
–Packers DBs vs. Raiders WRs Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Seth Roberts.
Green Bay may be facing the best trio of wideouts it will see all season, and the challenge could be made more difficult if top cornerback Sam Shields can’t play. Shields is recovering from a concussion he sustained in the first half of the win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. He continued to go through the league-mandated protocol for head injuries at midweek. If Shields isn’t cleared by the weekend, the Packers will have to rely on rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins and unproductive veteran Casey Hayward against Oakland’s playmakers. Hayward, a starter most of the season, doesn’t have a turnover-producing play. Randall, the team’s first-round draft pick, played well in place of the injured Shields while exclusively matched up with Cowboys standout Dez Bryant the last two-plus quarters.
The explosive Cooper has lived up to his billing as the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft with 62 receptions for a team-high 920 yards and four touchdowns. Crabtree, no stranger to Green Bay when he played for the San Francisco 49ers, has been just as productive in his seventh NFL season with 70 catches for 779 yards and seven touchdowns. The speedy Roberts was a first-year unknown until making a splash the last few weeks, contributing 27 catches for 423 yards and five touchdowns this season.
–Packers RT Bryan Bulaga and LT David Bakhtiari vs. Raiders OLB Khalil Mack.
Green Bay’s bookends on the offensive line have played hurt most of the season. Even at optimum strength, Bulaga and Bakhtiari would be in for a huge challenge going against the seemingly unstoppable Mack.
He has quickly become a star in his second season as a pro. Mack, a first-round draft pick last year, leads the league with 14 sacks. He’s the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week after matching Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long’s 32-year-old team record with five sacks in Oakland’s comeback win at the Denver Broncos on Sunday. All five sacks came in the second half. Mack also forced a fumble in the game. “You just have to turn on the last game. That jumps off the screen at you, for sure,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. Mack typically lines up on the strong side of the offense, and he had all but one of the sacks last time out positioned on the left side of the defense. That would put Bulaga mostly on the spot to try to contain the quick and powerful Mack, though Bakhtiari should encounter him as well.