Leodis McKelvin meant no disrespect to Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson, but when the Eagles cornerback assessed what makes Nelson such a dangerous target in the red zone, he offered a two-word answer:
The Packers will visit the Eagles on Monday night with a 4-6 record and a four-game losing streak. The Eagles are undefeated at home and their defense has stymied every quarterback who has come to Philadelphia, including Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. As four-point favorites, the Eagles should be optimistic about their chances. But the variable is Rodgers, the quarterback who has won one Super Bowl and two MVP awards and been named to five Pro Bowls.
"They're still putting up points, they're still putting up yards, and they've still got Aaron Rodgers back there, who's still playing at a high level," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Obviously, they're not necessarily getting the results that they want in wins. But if you take the scoreboard off of the tape and just watch the game, their offense is still moving the ball. . . . So I don't think their record necessarily reflects what they're doing offensively."
Through 10 games, Rodgers has completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 2,761 yards, 25 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. That's somehow considered a down year for a passer who has a career quarterback rating of 103.4 and whom Eagles coach Doug Pederson called a future Hall of Famer.
During the four-game losing streak, Rodgers averaged 316.25 yards, three touchdowns, and fewer than one interception per game. He also averaged 40.75 rushing yards per game during that skid, and he's on pace for a career-high 414 rushing yards.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said there is carryover from last week, when the Eagles played Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. The comparison was made because of Rodgers' ability to extend plays and his accuracy. The Eagles were able to limit Wilson to his worst completion percentage of the season, only one touchdown, and 19 rushing yards - but they still allowed too many big plays and ultimately lost.
The advantage for the Eagles is playing Rodgers at Lincoln Financial Field instead of Lambeau Field. Roethlisberger did not throw a touchdown pass against the Eagles in a 34-3 loss in Week 3. Ryan had a season-low quarterback rating of 78.7 in a 24-15 loss to the Eagles two weeks ago.
"I think it's a really solid defense - that's just kind of the nature of this business that it's hard to win on the road, and they're obviously playing better at home," Rodgers said. "Obviously when your defense is playing with a lead, it's easier."
That's been the case in almost all the home games. The Eagles took a 10-0 lead against Cleveland and Pittsburgh, an 11-3 lead over Minnesota, and a 7-6 lead over Atlanta. Their only deficit at home has been 3-0. The pass rush benefits from the early leads and is better with the help of crowd noise, feasting on the opponent's silent snap count. The Eagles average 3.75 sacks at home and 1.83 sacks on the road. The Packers have allowed the first points in every game of their losing streak, and a similar slow start would benefit the Eagles defense.
"We need to do a better job of starting fast," Rodgers said. "When you're on the road, the crowd environment obviously becomes a factor. And Philly has some of the best sports fans in the country . . . so you have to try to take them out of it early if you can. That's going to be our focus this week."
The onus will fall on Rodgers' arm. Since running back Eddie Lacy was lost for the season in Week 5, the Packers have struggled to find a consistent running game. They often use short passes in lieu of rushes. Veteran James Starks is healthier, but Green Bay's 221 carries (22.1 per game) are the third fewest in the NFL. Rodgers is averaging a career-low 6.73 yards per attempt in part because of those short passes. The Eagles try to make offenses one-dimensional, but the Packers can do it for them.
"Aaron Rodgers provides a huge dynamic and obviously is a top-tier, if not the top-tier, quarterback in the NFL. But it's always to stop the run," linebacker Jordan Hicks said of the Eagles' objective. "Obviously they rely on their pass game more than their run game, but you look at how they were playing with Eddie Lacy, he was averaging 4-5 yards per pop. So if they can run the ball, they're going to. Ultimately, we have to make them one-dimensional."
Rodgers has an array of experienced targets, including Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams. That trio has 18 combined touchdowns. The Eagles' top three receivers have combined for six scores.
The Packers' main problem this season has been their pass defense - not their passing offense. That's the reason they're engaged in so many shootouts. The Packers scored 26.6 points per game in their last five. The Eagles have not allowed more than 15 points at home, and have not allowed more than 29 points all season. They're expecting it to be closer to their games than those the Packers have played.
"[By] no means do we think we're going to go in here and have a shootout," Jenkins said. "That's obviously easier said than done. They have an offense that's been putting up points every week. It's a tall task, but we're preparing, looking forward to showing up."
Eagles running back Ryan Mathews won't play Monday, coach Doug Pederson announced Saturday. Mathews has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee and did not practice all week.
"He had a pretty significant knee [injury]," Pederson said. ". . . There is a concern that it could linger. . . . We've just got to find out next Wednesday where he's at."
Rookie Wendell Smallwood will pair with Darren Sproles as the top running backs.
The Eagles will also miss right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who also has a sprained MCL. Allen Barbre will start at right tackle, with Stefen Wisniewski at left guard.
Sproles (rib), defensive end Connor Barwin (knee), and cornerback Leodis McKelvin (concussion) will all play.
Pederson had not yet made a decision on whether embattled wide receiver Nelson Agholor will be active.