I imagine the TV folks will hype Sunday’s game as a compelling clash of quarterbacks. It’ll be Green Bay’s veteran Aaron Rodgers, a future Hall of Famer, against the Bills’ Josh Allen, a similarly gifted rookie who is coming off his first win, an astonishing upset at Minnesota.
But I suspect the showdown at Lambeau will come down to which team has the more potent running game. It’s not as exciting, I know, in an NFL increasingly dominated by prolific passers. Still, establishing the running game can be the dull, dreary difference.
The Bills stunned the Vikings, taking a 17-0 lead before the game was 10 minutes old. They did it by converting two Kirk Cousins fumbles into touchdowns, an Allen 10-yard run and a 26-yard TD pass from Allen to tight end Jason Croom. On the first three scoring drives, the Bills got a grand total of 7 yards rushing from their tailbacks, Chris Ivory and Marcus Murphy.
They wound up with 128 yards on the ground, most of it while nursing a big lead in the second half and needing Allen to attempt only four passes. Ivory and Murphy combined for 89 yards on 28 carries, a modest 3.2 yards a pop. Ivory ran 20 times for 56 yards (2.8 per run).
They’re not likely to pull another upset at Lambeau Field without a better outing from the tailbacks. The good news is that star running back LeSean McCoy, who missed the Vikings game with injured rib cartilage, is expected to return for Sunday’s game.
McCoy met with the media on Wednesday and seemed eager and ready to return to action after missing his first game since the eighth game of the 2016 season — one week after he played hurt in Miami and was held to 11 yards on eight carries.
“I’m playing,” McCoy said. “I felt good today. Still some pain. But I'll be all right. I can deal with that during the game. Today was the first day I really ran hard. Cutting was kind of a minor little setback. Other than that, I felt good. I felt fast. I felt rested. I'm excited.
"I've just got to get going, make some people miss," McCoy added. "I have an urgency to get out there, get the run game rolling."
The question is which McCoy will show up in Lambeau. He has run for 50 yards or less in nine of his last 17 regular-season games. He rushed for 1,138 yards last season, but his average per rush dropped by 1.4 yards, one of the greatest single-season declines in NFL history for a 1,000-yard rusher. He had games of 9, 10, 21, 22 and 25 yards during that 17-game stretch.
McCoy, 30, ran 16 times for 61 yards in the Bills’ first two games. The Bills need more against a Green Bay defense that ranks 27th against the run this season. Adrian Peterson, who is three years older than McCoy, rushed 19 times for 120 yards and two TDs last Sunday in Washington’s 31-17 victory over the Packers. The Redskins had 166 yards rushing, the most allowed by Green Bay in a game since 2016.
The Bills will need to assert their running game against Mike Pettine’s aggressive defense. Pettine was the Buffalo defensive coordinator under Doug Marrone in 2013, when the Bills’ D set a franchise record with 57 sacks. They also finished 28th against the run that season.
The Packers, meanwhile, won’t have Rodgers in his typically dynamic form. Rodgers, the highest-rated passer in NFL history, is still hobbled by a knee injury suffered in the opener against the Bears. Rodgers showed how dangerous he can be, even when hurt, rallying the Packers to a dramatic 24-23 win over Chicago after returning in the second half.
It would behoove the Pack to get its running game in gear to keep the Bills from teeing off on Rodgers the way they did Cousins a week ago. The Bills are fifth against the run after three games, but the Vikes gave up the run after falling behind early and rushed only six times. The Bills were 29th against the run last season and the Packers will test them.
The key to Sunday’s matchup could be the other Aaron — second-year tailback Aaron Jones. Jones, a 5-9, 208-pounder out of Texas-El Paso, is Green Bay’s most elusive back, a runner with the vision and burst to break big runs. He’s averaging 5.6 yards a carry since the start of the 2017 season, the highest average per rush of any NFL running back with at least 85 carries. The Saints' Alvin Kamara is second at 5.5
Jones was suspended for the first two games of this season for violating the NFL’s marijuana policy. He carried six times for 42 yards last week. He also missed three preseason games with a hamstring injury, so the Packers wanted to bring him back slowly. They have two solid veterans backs in Jamaal Williams, who is a strong pass blocker, and Ty Montgomery, who combined for 50 snaps at Washington.
"I thought Aaron had a real nice start," Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Monday. "As far as his play-time numbers, we kind of hit the target that I was looking for. As we talked about last week, you’ve got to be smart with all your players, particularly when it’s the first time out there. He hadn’t played since Kansas City (in preseason) but, boy, I thought he did some really good things with the ball and did some good things in the passing game.
"I really like the rotation of having all three guys because they’re distinctly different, but all three can play all three downs, and that says a lot,” McCarthy said. “We’ve never had this situation where you have three guys that can play three downs like that, so this will really help us moving forward."
McCarthy said during the offseason that he envisioned having a running back committee. But observers in Green Bay believe Jones needs to get 15 to 20 attempts soon. He has the sort of game-breaking ability that can take some of the pressure off Rodgers.
"We’ve got to run the ball better to start some of the (play-action) stuff," Rodgers said after Sunday’s loss. "But we put ourselves behind the stick a lot with negative-yardage plays. The next thing you know, we’re down by three scores. That’s kind of the way the game went.”
That’s the way it went for the Vikings against the Bills last week, too. You’re bound to see a more conventional game unfold on Sunday. It’s not very sexy, but it could be one of those days where the classic cliche applies: Run and stop the run. And I’m not talking about Allen dashing down the middle of the field and hurdling Green Bay defenders.