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ON THE SPOT
Austin Murphy
January 27, 1997
The Patriots chances of beating the Packers—and halting the AFC's 12-game losing streak—depend largely on whether Drew Bledsoe is up to the challenge
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January 27, 1997

On The Spot

The Patriots chances of beating the Packers—and halting the AFC's 12-game losing streak—depend largely on whether Drew Bledsoe is up to the challenge

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One chink in the armor of the Packers, favored by two touchdowns at week's end: Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre often experiences early-game butterflies. "Maybe that's a weakness we can take advantage of," says Bledsoe. Indeed, the Pats must:

Jump on 'Em Early. The obvious strategy: Run rocket-fueled wideout Terry Glenn at Craig Newsome, a physical cornerback with ordinary speed. "We're going to have to hit some big plays against them," says Bledsoe. Even as he says that, he knows he must pick his spots. "I need to take the throws downfield when they're there. If they're not, I'll drop the ball off to [running backs] Curtis Martin or Keith Byars." In short, Bledsoe must play the game on a knife's edge.

If and when he leads the Patriots into the red zone, Bledsoe can't afford to come away empty. New England will be doomed if it even comes close to reprising its impotent performance of Sept. 8, a 17-10 loss at Buffalo in which the Patriots made four trips inside the Bills' 20 and came away with three points.

Bledsoe will find it easier to get in the red zone if he can first:

Get in the Zone. Bledsoe was last there on Dec. 21. With a playoff bye on the line and his team trailing the New York Giants 22-3, he completed 12 of 20 fourth-quarter passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns as he rallied New England to a 23-22 victory.

The zone, however, is a place Bledsoe has yet to visit this postseason. If he is to enter it against the Packers, it would be helpful if someone would please:

Work Ben Coates Back into the Offense. Coates, a Pro Bowl tight end, has 146 receptions over the last two seasons, but only four in New England's two postseason games. Against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game, Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler limited Pro Bowl tight end Wesley Walls to three catches for 33 yards. However, Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur has expressed grave concern over Glenn and fellow wideout Shawn Jefferson. If, as Shurmur indicated last week, his first priority is taking away the long ball, Butler will stay deep to provide double coverage, and Coates should come open over the middle.

Green Bay will shift between a 4-3 and a 3-4, and that will be just the start of the torments Shurmur is sure to concoct for Bledsoe. Such tactics have worked against the Patriots before. In a 12-6 win over New England on Dec. 15, the Cowboys tossed a gumbo of blitzes at Bledsoe, who by the end of the game was hearing foot-steps that weren't always there. The Cowboys forced him into three interceptions and his worst game of the season. Former San Francisco 49crs defensive back Ronnie Lott, owner of four Super Bowl rings, suggests "half-rolling the pocket"-moving it right or left. Also, New England confounded the blitz-happy Steelers by making big plays on first down, when Pittsburgh's defense was at its most vanilla. "If they can start out the way they did against us," says Steelers strong safety Carnell Lake, "it will force Green Bay to step back and reassess."

If Bledsoe handles what Shurmur throws at him, and New England's underrated, hard-hat defense can put a few speed bumps in front of Favre, the Patriots might just be able to:

Hang Around. "If we have a chance to win this game," Bledsoe says, "it probably won't come in the first three quarters. We need to stay with them and come up with a big play in the fourth quarter."

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