Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Here We Go Again!

Rodgers running for his life, photo by Jim Matthews, USA Today
Sunday night's game led to a result I expected, a Packers loss.  But I did not expect such a demoralizing loss, at the hands of the Falcons (yet again!).  Anybody who watched the game knows that the game was not nearly as close as the final score of 34-23 might suggest.  With a score of 34-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, it would have taken much more than a couple of garbage time touchdowns to even the score.

As soon as I heard that both Bulaga and Bakhtiari were inactive, I should have suspected that problems were ahead.  Missing 40% of your starting offensive line is not a good thing against a team with a strong pass rush.  And by the end of the first quarter, Jordy Nelson and Mike Daniels were also sitting on the sidelines.  By the end of the game, so were Randall Cobb, Davon House, Kentrell Brice and Jahri Evans.

On defense, the problems were evident from the first drive, which was way too easy for the Falcons, even before Mike Daniels went out of the game.  The conclusion I reached was that last week's defensive performance was something of a mirage, or at a minimum greatly exaggerated because of the ineptitude of the Seahawks offense in general, and their offensive line in particular.  Against a powerful offense like that of the Falcons, the Packers can't keep up, at least on artificial turf. One lesson I hope the Packers learned from this loss is that it is time to get rookie cornerback Kevin King and rookie safety Josh Jones more playing time.  They outplayed their more experienced teammates.

On offense, the makeshift offensive line held up for a while, and of course the touchdown on the first drive helped foster the illusion that maybe everything would be OK.  But after a few drives, it all started to fall apart. One guy who had a particularly bad night was Martellus Bennett.  He needs to clean up his act, starting catching the balls that are catchable, and put this game behind him.

The worst thing about this loss is the potential damage to the Packers' quest for home field advantage in the playoffs.  There is a lot of season left, but trailing the Falcons by a game plus a tiebreaker is not where the Packers want to be.  The Packers have a good chance to beat the Falcons in Lambeau Field in the playoffs.  But they have demonstrated no ability to beat them in Atlanta.

After two weeks, the Packers have in their record an ugly win against the Seahawks, who don't look much like a championship caliber team, and an even uglier loss to the Falcons, who undoubtedly will be contending for the title.  The schedule now calls for what should be two much easier games, both at home, first the 0-2 Bengals, who have only scored 9 points in two games, and the 0-2 Bears, who looked pretty good in losing to the Falcons at home, and not so good in losing to the Buccaneers on the road.  If the Packers take care of business and win both these games, they will have a 3-1 record, and a "mini-bye" of 10 days to get healthy before starting a tougher series of games starting with the Cowboys.  I expect two wins in the next two games, but I admit to being nervous about what the injury report will say as the games get closer.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Packers Off to a Good Start!

GB Press-Gazette, 9-11-17
Our long offseason is finally over.  For someone like me, who doesn't much follow other sports, including college football, and for whom the NFL preseason has become more boring and less insight-provoking every year, it is a seven-month wait from the Super Bowl to another football game that actually matters.

How do the 2017 Packers look to me so far, after their 17-9 victory over the Seahawks on opening day?  The answer is, pretty good, and I am encouraged that they will only get better as the season goes on.

We all know that the Packers' main problem last year was on defense, never more evident than in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta.  While the Packers' defense started off the year last year with some promise, by the end of the year, due in large part to injuries, the defense was a mess.

So the Packers went out and drafted with an emphasis on defense, and made some pickups in free agency on defense.  The first four picks on defense were defensive players, with the ones looking most promising to me being defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones.  Re-signing former Packers defensive back Davon House added depth, while signing former 49er linebacker Ahmad Brooks added some pass-rushing pop.

So going into Sunday's game, I figured the offense would  be just fine, especially with the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett.  Of course it wasn't at all, at first. More on that in  a minute.

But it was the defense I really wanted to see, to judge whether any progress has been made.  

On Sunday, from the very first series, when Nick Perry disrupted Russell Wilson's pass, and then got a third and long sack, this looked like a new and invigorated defense.  Probably the best part was that they got lots of pressure against the Seahawks, while hardly ever blitzing.  Nick Perry, right now, looks like the Packers' best linebacker, and Mike Daniels had maybe the best game of his career on Sunday afternoon, before going home and starting to prepare for the Falcons Sunday night!  The return of Davon House adds some veteran savvy in the defensive backfield, and Dom Capers' heavy reliance on the "nitro" defense, where a safety lines up as an inside linebacker, adds speed in the middle of the field.

Now, it is undoubtedly true that the Seahawks have problems of their own on the offensive line, and it will be interesting to see if the defense can play as well against better O-lines in the upcoming games.  Still, when the last game that meant anything was the awful NFC Championship game, seeing the defense play as well as it did on Sunday against a quality opponent was very welcome.

On offense, the Packers' start of the season was painfully slow, with no points and an interception (that easily could have been a pick six) in the first half.  Even if the Packers' offense looked better than the offense of the Seahawks in the first half, some bad throws, bad penalties and other mistakes meant no success in the first half.  Bryan Bulaga missed the game with an injury, and while the O-line did a credible job without him, getting him back will clearly help to give Rodgers more time and take fewer hits and sacks.

The running game was not too successful, but as the game moved into the second half, the passing game picked up the pace.  The Seahawks paid too much attention to Nelson and Adams, with the result that Cobb had a great game underneath.  Rodgers personally picked up the pace on a snap late in the third quarter, catching the Seahawks in a 12 men on the field penalty and firing a TD pass to Jordy Nelson.  Martellus Bennett did not make a huge splash in his first game, but he made some important catches to keep drives going.  While I hate unnecessary penalties, it is hard to fault Bennett too much for going after the guy who took an arguable cheap shot at Rodgers.  Even Rodgers appreciated the support.  Ty Montgomery also contributed in the passing game; he looked good on his three receptions, and his play served to remind that even if he is a running back now, he still remembers how to play wide receiver.

The Packers move on to open the new dome in Atlanta against the Falcons on Sunday night.  I watched the first Falcons game, in which they beat the Bears 23-17 in Chicago, and really should have lost if the Bears could gain 4 yards in 4 plays at the end of the game.  I came away feeling that the Falcons do not look like the Falcons of last year's Super Bowl (or, at any rate, not like the Falcons of the first half of the Super Bowl).  I think a good team can beat them, even though they will play a lot faster on their artificial turf.

Still, the Packers learned about the emotional boost a team gets when it is opening a new stadium last year in Minnesota.  I think the Falcons will be tough to beat in this particular game, and I expect a Packers' loss.  But how great would it be if they could pull off another win and start off the season 2-0?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Four More Quarters for a Shot at the Super Bowl

Mason Crosby, photo by Evan Siegle,
I have been so far under the weather this week that I didn't know if I would come up for air before the weekend, and I guess I barely did.  But here are a few brief comments on the Cowboys game (which the Packers won 34-31 on the final play of the game), and then the upcoming Falcons game in the NFC Championship Game.

Well, I predicted (with trepidation) that the Packers would beat the Cowboys, and when they were ahead 21-3 and then 28-13, I was feeling pretty good about my pick, and more importantly, about the game.  There were so many "wow" moments in the game, and so much has already been written about them.  The TD to Rodgers on a free play.  Dallas area native Ty Montgomery living a dream and scoring two TDs in the Cowboys' stadium.  The Cobb toe tap sideline catch (announced by the crew as Rodgers "throws it away").  The even more spectacular Cook sideline catch.  The decision to go for a 56 yard Mason Crosby field goal, when a miss would have given the Cowboys great field position to win the game.  The 51 yard Mason Crosby field goal to win the game, as time expired, with the obligatory time out to ice the kicker.  Remember when Mason Crosby was a problem a few years ago?  Not any more.

The one I want to highlight, though, is a couple of plays before the Cook miraculous sideline catch.  Rodgers sustained a blindside sack at the Packers' 31 yard line.  If he had fumbled, as you would expect he would on a sack like that, the Cowboys would probably have recovered the ball right there, in perfect position to kick the game winning field goal themselves.  I really don't know how Rodgers avoided the fumble, but by doing so he saved the game.

Now obviously it was a little disheartening to let the Cowboys close the score to an 8 point margin before halftime, and it was a lot disheartening, if not heartbreaking, to let the Cowboys tie the game at 28 and then again at 31 in the fourth quarter.  We Packers fans have some history with blown leads in the playoffs, and it seems (without adding up each instance over the years) that it doesn't usually end well.  Just two comments: at least the blown leads this time did not result from a "prevent defense" or "kill the clock offense."  That would drive me crazy.  Instead, if you rewatch the game, the blown leads really happened "organically" in the course of the game, meaning the Cowboys adjusted their offense to rely more on the passing game, and the Packers made some errors here and there (like the Christine Michael error on the kickoff he bobbled, or Rodgers' interception) that contributed to the blown lead by changing around the field position game.  But here, for a change, the Packers were the ones to pull off the last second victory after blowing the lead, rather than the other way around.

There are two obvious Packers-Falcons games to think about in evaluating the Packers' chances on Sunday.  In the 2010 playoffs, when the Falcons were the number one seed, the Packers blew the doors off the dome, winning 48-21.  I can't put much stock in that game.  It was 6 years ago, and there has been much turnover on both teams since then.  Besides, that was at a time when the Packers not only had a healthy offense, but also a healthy defense, sporting such defensive backs as Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins, and Charlie Peprah.  If Aaron Rodgers was the no. 1 star of that game, then Tramon Williams was no. 2, with his two interceptions, including the 70 yard interception for a touchdown on the final play of the half.

So what, then, about the game against the Falcons, at the dome, earlier this year, which the Falcons won, 33-32?  This was the first of four losses in a row for the Packers, ending up with the "run the table" moment when the Packers had fallen to 4-6.  There were 7 lead changes in the game, and the Packers had the lead at some point during each of the 4 quarters.  At the end, the Falcons scored the final points on a touchdown pass to Sanu, and in this case 31 seconds left was not enough time for Rodgers to get the offense downfield for a possible winning field goal.  So the Packers of 2016 can certainly play with the Falcons, and don't have any reason to fear going into the Georgia Dome.

But in re-watching that October 30 game, the most amazing thing to me is the Packers' inactive list: Randall Cobb, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, James Starks, Clay Matthews, Ty Montgomery, and Jared Cook.  Could the presence of some of those players on the active roster make a difference on Sunday?  You bet it could.  I assume Jordy Nelson will be out, but I assume Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison will be able to play, as will Randall Cobb and Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery.  That should take care of the offensive side of the ball.  On defense, the defensive backfield is a bit of a mess, but Damarious Randall will play, and Morgan Burnett may be able to play.  I assume Quinten Rollins won't be able to play, because as far as I know, he is still in concussion protocol.

I think the Packers will win this game, by a fairly close score, and advance to Super Bowl LI.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"We're Better with 18 on the Field, and he Showed it Tonight"

Hail Mary Photo by Evan Siegle,
Just after the Packers finished their 38-13 victory over the Giants, in the post-game sideline interview with Erin Andrews, Aaron Rodgers finished with this comment: "And Randall Cobb, who this offense has been missing for a long time.  We're better with 18 on the field, and he showed it tonight."  That was never more clear than Sunday against the Giants.  He has had a 3 touchdown game once before (in a September game against the Chiefs in 2015, with nothing much on the line) but nothing with the significance of this playoff game.  He also tied an NFL record held by many players, including Sterling Sharpe, for catching 3 touchdowns in a playoff game.  I think this was probably Cobb's finest game as a Packer.

Armchair GMs have been wondering if the Packers should part ways with Randall Cobb, what with the emergence of younger receivers like Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison (although Geronimo's breaking marijuana charge this week does not assist his cause, certainly, as he probably is facing a suspension, most likely next season).  At any rate, I hope this game does away with such talk.  I would hate to see Cobb leave.

If  Cobb and Rodgers were the players of the game on offense, is there any doubt that Clay Matthews and Jake Ryan were the players of the game on defense?  Clay Matthews had only one tackle, but it was one for the ages.  He knocked the ball out of Eli Manning's hand, in a classic "empty hand" play (meaning that Manning's arm moved forward, but the ball was already loose as a fumble).  Matthews knew it, the referee knew it, but nobody else on the field seemed to have any idea, despite the fact that there was no whistle.  So Matthews was yelling at closer teammates to grab the ball, but they must not have heard him, so just as Giants RB Paul Perkins was casually bending down to pick up the ball and hand it to the official, Matthews took matters into his own hands, clocked Perkins, and recovered the ball himself.  It is probably easier to realize what is going on while watching the game on TV.  But Matthews was smart to realize that there had been no whistle, go after the ball!  That's the way players are taught.  Why was Matthews the only one paying attention on either team?

Sam and Chelsea at the Game
I have to admit that I missed how important Jake Ryan's play was to the defense, until my daughter Sam Freeman, who usually goes to playoff games with me, pointed it out after the game.  Since I could not go to this game, I am thankful that her good friend Chelsea Bundy (and potential budding Packers fan despite her Yinzer upbringing!) was able to use the ticket on short notice and go with Sam!  Anyway, I then looked at the stats (12 total tackles and assists to lead the team) and re-watched the game to realize how right she was.  Even when he didn't make the tackle or assist, he was still frequently in the mix.  I have liked him all along, but this was quite a game in a spot where the linebackers had to play well to help relieve the pressure on the defensive backs.  Dom Capers' creative use of his depleted defensive backs made them much more effective against the Giants than I expected them to be.  But plays by the linebackers, especially Ryan, contributed significantly to the effective defensive results.

The Packers, once they started playing some offense toward the end of the second quarter, completely over-matched the Giants.  But it has to be noted that the Giants contributed rather mightily to their own demise.  If it had not been for missed passes by Manning, dropped passes by their vaunted receivers, and little production from their running game, the Packers might have been behind by 14-0, instead of 6-0, and who knows how that might have affected the momentum of the game?

Just as an aside, I was intrigued by Troy Aikman's reference to Paul Perkins' uncle playing in the Ice Bowl.  So I looked it up.  Perkins' uncle was Don Perkins, the leading rusher for the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl with 51 yards on 17 carries.  In an ironic coincidence, nephew Paul had exactly the same yards per carry on Sunday, and was the leading Giants's rusher with 30 yards on 10 carries.  When your leading rusher only averages 3 yards per carry, and doesn't have that many carries, this is not a recipe for success.  Obviously, both the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, and the Giants on Sunday, came up losers against the Packers.

And speaking of losers, what a head case Odell Beckham, Jr. is, to have punched a hole in the wall outside the locker room, especially after all the on and off field controversies involving him this year.  To coin a phrase, the Packers should fix the wall, and make the Giants pay for it.  He is obviously very immature, or very hot-headed, or both.  And then I see that the Giants players trashed the plane on the way back to New York, so that the next flight was delayed for several hours because of the cleanup.  The Giants deny it.  I call BS on the Giants.  The Giants have a serious discipline problem on their hands, and they need to clean it up by next year.

Beckham Hole, Photos by Carl Deffenbaugh, Fox 6 News, Milwaukee
Well, on to the Cowboys this coming Sunday.  With their record of 13-3, having lost (ironically) only to the Giants all year before essentially conceding the final game to the Eagles by playing mostly backups, the Cowboys look like a much more formidable opponent.  Aaron Nagler puts very well the three things the Packers have to do if they are to beat the Cowboys: (1) they have to overcome the likely loss of Jordy Nelson for the game; (2) they have to find a way to slow down Ezekiel Elliott; and (3) the Packers have to get off to a fast start.  The way Cobb and Adams played on Sunday, they will go a long way toward dealing with the probable loss of Nelson.  Add in Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery, and I think even if Nelson does not play, the Packers are in good shape.  Stopping or slowing down Elliott will not be easy, but it will be essential, and has to be done without opening the floodgates to Prescott and his quality receivers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten.  I would not count on Prescott to throw as many bad passes, or on Bryant, Beasley and Witten to drop as many passes, as the Giants did on Sunday.

And once again, they need to get off a fast start.  Fooling around for the first 26 minutes of the game will just not cut it.  McCarthy needs to force Rodgers, or Rodgers needs to force himself, to start off with a quick, in-rhythm, short passing game, instead of dancing around in the pocket, taking sacks, and not being willing to pull the trigger, as he did for much of the first half against the Giants.  If the Giants had played better, Rodgers might never have been able to start the rout that started late in the second quarter.  The Packers will never be able to survive wasting the first 26 minutes of the game against the Cowboys.

The Packers that lost to the Cowboys 30-16 in October, dropping to a 3-2 record, were not playing at the level they are playing now.  They had not found their rhythm, as they have over the last 7 weeks, they were already without three defensive backs in the game (Shields, Rollins and Banjo) and Jared Cook was injured and inactive.  The Packers also, very uncharacteristically, gave the Cowboys 4 turnovers (an interception, and fumbles lost by Rodgers, Nelson and Montgomery).  Again, since the seven game winning streak started, the Packers just don't do that anymore.  Rodgers has thrown no interceptions in those games, and the Packers have far more takeaways than turnovers lost.

The Cowboys are the number one seed in the NFC for a good reason.  They played well, consistently, all year long, while the Packers and the rest of the NFC did not.  But right now, there is no hotter team in the NFC than the Packers.  The Cowboys are much worse against the run than were the Giants, so the Packers ought to be able to gain some yards on the ground, taking some pressure off the passing game.  Those things give the Packers an excellent shot, even against the number one seed, and even on the road.  With some trepidation, I am predicting a Packers victory, nothing like the blowout against the Giants, but maybe by a touchdown, with a late TD pass by Rodgers sealing it, or perhaps a late interception by the Packers' defense preventing the TD by the Cowboys to tie the game.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Running Another Table?

Geronimo Allison, Photo by Evan Siegle,
Oh boy.  They really did run the table.  Or did they?  Maybe "run the table" includes the playoffs and they are just 60% of the way there.  For now, by beating the Lions 31-24, the Packers have won the division again, and will host the Giants on Sunday afternoon for a playoff game, when nobody but Aaron Rodgers thought they could do that 6 weeks ago.

The Lions game did not go at all as I expected (other than the final result).  I thought one team would jump out to a quick start (as happened for the Packers in September, or as happened for the Lions last December).  Instead, both teams played somewhat sluggishly, and the first quarter was scoreless.  Add in half a dozen penalties for the Packers in the first half, and Clay Matthews' crushing, embarrassing dropped interception (likely resulting in a 14 point swing on the series), and it was disturbing but maybe not surprising that the Lions led 14-10 at halftime.

The Packers started the second half sharply, marching down the field to take the lead on a Davante Adams touchdown.  Going into the fourth quarter, the Packers led 17-14.  But with defensive backs Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Makinton Dorleant out of the game with injuries, this seemed like a tenuous position, especially given the Lions' status as the kings of comebacks, as I noted last week.  But the Packers put two touchdown drives together when it mattered, and the jerry-rigged Packers secondary did a remarkable job of holding the Lions in check.  They did give up 10 points, including the Hail Mary touchdown, but they got enough stops when they needed them to finish off the win.

A brief tribute to the New York Giants is in order before turning to the upcoming game.  I knew that the Giants were saying all the right things about playing to win against the Redskins last Sunday, but then don't teams always say that, even if they end up sitting all their starters?  And yet they really did play to win and won the game, when the results meant nothing to the Giants, and everything to either the Lions or the Packers about getting into the playoffs.  That kind of integrity means something to me.  I have to wonder if the back story is that the Giants' organization still stings from the time that the 49ers, in the immortal words of Phil Simms, "laid down like dogs" in a similar situation and cost the Giants a spot in the playoffs.  Whatever the motivation, good for the Giants.

Obviously, nobody can forget the last two times the Giants came to Lambeau Field in the playoffs.  There was the NFC Championship Game in January 2008, when the Giants beat the Packers in overtime, 23-20.  The second coldest game in Packers history, and the coldest game I have ever attended.  The winning field goal was set up, fittingly it seems, by the final ill-advised interception in Brett Favre's Packers career.  And then there was the time in January 2012, when the Giants abruptly ended the Packers' 15-1 season by beating them, 37-20.  The Packers never led in the game, and were never even tied with the Giants after the second quarter.  Four Packers turnovers in the game contributed to the Packers' inability to come back and make a game of it.

But those games were 5 and 9 years ago, a lifetime in "football years."  Each team has a few players still around from the 2008 game, and a few more from the 2012 game, but these are very different teams.  The Giants have a new head coach, Ben McAdoo, a former Packers assistant coach, and a new offensive scheme.  I would argue, with more than a little wishful thinking thrown in, that the match between the Giants and the Packers at Lambeau Field in October is a far more relevant measuring stick than the playoff games.  The Packers won the October game, 23-16, at a time when both the Giants and the Packers were not playing very well.

Looking back at that game, it is interesting that Shields and Randall were out, so the defensive back trouble had already begun, and so was Jared Cook.  Eddie Lacy had maybe his best game of the season, but injured his ankle, which led to him being put on IR a couple of weeks later.  Rodgers missed a few passes, and his receivers dropped a few more.  Rodgers completed only about 50% of his passes, and threw 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.  This game was a rare case where Rodgers threw a pair of interceptions and still won.  The best performers in the game were the offensive linemen.  They protected Rodgers so well that he was never sacked and rarely hit. The Packers were never really threatened in the game, but they definitely did not play up to the standard we have seen in the last 6 or so weeks.

Similarly, the Giants were off that day, and indeed they went into the game with a 2-2 record, and ended at 2-3.  Their running game was poor, and has improved a lot since then, and Manning missed some passes (including a sure TD on broken coverage) and his receivers dropped catchable balls.  The flip side of the Packers' offensive line protecting Rodgers is that the Giants could not apply any pressure without blitzing.  The bottom line is that both teams played a mediocre game that day, and the Packers came out on top.  We should not expect a mediocre game out of the Giants this time, as they have gone 9-2 since then, losing only to the Steelers and Eagles.  And the Packers cannot afford a mediocre effort this time, or they will be bounced out of the playoffs by the Giants again.

I agree with one of Aaron Nagler's comments on Facebook live on Wednesday.  Jared Cook is a huge key in this game.  The Giants have not covered tight ends well, and the Packers beat the Giants in October even without Jared Cook, and without much contribution by Richard Rodgers.  With a healthy Jared Cook?  This might be just what the Packers need to offset their problems in the defensive backfield.  You might even call him the Packers' secret weapon, since they are 8-2 with him in the lineup, and 2-4 without.

The defensive backs are of course a problem, but Dom Capers managed better than I thought he would against the Lions, once the defensive backs started dropping like flies.  The Packers need to apply some pressure on Manning, preferably without having to blitz.  Manning has no mobility and will either hit the deck or throw it away in the face of pressure.  A little pressure from the defensive line, in other words, will go a long way toward solving the defensive back problems.

But the overall secret to winning this game is to get off to a fast start, as they did in October by scoring on the opening drive.  No taking the first quarter off, as they did against the Lions.  Get ahead of the Giants, and the Packers will start to take away parts of the Giants' game plan.  The way the Packers' offense has been playing, they ought to be able to do this.  I am expecting the Packers to win, and end the Giants' playoff curse against the Packers.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

One More for the Title!

The Unstoppable Jordy Nelson, photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
I feel like such a sucker, for believing in the Vikings' hype earlier this year.  When the Vikings cruised to a 5-0 start, despite having lost Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson, it was hard for me to see how they would not win the division.  After all, the Packers, after 5 games, were 3-2, and the Lions were 2-3.  And that, of course, was before the Packers' 4 game losing streak.  And before the Lions went on a tear, winning 8 out of 9.

But then the Vikings started to self-destruct, losing 8 out of the next 10 games, including their 38-25 loss to the Packers on Saturday, and they now find themselves out of the playoffs.  There was a time, not too many weeks ago, when I didn't think the Packers could catch either the Vikings or the Lions, and yet they caught and passed the Vikings and now have tied the Lions with a chance to win the division outright.  It is all about the Packers and the Lions now, with the division title (and possibly a Wild Card for either Packers or Lions) on the line next Sunday night when the Packers travel to play the Lions.

The funniest thing about the Vikings' loss to the Packers, at least to me, is the mutiny that evidently happened among the Vikings' defensive backs.  The game plan was for Xavier Rhodes to shadow Jordy Nelson for the entire game, but the DBs themselves decided that they would just cover their normal sides of the field, in the normal fashion.  This lasted, depending on which version you believe, either for only one series (according to Coach Mike Zimmer), or until halftime (as the defensive backs originally said before clamming up), before Mike Zimmer could re-assert control over the mutineers.  In re-watching the game, it is 100% clear that the mutiny was in full effect until halftime.  The game tape may not lie, but evidently Mike Zimmer does.  If Rhodes was shadowing Nelson in the first half, then he is the worst shadow in the history of the game.  In the first half, the rogues gave up 145 yards and two touchdowns to Nelson.  In the second half, under the Mike Zimmer game plan, they gave up 2 catches and 9 yards to Nelson.

The return to form of Aaron Rodgers over the past 7 or 8 weeks, combined with the re-emergence of Jordy Nelson as the receiver he was before his injury last year, and the creation out of nothing of a semblance of a running game with Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael, are responsible for how well the offense is playing.  The defense is much spottier, and if the Packers make it to the playoffs, I question how far they can go unless the defense improves.  But the return of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to being playmakers, despite playing through significant injuries, is a big plus, and if the Packers could just keep a group of defensive backs healthy for an entire game, they might have fewer problems.

I guess you could fault the Packers for going into a bit of a shell in the fourth quarter against Minnesota, but I really don't have a problem with that.  Unlike the prior week against the Bears, where they started playing a lot of loose zone with 15 minutes left to go, and only leading by 17, in the Vikings game, the Packers were ahead by 25 points with 9 minutes to go when they decided to go into some version of the prevent defense.

So on we go to the very last regular season game, with the NFC North Division Championship on the line.  The league and NBC must be delighted to have an old-time rivalry like the Packers and Lions in this final slot.  The emotion in the stadium will be high, as well as in living rooms across the country and elsewhere.  If I were a Lions' fan, I would be a little leery of matching up Matthew Stafford and his two-game losing streak against Aaron Rodgers and his five-game winning streak.  Still, the Lions play well in their dome, Stafford has played very well over the last couple of years, and they certainly have the ability to win this game.

I think that the Packers are the better team, and should win this game.  My biggest concern is the Packers' defensive backs.  Not only do they have lots of injuries in the defensive backfield, but they have a penchant for turning relative no-name receivers into one-week wonders, like they did with Adam Thielen last week, and like they did with Marvin Jones in the first meeting with the Lions.  And let's not forget that the Lions have some quality receivers who could do the same thing to the Packers' defense, principally Golden Tate (cue bad memories) and Eric Ebron.  So even without Calvin Johnson, the Lions are a threat.  Until last week, I would also have been concerned about whether the Packers could put any pressure on Stafford, but the ability of Matthews and Perry to play through their injuries last week makes me feel much better on that score.

In the Lions' Monday night loss to the Cowboys, at first it seemed that the Lions and Cowboys would just match each other, score for score, until maybe the team with the ball last won the game.  But the Cowboys were able to adjust, start to put more pressure on Stafford, and mistakes ensued (an interception, a lost Stafford fumble, and a missed field goal).  After the Lions pulled ahead 21-14 in the second quarter, the Cowboys went on to score 28 unanswered points to put the game away.  In my viewing of the game, putting pressure on Stafford was the key to achieving this result.

For the Packers, the important thing is not to put themselves into a hole, as they did last year at Detroit.  Obviously, that game resulted in a Packers win, but relying on an untimed play and a Hail Mary pass is a low-probability way to win a game.  If they can just play the game they have discovered over the last five weeks, involving quick release and rhythm passes, just enough of a running game to keep the Lions honest, punctuated by shots down the field to Nelson, Adams, and now Cook, and maybe an occasional unusual play like a jet screen to Janis, they can maybe get off to a fast start and start to take some of the emotion out of the Lions and their fans.

Then, if the Packers have a lead in the second half, for heavens sake don't try to just sit on it!  The Lions have been the kings of comebacks.  They have apparently come from behind to win games in the fourth quarter or overtime 8 times this year!  This record apparently qualifies them as the best comeback team in the history of the NFL.  Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers are presumably well aware of all this.  So if they find themselves with a lead, they simply must keep their feet on the gas, on both sides of the ball, until any Lions comeback would definitely be too little, too late.  Doing this might well turn out to be the biggest key to the entire game.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Two More to Run the Table!

Montgomery Running Free, Photo by Evan Siegle,

On last week's Bears game, which the Packers won, 30-27, let's not forget one thing.  If Davante Adams caught either of the two touchdown passes that he dropped, we wouldn't all have been having heart attacks late in the 4th quarter.  I am a big fan of Davante Adams, but not only did he not help the team on Sunday, he hurt it by having catchable touchdown passes thrown his way, and then dropping them.  Let's hope he turns things around in the next two games.  He has now shredded the gloves he used last week, so I suppose that is a start.

The all-time record between the Packers and Bears is now tied, at 94-94-6.  This is the first time that the Packers have not trailed the Bears, all-time, since 1933.  We can thank 25 years of Favre and Rodgers at quarterback, and Holmgren and McCarthy (and the others) at coach for evening the score in games.  And in points, the all-time record now stands at Green Bay, 3,335, Chicago, 3,331.  When you stop to think of how close the games and points have been, how this is the oldest rivalry, and how the rivalry has the City Slicker vs. Country Bumpkin aspect to add to it, it is not hard to understand how this is really the greatest rivalry in the history of the game.  At times over the last 25 years, the rivalry may have seemed more intense with the Vikings, or with the Cowboys or 49ers or Seahawks, and maybe this year and last with the Lions, but nothing really matches up with Packers-Bears.

I don't think the game announcers ever mentioned the direction that the wind was blowing during the game.  But I think it had to have been blowing from left to right, as you watch the TV broadcast.  With two exceptions, all the rest of the points in the game were scored by the team moving from left to right, i.e., with the wind if my supposition is correct.  The only exceptions were Crosby's late second quarter field goal, set up by (one of several) huge runs by Ty Montgomery, and the game-winning field goal by Crosby as time expired, set up by the improbable 60 yard bomb to Jordy Nelson.  This can't be a coincidence.  The wind must have played a significant role in this game, even though the backup announcing crew never mentioned it.

In thinking about the impact of the wind, consider that this is another of those games where McCarthy and Capers can be accused of going (at least in large part) to the prevent defense and the kill-the-clock or prevent offense.  After all, they were leading 27-10 after three quarters.  All they had to do was run some clock, and keep the ball in front of them on defense.  What are the chances that the Bears, with their whatever-string quarterback, will score 17 points in the 4th quarter, after scoring a total of 10 points in the first 3 quarters?  Well, as it turned out, the chances were 100%, and the Packers should consider themselves lucky that they won the game.  Even when the Packers did try to blitz, rather than play a soft zone, in the 4th quarter, it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle, as the Bears now had momentum on their side.

This just drives me nuts.  There is obviously a point in a game, considering the time left and the score at the time, where dialing it back helps to improve the chances of winning, by lessening the chances of an explosive negative play.  And I suppose you could say that things turned out OK; after all the Packers won the game.  But as I said, they are lucky to have won the game.  What happens if Micah Hyde doesn't bat away the touchdown pass on the Bears' final drive, or if the Bears decide to go for it and get a TD on 4th down?  I just don't think there is any question that the Packers dialed it back way too soon, with an entire quarter left, and with the wind (under my theory) at the backs of the Bears.  I just wish that McCarthy and Capers would learn this lesson.  Sometimes you think they have learned it, for example last week against Seattle.  But on Sunday they almost "prevented" the Packers from winning the game with their conservative approach in the 4th quarter.

Anyway, now we have a Christmas eve, Minnesota at Green Bay game tomorrow.  When the Vikings started off at 5-0, including a defensive battle against the Packers, this game had the looks of a division-decider.  After all, the Vikings were 5-0, the Packers were 3-2, and the Lions were 2-3 after 5 games.  But now, the Vikings have gone 2-7 in the next 9 games, including losing 4 of 5 road games (beating only the Jaguars on the road).  They are fighting for a slim shot at a wild card, and more realistically are just fighting to be the spoilers for the Packers.

The Vikings' offense has regressed during the year, and their offensive line is a mess.  The return of Adrian Peterson seemed to do nothing for them last week, and he is still listed as questionable on the injury report.  The Vikings' defense, on the other hand, has played very well for most of the season, keeping them close in the games they lost, even against a team like the Cowboys (to whom they lost, 17-15).  Until last week, that is, when they got blown out, at home, by the Colts, 34-6.  I would be pretty shocked if the Vikings beat the Packers tomorrow.  I think this game has the potential to be a very solid win for the Packers, maybe even permitting some (voluntary!) Brett Hundley time in the 4th quarter.

May the Packers bring Packers' fans all over the world a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Statement Made - Time to Keep it Going

Adams 66 Yard TD, Photo by Evan Siegle,
Not only is it Chicago Bears week, it is "tie up the Bears series all time" week.  After blowing the chance last year in the Thanksgiving debacle, the Packers again get a chance to tie up their all time record with the Bears on Sunday, which now stands at 94-93-6 in favor of the Bears.  If they manage to tie up the record, something I have been waiting to see for many years, it will the first time since 1933 that the records have been even.

Meanwhile, according to the current forecast, the HIGH for the day in Chicago on Sunday is expected to be 1 degree.  If that is the kickoff temperature, it would end up becoming the fifth coldest game in Packers history, edging out a Lions game in 1990 during the long-forgotten Blair Kiel era.

I can't think of a convincing case as to why the Packers should lose to the Bears.  The Bears do always play the Packers tough, and last Thanksgiving's Favreapalooza game is perfect evidence of that.  And while the Bears have only won 3 games, those 3 games were against the 49ers (so that one doesn't really count as much of a win) and against the Lions and the Vikings.  And they came very close to knocking off the Lions again last week.

On this morning's edition of Good Morning Football, Bears linebacker Sam Acho, the Bears' nominee for the Walter Payton award, was a guest.  In addition to reciting a soliloquy from Richard III on the show, he also mentioned that the Bears led the Packers in the fourth quarter of their first game.  Actually, it was the third quarter, but given his knowledge of The Bard, maybe we need to extend him some poetic license.  In that game, the Packers went on to put it away with 20 unanswered points.  But if you want to detect a pattern in the games the Bears have won and come close to winning, they seem to play very well against division rivals.  Earlier in the year, maybe the Bears would have a better chance.  But I don't see the Bears hanging with the newly resurgent Packers' offense, and I think the Packers will win, even if it ends up being closer than you might expect.

And now, let's reflect for a moment on one of the great "statement" games of the Mike McCarthy era.  The Seahawks have been the Packers' nemesis going back to the Fail Mary game in 2012.  And of course no loss can compare with the epic collapse of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game in January 2015.  Just taking those two games puts the Seahawks under Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll in a special category for the Packers.  Along with the traditional division rivals, the Seahawks are now a rival, just like the 49ers and Cowboys were back in the 1990's.

The Packers found themselves a rare home underdog going into the game on Sunday, and the Packers seemed to create some motivation for themselves out of that fact.  While I had expressed optimism that the Packers could win the game, I certainly never expected anything like what I saw (the Packers won, 38-10).  This was, without doubt, the Packers' best performance of the year, and probably of the past several years.  I may be forgetting some other equivalent statement game, but off the top of my head the one that comes to mind is the Packers' rout of the Falcons, on the road, in the 2010 playoffs.

On the Packers' side, there were three things evident in this game.  First, Rodgers' accuracy is definitely back now.  Just as he was missing receivers on both long and short passes earlier in the year, he is making those passes now.  The first touchdown, the 66 yard bomb to Adams, was so reminiscent of other Rodgers touchdown passes in other years, usually passes to Jordy Nelson.  But Rodgers just flicked that ball over 50 yards in the air, with nothing but his arm, as his feet were not set.  Second, if it was not already clear, Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael need to be the primary running backs going forward.  Both of them are much better at making things happen right now, as compared to James Starks.  With Starks in the concussion protocol because of a car accident, of all things, this may be a moot point.  But they need Montgomery and Michael out there at running back.  Finally, while the defense may not be as stifling as it looked for a few weeks at the beginning of the year, they have now played three games in a row in which they have not given up more than 13 points.  If they can keep that level of performance up, the Packers may run the table after all.

I don't watch all the Seahawks games, but I have not seen the Seahawks look this bad in quite a while.  Poor Russell Wilson.  He seems like a nice young man, and I like him.  But he looked like Jay Cutler out there on Sunday.  It goes without saying, when a quarterback throws 5 interceptions, that he is not having a very good day.  It is true that 3 of the interceptions came on balls that bounced off other players.  So that, in a sense, is bad luck.  But he was truly off, even if you ignore those unlucky bounces.  It was never more evident than on the first two drives, when he overthrew receivers on both drives.  Both plays looked like touchdown passes, as the receivers were wide open.  But instead they resulted in a total of 3 points.

The Seahawks were undoubtedly hurt by the loss of free safety Earl Thomas the week before.  And as mentioned, Wilson's bad day was exaggerated beyond belief by the bad luck of having balls bounce off people and into the hands of Green Bay defensive backs.  That's fine.  This is a team that is an excellent team, and it is well-coached (even though I can't stand Pete Carroll), as the Packers have found out multiple times in past games.  But in addition to all that, they seem to always get the benefit of every weird call or botched play against the Green Bay Packers.  So it was nice to see the lucky balls bounce the other way for a change.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Let it Snow!

Cobb's TD, photo by Wm. Glasheen, USA Today
After many squandered early opportunities by the Packers, Sunday's game against the Texans sat at 7-7 at the end of the third quarter.  Just exactly what fans did not want to see.  There was no good reason to think that the Packers would go on to lose the game, after all they were at home, in a snowy Packer environment.

And yet - the Texans' offense had just come alive to tie the game, the Packers had not scored or even moved the ball much since the second quarter, and in a snowy environment, even more than in any other game, all it takes is a defender slipping, or a ball getting knocked out of the hands, and a game can take a crazy turn.

So, when the Texans punted the ball to the Packers' 2 yard line late in the 3rd quarter, as a fan I was just looking for a couple of first downs to improve the field position battle.  Instead, the Packers produced a magnificent, 98 yard drive (108 yards counting a 10 yard penalty) to score what turned out to be the winning touchdown.  Then, after forcing a punt, they followed it up with another drive, this time 89 yards, to put the game out of reach at 21-7 (the final score was Green Bay, 21-13).

So what do we make of the Packers now?  Are they as good as they looked in the fourth quarter?  Or as listless as they looked for most of the rest of the game?  I don't think it is unfair to say that the 98 yard drive served to keep their playoff hopes alive, but the question is, how alive are they at this point?

For starters, I didn't think they would win both of the last 2 games, so I start out from a place of skepticism about how good the team is.  And the Seahawks were overpowering, at home, against the Panthers last week.  But on closer inspection of their record, they are under .500 on the road (2-3-1).  They have lost to the Rams, Saints and Buccaneers, and tied the Cardinals, and of those teams only the Buccaneers even have a winning record at this point.  So they can be beaten outside of their noisy home stadium.

Weather and injuries will be factors.  As of now, the forecast calls for 1 to 3 or 2 to 4 inches of snow, depending on the source, and with a late start time, it is almost a certainty that snow will be sticking all over the field.  The Seahawks have plenty of bad weather in their stadium, but rarely do they have snow.  In fact, I saw that Richard Sherman has never played in the snow, so that tells you something about Seattle weather.  Russell Wilson played at the University of Wisconsin, so he says "I'm hoping it's a downpour of snow."  I don't think downpour is quite the right word (he has been in Seattle too long), but this is a smart thing to say even if he doesn't mean it.  So weather will be a factor, a wild card, and that wild card ought to favor the home team used to playing in those conditions.

The Seahawks lost their excellent free safety Earl Thomas for the year last week, and the Packers have already announced that linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Nick Perry for the game.  Half a dozen others are listed as questionable, although all of them participated in practice today on a limited basis.  Mike Pennel has been suspended for the last four games of the season, so he will be missing, too.

I think the Packers can win this game, and maybe even should win the game, despite being listed as underdogs.  I would feel much better about this game if it wasn't Seattle.  There is too much of a history of crazy things in Seattle games, although most if not all of those crazy things have happened at Seattle.  It should be a fun game to watch.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Running the Table?

Davante Adams TD, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
The saying goes that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  If that is so, the proof of Aaron Rodgers' comment that the Packers would run the table would have to begin with a single win, as it did on Monday night at the Eagles, 27-13.  And it was certainly a pleasure to watch a Packers win, for the first time after a four-game losing streak, and an even greater pleasure to see the Packers play well in all three phases of the game.  All four if you count coaching, as both McCarthy and Capers seemed to have excellent game plans in the same game!  Which doesn't happen all that often.

Although, to be honest, after the first two drives of the game, the game looked like it might be another one of those no defense, 48-47 affairs, with the last team with the ball winning the game.  But the Packers' defense (and, for that matter, the Eagles' defense to a lesser extent) settled down rather nicely.  And even the special teams contributed, especially with the punt downed at the one yard line (although the kick was very close to being a touchback).  Since the Eagles ended up scoring a FG on the drive, it is good that they had to go all the way from the 1 in order to score.  A touchback could easily have led to a touchdown.

Davante Adams put on a show again on offense, catching 5 passes for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It is safe to say that he won't spend any more time on my fantasy football bench.  You can certainly make a case that Adams is the best performer on offense right now, other than Rodgers himself.  Rodgers was driving us all crazy just a few weeks back, but the adjustment that was made over a few weeks, to move toward a quick-release, dink and dunk offense (and I do not mean that as an insult, but as a compliment in the context of this season), with occasional shots down the field, has really brought him back on the right path.  Argue it however you will, I think he has looked good to excellent in 5 of the last 6 games, with the Titans game being the major exception.  So even though they lost 4 of those games, it is hard to put those losses all, or even mostly, on Rodgers.

So are the Packers in a position to run the table, squeak into the playoffs, and make some noise in the playoffs?  It's a little hard for me to see that happening.  For starters, I don't think it is reasonable to assume they can win all their remaining games, even though three of the five are at home.  I especially have a hard time seeing them beating the Lions in the dome in week 17.  Yes, I know, the Packers were leading the Lions 31-3 in the first game before the Lions started their comeback.  But it is hard to argue that the Lions have not played as the better team for the rest of the season to date.

Still, who knows?  It has been a crazy season in many ways.  You can think back to the improbable 2010 Super Bowl run, but in fairness, even though the Packers truly had to sneak their way into the playoffs that year before getting hot, they still had a 7-4 record after 11 games, unlike this year's team's 5-6 record.  As of today, the Packers would have to leapfrog over 4 other teams (Saints, Vikings, Buccaneers and Redskins) just to sneak in as the 6th seed in the playoffs.  That is a tall order, but they have 5 weeks to do it.  Getting by the Lions to win the division would be even better, but bear in mind, the Lions have won 6 of their last 7 games, so that is no small task.  But apparently Brett Favre, on his SiriusXM radio show, has predicted that the Packers will win the North.

The Packers play the Texans at Lambeau Field tomorrow.  The Texans have a better record, at 6-5, and lead their division, so they are not pushovers.  But they have won only once on the road (at the Jaguars), have lost two in a row, and of course are without the great J.J. Watt for the rest of the season.  Brock Osweiler, who everybody expected to take over for Peyton Manning in Denver, went to the Texans instead.  But he hasn't played all that well, throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12), despite having some quality receivers (Hopkins, Fuller, Fiedorowicz).  So maybe the Packers will have another few chances for takeaways tomorrow.

I think the Packers should win this game.  That would be very welcome, as it would keep the chances for a playoff berth realistic.  Go Packers!