Friday, October 10, 2014

Refreshed Packers Head for Stormy Weather

Photo by Tom Lynn, Associated Press
Last week's Minnesota at Green Bay Thursday night game was just what the Packers needed.  In beating the Vikings, 42-10, they not only won their second game in a row, they moved (after Sunday's games) into a first place tie in the NFC North, they played their second excellent offensive game in a row, and they played their best defensive game of the year so far.  This laugher of a game, which was over by halftime, then gave them a "mini-bye week" of 10 days to get ready for their next game, at Miami on Sunday.

One interesting stat from the NFL Network pre-game show before the Packers-Vikings game really struck me.  Going into the week 4 games, there were nine teams whose record at the time was above .500 (actually the number was 10, including the Seahawks, but since the Packers have already played them, I think they were excluded by whoever created the stat).  Of those nine teams, the Packers only play one more (the Eagles, at home, in week 11).  So while the Packers got off to their maddeningly traditional slow start this year, there is lots of room to win games as the year goes on.

Linebacker Julius Peppers had a record-setting night.  He picked off a tipped pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown.  This made him the first player in NFL history to have both 100 sacks and 10 interceptions.  The most impressive part of the return was his instinct to cut almost all the way across the field, in order to have a cleaner path toward the end zone, and to pick up a pack of blockers.  He also outraced a pretty fast Minnesota running back, Jerick McKinnon, on his way to the end zone.  He had to be reminded about the Lambeau Leap in the excitement of the moment, and his leap, shown in the picture, was less than impressive.  From my observation, he needed more of a running start, and according to Jordy Nelson, he also picked the highest part of the wall.  After the game, he promised the laughing NFL Network crew that he will do a better job next time.  May that next opportunity come soon!

I don't quite know what to make of the Miami Dolphins, the Packers' next opponent.  I watched most of their last game, against the 0-4 Oakland Raiders.  They beat the Raiders soundly, but then again, it was the Raiders.  They also beat the Patriots in Week 1, which is more impressive in my mind, but it also was before the Patriots started to get their act together.

The weather on Sunday should be hot and humid, with a good chance of thundershowers, which could be a challenge for players used to practicing and playing in the fall climate in Green Bay.  The game, as of the time I am writing this, is not even sold out, which is usually a pretty good indication that there will be lots of Packers fans in the stands, and thus not much of a homefield advantage, other than the weather.

Purely based on offensive and defensive stats, you could argue that the Dolphins are a better team than the Packers in several categories, including rushing defense, overall defense, and rushing offense.I am not going to say that the Dolphins will be a pushover for the Packers.  But despite these stats, I think the Packers will win the game, and probably win it handily.  The Packers have a top flight quarterback and receivers, and our top flight running back might be coming around, finally, as well.  The Dolphins have some pretty good running backs, but I am not that impressed by their quarterback or receivers.  On defense, for better or for worse, the Packers have been a "bend but don't break" defense this year so far, so the poor stats (especially in rush defense) overstate how bad the defense has played.  Looking over the Dolphins' defensive players, I just don't see a lot of playmakers; in fact, I only recognize a few names of the Dolphins' starters.  Whereas, in the case of the Packers, there are quite a few players capable of making game-changing defensive plays.  The game is being shown to a surprisingly large part of the country, probably because of the Packers' improved performance over the last couple of weeks.  I can't wait for game time!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Back on Track - Maybe

Photo by Jim Matthews, Green Bay Press-Gazette
The Packers beat the Bears on Sunday 38-17, to get their 700th victory, all-time.  The only other team with 700 victories?  The Chicago Bears.  Just one more reason this rivalry is such a great one.  The two teams made a little more history on Sunday, by having only the second regular season game in history to be played without a single punt.  Every Packers drive ended in a score, except for the blocked field goal in the fourth quarter.  Every Bears drive ended in a score, an end of half, an interception, or a turnover on downs.

Poor Jay Cutler.  I don't like the guy - although I'm sure that he is a nice guy in person, and he is a pretty good quarterback.  I still remember that shootout he had with Brett Favre in 2007, when Cutler was still with the Broncos.  At the time, he seemed like a rising young star of a quarterback.  But his sour-puss disposition on the sidelines, ever since he has been with the Bears, and the mere fact that he is the quarterback of our historical rival, has been enough to get me to dislike him.

Having said all that, I do think that he gets a disproportionate share of the blame whenever the Bears lose.  I can't let him off the hook when he throws two interceptions and another one that could have been an interception.  The first one was tipped by Tramon Williams and intercepted by Clay Matthews.  But the main thing is that, in addition to throwing the ball into way too much traffic on the play, he threw it to a spot where Williams had a better opportunity to catch the ball than the receiver.  The second one was the result of mis-communication between Cutler and Brandon Marshall.  Marshall cut upfield, when Cutler evidently expected him to break back toward the line of scrimmage.

Normally, I would have no way of knowing who was at fault in a mistake like that.  Except that Coach Trestman went out of his way to twice mention that it was Marshall's error, at his press conference.  (Cutler himself had been more gallant, just indicating that it was a mis-communication between the two players.)  This, to me, is an interesting choice by Trestman.  I can't read it any way other than that he said this in order to protect Cutler from criticism on the play.  So he perceives Cutler's ego to be so fragile that it is preferable to put the blame squarely on the player who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  I am not sure that was a wise choice.  At this point, if Cutler is not tough enough to take criticism from the fans and the media, there is not much hope for him.

So are the Packers back on track?  I can't give a stronger answer than "maybe."  The offense played to perfection for the entire game - really the first complete performance by the offense all year.  So unlike other formerly excellent teams (I am thinking of the Patriots, given Monday night's game) where the wheels have really come off the offense, at least we now know that the Packers can put a complete offensive game together.  But the defense seems poised to give us fits all season.  The box score is deceptive.  The Packers only gave up 17 points, but better clock management would likely have put the Bears ahead at halftime, 24-21.  And if the Bears had led early in the second half, who knows if Cutler would have started throwing it up for grabs?  In fact, if the Bears had led in the second half, and if they had decided to just run the ball up the middle on most plays, with occasional passes mixed in to keep the Packers honest, they could easily have won the game.  So I have a high level of concern for the defense.  The bright spots are that they have started to generate turnovers, and they do seem to be improving somewhat as the year goes on.  But watching them get gashed by the run, play after play, is not a pretty sight.

The Vikings are next up for the Packers, at Lambeau Field on Thursday night.  The good thing about the Packers' 2-2 record is that they have only had one home game so far.  If you win all your home games and half the away games, you end up at 12-4.  The Packers are 1-0 at home and 1-2 on the road, so they are not far off the pace for a good season, if they can continue winning, especially against division rivals.  A home game on a short week, against the Vikings, is nothing like a sure win, even in more normal times.  And of course there are a couple of wild cards in the mix - the emergence of a talented but inexperienced young quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.  Bridgewater was injured on Sunday, and it is not at all a sure thing that he will play on Thursday.  The other wild card is the Vikings' running game.  Frequent nemesis Adrian Peterson is suspended, but on Sunday, the Vikings had a healthy running game without him, for the first time since Peterson's suspension.

The Packers have got to do something about their run defense, and they have to do it in a hurry.  They are currently ranked last in the league in this category.  I do think that they will win Thursday night.  But if Sunday's game against the Bears provides any lesson, it is how important it will be for the offense to build up a lead, to take the Vikings out of their running game.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Lowering Expectations

Julius Peppers, in his old uniform
If I told you before last Sunday's game that the Packers would hold the Lions to 10 offensive points, and force three turnovers, we all would have felt pretty good about the Packers' chances.  But just as the defense sort of comes alive, the offense goes into a cocoon and racks up a total of 7 points.  And the offense adds another 9 points to the Lions' column.  And there you have it: a 19-7 loss to a team that I still think is just not that good.

How did it happen?  What is wrong with the Packers?  Is Aaron Rodgers right in telling the fans to just R-E-L-A-X?  The game started off with another first-possession fumble, returned for a touchdown.  Later in the first half, a great interception, ruled down at the one yard line under the new version of the "momentum" rule, resulted in a safety on the next play.  When I watched the game the first time in a sports restaurant, my impression was that the defense played well, but that Rodgers was off target.  Re-watching the game on NFL Game Rewind, I had a very different impression.  On the defensive side, the Packers played very well, except for the early fourth quarter long TD run by Reggie Bush.  The defense was clearly not responsible for this loss.  On offense, while Rodgers missed a few passes, there were more drops and bad routes than there were bad passes.  Oh, and Rodgers held the ball too long on a few occasions, resulting in sacks or other negative results.

Where were the screen passes, draw plays, and other mis-direction plays?  They were too few and too far between.  One of the media themes of this week is whether the Packers' offense is too limited because of the emphasis on the no-huddle.  Just as the no-huddle prevents situational substitution on defense, it also limits the Packers' ability to bring in different packages of players on offense.  That could be a factor, but I maintain that the Packers can and should be more creative on offense, with or without the no-huddle.

A little bit of perspective is called for.  This is the third year in a row that the Packers have started 1-2, and they made the playoffs both of the prior years.  (Of course they got bounced out of the playoffs in the first week, but that is another story.)  Going back further, in 2011 the Packers started 3-0 and still got bounced out of the playoffs the first week.  In 2010, they started off 2-1, but were as low as 3-3 before taking off on their magical Super Bowl run.  So the Packers have a bit of a history of slow starts, and yet that hasn't prevented them from making the playoffs every year and winning one Super Bowl in the last four seasons.  So while the 1-2 start is obviously distressing to fans, and in my view a good reason to start lowering expectations for the Packers' season, it is still too early for despair or panic.

Bear week would be an excellent time to start turning things around.  The Bears are 2-1, after dropping the opening day game to the Bills, and then beating the 49ers and Jets in successive prime-time games.  I am not quite sure how impressed I should be.  The 49ers, at 1-2, have some problems of their own (may those problems continue!).  The Jets are also 1-2, after blowing a big lead against the Packers, and then falling behind the Bears and not being able to catch up.  The Jets did manage to beat the Raiders in week 1, but that doesn't count for a lot in my book.  So my argument is that the Bears are not as good as the Bears fans probably believe, and the Packers are not as bad as some of us Packers fans believe.  All of which says that Sunday's game should be a pretty good contest.

I am calling this game for the Packers.  Their pattern is to start to turn things around after a maddeningly slow start.  I realize that the Bears have a lot of weapons on offense, and more experience with the Marc Trestman offense than they had last year.  But the Packers defense, which looked terrible in the Seattle game, is slowly getting its act together.  And Julius Peppers certainly has something to prove in this game, despite his claim that this is just a business trip for him.  Add in the fact that it looks like Clay Matthews will play (he is listed as probable).  And then consider the fact that 7 Bears starters are either listed as out or questionable for the game (out: center Roberto Garza, guard Matt Slauson, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, linebacker Shea McLellin; questionable: wider receiver Brandon Marshall, defensive end Jared Allen, safety Chris Conte).  Even if you assume that the questionable players end up playing, the matchups favor the Packers due to the injury situation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Packers Were Down But Not Out

Taken in the Fourth Quarter of Sunday's Game
Sunday was just about the perfect day for our at-least-once annual football pilgrimage to Green Bay.  It was a fall-like, slightly cool but sunny day in the final days of summer.  Judy, Sam and I had an uneventful drive up from Chicago, we met old and new friends Marc and Kathy for lunch in Oshkosh, we parked a block and a half from the stadium, thanks to Marc, and we waltzed into the stadium with plenty of time to hear former Packer defensive end Esera Tuaolo sing a beautiful (but hard to sing along) rendition of the National Anthem (excerpt here).  The Packers were ready for their home opener after the crushing defeat at the hands of the Seahawks 10 days earlier.  Surely nothing would spoil the beautiful pageant of the home opener in Green Bay

And then the game started.  Aaron Rodgers fumbled away the snap on the first play from scrimmage, the Jets capitalized on the short field by scoring a touchdown, and the game just got worse from that point.  The Packers were down, in the second quarter, by the score of 21-3, before starting their comeback.  The three of us never said this out loud, but comparing notes on the drive back to Chicago, we all thought it was a lost cause.  Then you start focusing on such matters as the meager chances for an 0-2 team to make the playoffs, and before too long you start thinking about another lost season in the limited years left in Rodgers’ career.

Fortunately, the Packers had not given up on the game yet, and chipped away at the Jets’ lead.  21-6, then 21-9, thanks to the longest field goal ever kicked by a Packers’ kicker in LambeauField.  They even tried one of those “pop-up” style onside kicks, which failed.  This put the Jets in position to increase their lead at halftime, until the play of the game.  Mike Daniels rushed Geno Smith, and hit him just as he released the ball, resulting in a Tramon Williams interception at the 3 yard line, just after the two minute warning.  And what do you know?  The Packers put together a 97 yard drive for a touchdown, and suddenly it was a new ballgame. 

There were lots of interesting and some weird plays in this game.  There was the Jordy Nelson 80 yard touchdown.  I really thought the Jets would catch him, but Nelson proved that he is faster than I realize.  There was the 4th down Geno Smith touchdown pass to tie the game, that wasn’t actually a play at all, because Jets’ assistant coach Marty Mornhinweg or one of the Jets defensive players had (illegally) called a timeout (illegal because only the head coach can call a timeout on the sideline).

Why were the Packers so bad in the first half, and how did they manage to turn it around?  Brother-in-law Bruce (watching on TV) pointed out that Derek Sherrod was stinking up the joint in the first half.  He was indeed, and the offensive line was providing very little protection overall to Rodgers, and opening very few holes for Eddie Lacy.  It didn't help that Rodgers was holding the ball too long, either.  Another thought that I saw expressed somewhere related to the Packers’ heavy reliance on a 4-3 defense.  This was a closely guarded secret in the preseason, and as a result was not practiced in public or used during the preseason games.

I suppose the idea was to surprise the Seahawks last week, but that strategy backfired since (a) the Seahawks won easily; and (b) the lack of full speed hitting and practice time meant that the players really weren't ready to use the 4-3.  But maybe the defense finally started to gel after the first 6 quarters of the season, and they were much more effective in the second half.  Time will tell whether, as Sherrod gets more comfortable, and/or Bryan Bulaga returns, the offensive line protection improves, and time will also tell whether the defense continues to improve after finally getting things together in the second half.  Finally, and quite importantly, Rodgers started getting rid of the ball faster on most plays, which in turn opened up the possibility of making some of the longer-developing plays work better.

On the rental car shuttle on Monday morning, we ran into two very personable (and very New York!) Jets fans, a father and son, in their 60’s and 30’s, respectively.  They had obviously enjoyed their weekend very much, couldn’t say enough nice things about Lambeau Field and the Packers fans, despite their disappointment in the final result, and were already making plans to visit another historic stadium next year.  "Look, we're from New York," the father said, and we all laughed without letting him finish the thought.  I believe that his point was that if anybody is going to abrasively irritate the local fans, it would be New Yorkers, but the fans were still as nice as could be.  The father, while wishing the Packers well, was quick to say that he thinks the Packers may be in trouble.  His feeling is that they are a very good team, but not a great team, and that they will probably make the playoffs, but probably again won’t go very far.  This is another way of saying, "settle down, it was just the Jets."

He might be right, but I am betting that he is wrong.  The Packers obviously need a lot of improvement, but my feeling is (until proven wrong) that they can continue to improve as the year goes on.  Against most defenses, Eddie Lacy can gain a lot more yards than he did on Sunday, which in turn will keep Aaron Rodgers upright, and result in more points without requiring a career day from Jordy Nelson.  As for the defense, I am more skeptical, since the defense has chronically under-performed starting with the 2011 season.  But maybe there is something to the idea that the Packers haven’t yet had enough full-speed action in the 4-3, and as a result the 4-3 package will become ever more effective as the year goes on.

On a side note, we definitely had the impression Sunday that the Packers fans are louder now than in years past.  With the addition of about 7,000 new seats in the South End Zone, and the changed acoustics created by the higher seating area in that end zone, it might make sense that the stadium can get louder now.  The same seats were there last year, of course, but the only game we got to was the Eagles game, a game in which the Packers never led, started no. 2 quarterback Seneca Wallace, and had to replace him with no. 3 quarterback Scott Tolzien.  So there was not a lot to cheer about that particular day.

The Lions are next up, and fans know that they are a tough match-up for the Packers in the dome.  I am not expecting a dominant victory by the Packers, but I do expect them to win, probably in a high-scoring affair.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Better Luck Against the J-E-T-S

There is not a lot more that can be said at this late date about the Packers' road loss to the Seahawks.  The Seahawks were clearly the superior team on that night, and the combination of the Seattle smothering defense, and a high powered rushing game, was way too much for the Packers to handle.  It didn't help that Aaron Rodgers, despite good statistics at first blush, still didn't look sharp, and uncharacteristically gave up two turnovers, one on an interception where Jordy Nelson many times would catch the ball instead of deflecting it to the defender, and the other on a strip sack fumble that resulted in a safety.

The game wasn't really a contest in the second half, and despite not wanting to admit it to myself, the only real question was how bad it would get.  It got pretty bad.  It was the sort of game that causes people to re-think their expectations for the Packers, and in many cases, to over-react.  But experience teaches us that it is way too early to panic.  Sometimes teams just have bad games.  The Patriots looked pretty bad on Sunday.  Are they done?  Brady says he will retire when he "sucks."  Does Brady suck enough that it is time?  Well, maybe we should see how they look against the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings before drawing up the retirement papers.  And I guess we might as well see how the Packers look against the Jets tomorrow before jumping completely off the band-wagon.  I'm looking at the bright side.  Our star running back may have gotten another concussion, but at least he hasn't been released and suspended indefinitely for domestic assault, or indicted for child injury.  (And, at this moment, it looks like Lacy will probably play tomorrow.)

A more detailed discussion of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases can be left for another day.  And we might as well throw Josh Gordon and Ray McDonald into the mix for that discussion.  For now, suffice it to say that the NFL, and in particular Commissioner Goodell, has mis-handled the Ray Rice case from the very start, and has done so in a fashion so severe that I truly think his job is in jeopardy.  (Oops!  As an NFL owner myself, I guess I am not supposed to criticize the Commissioner.  But I don't think he will be able to fine me.)

We are actually going to the game tomorrow, and are in Chicago for a couple of days before the game.  I am sure that if we were already in Wisconsin, we would hear lots of moaning and complaining on sports radio there.  But I still have to chuckle when we listen to sports radio here in Chicago.

Thursday night, after having dinner with our daughter, we were driving back to our hotel, but decided to take a detour to see if the place we lived 35 years ago is still there.  (It is.)  We listened to the end of the Thursday night game, and then just left the radio on AM-670 for a sports talk radio show.  Some caller from Minnesota calls in to talk about the Bears.  This is a rough transcript of the discussion.

Caller: The Bears are never going to be any good until they get rid of Jay Cutler.
Host: Well, I get your point, but certainly there must be some good things about Jay Cutler.  What would you say is the best thing about Jay Cutler?
Caller: Every year he is one year closer to retirement.
Caller: But I am not a Bears hater.  I don't have any ill will towards the Bears.  I am a Packers hater.  I am sick of the Packers, and Aaron Rodgers this, and Aaron Rodgers that.
Host: I'll tell you what I'm sick of, I'm sick of those Vomit-Green and Urine-Yellow uniforms.

Cousin Rick characterizes this as Titletown Envy.  I think he is right.

Anyway, on to the Jets game.  The Jets beat the Raiders last Sunday, and I did see parts of that game.  But the Raiders aren't very good, and the Jets didn't beat them very convincingly.  Even Rex Ryan wasn't happy with the Jets performance, saying that the fans were better than the team on Sunday, and that this game should have been a rat kill, but wasn't.  I can't imagine that the Packers' offense won't be able to score a lot of points against the Jets, and I can't imagine that the Packers' defense won't rebound and have a much better game against the non-powerhouse Jets.  I am expecting a comfortable victory for the Packers.  If they lose tomorrow, then it is time to start worrying in earnest.

Monday, September 1, 2014

And Away We Go!

I find this time of year to be nerve-wracking.  We have been waiting 6 months for football to return, with a million questions.  Will the Packers sign anybody in free agency?  Who will they draft?  How will the new players look?  Who looks impressive in mini-camps?  How will they look in training camp?  What about the pre-season games?

With all of that behind us, and the season upon us, now is the time when we will finally start to find out what the Packers will be able to do this year.  Will they be able to put it all together, with the benefit of having one of the best offenses in the league, and a somewhat improved defense?  Or will they fizzle out, due to injuries or whatever else, and end up with a mediocre record and out of the playoffs?

Count me as an optimist, albeit a nervous one.  While the Packers have made some use of the no-huddle offense over the years, during the pre-season they have given the impression that they are really serious about using it, a lot, this year.  I am sure this is (in part) a reaction to the success of the Eagles and the Chip Kelly up-tempo offense last year, but that is fine with me.  The Packers are better equipped than most teams to run the no-huddle offense, with a great veteran QB, a vastly improved running game (as compared to a couple of years ago), and experienced, quality wide-outs.  The only unknowns on offense are (1) how much the injury to center J.C. Tretter will hurt, how long he will be out, and how the relative lack of depth on the offensive line will play out; and (2) how things will go with rookie Richard Rodgers trying to take the place of Jermichael Finley.  But Richard Rodgers has looked quite impressive in the pre-season, and I just have to hope that he won't find himself bewitched, bothered and bewildered out there as the season starts.  With luck, he will be able to climb every mountain he finds in front of him.

On defense, the big changes are the addition of Julius Peppers, the drafting of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and the replacement of B.J. Raji.  Peppers is listed as the starting OLB opposite Matthews, but realistically he will play some defensive line as well.  Clinton-Dix is not a starter as we go into week 1, but with his talent he will be seeing a lot of snaps, and I have to believe he will be a starting safety very soon.  As for Raji, he obviously didn't have a very good year in 2013, but now that he is out for the year, somebody is going to have to step up.  Letroy Guion was the less-heralded free-agent acquisition, but if he ends up as a significant upgrade over the 2013 version of Raji, he might have more impact than Peppers.  I have been a little surprised that the Packers did not sign Ryan Pickett, or even Johnny Jolly, to shore up the defensive line, and maybe they still will.  But for now they seem confident that Guion can do the job.

There is nothing I love more than when the Packers find some hidden gem of an undrafted free agent.  They might have another one in Jayrone Elliott.  When you have limited snaps in the pre-season, but still end up with Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers calling you "The Sackmaster," and the trainers calling you Shakespeare (all he does is make plays), then you just might have a future in the NFL.  

There is a lot of talk about the Packers going to, and perhaps winning, the Super Bowl this year.  So it is going to be one of those high-expectation years.  2010 was just like that, too, and of course the Packers did go on to win Super Bowl XLV, although the path they took to do that was probably not something anyone could have or would have predicted (the no. 6 seed, barely making the playoffs based on DeSean Jackson's punt return TD against the Giants, winning three road playoff games and then the Super Bowl).

As I look at the Packers' schedule, I think they will end up 12-4 or 13-3.  I think they will probably lose to the Seahawks, Saints and either Patriots or Bears.  If they lose both those games, they end up at 12-4, which still ought to be plenty for them to win the division.  

Focusing specifically on Week 1, what a plus it would be if the Packers could defeat the world champion Seahawks, and then get 10 days to be ready for their next game.  And this could well happen - there are reasons for optimism, starting with the fact that the Seahawks have lost a bunch of players in the wake of their Super Bowl win, as frequently happens.  Adam Czech of Jersey Al's AllGBP.com lists five reasons the Packers can win, but never mind his reasons, I just can't improve on the intro to his article:
I hate the Seahawks. Pete Carroll is annoying. I’m sick of hearing about how loud their stupid stadium is. Russel Wilson is a terrible actor in bad commercials. Half the team is jacked up on PEDs. I can never figure out what Richard Sherman is yelling about.
I hope the Packers beat the Seahawks on Thursday by 12 touchdowns. Then I hope they build a giant bonfire at midfield, burn every last piece footage from the Fail Mary, and dance around the flames singing “Bang the Drum all Day” until dawn.
 Despite all that, I think it is more likely than not that the Packers will lose to Seattle and start off the season on a sour note.  But we only have three more days to wait to find out.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Preemptive Whining Commences!

TV Screen Capture of Jim Harbaugh from a Few Weeks Ago
[Update]: Many thanks to my wife Judy for suggesting I take the picture of Jim Harbaugh's ugly mug on the sideline.  It is a classic.

Well, the preemptive whining has already begun on two fronts: (1) it is so unfair that the 49ers (12-4) have to go play in Green Bay (8-7-1) just because the 49ers are a wild card!; and (2) it is so unfair that the 49ers have to play in such miserable and unsafe conditions!

On the playoff seeding front, here is what Mike Florio, from NBC Sports, has to say:
"Yes, it’s unfair that a team like the 12-4 49ers must venture to Green Bay for Ice Bowl II when the Packers cobbled together a measly 8-7-1 record en route to the NFC North crown.
It’s as unfair as it is for the 11-5 Saints to have to travel to play the 10-6 Eagles on Saturday night.  And it’s as unfair as it was when the 2010 Saints, also 11-5, had to travel to Seattle to play the 7-9 Seahawks.  And it’s as unfair as when the 2011 Steelers, at 12-4, had to leave safety Ryan Clark home (due to a medical inability to play at altitude) for a playoffs game at Denver against the 8-8 Broncos."
On the cold weather front (pun intended), I came across an NBC Sports article about the cold weather games this weekend.  Some of the fan comments are priceless:
"What if some player were to be hospitalized for pneumonia and or die? Would NFL do anything? I mean if a fan in the stands is hospitalized or dead who cares, NFL wouldn’t. Sorry brutal weather makes me think of brutal things."  [This one was from an apparent 49ers fan, "16x8equal49ers"] 
"No freaking chance I would go to that game at Lambeau. No chance."
"Classic example of why all NFL teams should have dome stadiums and all NFL games should be played indoors." 
"This is so stupid. Grown ass men feel the need to be tough by playing a game in weather they have no business being outside during." 
"Build a retractable roof dome for arctic weather. Or does someone need to have a frost-bitten finger snap off mid-game before the NFL does anything about it?"
"Retractable roof seems like the smart thing to do for both the players and the fans. Who wants to pay a fortune to freeze their butt off? Wouldn’t want to take my kid or my gramp to a game in that kind of weather. Get real NFL."
 "This is NOT football weather. This is IDIOT weather."
I also read a Live Chat from this morning in one of the local Bay Area papers, which contained this "question" and response: 

"I have no feel for this game. Playing in this kind of weather is just stupid. If the NFL were really concerned about player safety they would have moved the game to a warmer venue.  Then you have to ask your self WHY does any East Coast team play in an open stadium?"

"If you think this is stupid, what about putting the neutral-site Super Bowl in New Jersey next month?"
And another NBC Sports article (what is it with NBC?) frets about the fact that the NFL has not set a temperature below which it is unsafe to play:
"It’s a bit surprising that the league hasn’t worked with experts to identify a temperature at which it automatically becomes unsafe to be outdoors for extended periods of time.  That’s likely because the league has never had to do it.


After Sunday’s game at Green Bay, the NFL may have to do it."
But the greatest one I have seen so far brings together both of these themes, the playoff seeding issue and the cold weather:
"The NFL rewards division winners more than it does overall win-loss records when it comes to the postseason, which is why Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers are being punished by having to go on the road to face the Green Bay Packers in what could be almost inhumane, Hoth-like conditions."
Harbaugh and the 49ers are being punished?  The conditions are almost inhumane?  Hoth-like (OK, I admit I had to look that one up)? 

The bottom line is that the next couple of days are going to be a lot of fun, leading up to the game.  If by some chance the Packers win, look out below!

Here are my thoughts on the outcome of the game.  We all know the "on any given Sunday" mantra, and of course it is true at some level.  But if I had to bet my house on the outcome of this game, I would reluctantly pick the 49ers.  This is based largely on the 49ers defense.  On offense, I think the Packers have equal or better players at QB, WR, and RB, while the 49ers have a better TE and offensive linemen.  On defense, I think the 49ers have better players on the defensive line and at linebacker, but at least given the current injury situation for the 49ers, I think the Packers are better at defensive back.  I don't have much of a feel for the 49ers special teams, but since the Packers' special teams are not that good, I will go out on a limb and say that the 49ers special teams are equal to or better than the Packers.

The biggest wild card of all in this wild card matchup is the weather.  We know that the Packers can play well in the cold.  They don't always do so, but they have the capability to play well, and while the conditions are colder than anybody is used to, the cold should not have a huge effect on Green Bay.  The 49ers are another story.  There is just no relevant history on how they will perform in these conditions - as mentioned earlier this week, the 49ers have not played with temperatures below freezing (let alone below zero) in the three years Harbaugh has been coach.  Kaepernick's early years in Fond du Lac and Milwaukee are not likely to carry over and help him out many years later.  The home field advantage, including the cold weather, give the Packers a real shot in this game.  Go Pack!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Playoff Bound Packers Hoping for Redemption

Contra Costa Times Sports Section, Dec. 30, 2013

San Francisco Chronicle Sports Section, Dec. 30, 2013
What a great victory for the Packers on Sunday.  There were so many individual moments that could have gone the other way and spoiled the chance for the 33-28 win over the Bears in the final regular season game, clinching the NFC North Championship and getting a home game in the playoffs.

What if the Bears' defensive back had picked up that Aaron Rodgers fumble in the second quarter that looked like an incomplete pass, or even batted it out of bounds?  Presumably the Bears, too, are coached to pick up loose balls just in case.  What if Boykin, having scooped it up, tossed it in the direction of the ref before Rodgers came up and told him to run?  The ref would presumably have jumped out of the way of the ball, and at that point everyone would realize it was a live ball.

What if the Packers players did not succeed in talking Mike McCarthy into going for it on 4th and 1 in the final drive, and the Packers never got the ball back?  What if the snap that Rodgers was so clearly not expecting did not basically lodge between Rodgers' hand and body, but bounced off in another direction?

What if, on the final touchdown to Cobb on fourth down, John Kuhn had gotten less of a piece of Julius Peppers, or Peppers' outstretched hand had tripped Rodgers up, or Rodgers didn't see Cobb flying free, or Cobb got his feet tangled with the defender or, heaven forbid, Cobb dropped that ball (it happens)?  This drive represented, as Coach McCarthy aptly said, Aaron Rodgers' finest hour as a Packer.  It may also have represented John Kuhn's finest and most significant single play as a Packer.

Rodgers showed the effects of all those weeks off.  Both of his interceptions, in the first 16 minutes of the game, looked like his fault.  The red zone interception, only the fourth red zone interception of his career, looked particularly bad.  Where and to whom was he throwing the ball?  The ball tipped by Jordy Nelson and then intercepted was poorly placed, too high and behind Nelson.  But Rodgers got better and better as the game went on, and the Packers, both in blocking (Kuhn was in to block, to my eye, much more frequently than usual) and in play selection (greater emphasis on short drops and running plays) did a good job of keeping Rodgers from getting hit as much as he usually is hit.

Jordy Nelson was obviously glad to have Aaron Rodgers back.  He had his best day by far, in catches and yards, since Rodgers went out, getting 10 catches for 161 yards.  We learned, on the Aaron Rodgers radio show on New Year's Eve, that Nelson did this despite having the flu and throwing up on the team bus after the game.  The Packers, without Rodgers, were scoring about 9 fewer points per game than they score with him in the game, and they obviously needed those points on Sunday.  And Randall Cobb, you could say, was eased back into action.  He was thrown to only twice, but caught both balls for touchdowns, including the game winner.

Here in the SF Bay Area, the 49ers fans are already looking past the Packers.  We watched the KTVU 10:00 news Sunday night, and one of the fans was looking forward to the NFC Championship game, 49ers at Seattle, in a couple of weeks.  Yep, the Green Bay Packers are essentially just a speed bump on the way to the NFC Championship game.  Coach Jim Harbaugh is already thinking about keeping his team in the midwest between the Packers game on Sunday and the Panthers game the following week.

The photos at the top of the page are the Monday morning front sports pages from a couple of the local newspapers.  At least some in the local media are being a little more level-headed about this, with one writer pointing out that the 49ers have blown sizable leads two weeks in a row, and that doing so in the playoffs is not going to work.  Another writer noted that the 49ers secondary is a bit shaky heading into the playoffs.

But let's face it, the Packers are also going to have to play better against the 49ers than they did against the Bears.  If Rodgers throws another couple interceptions, that will be trouble.  If the Packers give up more long kick returns, they may never recover.  The Packers did a decent job on defense, especially considering the absence of Clay Matthews.  They gave up 121 yards rushing, and 226 yards passing.  But the Bears probably should have rushed more, as they were getting 5 yards per carry.  And the Bears would have had a lot more passing yards if their elite receivers hadn't dropped a number of catchable balls.  I am not counting on the 49ers to make the same mistakes.  And I would not count on the Packers converting three fourth downs in a single drive to score the game-winning points, either.

The Packers have some obvious advantages at home.  It turns out that the 49ers have not played a single game with temperatures below freezing in the three years Harbaugh has been the coach.  Assuming the Packers manage to sell out the game (shockingly, in doubt as of Wednesday morning), the home crowd should help the Packers and hurt the 49ers.  But the Packers are slight underdogs in this game, and it makes sense that they are - if for no other reason than that the 49ers have a much better defense.

As it happens, we have attended the last three Packers-49ers games, opening day 2012, the playoff game last year, and the opening day game this year.  The Packers lost all three of those games.  The superstitious among us will be glad to know that we are not going to the game this week.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

One Last Chance to Win the Division

Cover Photo from Monday's Green Bay Press-Gazette
Last Sunday was another weird Sunday for Packers football.  Aaron Rodgers missed his 7th consecutive start as the Packers played the Steelers with a shot at the playoffs on the line for both teams.  While the Packers played well in spots, ultimately you cannot give up 38 points and expect to win a lot of games.  

In the case of this game, exceedingly untimely penalties and turnovers essentially undid the Packers, and unlike the 1995 game between these teams, there was no "Yancey Clause" to bail them out.  Sure, the screwed up ref timing on the final 10 seconds did not help, but absent the penalties and turnovers, the Packers would not have found themselves in the position of needing a TD to tie the game.  The Lions, who should have won the NFC North a month ago, had knocked themselves out of the playoff chase earlier in the day.  And this loss to the Steelers (38-31) left the Packers planning for next year's draft.  

Unless, of course, the Bears managed to lose the Sunday night game to the Philadelphia Eagles.  Oh, boy, did they ever!  The Eagles went up by 21 points in the first quarter, and never took their feet off the gas, beating the Bears by the score of 54-11.  My old friend Dick Karth said, during the Sunday night Bears-Eagles game: "As a GBP fan who went to the game today at Lambeau Field in all the snow and everything ... I'm not happy.  But I'm glad I'm not a Bears fan tonight!   What an embarrassment it must be for Bears fans!"

As a result of the Bears' game, Matt Flynn need not have been so forlorn, as he looked in the picture above.  It turns out, the game against the Steelers did not matter one whit.  Win or lose against the Steelers, the Packers would still need to win the finale against the Bears to win the division and make the playoffs.  Dramatic developments in the last couple of days have Aaron Rodgers returning for this game, Clay Matthews out with a re-broken thumb (I can't imagine him playing again this year), Eddie Lacy will apparently play through the pain of his injured ankle, and as an added bonus, as of this writing, it is quite possible that Randall Cobb will be activated and play.

I am, to be honest, surprised that Rodgers will play.  After all of the talk last week, repeated endlessly on every football website, that Rodgers was not that close to playing against the Steelers, and that he was at "extraordinary risk" if he returned to the field, I really thought that he would again not be activated.  And particularly after Clay Matthews re-broke his thumb, I thought the lesson the Packers would take away was to err even further on the side of caution with Aaron Rodgers.  Despite all that, he will play, which not only changes the complexion of this game, but if the Packers win, it will change the complexion of the playoffs in the NFC.  Rodgers, if he is close to his normal self, is simply not prone to make the same kinds of mistakes that his merry band of backups have made in the almost 8 games since he broke his collarbone.

This game has all the looks of a shootout now.  As bad as the Packers' defense has been, the Bears' defense is worse.  And as well as the Bears' offense has played at times, the Packers' offense is capable of matching them score for score, and, I would argue, getting a couple of extra scores along the way.

The Bears, of course, have a new offense under Marc Trestman, and it has been impressive at times, with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Matt Forte providing the weapons for Jay Cutler.  The Packers-Bears game earlier this season is not much of a predictor, since almost all of the game was played with Josh McCown and Seneca Wallace at quarterback.  But now that Jay Cutler is back, we just need to remember what Charles Woodson said last year: "It's the same old Jay.  We just need to be in position.  Jay will throw us the ball."  If there is one thing that is critical in this game, it is that the Packers must take advantage of every one of those opportunities.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Quite a Football Weekend!

Cover by Green Bay Press-Gazette
I never got around to writing a post last week.  My only excuse is that I have been on vacation.  But when I sat down in a vain attempt to try to write something, my conclusion was that picking the Falcons the previous week had worked like a charm!  As a result, if I had ever finished that post, I was going to pick the Cowboys.  Now that I am really on a roll, I will get the suspense out of the way, by picking the Steelers in Sunday's game.

Being on vacation, we got to watch the game with old friends from our youth, Larry Bailin and Marc Blum, and with new friend Kathy Blum.  Like everybody else, we suffered through the first half, watching the Packers limp along to a 26-3 deficit, and saw the Packers' realistic playoff chances dwindle away.  The 3 points the Packers got were fueled almost entirely to a single big pass and run by James Jones.  For the rest of the half, the Packers' defense looked inept, giving up chunks of yardage, rarely getting pressure on Romo, missing opportunities for interceptions, and the like.  On offense, there were a few good plays, but lots of misfires, everything from dropped passes by Jordy Nelson (!) to penalties, to offensive line breakdowns, and of course Matt Flynn's interception.

It was the sort of half that might have caused sane people to switch the game off and find something more productive to do.  Fortunately, we were all just crazy enough to keep watching, and we witnessed one of the great comebacks of all time.  It was, to me, sort of the flip side of the famous Thanksgiving day "Jason Garrett" game I wrote about here.  Re-watching that game, years later, it was hard to imagine how the Packers were going to end up losing the game, until it happened.  Re-watching Sunday's game, I couldn't believe that the Packers would end up winning, until it happened.

I read somewhere that someone had calculated that, going into the half on Sunday, the Cowboys had a 99.7% chance of winning the game.  Sounds about right, and that shows what a remarkable comeback it was.

The second half was a totally different game, and the Packers went on to score 5 touchdowns in the half to win the game, missing the 2 point conversion on the final one so that the final score was 37-36.  We saw everything from a 60 yard run by Eddie Lacy on the first play of the half, to Jordy Nelson stealing the ball away from the defensive back in the end zone for a touchdown, to more planned rollouts, screen passes and more quick release passes, counteracting Flynn's lack of mobility.  The Packers were still not consistently stopping the Cowboys, as they allowed 10 points to the Cowboys in the half, but they certainly looked better on defense than in the first half, by a large margin.

Let's not kid ourselves, this game could easily have gone the other way.  Late in the fourth quarter, I actually expected the Cowboys to pull it out, either by stopping the Packers on one of their TD drives, or by scoring the winning FG on the final drive, or by forcing a single turnover somewhere in the fourth quarter.  If Jordy doesn't steal that TD from the defensive back in the end zone, or if the evidence is not conclusive enough to reverse the call on the final interception, the Cowboys probably win.  And then if the Lions had not lost on a 61 yard field goal in the final minute on Monday night, the Packers still would not control their own destiny.  But now they do.  Win two games, and they win the division.  I am not sure they will be able to pull that off, but the opportunity is right there, waiting to be taken.