Monday, September 21, 2020

Packers Ride Aaron Jones to 2-0 Record

Fanless Lambeau Leap, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
After two weeks of games in empty stadiums, the Packers find themselves sitting atop the NFC North at 2-0, with a 2-0 record in the division.  They are tied with the Chicago Bears, who for the second week in a row, held onto a narrow lead in the closing seconds to get the win.  The Packers have also scored 85 points in their first two games, which is their highest offensive output in two consecutive games since 2014, and their highest offensive output in two opening games since 1919.  

Everybody's first goal is to win the division games, and with the 42-21 win over the Lions, in the Matt LaFleur era, the Packers are now 8-0 in division games.

If last week was the Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams show, this week was the Aaron Jones show.  From his 75 yard TD to open the second half, to his 9+ yards per carry average, to his career high of 236 yards from scrimmage, Jones was the Packers' bell cow on Sunday.  For the second week in a row, the Packers put up more points than any other team in the league.  And they did so on a day when the receiving corps was dropping passes all over the field (6 by my count, plus a 7th that didn't count due to penalty).  It was also a day when Davante Adams missed most of the second half, and was held in check even before he went out.  Imagine how many more points they might have scored if Adams had played the whole game, and if the receivers had not dropped all those passes.

One thing seems clear after two games.  Rodgers is much more comfortable in this offense in his second year with LaFleur.  I didn't really expect that, as I figured that a really smart, hall of fame quarterback, in the waning years of his career, doesn't need a lot of time to get used to a new system.  But I think I was wrong.  The difference in Rodgers' command of the offense is remarkable.  There probably is no better metric for this than the punting game.  Last year the Packers punted 17 times in their first two games; this year they have punted four times.  

While the offense is playing way better than I would have anticipated, the defense was again a little disappointing.  The absence of Kenny Clark in the middle helped to enable the Lions to march down the field on their first two drives, while building a 14-3 lead.  The announcers noticed the lack of energy on defense in the empty stadium, and so did I.  The Packers can't continue to give up opening drive TDs (or in this case, two opening drives for TDs) and expect to keep winning games.  Against teams coming up in the next few weeks, starting with the Saints, that could be the kiss of death.

On the plus side, the Packers' defense generated another turnover on Sunday, in the form of the pick-six by Chandon Sullivan.  And in week 2, the Packers gave up only one second-half touchdown, unlike the three they gave up against the Vikings.  So overall, the Packers' defense looked better this week, after giving up the two opening drive touchdowns to the Lions.

The question, though, is whether the Packers are for real, or some kind of mirage team that got lucky enough to ring up two victories, against what turned out to be a pair of 0-2 teams?  Next Sunday night's game at the Saints could be a test of whether the Packers are really any good, or not.  I am finishing up this blog post during the Monday night Saints-Raiders game.  The Saints look like a good team, but anything but unbeatable.  Nevertheless, they certainly appear to be the toughest test for the Packers in the first quarter of the season.  If the Packers can pull off a win in New Orleans, they will be in great shape.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Great Start to a Weird Season

Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

I was out of town for opening Sunday, and when I had trouble getting NFL Sunday Ticket to work, we found ourselves racing to the sports bar to catch the game.  We were sitting pretty far away from the screen, so I feel as if I didn't really see the game until I watched it again on NFL Game Pass later.

Football fans, including your humble blogger, tend to over-react to the team's last game.  They even call it "Over-Reaction Monday" on the NFL Network.  And that is probably never more true than if the last game was either the first or last game of the season.  And in this year, without a preseason or much way to know what was going on with the Packers, this last game over-reaction has never been more acute.  

OK, so go ahead and correct for the bias and over-reaction if you want to, but I was pretty happy with the way the Packers looked.  On the offensive line, Bryan Bulaga is gone to the Chargers, and starter Billy Turner was listed as inactive.  And Lane Taylor went out with what looks like a season-ending injury, while Lucas Patrick left with a more minor injury.  So how would the makeshift offensive line look, and how badly would Aaron Rodgers get beat up?  Answer: they could have been playing in an old-fashioned mud bowl, and Rodgers would have come out with a pretty clean uniform.  He was rarely under duress, never sacked, knocked down twice, and was sharp throughout the game.  Speaking of over-reactions, how about this one from Nate Burleson of the NFL Network: "Aaron Rodgers looked like the best quarterback in the NFL."

This is not a fantasy football blog, but Aaron Rodgers has been my starting QB in one fantasy league for several years, and I would have drafted him if I could have in my other league last year.  But in fantasy football terms, Aaron Rodgers was a disappointment last year, despite taking the Packers to the NFC Championship game in real football.  So, in my two "keeper" leagues, Rodgers was not even protected, and was available in the draft.  After attending to other needs in the early rounds of the drafts, I ended up picking up Rodgers as my backup QB, fairly late in the draft, in both leagues.  My thinking was that he should be a quality backup in the case of injury, and if, by chance, the second year under Matt LaFleur brings Rodgers back to a place where he and the coach are on the same page, there was a lot of upside.  Well, suffice it to say, I saw a lot of upside on Sunday, and he is likely to be my starter in Week 2 in at least one of my leagues.  

Getting back to actual football, the first half of the game was strange.  The Packers were dominating throughout the half, but drives were stalling, such that they only led by the score of 8-7 late in the half.  But an offensive explosion in the last 90 seconds of the half, aided by Jaire Alexander's second big play of the game (the first was the safety pictured above, the second was his interception) effectively put the Packers in control of the game.  Some of the things I liked on Sunday included Jaire Alexander's play on defense, and how sharp Rodgers looked.  If he can stay that accurate and stay healthy, the Packers can win a lot of games.  I liked the more complete integration of what I take to be some of Matt LaFleur's influences on the offense.  Things like the jet sweeps, and going straight to the line of scrimmage on some third downs to prevent substitutions.  I also liked that they never let up in the second half.  They continued to be aggressive on offense, which, by the way, was probably necessary to prevent what could have been a miracle comeback.

The things I didn't like were the injuries, to Kenny Clark, and Lucas Patrick, and of course Lane Taylor.  The offensive line continued to play well without Patrick, or Taylor, or Billy Turner (who was inactive), but I hope this is not going to be one of those seasons marred by injuries on the line all year long.  I also didn't like how many points the defense gave up, but let's acknowledge two facts: first, the defense gave up way more yards after Kenny Clark left the game (and Montravius Adams was inactive and therefore not available); and second, the last three touchdowns were essentially in extended garbage time, as the score was 29-10 at the end of the third quarter.  And finally, one of my traditional bugaboos: I didn't like the Packers wasting time outs as the play clock winds toward zero.  I think the Packers wasted 5 of their 6 timeouts that way on Sunday.  I would chalk this up to being the first game of the season, if this had not been a continuing problem in prior years.

The weirdness of this Covid-19 season could possibly work to the Packers' advantage, and I think it certainly did on Sunday.  The relative quiet of the fake crowd noise, limited to 70 decibels, took away a lot of the home field advantage for the Vikings.  Rodgers was able to use his cadences effectively, to draw the defense offside, whereas in a normal Vikings game, the defenders probably couldn't hear the cadence well enough to be drawn offside.  In fact, the same thing could happen when the Packers play the Saints in Week 3 - which will also have no fans in the stands.  So 2 of the Packers' first 4 games are in domes, but with a significant part of the dome field advantage removed.  And then Weeks 2 and 4 bring dome-bound, artificial turf teams to Lambeau Field (Lions and Falcons).  It is true that the limited fake crowd noise will benefit these teams over a typical Lambeau Field game, but open stadiums like Lambeau are rarely as loud as domed stadiums.  And it is still true that the Lions and Falcons, as artificial turf teams, are playing out of their natural element.  If the Packers can win 3 or 4 of those first 4 games, they will be in great shape heading into the bye week.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

One More Win Was All the Packers Needed

John, Mary, Sam, and Your Humble Blogger at the Game
Looking forward, the Packers need two more wins.  But looking back, one more win in the regular season would have made an enormous difference.  If the Packers had won one more game (and still won in the divisional round) they would be hosting the NFC Championship game on Sunday, instead of taking yet another dreaded road trip to the west coast.  Let's stipulate that the Packers were not about to turn around either the 49ers game or the Chargers game, both in November.  Both of them were out of hand pretty early.  But what about that Eagles game, on a Thursday night in September?  The Packers failed, twice, in an attempt to tie up that game in the fourth quarter.  That game could easily have gone the other way, either in four quarters, or in overtime.  What a difference that would have made.  Or, if the Seahawks had won one more game, by beating the 49ers in week 17, the Packers would have ended up with the number one seed.  So if the last two teams left were the Packers and 49ers, once again the game would have been played at Lambeau Field.

The 49ers have turned into a great team this year, which was just as surprising to me as the Packers ending up with a 13-3 record.  They looked dominating in dispatching the Packers in November in Santa Clara, and they looked dominating in beating the Vikings in Santa Clara last Saturday.  "On any given Sunday," and all that, but I certainly would have liked the Packers' chances better if they were hosting this game in Lambeau Field.

I went to the game on Sunday night, along with family members John, Sam and Mary, from left to right in the photo above.  The Packers played a great first half in putting the Seahawks in a deep hole, 21-3.  Call it another ugly win if you want to, but the Packers went to sleep on offense and defense for parts of the third quarter, and the Seahawks got close enough to make the fans, in the chilly stands or in comfy living rooms, pretty nervous.  Russell Wilson was really like a magic man out there, escaping most of the attempted sacks and making positive things (for the Seahawks) happen.  Sometimes quarterbacks escape because of shoddy missed tackles, and sometimes they escape by their own awesome elusiveness.  Russell Wilson had awesome elusiveness.  A timely late sack by Preston Smith, and a debatable decision to punt on the next play by Pete Carroll, were enough to snuff out the comeback, and the Packers won the game, 28-23.

Oh, and of course there was the controversial first down catch by Jimmy Graham, that allowed the Packers to kneel on the ball to end the game.  I have to admit, from our end zone seats, I thought Graham was short.  But we didn't even have a TV yellow line on the field to go by.  How many times have the announcers reminded us that the yellow line is unofficial?  Well, I think we finally saw an example where the unofficial nature of the yellow line made a real-world difference.  After the game, none other than Davante Adams himself tweeted out the picture below, showing clearly that the TV yellow line was off - the yellow line was just inside the 36 yard line, while the first down marker itself was outside the 36.  So those pictures of Graham's helmet on the yellow line are beside the point, and it doesn't matter how furious Pete Carroll was, the first down call properly stood as called, despite the mysterious appearance of late footage causing the referees to take a second look.

Tweet by Davante Adams

The Packers have lots to fix from their November debacle, if they want to beat the 49ers this time.  Ryan Wood of the Press-Gazette has identified 10 plays that made a huge difference in that game, all in the first half.  Many of those plays are quite avoidable, or flukes that might not be repeated, like the iffy personal foul call on Davante Adams, the Rodgers fumble leading to the first touchdown, the dropped passes, the penalties prolonging 49er drives, Bryan Bulaga getting knocked out of the game, etc.  Change some of those plays around, and the Packers don't end up in that kind of a hole, and maybe have at least a chance to make a game of it.

So is there reason to expect a better result this time around?  I liked a lot of what I saw on Sunday night.  The Packers scored quickly, and had three touchdowns in the first half.  If they can do that again, they will either be leading, or at a minimum in the game, by the time halftime rolls around.  Rodgers was way more accurate than he has been in some recent games; he seemed to stick more to the LaFleur game plan with short and quick passes, picking his spots for the occasional longer passes.  I only counted about half a dozen long passes down the field Sunday night.  They resulted in 2 Adams TDs, a pass interference penalty against the Seahawks, an overthrow, a long Jimmy Graham catch, and the long pass to Adams that almost iced the game.  Not bad results when you use the long pass more judiciously!  And the receivers were catching the ball Sunday night.  A couple of the Jimmy Graham catches, and several others to other receivers, are passes that might have been dropped in other games, but the receivers seemed to finally have their acts together, and they caught almost all of the catchable balls.

I am not overly worried about the defense.  They didn't have a good game against the 49ers in November, and gave up way too many points, but in other games since, they have held their regular season opponents to 20 or fewer points, and only gave up 23 to the Seahawks despite the magic of Russell Wilson.  If it is true, as the players contend, that they were able to get on the same page after the 49ers game, then the defense should have a better game Sunday night. 

It is true that the 49ers have more weapons on offense than the Seahawks, at this stage of the game, with the Seahawks' first 3 running backs on IR.  And the Seahawks certainly do not have the equivalent of George Kittle, who can take over a game.  But, on the other hand, Jimmy Garoppolo threw more than double the interceptions thrown by Russell Wilson during the year, so the Packers may well be able to grab an extra possession or two from the 49ers.  Look, the 49ers are heavy favorites in the game for a good reason.  But I think the Packers have a real chance to pull off the upset.  Go Pack Go!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Seahawks-Packers, in the Playoffs at Lambeau Field

Graphic by the Green Bay Packers
Well, I certainly expected the Saints to beat the Vikings in the Wild Card round, which would have meant that the Saints would come to Green Bay.  My wish list also included the Seahawks beating the Eagles, as they did, in which case the task of knocking off the 49ers would have fallen to the Seahawks.  But the Vikings, quite impressively, managed to upset the Saints in New Orleans, meaning the Vikings go to San Francisco, and the Seahawks come to Green Bay. 

This week I am obviously rooting for a Packers win, but also for one final upset by the Vikings, of the 49ers.  (It takes a special circumstance to cause me to root for the Vikings.)  Those two results would result in the NFC Championship Game being held in Green Bay the following week.

If you feel as if the Packers' defense has been performing better down the stretch, you are right.  I wasn't aware of some of the details until I watched Tuesday's Packers Daily, which clued me in to the fact that in each of the last 5 games, the Packers have had at least one interception, have gotten 2.5 sacks, have not allowed a 100 yard rusher, and have not given up more than 20 points.  That is a recipe to win games, and of course the Packers have won those 5 games, just not convincingly enough for most fans, including me.  The Seahawks, on the other hand, have lost 3 of their last 5 games, so they are not exactly looking like world-beaters, either.  The Packers are 7-1 at home this year, but the Seahawks are 8-1 on the road.  Somebody is going to end up with loss number 2 on their season record.

The matchup with the Seahawks is an interesting one, with lots of history, some of it quite painful to Packers fans.  In the last 8 games between these two teams, the home team has won every game.  And yes, that includes the epic Packers collapse in the NFC Championship game in January, 2015, and the "Fail Mary" game with the substitute refs in September of 2012.  The two teams have also played two playoff games at Lambeau Field, the "Al Harris/Matt Hasselbeck" game in January, 2004, and the "Snow Globe" game in January of 2008 (Favre's last win as a Packers player).  The Packers won both those games.  I remember them well, since I attended both games.

My daughter punished herself this week by watching the NFC Championship game from 2015.  I didn't have the heart to watch that game.  So I watched instead the last game between the two in Lambeau Field, in September of 2017, which the Packers won, 17-9.  It was only two years ago, but it is amazing how much turnover there has been since then.  Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Clay Matthews were all playing.  So was Jimmy Graham, playing for the Seahawks (Graham dropped what would have been a first down pass in the 4th quarter, perhaps a harbinger of things to come).  And even Eddie Lacy made a cameo appearance, for the Seahawks.  And of course the Packers didn't have Aaron Jones or the "Smith Brothers," who undoubtedly will make their presence known on Sunday night. 

Rodgers looked a lot more accurate than he has recently, but the Packers didn't have the running game that they do now.  The offense sputtered in the first half, which ended with Seattle leading 3-0.  They looked more efficient in scoring 17 points in the second half, while the defense did some bending but not breaking, giving up only field goals.  Maybe the best part was watching the offense run out the last 6 minutes to preserve the 17-9 win.  Bottom line: I saw nothing in that game to make me think the Packers can't beat the Seahawks again. 

My advice to the Packers would be pretty much the same as I gave last week.  If the Packers win this game, it will be on the strength of the defense and the legs of Aaron Jones.  Aaron Rodgers doesn't need to carry the team on his back to get this win, and I hope he doesn't have to try.  They need to be aggressive on defense, emphasize the run, emphasize the short, quick-release pass until the defense tightens up, and then go for the occasional long ball.  The Packers released a picture Tuesday of an assistant coach wearing boxing gloves, trying to punch the ball out of the hands of runners.  Maybe they do that every week, but I have never seen a picture of it before.  I am interpreting that as a new emphasis in light of recent fumble problems.  I hope they have also been drilling with Rodgers to take the quick completion over standing back there waiting for things to develop, and to emphasize him throwing with his feet set whenever possible.  If they get and stay aggressive on defense, and they play within the offense as it was designed, they should win this game.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Packers Get a Bye Week to Figure Out Their Problems

Crosby's Game Winner, Photo by Rey Del Rio, Getty Images
We watched the game with our Lions fan friend Al, and he was assuring us all game long, especially as the Lions built their lead in the first half, that the Lions would collapse in the second half, and the Packers would win it on a score in the last minute or so. [Editor's note: Al points out that he actually said the Lions would lose in the last 3 seconds. I stand corrected.]  Now that is some serious fatalism, but as he said, "that is how the Lions play this year."  And sure enough, the Packers never led during the entire game, until the final play, when a Crosby field goal sailed through to give the Packers the win, and in the process, a bye week, by the score of 23-20.  And this was a perfect bookend win for the Packers, since in the Week 6 matchup with the Lions, the Packers again never led until the final play of the game, with Crosby's field goal that night giving the Packers a 23-22 win.

For the last couple weeks, I had been trying to talk myself into the proposition that division games are always close and hard-fought, and therefore there was no problem with winning in a bit of an ugly fashion.  But getting beat all day by a 3-11-1 team, with 17 players on IR including their starting quarterback and other starters, is really putting my proposition to the test.  Can we continue to make the argument that there is  no problem after Sunday's game?  I found it pretty disappointing, and by halftime I thought the Packers would lose the game, have to play again this week, and I was not even sure I liked their chances against the Vikings, which is the team they would have played in the Wild Card round.

But then, as has been the case many times this year, they staged their comeback and won the game.  Bye secured, week off, possibility of the number one seed was still in the air until Sunday night.  No problem?  I think there obviously is a problem.  In recent weeks it has been really clear to me that there is something wrong with Rodgers.  He is missing throw after throw that he could have made in his sleep in the past.  He usually makes enough throws to keep us close, and then either he, or Aaron Jones, or the defense, manage to pull the game out in the end, but I no longer have the confidence that Rodgers can make any throw at any time necessary.

On the other hand, we can't ignore that they keep finding a way to win these games.  Stifling defense won it last week.  This week the defense wasn't as good, but then the defense stiffened in the second half, and the Packers' offense made just enough plays on offense to tie the game, and then win the game, in the last few minutes.

Why do I think there is a problem with Rodgers?  You can't watch him tie the record for overthrows in a game (16), and tell me there is no problem.  If the Packers figured out a way to win the division the previous week, with a lot of short passes to move the ball down the field, coupled with a heavy reliance on the running game, why was that strategy abandoned during the entire first half against the Lions?  If your QB is repeatedly overthrowing mid to long range passes, how does Matt LaFleur not adjust his play-calling until the second half?  And how does the QB with a perfect passer rating against the Raiders two months ago, play like an average QB over the entire month of December?  I suppose the best case would be that he is in a slump that ends now and they cruise through the playoffs like they did after the 2010 season.  Or maybe he has some nagging, undisclosed hand or shoulder injury that might improve over the bye week?  Or maybe he needs to stop relying on pure arm strength and set his feet to get his entire body into his throws?

I re-watched the Lions game with these questions in mind.  I found the offensive game plan to be puzzling in the first half, with heavy reliance on longer throws, despite Rodgers overthrowing most of them.  In the second half, there was a noticeable shift to more emphasis on shorter passes, and more reliance on getting the ball to Aaron Jones, either running or as a receiver.  This resulted in scoring 20 points in the second half, as compared to 3 in the first half.

I also watched Rodgers' throwing mechanics.  No theory will explain every good and every bad throw.  But what I noticed is that he throws a lot of balls without setting his feet, even if he is relatively safe in the pocket.  And I noticed that he tends to overthrow a lot of those longer balls where his feet are not set.  On the other hand, he completes most of his short passes, even if he does not get his feet set.

So the game plan for the first playoff game should include the following points.  (1) use more pressure on defense - in the second half against the Lions, the Packers applied more pressure and gave up only 3 points.  (2) don't forget about the running game and the short passing game.  In fact, these should be the emphasis of the offense.  (3) take periodic longer shots down the field, especially as the defense adjusts to the short game, but practice, practice, practice having Rodgers get his feet set before unleashing longer throws.  If the Packers can do those three things, they have a great chance to get to the NFC Championship Game.  If they don't, and come up with a game plan like they used in the first half against the Lions, they have no chance.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Packers' Defense Returns with a Vengeance

Before Monday night's game against the Vikings, I admit to being quite nervous about the Packers' chances.  Sure, with the game on the line, I would rather have Rodgers as my quarterback, rather than Kirk Cousins.  Sure, Cousins had never won a game on Monday night football.  But on the other hand, the Packers have always had trouble in Minnesota, and they had never won in the Vikings' new stadium.  Plus the Vikings' defense had broken Rodgers' collarbone there 2 years ago.  And people were arguing that Cousins has been playing better down the stretch than Rodgers.  And the Vikings were 6-0 at home this season.  Cousins had more yards and more touchdowns than Rodgers.  Blah, blah, blah.

So Packers fans (or this one, anyway) were in quite a mood after the Packers gave up 3 turnovers in the first half, while not getting any from the Vikings.  The Jones fumble on the first drive reminded me of games from the past, most recently the 49ers disaster last month.  You don't win many games when you are 0-3 in turnovers in the first half.  Still, the Packers' defense was stifling.  They held the Vikings to 3 points after that first fumble, they gave up a touchdown on a perfect pass to Diggs (Cousins' best pass of the night) after the Rodgers interception, and they gave up no points after the Adams fumble.  Meanwhile, the Packers were moving the ball well in between turnovers, but they were stalling and settling for field goals.

At halftime, as I grabbed something to eat, it hit me.  The Packers had given up 3 turnovers, but were otherwise moving the ball up and down the field.  With the exception of the perfect touchdown pass to Diggs, the Packers' defense was shutting down the Vikings, in both the running and passing games, and the Packers were only down 1 point.  The Packers had 13 first downs, to 2 for the Vikings.  The Packers had 3 times more total yards in the half, and 6 times the passing yards.  Despite the turnovers, the Packers were in great shape to win the game.  All they had to do was keep doing what they were doing, but without the turnovers.  And that is exactly what happened, with the Packers winning 23-10, in the process clinching the division, and keeping themselves alive to get a first or second seed in the playoffs and a bye week.

The heroes of the game, of course, were Aaron Jones and the defense, particularly the front seven.  Jones ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns, including the 56-yard "dagger" touchdown in the fourth quarter.  Meanwhile, the defense was shutting down the running game, and bottling up Kirk Cousins and the passing game.  Adam Thielen had no catches, while Diggs had 3 and Rudolph had one.  Now in fairness, it has to be mentioned that the Vikings were down to their third and fourth string running backs, Thielen is probably still hobbled with an injury that kept him out a few weeks, and Kirk Cousins had, well, a Kirk Cousins special awful game.  But you still have to make the plays on defense, and the Packers' defense did exactly that.

You could say that this was another ugly win, primarily because of the 3 turnovers.  But the heck with that.  Division games are always tough, and for the Packers to win a division game on the road against the Vikings, in a building where they have never won before, while overcoming the three turnovers, is good enough for me.  If that was ugly, let's have another ugly win this week.

After the game, the emotion and joy in the locker room, with the team sporting their "The North is Not Enough" T-shirts, was just overwhelming.  Later, I saw Tom Pelissero interview the "Smith Brothers" on the field, and I saw Za'Darius Smith literally choke up talking about how much the win meant to him, and how he had said that all he wanted for Christmas was a hat and a T-shirt.  And Z. Smith was a huge part of the win.  He had 3.5 sacks and 5 total tackles for a loss, the highest total in any game this year.  He was a one-man wrecking crew on this evening, and if he and the rest of the front seven can keep that up, it will be huge for the Packers in the playoffs.

Speaking of emotion, I saw that in Rodgers' post-game press conference, he mentioned the fact that he had been jeered in this stadium 2 years ago when he broke his collarbone.  I guess he has been holding onto that for awhile now.  While I am not sure that holding grudges is Rodgers' best quality, it is clear that nobody is better at it than Aaron Rodgers.  And if he can use that for motivation, more power to him.  Now the truth is, he did not play particularly well on Monday night.  The interception, his third of the year, was inexplicable to me.  Was he that inaccurate that he under-threw the ball by that much?  If not, what did he think he saw on that play?  But he got it done when it counted, by engineering drives resulting in field goals in the first half, to keep the game close, and by engineering touchdown drives in the second half, to put the game away. 

The very best thing about Rodgers' game on Monday, in my view, is that he repeatedly threw the short out passes that would gain 3, 5 or 7 yards, to move the chains down the field, while relying primarily on the running game.  That is exactly what his critics have been asking for.  Play within the contours of the LaFleur offense.  Take what the defense is giving you.  Move the ball down the field, rather than sitting back there looking for the big play and ending up being sacked.  If he can keep working the offense as it was designed, while benefiting from the resurgent Packers defense, they can continue to win games.  No need for heroics if they play like this and avoid the turnovers that almost sent the Vikings game off the rails.

The Packers have a great opportunity to win and secure a bye week against the Lions.  There are no "gimmes" in the NFL, and let's not forget that the Lions crushed the Packers, 31-0, in the finale last year.  But this is a very different year.  Just get it done!  And if the Packers do their job, and the Seahawks manage to beat the 49ers, the Packers will have the no. 1 seed for the first time in a long while.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Getting Used to Ugly

Aaron Jones scores, Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
More of the same from the Packers last week.  This time, after taking a 21-3 lead in the second half, the Packers' offense went as cold as Lambeau Field in January, while letting the Bears creep back into the game.  The game didn't end until the final play, a Cal Band-type play, when Tramon Williams finally stopped the madness by recovering a deflected lateral at the Packers' 2 yard line.  The 21-13 win, combined with a Rams loss later in the day, was enough to put the Packers back in the playoffs for the first time in 3 years.  And since they only need one more win to secure the division, they have a 91% chance to win the division, and a 42% chance to get a bye week, which they can accomplish most easily by winning both remaining games.

The Packers' 11-3 record ought to make fans happy.  But their inconsistency of play has resulted in some very ugly wins, of which the Bears game was another one.  Article after article this week makes it seem as if the only word you can put before "win" is "ugly," at least if you are discussing the 2019 Green Bay Packers.  They may have won 11 games, but in 9 of those wins, the Packers led by only a single score (8 points or less) at some point in the fourth quarter.  The wins over the Raiders and Cowboys are the only exceptions.  Those two games were not complete performances, either, but at least no nail-biting was required in the fourth quarter.

I didn't find the Bears game as upsetting as some of the others, because Packers-Bears games are almost always close, hard-fought battles between the ancient rivals.  They have now played 200 games against each other, and while there have been some blowouts (the first game I ever went to was a Packers blowout of the Bears in 1962, 49-0), most of them have been close games battled out to the bitter end.  So I wasn't surprised with the way the game ended up, but gratified that the Packers won.

I think much of the fan dissatisfaction and anxiety has to do with the fact that we know (or think we know) that the Packers are capable of better play than the way they are playing.  So we want to see the Packers establish their identity as a good to great team by playing 60 minutes on offense, and 60 minutes on defense, and put together a convincing win against a good team.  Hell, we would take a convincing win against any team, good or bad, at this point.  The fear is that if they don't start playing up to what we think is their potential, they are going to get bounced out of the playoffs, rather unceremoniously, as soon as they come up against a good team, which will probably be in the first game.  At the moment, from week to week, we don't know if we should expect an ugly win, or a really ugly loss.  The one thing we are losing faith that we will see is a convincing win.

Aaron Nagler says, "maybe winning ugly IS their identity."  Chris Havel says, "If the Packers' identity is 'winning ugly' so be it."  The funny thing is, they might actually be on to something.  Older fans will remember teams like the "Cardiac Pack" and the "Cardiac Cards."  The identity of those teams was that they would find ways to come from behind and win games at the end.  And we have certainly seen Packers teams over the years that would find ways to lose most of the close games that they could have won.  Well, the Packers in 2019 are kind of the opposite.  They aren't generally coming from behind, so they are not like the old Cardiac Pack, but they almost always find a way to win close games that they could have lost.  The only close game they have lost was the game against the Eagles.  I am not sure that winning like this is sustainable into the playoffs, although it looks as if we will get the chance to find out soon enough.  But if this is winning ugly, I will take it as long as they continue to win.

The Vikings are usually also a tough matchup for the Packers, especially when the game is in Minnesota.  The Packers haven't yet won a game in the Vikings' new stadium, and they weren't so great in the Vikings' last stadium, either (remember the T.J. Rubley game, for instance?).  The Vikings have good weapons on offense (although Dalvin Cook might miss this game), and their defense is in some ways similar to the Packers: lots of bend but not much break, generating turnovers, etc.  While the Vikings trail the Packers by a game in the standings, they have scored more points on offense, and given up fewer points on defense.

Channeling Denny Green for a moment, I am not ready to crown the Vikings' ass just yet.  They have already been beaten by the Packers and Bears, as well as the Chiefs and Seahawks, so they are not unbeatable.  Despite some underwhelming play by the Packers in general, and Rodgers in particular, at times this year, I will still take Aaron Rodgers over Kirk Cousins, at the end of a close game, any time.  So I would like to see the Packers play their first complete game of the year, and blow the Vikings out of their dome.  But I doubt that will happen, and I will gladly take another ugly win.  Of necessity, I am getting used to ugly wins.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Another "Unsatisfying" Win

Lots of My Relatives Were at the Game
Happy Days are here again!  (Well, sort of.)  The good news is that the Packers, by beating the Redskins Sunday (20-15), have recorded their 10th win out of 13 games.  In so doing, Matt LaFleur became the first coach in the history of the Packers to get 10 wins in his first season.  Special shout out to all my family members who attended the game, including relatives from Israel.  Wish I could have been there!

The Packers now have a 93% chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.  Also, with the 49ers' win over the Saints on Sunday (and other results), the Packers' chances of getting a first round bye have improved to 37%.  (I admit that I had to rinse the foul taste out of my mouth after rooting for the 49ers comeback.)

With Thanksgiving in the recent past, it is worth noting and giving thanks for how much better the Packers' situation is this year, as compared to the years we have had in the past where, at this time of the season, we would have to sit around and say something like, "let's see, if the Packers win out, and the Vikings lose 2 out of 3, or if the Eagles, Rams and Seahawks each lose 2 out of 3, then the Packers will sneak into the playoffs."  And of course the last two years were even worse, when the Packers finished with losing records and well out of the playoffs.

But the bad news is that the Packers looked, how shall I say it?  "Uninspired?"  They started out hot, going up 14 points in the first quarter, then let the Redskins creep back into the game, with the Packers only winning by 5 points.  Almost a carbon copy of the Giants game last week, except at least in the Giants game the Packers threw in the flourish of two touchdowns in the 4th quarter to pull away.  This time they got a field goal in the third quarter, and another in the fourth, to put the game just slightly out of reach of the weak Redskins team, playing with a hobbled rookie quarterback.  (The fast start the last two weeks with the Packers' opening scripted plays raises the half-serious suggestion, "why not script the first 50 plays if the script works so well?")  The way the team played on Sunday, you could maybe see the Packers win a home playoff game, if they are lucky enough to get one, but you have to scratch your head to figure out how the Packers would go about winning a game on the road against the 49ers, Saints, Seahawks, or even the Vikings.

I actually have some sympathy for LaFleur, Rodgers and the other players, who have to face all these questions about why the win wasn't more convincing.  I get it, style points are not included in the Win-Loss columns, and it is a good thing they aren't, because the Packers are short on style points this year.  You should not have to apologize for a 10-3 record.  But it is frustrating (for players and fans alike) that they still haven't put together a complete game all year.

You could say that they had a pretty complete game on defense against the Bears in Week 1, and a pretty complete game on offense against the Raiders in Week 7.  But they really haven't come close to putting the pieces together in a single game.  In this connection, I can't help but mention that the game against the Redskins was the first game in which all aspects of the special teams looked good.  No penalties that I recall, no missed kicks, good punts, and for the first time all year, a return game with new returner Tyler ("Swervin") Ervin.  Ervin has single-handedly, in his first game, saved the Packers from setting the record for worst punt-return yardage in an entire season.

Let's take a step back.  Obviously, nobody expected the Packers to do this well this year, with a rookie coach.  We probably expected something more akin to a rebuilding year than a title run.  It is worth remembering that, as I said a few weeks ago, the Packers are mostly finding ways to win games this year that they would have lost in prior years.  I saw a statistic that the Packers were 3-6-1 in one-score games last year, while they are 6-1 this year.  All of this is good, even if the Packers are not providing the "wow" factor where fans and teams can't see how anyone can beat this team.

Still, every week, I keep thinking that this will be the week for everything to gel, but it has not happened yet.  If the Packers could just switch on their complete game at will, they should have thrown the switch by now.  Meanwhile, other leading teams (most prominently, the Ravens) seem to be peaking at the right time, with the playoffs around the corner.

This week the Bears come to town, boasting a 3 game winning streak, and clinging to slim playoff hopes.  A loss to the Packers will essentially end any hopes of the Bears for the playoffs.  A win by the Packers will clinch a playoff berth for Green Bay.  This is the 200th meeting of the two teams, with the Packers holding a slim all-time edge over their big-city rivals.  The game will be played in the cold at Lambeau Field (current projected high is 14 degrees.)  This game is actually a huge game for both teams, and we know that the Bears will be motivated.  Will the Packers?  And if not now, then when?

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Not Quite a "Statement" Win

I Love Snow Games!  Photo by Adam Hunger, AP
In the wake of the disaster in Santa Clara last week, I was looking for two things in Sunday's game at the Meadowlands against the Giants: first and foremost a Packers win; and secondarily a convincing win to give me some level of confidence that the Packers were back on track.  Sunday's 31-13 win over the Giants was one of those games where you can really say that the game was closer than the final score.  It was a 4 point game at the beginning of the 4th quarter, and while I never felt as if the Packers were in much danger of losing the game, they did not blow me away playing against a pretty terrible New York Giants team.  I know, it counts just the same in the Win-Loss columns, but I was looking for a real statement, and I didn't feel as if I got it.  If you want to know what a statement win looks like, look no farther than the Ravens win against the 49ers.

The defense certainly played better against this terrible Giants team.  In giving up only 13 points, they had their best game since week one against the Bears (which the Packers won, 10-3).  They also got 3 interceptions, but obviously poor throws by Daniel Jones (under relentless pressure from Za'Darius Smith and others) had something to do with that.

On the other hand, the Packers' defense got no sacks despite the pressure, and they gave up 335 total yards, including giving up 20 first downs, 3 of them on 4th down plays.  So the bad news is that the Packers gave up lots of yards, and allowed sustained drives that used a lot of time and kept the ball away from the Packers' offense.  But the good news is that despite all that, they only gave up 13 points, in a good demonstration of the "bend but don't break" style of defense. 

I saw lots of things on defense that I didn't like.  While they, in general, did a good job of containing Saquon Barkley, they still gave up 4 plays to him of more than 10 yards (including one pass).  And they gave up two of their patented long passes down the middle of the field, one to WR Cody Latimer, and another to TE Kaden Smith. 

On offense, the Packers obviously looked a lot better than they did against the 49ers, but that is a pretty low bar.  The running game was nothing special, which is a little concerning against a team that is not that great against the run.  The game was won with the passing game.  I liked the fact that Rodgers threw the ball to 10 different receivers (7 of whom had catches).  I was less thrilled with the fact that Davante Adams was targeted as heavily as he was, but on the other  hand, Adams (along with Allen Lazard) was doing the most damage in the passing game, so good for the Packers for going with what was working. 

Special teams looked good, for a change, with perfect performance by the grieving Mason Crosby, a much stronger effort by J.K. Scott, and even good work on the return game (both as kicking and receiving teams).

In the last 5 games of the season, you would have thought that the Packers have an excellent chance to win 4 of them, including Sunday's Giants game (the other games are the Redskins, the Bears and the Lions).  The fifth game, at the Vikings, may well decide who wins the division, although the Monday night loss by the Vikings to the Seahawks really gives the advantage to the Packers to win the division.  But the Packers can't afford any missteps in the other games, or they potentially hand that advantage right back to the Vikings.  The win against the Giants was the first step, but I still think they are going to have to play better to get the job done.  The Redskins game at Lambeau Field would be an excellent way to get some momentum going.

Meanwhile, the playoff positioning goal has to be to get one of the byes.  At the moment, that would mean finishing above either the Saints or the Seahawks, both of whom are currently at 10-2 (so are the 49ers, but they are currently a Wild Card).  Among the top teams in the NFC, the Packers and Vikings have the most favorable schedule, since they each only play one team above .500 (when they play each other).  The Seahawks play the Rams and 49ers, while the 49ers play the Saints, Rams and Seahawks, and the Saints play the 49ers and Titans.  This will become a lot more clear as each week goes by, but if the Packers were to win out, I don't see a realistic way that they would not end up with a bye.  So just keep winning.

Friday, November 29, 2019

How Good Are the Packers?

In happier times, when the score was 0-0
So which loss was worse, the 26-11 loss to the Chargers 4 weeks ago in Los Angeles, or the 37-8 loss to the 49ers last week?  At one level, the loss to the (at the time) 3-5 Chargers might seem more out of character than the loss to the 9-1 49ers.  Both losses were the result of total domination by the opposing teams, and pathetic performances by the Packers on both sides of the ball (and you can throw poor special teams into the mix, too, with an ineffective punting game joining an ineffective return game).  While you can say that there is no shame in losing to the team with the best record in the NFC, there is plenty of shame in losing the way the Packers did. 

While the defense kept the Packers in the 49er game for awhile, it once again gave up huge plays down the middle of the field, none more damaging than the long touchdown to phenomenal 49er tight end George Kittle, which essentially ended any hope for a comeback.  And the offense again could generate no rhythm at all, with Rodgers constantly under duress.  Why didn't the Packers load up on quick release passes designed to offset the pass rush?  Why didn't they throw the ball to Aaron Jones and see what he could do?  I have no clue, and you can't figure out the answer by listening to Matt LaFleur's press conferences, either.  I guess I really should not expect much enlightenment from press conferences, and I am glad that LaFleur takes responsibility and says that he was outcoached, but if you want to know what he will do differently to avoid another such embarrassment, you will  have to figure that out for yourself. 

We went to the 49er game, and there were plenty of Packer fans there with us.  But the Packer fans never really got a chance to cheer after the warmups, because on the very first drive, the 49ers strip-sacked Rodgers, leading to a quick touchdown, and it was all downhill from there.  We had plenty of time to listen to that stupid foghorn they play when the 49ers score, and to be thankful that the Packers ditched the idea for a foghorn of their own.

Maybe the Packers aren't as good as we thought they were?  Getting blown out, by one bad and one good team, does not happen to most good teams.  Just for kicks, I took a look at all the top teams in the NFC and AFC, to see how they lost their games.  So the Packers lost a fairly close one to the Eagles, and lost convincingly and pathetically to the Chargers and 49ers.  I arbitrarily used 14 points as the definition of a blowout.  Sure enough, most really good teams do not get blown out.  They lose like the 49ers did (27-24 to Seattle).  Or like the Chiefs, losing by 7 points or less to the Colts, Texans, Packers and Titans. 

In fairness, some of the really good teams did get blown out once.  The Patriots lost to the Ravens by 17.  The Bills lost to the Eagles by 18.  The Seahawks lost to the Ravens by 14.  But among the teams with the best records, only the Packers and Saints lost 2 games by blowout.  The Saints lost to the Rams by 18, and lost to the Falcons the first time around by 17.  The fact that Brees got knocked out in the Rams game might be a mitigating factor, although the Saints are much more set at backup quarterback than the Packers have been in a very long time.  But anyway, as a general rule, the very good teams do not get blown out twice by this point in the season, and this is not a good sign for the Packers.

Beyond the blowouts, some of the Packers' wins are a little suspect when you look back at them.  The Packers beat the Bears only on the strength of the defense playing out of their minds.  The Packers barely beat the Lions, and maybe shouldn't have, given some of the calls.  And the Panthers took the game to the very last play of the game, which play even had to be reviewed, before the win was secured.  The Bears, Lions, and Panthers aren't really all that good, so these wins could be cause for concern if you want to look at it that way.

This Sunday, the Packers visit another team that is not very good, the New York Football Giants (as a friend used to call them).  They are 2-9, haven't won since September, and by my 14 point definition they have been blown out in 5 of their 9 losses.  They have beaten only the equally bad Redskins, and the very inconsistent Buccaneers.  So there really isn't any good reason why the Packers should not beat the Giants convincingly, especially given the sting and embarrassment of the 49ers game last week.  If they struggle against the Giants, even if they end up winning, it will really be time to question how the Packers can make any noise in the playoffs.

Despite the bad football we watched Sunday night, I had a great Thanksgiving with family yesterday.  I hope you did as well.