Monday, December 24, 2001

Packing for the Playoffs

It has been apparent for a few weeks that the Packers would eventually make the playoffs, but it is still welcome news to hear the talking heads use the word "clinched" in connection with the Packers. After all of those years in the 1970's and 1980's when the Packers didn't make the playoffs, you would think that not making the playoffs in 1999 and 2000 would not be so hard to
take. Packer fans should be used to it, after all! But having been spoiled by the Favre-Holmgren run throughout most of the 1990's, it really was difficult for many of us fans. It is so much more fun when the Packers keep playing after the end of the regular season. And now, the Packers are back in the playoffs where they belong.

Unfortunately, the Bears squandered another excellent opportunity to lose a game, this time to the Redskins, and at this point, I am starting to get the idea that they are not going to do us a favor by losing a game. The Bears play at Detroit, and against Jacksonville in Chicago, and they will be substantial favorites to win both games. So I am now getting prepared for the fact that the Packers will not win the division.

If the Packers end up as a wild card, then the issue becomes whether they will be the number 5 seed (and play at the number 4 seed, most likely the 49ers, in the first week of the playoffs), or whether they will be the number 4 seed and thus host a playoff game. I figured that the 49ers might have trouble against the Eagles, especially with Jeff Garcia being injured, but of course they did not. The 49ers have games left at Dallas (which the 49ers should win) and at New Orleans, where it will be more of a toss-up. If the 49ers stumble in one of these games, their likely reward is a trip to Lambeau Field.

Remember the last 49er playoff game in Lambeau Field? Freezing rain in this "mud bowl" game, Steve Young's cracked ribs, Desmond Howard returning one punt for a touchdown, and another punt to the 7 yard line. The Packers won the game, 35-14, and it is a safe bet that the 49ers don't want to make another trip to Green Bay in January, so there is no chance that they will
let down in the last 2 games. They could lose a game, but if they do it won't be as a result of a letdown. All this adds up to the likelihood that the Packers will have to come out to my backyard (San Francisco) for the playoffs. Which makes it a lot more convenient for me to go to the game,
but I sure wish the game would be in Lambeau Field.

Yesterday's game was the kind of day that I have been waiting for since early November, a cold day, with snow flurries at Lambeau Field throughout the game. Favre was sharp, as he always is in the cold, throwing three touchdown passes and no interceptions. But it was really the ground gamethat took control against the Browns. Ahman Green just rolled over the Browns for 150 yards, until he left late in the game after an asthma attack. He was replaced by Dorsey Levens, who continued just where Green left off, gaining another 72 yards rushing, and came up with a picture perfect catch and slide in the snowy end zone to finish out the scoring. It was a play
that was somewhat reminiscent for me of Levens' touchdown catch in the NFC Championship game after the 1996 season.

The defense played an opportunistic game, forcing three interceptions and two fumbles, including an interception return for a touchdown by Tyrone Williams, which also provided an echo of the interception by Williams in that same NFC Championship game. On the negative side, the Packers gave up an awful lot of yards rushing to Jamel White (who?), which is either just a
reflection of the fact that the rushing game has an advantage on a slippery, snowy field, or else it is a continuation of the Packers' habit of making backup players look like one-game hall-of-famers.

And now the Vikings come to town, for another cold and maybe snowy game. The forecast as of Monday is for snow showers and a high of 24 degrees. Of course these are the same Vikings who blew the Packers out of the Metrodome back in November, so they cannot be taken lightly. But the Packers are motivated to get revenge on the Vikings, the Vikings are not a cold weather, natural grass team, the Vikings have not won on the road all year, and the Vikings seem to have checked out for the season several weeks ago. I don't think this game will be close. I'll pick the Packers by a score of something like 31-10.

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Bounced Again

Here we go again. Not content to be in first place, the Packers, for the third time this year, lost a game to a lesser opponent after a crucial victory the week before. [Ed.note - the Packers lost to the Titans, 26-20.] As a result, they dropped all the way from leading the division, being in a position for a bye week in the playoffs followed by a home playoff game, to the number 5 seed in the playoffs, with no bye week and a road game against another wild card team (at San Francisco, interestingly enough).

What is it with this team? I think it is becoming clearer and clearer that they just are not as good as we had hoped, during the moments of euphoria following the 3-0 start at the beginning of the season, or following the big victories over the Ravens and twice over the Bears. Instead, they are a pretty good team, but one with a lot of injury problems right now, and with a real problem of inconsistency from week to week.

That is not necessarily a condemnation. Pretty good teams sometimes get hot and go on to win the Super Bowl, as the Ravens did last year after going for a month earlier in the season without scoring an offensive touchdown. And the Packers are both playing better than most people expected them to play this year, and, at 9-4, have a better record than people expected. But there is still a sense of disappointment at letting the division lead slip through their fingers not once, but twice after beating the Bears. The best the Packers can hope for now is to win their last three games, and hope that the Bears trip up along the way, which is possible but not all that likely.

Last week, I was nervous that the Packers would let down against Tennessee and lose the game. While they lost, I am not sure there was really a letdown. I saw the Packer players seemingly trying hard to make plays throughout the game, but just coming up short, mostly caused, at least in my mind, by three things: the relentless pressure caused by the Tennessee defensive line, the injury-induced problems the Packer defense had, and, let's face it, the fact that the Titans' offensive players just went out and made a lot of plays happen. The result was a good example of the Titans pretty much dominating the game, especially at the line of scrimmage.

Now the thoroughly demoralized Browns come to town. While they suffered a painful loss to the Jaguars last week under bizarre circumstances, I found the comments of President Carmen Policy and Owner Al Lerner after the game,in essentially condoning the actions of the fans who threw bottles and other objects onto the field, to be an utter dereliction of duty on their part.
Policy, undoubtedly under severe pressure from the League, recanted those remarks on Monday and tried to set a better tone, calling the bottle throwers "hooligans." Better late than never, I guess, but there really needs to be a zero tolerance policy for this sort of thing. People throwing objects should be arrested and prosecuted, and if they are season-ticket holders, they should be at risk of losing their tickets. I hope we will never see shenanigans like this in Lambeau Field.

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Back in First Place

There were lots of milestones in last week's game against the Chicago Bears: (1) Brett Favre became the first quarterback in NFL HISTORY (!) to throw for 3,000 yards, ten seasons in a row; (2) Ahman Green became the first Packer running back since John Brockington to have back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons; (3) the Bears' streak of 20 games without allowing a 100 yard rusher was ended, as Green rushed for 125 yards; (4) Brett Favre extended his regular season home record when the temperature is 34 degrees or lower to 28-0; (5) Favre won his 100th regular season game; and (6) for the first time in the last seven Packer-Bear games, the home team actually won the game, as the Packers ended up sweeping the season series with the Bears.

That means, of course, that if the Packers and the Bears end up in a tie for the division title, the Packers would win the title on the head-to-head tie-breaker. So while both teams are tied at 9-3, the Packers are in first place in the division and, as of now, would be the number two seed in the playoffs, behind only the Rams and their gaudy, 10-2 record. Speaking of records, the Packers have the best December record in the NFL over the last 10 years, so if they can keep up the good work, they should find themselves in good shape for the playoffs.

Two cautionary comments about the Bears. If the Bears decide to get themselves a real, honest-to-goodness NFL offensive coordinator, instead of their present guy (John Shoop), they could be a scary team. Now I suppose that it is possible that Jim Miller, or the Bears' receivers, are simply no good and that is why their offense plays this way. But the way Mr. Shoop calls the offensive plays, it would be hard to tell if that is true or not. After seeing the same, incredibly conservative game plan used by the Bears in the first meeting with the Packers, I would have gone way out on a limb predicting that the Bears would open it up this time. Instead, more of the
same, much to my astonishment, the astonishment of the TV announcers, and the consternation of the Bears fans.

The second cautionary comment is really about the Packers, more so than the Bears. The Packers played a great game against the Ravens in October, only to come back and lay an egg the next week in Minnesota. They beat the Bears for the first time in November, only to lose to the Falcons at home the next week. Now the Packers have four games left, at Tennessee, Cleveland and Minnesota at home, and at the Giants. None of those teams have a winning
record. The Packers will be favored to win every one of those games. The Packers SHOULD win every one of those games. But there are no "gimmes" in the NFL, and if they don't come into each game with the right attitude and effort, they will probably lose at least one of them. One loss will most likely be enough to turn the Packers into a Wild Card team, instead of the
Division Champion.

This is so because, except for this week's home game against the Buccaneers, the Bears play an even easier schedule (at Washington, at Detroit, and a home game against Jacksonville). So it would not be wise to plan on having the Bears lose any more games. In other words, this would be a great time to have a season-ending perfect record (like last year), rather than playing down to the level of the competition, which I am afraid to say, the Packers sometimes seem to do.

The way things look right now, the Packers will probably not end up with home field advantage throughout the playoffs, unless the Rams start losing some games. But the Packers have an excellent shot at the number two seed, and they control their own destiny, as the TV announcers like to say. All they have to do is win their last four games, and they have it, along with the bye week that it brings. The last two times the Packers got a bye in the playoffs, they went to the Super Bowl. The last time they ended up as a wild card, they lost in the first playoff game. There were a lot of factors at play besides the bye week, of course, but an extra week to get healthy
and to plan ahead is a very big deal in the playoffs.

Thursday, December 6, 2001

Bring on Da Bears!

Before getting to the Bears, it is worth stopping for a moment, just to marvel at the Packers' comeback against the Jaguars on Monday night. Oh, sure, they should not have had to have a come-from-behind finish against a 3-7 team, but the Jaguars played just well enough, and the Packers played just poorly enough, to fall behind 13-0 and then 21-7. And then Brett Favre seemed to strap the rest of the team on his aching, "old man" back and carry them to victory. I re-watched the early part of the game over the last couple of days, and of course it seems much different when you know how the game is going to come out. At the time on Monday night, I was just despondent about all of the bad things that happened, and then was almost broken when the sack, strip, and touchdown return happened to make it 21-7. But watching it again, it seemed to me that the Packers were playing better than I had recalled. A couple of touchdowns were just barely missed (the ball in the second quarter that went through Schroeder's hands after he and the defensive back collided and the defensive back fell down; the ball to Driver in the end zone that was just tipped away in the first drive of the third quarter). The Packers came away with no points on these drives, but could have had 14 points. Of course they also got the benefit of a somewhat questionable interference call to negate what would have been an interception. But still, they were playing better (in my mind) than the score up on the board.

And then they just got it all together, starting with the two-minute drill to end the first half. Hmmm, let's see now, they scored 14 of their 28 points in two-minute drill offenses. Maybe the Packers should serve up some hurry-up offense of their own, just as they did back in the mid-1990's a few times. Given how the hurry-up offense of the Jaguars set the Packers back on their heels in the first half, I really think this is worth some consideration. Anyway, the comeback was something to watch in amazement and enjoy, and I hope that we have not become so used to watching this sort of thing, as Packer fans, that we no longer realize how good we have it and have had it over the last 9 years.

And now, here come our primal enemies from across the border. I suppose we all knew, deep inside, that it would come down to this. Even after the Packers' win in Chicago 4 weeks ago, it was apparent that the re-match would count for something, unless you assumed that the Bears would simply collapse after losing to the Packers. At the time, I guess that a collapse seemed feasible, since the Bears had been winning under the most improbable circumstances, so it was possible that, their bubble having been burst, they would crawl back under a rock or something of the sort.

But if it wasn't clear then, it certainly is now, that the Bears have some talent. They went into the House of Horrors (a/k/a the Metrodome) and beat the Vikings, something the Packers seemed to have no chance of doing in their game there earlier this year. The Bears beat the Buccaneers in Tampa, too, another thing the Packers could not do. In fact, the only games the
Bears have lost have been to the Packers and the Ravens, both pretty good teams, and both were fairly close games. The Bears have not been blown out in any games (unlike the Packers, in Minnesota), and they have not lost any games to inferior teams (unlike the Packers, in Tampa, Minnesota and against Atlanta). In short, I hate to say it, but the Bears have been a lot more consistent than the Packers this year.

As a result, I don't expect the Packers to have an easy time of it on Sunday, much as I might wish that they would. If the Packers put it all together, for 60 minutes, I suppose that they should have no trouble with the Bears. But since they haven't really done that all year, maybe with the exception of the Ravens' game, I am not expecting them to do it this week. (It would be a heck of a good time to start, however.)

This game could go either way, but I think the Packers will win it, in a close game. Something like 24-17. My guess is that the Bears will fall short mostly because of their tendency all year to play so conservatively on offense. They are among the lowest in the league in average gain per pass attempt, which suggests that they throw mostly short passes. So they are not as prone to making the big mistake, but they also are not as likely to make a big play. Packer fans will probably recall that the announcers criticized the Bears' offense for not going downfield throughout the first meeting between the two teams.

This should be a good game. It is the Packers and the Bears, playing for the division lead and a possible bye week in the playoffs, in December, in Lambeau Field. What could be better than that? It brings back memories of Lombardi and Halas, Butkus and Nitschke, Sayers and Hornung. It reminds me personally of the first Packer game I ever attended, in 1962, when the
Packers beat the Bears by the score of 49-0! More recently, it reminds me of the animosity that was so evident between Mike Ditka and Forrest Gregg when they coached these teams, and the Instant Replay game, and the Refrigerator, and the Bears' 46 defense. I guess that I am biased, but I don't think there is a better rivalry in the NFL than the rivalry between the Packers and the Bears, even if it seemed to lose some of its luster for awhile there during the Dave Wannstedt years. My only regret (other than not being there) is that it will probably be just slightly too warm for it to snow. This game should be played in snow flurries, just like that game back in 1995 when Favre had a badly sprained ankle, but played anyway, and threw 5 touchdown passes to beat the Bears, 35-28.

Sunday, November 25, 2001

Strange Week of Football

This past week has been a strange one for football. First the Packers lose a game to the Falcons, at home, in which they were favored by 10 points. And to make matters worse, Leroy Butler was lost for the season. I was supposed to go to that game, but was unable to go as things turned out. Just as well. It would have been a terrible game to witness in person.

Then, after a short week, the Packers seemed to have everything together for a rare easy win at the Silverdome. And then, just as everyone was getting ready for the Thanksgiving dinner, the Lions almost put together a miracle finish, but fell short on the final two point conversion. The Packers escaped with a 29-27 win, and their fans could finally enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, after what seemed like the longest closing minutes ever in a game.

Then came a Sunday of football with no Packer game, and no other games that mattered much to the Packers until the Sunday night game. (Needless to say, I watched the early games anyway.) The Sunday night game was the Bears at the Vikings. Given the way that the Vikings blew the Packers out in the dome, and then blew the Giants out there just last week, one would assume that the Vikings would continue their explosive ways. But wouldn't you just know it? The Vikings' offense turned anemic, just when the Packer fans needed a little help from the men in purple. So the Bears go to an 8-2 record, and it is time to realize that they must be for real. (The rematch between the Bears and the Packers in two weeks looks like it will be an enormously important game.) The only consolation from the Sunday night game is that it looks like the Vikings really are dead now. Their record is 4-6, and I imagine they will finish up with a record of about 6-10.

So what to make of the Packers? They started the year strong, but have faltered somewhat in the middle part of the season. They certainly do not look like the dominant team they were in 1996, for example. But they are still sitting at 7-3 and within striking distance of the division lead and a likely opening week playoff bye. The Atlanta game shows that there is really no game they can take for granted, including of course next week's Monday night game at Jacksonville. It would be nice if the Packers got it all together as the season winds to a close, in much the same way that the Ravens did last year. But right now, there is no strong evidence to suggest that this will happen.

This strange week of football will end with Monday night's Tampa Bay at St. Louis game. Personally, I am hoping the Buccaneers win it, because I am not all that worried about the Buccaneers now, and would rather see another loss for the Rams. But the way things have gone this week, the Rams will probably blow the Buccaneers out.

Sunday, November 11, 2001

Mid-Season Review

On a Veteran's Day that seemed a lot more important than other Veteran's Days in my life, the Green Bay Packers renewed their acquaintance for the 162nd time with their oldest rivals, the Chicago Bears. Coming into this game, the Bears led the historical series 84 to 71, with 6 ties (including the Bears' victory in the only playoff game between the two ancient enemies). The miracles ran out for the Bears today, and the Packers prevailed, 20-12. In so doing, they moved back into first place in the NFC Central, with a 6-2 record, equaling the record of the Bears. The Packers also advanced their Division record to 3-2, with a road game remaining at Detroit on Thanksgiving, and home games against Minnesota and Chicago in December.

This game was arguably the most significant game between the Packers and the Bears since the early 1960's, because it was a battle for first place in the Division and because it gave the winner the opportunity to open a 2 or 3 game lead over the Buccaneers and Vikings. The Buccaneers ended up beating the Lions in Detroit to improve their record to 4-4, but the Vikings continued their fall by being blown out for the second game in a row, this time by Philadelphia, dropping their record to 3-5.

The Packers did get off to a slow start, though, including the obligatory stupid throw by Brett Favre for an interception in the first quarter, and another extra-effort fumble by Ahman Green. But the Bears only scored field goals all day long, and so the score was only 6-0 after these mistakes. I attribute the Bears' lack of success both to their conservative play-calling, and to a strong Packer defense, even though the defense did not have a lot of high profile plays (no interceptions and no sacks, for example). The defense basically just played it straight this game, and was able to pretty much control the game without taking any big risks.

On the offensive side, boy, what a difference Bill Schroeder's return made, as the offense looked sharp after its early struggles. Favre ended up throwing two touchdown passes, a 41-yarder to Schroeder in the first half, and a 9-yarder to Antonio Freeman in the third quarter. And what a pleasure it is to see Ahman Green just grind out the yards, and chew up the clock, late in the game.

But still, the Bears won the last two weeks on miraculous, end-of-game comebacks to tie the game in the 4th quarter, followed by wins in overtime. Amazingly, this game almost seemed set up for the same kind of finish. The Bears trailed by 8 points for much of the 4th quarter, and so a touchdown and 2 point conversion could have sent the game to overtime. But after driving most of the length of the field, the Bears' drive stalled at the 15 yard line of the Packers, and the victory was preserved.

Halfway through the season, the Packers find themselves in great shape. They are tied for first place in the division, and only the Rams have a better record in the NFL. I, frankly, expected the Packers to be no better than 5-3 at this point of the season, so they are ahead of my personal projection. They look like they are on the way to something like an 11-5 season, and if they can avoid mistakes and key injuries, they could have a really sensational season.

Sunday, November 4, 2001

The Favreian Dilemma

Today's game, in which the Packers beat the Buccaneers by a final score of 21-20, highlights a problem the Packers have had, on and off, for the entire Brett Favre era. The problem is that Favre is not only the Packers' best player, he is also sometimes the Packers' biggest problem. Not in the way that Terrell Owens, Randy Moss or Brian Cox can be problems for their teams.
The mature Brett Favre seems to be a good citizen, on and off the field. But Favre's somewhat reckless style, in addition to leading to some of his most astonishing, creative, and sensational plays, also leads to his tendency to turn the ball over and create points for the other side.

Today's game is a perfect example. The Buccaneers scored 20 points, and almost won the game. Some could even say they should have won the game, although I would disagree. What is clear is that 17 of those 20 points were scored after Favre's two interceptions and Ahman Green's fumble. If Favre's third "interception" had not been overruled on replay when it was determined that the ball hit the ground before the interceptor gained control of the ball, chances are good that the Buccaneers would have picked up the game winning points on the drive that would have resulted from that turnover. In other words, mistakes by the Packers' two best players on offense led to 85% of the Buccaneers' points today. Take away those mistakes, and the game isn't even close. (To illustrate this, consider the fact that when Ahman Green scored on his long touchdown run, the total offense of each team was Green Bay, 323 yards, Tampa Bay, 121 yards.)

So couldn't we just get all the good plays out of Brett Favre, but tell him to be a little more careful about where he throws it? Or couldn't we get all the good plays from Ahman Green but tell him to hold on tight when he is struggling for extra yards? Well, I guess it does not really work that way. They should certainly be told to be more careful with the ball, and in fact I would argue that Favre is a lot more careful with the ball than he was earlier in his career. But just like you have to take all of the calories along with the ice cream sundae, we have to accept that Favre's basic style of play is going to lead to some mistakes on most days, along with all of the great plays. If the Packers were as dominant as they were in 1996, the mistakes would hardly matter at all. But they are not, and as a result they will certainly lose some games that they should have won. This team would not be 5-2 without Brett Favre and Ahman Green, make no mistake about it.

* * * *

On a lighter note, I am going to award today's game ball not to Brett Favre, or to Ahman Green, or even to Allan Rossum, but instead to Judy Freeman (my wife). When the score was 17-7 in favor of the Buccaneers, she told me I should move the Packer flag on our house back to its original location. My mind raced back to the fact that I had moved the flag bracket from the left side of the garage to the right side, JUST BEFORE THE DISASTROUS GAME AGAINST THE VIKINGS! And here it was, 17-7 in favor of the Buccaneers. Now I am not as superstitious as I used to be, but faced with these facts, why take the chance? I ran outside, screwdriver in hand, and moved the bracket back to the left side, after which the Packers ended up winning the game. Coincidence? You be the judge. Are all football fans this superstitious, or is it just us Packer fans?

And then, to put the icing on the cake, when the score was 20-14, Buccaneers, and the Bucs were lining up to punt, Judy said "it would be nice if you run the ball in right now." Ten seconds later (did you see Rossum's acceleration through the hole?), the Packers were ahead.

Having witnessed these events, you would think I would be smarter than to go out to do some yard work during the late game, with the Bears losing, 21-7 and a couple of minutes left. I thought the game was under control. But for the second week in a row, the Bears came back from a 14 or 15 point deficit in the closing minutes to win the game in overtime. Now that is a scary prospect if the Bears have developed into a team that can come from way behind and win games. Since the 49ers and the Browns don't seem to know how to beat the Bears, the Packers will have to take care of the Bears by themselves.

Monday, October 22, 2001

What a Difference A Week Makes

Sunday's game against Minnesota was the polar opposite of last week's game against Baltimore. For every pass that was snared by a Packer for a great catch last week, one fell incomplete this week. Last week the Packers just dominated a team that, some of us thought, was a better team, at least on defense. This week, a team with all kinds of weaknesses on offense and defense totally dominated the Packers, a team we all assumed was the superior team.

The Packers were beaten solidly in just about every phase of the game, including a ridiculous disparity in time of possession (37 minutes to 23). This loss was a true team effort, and there is plenty of blame to be shared by offense, defense, and by the coaching staff. The 35-13 loss, according to reports, is the worst loss the Packers have suffered in 7 years, going back to the 35-9 pasting of the Packers by the Cowboys in January, 1995.

Some of us had deluded ourselves into thinking that Minnesota is no longer the House of Horrors for the Packers, by convincing ourselves that the Packers have sufficient speed now to turn the turf to their advantage. Ahman Green would have a big day, as would our speedy receivers like Corey Bradford. KGB would be in Daunte Culpepper's face all day. With the retirement of Robert Smith, and with Michael Bennett being injured, the Vikings would have no running game at all, allowing the Packers' defense to concentrate on stopping Moss and Carter.

Of course, none of that happened. Ahman Green was not much of a factor. KGB rarely had his name or initials called. In fact, his name literally does not appear in the game statistics: no tackles, no sacks, no assists. The receivers dropped a lot of balls. One of Favre's passes was intercepted and run back for a touchdown. And the Packers, as they seem to have done many times before, gave up large chunks of yardage to a backup running back,this one named Chapman. Shades of Brad Hoover from last year's Carolina game! Leroy Butler was injured and did not return to the game. Favre injured his elbow on a meaningless 2 point conversion attempt at the end of the game. Heck, even one of the Packers' coaches was injured in a bizarre mishap on the sidelines.

The upshot is that the Chicago Bears are now in sole possession of first place in the NFC Central. The Packers (4-2) have fallen two games behind the St. Louis Rams (6-0) for the best record in the NFL. And Minnesota (3-3) and Tampa Bay (2-3), instead of being banished to "wait-until-next-year-land," are creeping closer to the Packers in the standings. At least we can still count on Detroit (0-5) for some comic relief, as they wasted two fourth quarter ties to lose to the Titans in the final seconds.

But, hey: look at the bright side. At least we won't have to read more accolades about the Packers this week, and how "super" they are looking. This will allow our expectations to settle back a little toward normal. And the Packers won't be reading any accolades during their bye week, either. Instead, they will have to get ready for a now-crucial home game against Tampa on November 4. The Weather Channel says that the average high temperature in Green Bay on November 4 is 47 degrees Fahrenheit. Not cold enough!

Seriously, it is almost impossible to go through a whole season without a disappointing game somewhere along the way. And this blowout game counts the same in the standings as a close loss on a field goal as time expires. There is nothing we can do but hope that this game is an aberration, and not the start of a new trend.

Monday, October 15, 2001

Making a Statement

It is not an original thought to call yesterday's 31-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens a "statement game." Others have used this phrase, both before, during and after the game. But that is exactly what it was. The statement has been made, and the message has been received around the NFL: the Packers look like a legitimate Super Bowl Contender. From Chris Berman's gushing on ESPN Prime Time last night ("Wow!" and "Favre is the best"), to MSNBC ("Packers Looking Super") to CNN/SI's Peter King (" we will never see this edition of the Ravens' defense carved up as it was Sunday at Lambeau by Dr. Brett Favre"), everyone is starting to see that there is something special about the way this team is playing. What a shame that they could not quite get the job done last week at Tampa.

And, as those of you who saw it know, it was not nearly as close as the final score. The Packers led 31-10 with about 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter. A soft, prevent-type defense led to one touchdown, and a recovered onside kick led to another, but the game was not in any serious jeopardy.

There were so many great moments from this game. The much-maligned Antonio Freeman catching pass after pass, including a touchdown at the end of the first half, and finishing off the game by recovering the last onside kick attempt, jumping around like a little kid in excitement. Darren Sharper's missed interception in the first half being redeemed by his interception in
the second half. (His mother's look of horror at the missed interception was matched by mine watching the game at home.) Santana Dotson's sack and forced fumble saving 3 or 7 points in the second quarter. Driver's fabulous catch on the next play, even if the ground may have assisted him a little in gathering in the ball. Corey Bradford's catch of a long ball coming straight down over the top of his head, on the same play that led to an interception the week before. Brett Favre's nearly-perfect day, including the astounding total of 337 passing yards, 391 total yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions against the Ravens' defense. Touchdown drives of 59, 74, 80 and 82 yards against the league's number 1-rated defense. Favre cheerleading in the hail in the fourth quarter.

I loved some of the post-game comments, too. Brian Billick (head coach of the Ravens) saying that he hopes the Ravens never play the Packers again. Brett Favre, telling the story about how Tom Rossley (offensive coordinator of the Packers) told him early in the week that the Packers would gain 400 yards against the Ravens. Favre, politely, said "OK, Tom, you're right," but admitted after the game that he was thinking "This guy is crazy. He must be drinking."

So where do we go from here? Ironically, winning more games, in a way, does nothing but put even more pressure on the team. The Packers seem to be in great shape for a trip to the playoffs, so now some thought about playoff positioning and home field advantage becomes inescapable. The official position of the Packers is that they focus on one game at a time. But maybe the Packers' fans can be excused if they take a little peek at what lies ahead.

The game this week at Minnesota becomes a big game on so many levels. There is the "house of horrors" aspect. The Packers have lost so many games there in the Brett Favre era, that one could not even think of becoming complacent about a trip to the Dome. And a team with the weapons the Vikings possess is always a scary prospect. And the Vikings game, being a division andconference game, counts for a lot more than the game against the Ravens, for tie-breaker and playoff position purposes.

On the other hand, Mike Sherman is 2-0 as a head coach against the Vikings, and the Vikings are struggling, so there is every reason to hope for a good outcome. When I looked at the schedule before the season, I figured that the Packers would probably lose the Tampa game, the Ravens game, and the Vikings game, meaning a three-game losing streak leading into the bye week.
Now, I am predicting that the Packers will win this game, by a score of something like 34-21. If they accomplish that, and thus achieve a 5-1 record before the bye week, I hope that Mike Sherman gives them the whole week off. They will certainly deserve it.

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Packers Bearing Gifts

The Packers's first game of the year against a good team did not turn out as well as I had hoped. They lost at Tampa Bay, 14-10, and as a result the jury is still out on how good this team really is. My opinion is that they are good enough to play with anyone in the league, but they are not good enough to make as many mistakes as they did today and still come away with a win against a good team.

Bonehead play of the day. The Packers were leading, 10-7, and the Packers had 3rd and long at about the 35 yard line of the Buccaneers. Favre's pass was incomplete, but, in the words of John Madden, there were flags, hats andbeanbags on the field. After a huddle of the officials, there were offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct calls on the Buccaneers and on the Packers. When they showed the replay, one of the Buccaneers made a late hit on Bill Schroeder. While the flag was already in the air in a position where Schroeder probably could even see it, Schroeder got up and decked the guy. Out came the hats and beanbags. Give me a break. I like Bill Schroeder, but he is supposed to be a professional, and he should have the presence of mind to realize that he just cost his team a first down inside the Buccaneers' 20 yard line. Instead, they had to punt, and one series later, the Buccaneers scored the game-winning points on a long TD run by Mike Alstott. Mike Holmgren would have grabbed Schroeder by the face mask for that offense, and so would I.

But despite Favre's 3 interceptions, including the 10 or 14 point swing on the play in the second quarter where Favre's pass from inside the Bucs' 10 yard line was intercepted and run back 98 yards for a touchdown, despite the missed tackles on the Alstott touchdown, despite Schroeder's inexcusable penalty, the Packers almost pulled this game out. The Packers got as close as the Bucs' 8 yard line before a penalty and a sack moved them back, and Favre's 4th down pass was batted down as time expired.

It's too bad, because if they had gone to 4-0, they would have been in great shape in both the division and in the NFC. At 3-1, they are still in sole possession of 1st place in the NFC Central, but now have to look forward to 2 more tough tests against the Ravens and Vikings. Now they must win one of those two games, or all of the benefit of their 3-0 start will have been

Monday, October 1, 2001

Turning Points

The turning point in the season last year was the Monday Night game at Carolina. The Packers lost, 31-14, and looked bad in doing so. Their record sank to 5-7, and although they didn't know it at the time, losing that game ended up knocking them out of the playoffs. It was a turning point, because the Packers ended up finishing up the season with four straight wins, all against division opponents, just barely missing the playoffs but raising hopes for a better season this year.

Three weeks into this season, the Packers are now on a seven game winning streak in the regular season, the longest active winning streak in the league. The turning point in this week's game at Carolina is easy to identify. It was early in the second quarter, with the Panthers leading 7-0. Brett Favre's pass had been intercepted, and the Panthers had a chance to add to their lead. Weinke threw what looked like a touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad, which would have made the score 14-0. But there was a flag, on our old ex-central division foe, Todd Steussie, and the touchdown did not count. The Panthers did not score on the drive, or for the rest of the game. And the Packers scored 28 unanswered points to easily win their third game of the season.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers and Vikings were still playing in Minnesota. What a dilemma for a Packer fan. Do we hope for the Buccaneers to win, thereby driving a stake through the heart of the Vampires (oops, I meant Vikings), even though this would leave the Buccaneers at 2-0? Or do we root for the Vikings to pull it out, giving the Buccaneers a loss, but keeping the Vikings closer to the Packers? Well, the Vikings of course did pull it out, which is probably the better result for the Packers and their fans, but I simply could not bring myself to root for the Vikings.

So, after three weeks, there are only three undefeated teams in the league, the Packers, the Rams, and the surprising San Diego Chargers. A great way for the Packers to start the season, and it gives the Packers a little bit of a cushion to play with as they head into the scariest three-week stretch of the season. The next three games are at Tampa, Baltimore (at Lambeau Field) and at Minnesota. Before the season, I frankly would have thought there was a good chance that the Packers would lose all three of these games. But now, all three of these teams look at least somewhat beatable,plus the Packers look much stronger than I expected them to look. So my expectations are higher. I think winning two out of these three games is a realistic goal, and if the Packers achieve that, they will be in great shape.

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Never in Doubt

When the Redskins and Packers get together on Monday Night Football, you can always count on an interesting game. The last time, in 1983, the two teams combined for the highest-scoring Monday Night Football game in history. The Packers prevailed, 48-47, when Mark Moseley, the last of the "conventional" NFL place kickers, missed a 39 yard field goal in the closing seconds. I
was on an airplane from San Francisco to Los Angeles the morning after that game. Presumably not a lot of Packer fans or Redskins fans on the plane. But the Monday Night game was all anybody could talk about that morning.

This time around, only a Packer fan or a Redskin-hater could really appreciate the game. I would imagine that half of the audience switched off the game by early in the third quarter. The Packers were so dominant, and the Redskins so powerless, that there was no doubt that the Packers would win from very early on. I remember having a little bit of nervousness when Favre's pass was intercepted at the end of the first half. The Redskins were only two touchdowns away from the lead, after all. But who was I kidding? The Packers were in complete control, and it would have taken some really bizarre events for the Packers to lose the game.

I had two favorite moments from last night. One was before the game, when the players rushed out on the field, led by Chris Gizzi carrying the flag. It was a stirring moment, made all the more poignant when it was mentioned that he had been chosen for the honor because he is an Air Force Reserve Officer.

And the other was the touchdown pass to Bill Schroeder. Living in the San Francisco area, I have suffered through any number of Montana to Rice or Young to Rice slant passes for touchdowns over the years. It always seemed as if the passes led Rice perfectly, hitting him in stride, and that Rice would accelerate through the gap between the defenders and be off to the end zone. I remember one of these passes to Rice against the Packers, where the defenders were chasing Rice for maybe 40 or 50 yards to the end zone. Anyway, the pass to Schroeder last night was EXACTLY like those passes. The pass could not have been more perfect, Schroeder never had to slow down to get it, and he turned on the jets to run right past those guys to the end zone. This was not the most dramatic Packer touchdown pass I have ever seen. The most dramatic was probably either Favre's very first game-winning touchdown pass, to Kitrick Taylor, after Don Majkowski was knocked out of the game what seems like many years ago, or maybe the game-winning overtime pass to Freeman last year. But it is the prettiest Packer touchdown pass I have seen in some time.

Let's not get carried away with this win. Neither the Lions nor the Redskins are very good teams. But, on the other hand, how many times over recent years have you seen the Packers play down to the level of the competition, either squeaking out a victory over an inferior opponent, or even losing the game? I am encouraged by the way that the Packers dominated these two very weak opponents. Now the Packers need to carry that intensity on the road, as they play two better-quality teams in the next two weeks, the Panthers and the Buccaneers. We will know a lot more about what the Packers' season will look like after those two games.

Sunday, September 16, 2001

A Quiet, Sad Sunday

The NFL is quiet today, as the nation continues to mourn the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Tuesday. I expected the cancellation of this week's games, even though I have mixed feelings about it. The logistics of moving teams around on Friday or Saturday would have been difficult, and press reports suggest that the NFL players were strong(although not unanimous) in their view that the games should not be played this weekend.

It was almost unthinkable that the Packers could have played this weekend in Giants Stadium, just 10 miles or so away across the river from lower Manhattan. Indeed, it has come out that contingency plans were being made to play the Packers-Giants game in Green Bay, with gate proceeds being donated to the relief effort.

But the biggest factor probably was Pete Rozelle's often-expressed regret about not canceling the games on the weekend of President Kennedy's assassination. I don't know if Paul Tagliabue considered the cancellation of the games to be a close call, or a clear mandate. Certainly, in light of Pete Rozelle's comments, I think Tagliabue would have resolved a close call, if he perceived it as such, in favor of cancellation. Despite my mixed feelings, I feel that the Commissioner made the right decision.

My family and I visited the World Trade Center Observation Deck for the first time just four weeks ago. I was amazed at the massiveness of these impressive buildings, and at the beautiful views. I am amazed now that these buildings could have been brought down by the acts of fanatics wielding knives and razor blades. And I was repulsed by the pictures of celebrations by Palestinians in Nablus, and by reports of threats to the news agencies not to air those pictures.

Let us all pray for the families of the victims, and for the perpetrators of this crime to be brought to justice. The NFL will return next week, but it is safe to say that it will be a long time before our lives return to normal.

Monday, September 10, 2001

A Good Start

A well-timed family visit brought me to Wisconsin this past weekend. So (of course) a visit to a rainy Lambeau Field on opening day was on the agenda. The last time I went to an opening day game, the up-and-coming 1995 Green Bay Packers laid an egg. They lost to the St. Louis Rams, providing the Rams with their first-ever victory since moving to St. Louis. The weather was much worse this time around, but the football result was much better. [Ed. note - the Packers beat the Lions, 28-6.]

Opening day is a great time of year for football fans. Everyone has high expectations, or at least high hopes, on opening day. There is frequently ahint of fall in the air, and for those with kids, the new school year has either begun or is about to begin.

Here are a few things that struck me about the game and the stadium.

The parking situation is not as bad as was advertised. I over-reacted to the talk about parking problems and plunked down the money for a reserved spot in one of the Ticket Star lots. But this turned out to be quite unnecessary, as it seemed to be just about as easy to find a parking spot near the stadium as in past years. (In fact, I could have parked in the Ticket Star lot to which I was assigned for $5 less than I paid Ticket Star.)

On the other hand, foot congestion going into the stadium was pretty bad. I don't know if they are really enforcing the requirement that you enter only through the gate marked on your ticket, but there seemed to be a larger-than-usual backup going into the stadium. People should definitely allow some extra time to get in by opening kickoff.

The bunting in the stadium looked nice, but would have looked much better on a bright, sunny day. The smattering of boos for Antonio Freeman as he was introduced was perhaps to be expected, but still disappointing to me. Although he was not much of a factor in the game, I hope he is able to rehabilitate himself with the fans. In that connection, he did a nice job blocking on one of the running plays, which may help.

If there was any doubt last year about whether Ahman Green is the real deal, this game goes a long way toward dispelling that doubt. Green broke tackles on both of his long touchdown runs. If only I had him on my fantasy football team! Brett Favre (who is on my team) was also very sharp, with a high completion percentage despite 3 or 4 dropped passes, two TD passes and
no interceptions. Plus Favre did a great job blocking on a reverse and on another running play. The fact that the Lions were missing 3 of their defensive backs is probably good reason not to over-react to how good Favre looked on opening day, though.

But I don't think it is an over-reaction to say that the defense looked great. Ed Donatell, the defensive coordinator, called a great game and the players responded. KGB (Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila) was an exciting presence on the defensive side of the ball. He had 3 of the Packers' 7 sacks, and how can you not like a player whose name includes the word "beer", and whose initials are KGB, if you include his first name, or GB if you don't. Darren Sharper seems to have picked up exactly where he left off last year, with 2 interceptions including one for a TD, although the TD was called back.

Anyway, a great way to start the season. The Packers have a tough schedule this year, so they can't afford to give away any games that they should win, and by the end of the first quarter yesterday, it was pretty clear that they were not going to give this game away.

Saturday, September 1, 2001

View From the "Net"

The name of this column is the West Coast Offensive, so naturally I was in attendance at the Network Associates Coliseum last night, along with 32,000 friends and acquaintances. The game was disappointing in many ways. Not much pass rush by the Packers, not much rushing offense, no rushing defense come to mind. I would rather have had the Packers look really sharp in this
game, which they did not. But still, this was the final pre-season game, on the road, and many of the starters played only a couple of series, at which point the game was tied, 7-7. And the Raiders are no slouches, either. They were in the AFC Championship game last year, after all, and they clearly have a "Super Bowl or Bust" mentality this year. So, on the whole, I was not that discouraged by the performance.

And there were some good things, too. Seeing Corey Bradford catch that bomb from Favre, and then running away from the defensive backs for an 87-yard touchdown. (Admittedly, Anthony Dorsett took the wrong angle in trying to run him down, but still. . .) Maybe Bradford is finally ready to make some noise this year. Robert Ferguson got involved in the game, after enduring some ripping in the press this past week, and caught 3 passes for 59 yards before being knocked out of the game on a vicious, way-too-early shot that will surely draw a fine of a week's pay for the perpetrator.

And most of all, Henry Burriss. Our 3rd string QB finally got to throw a pass, 24 of them in fact, and he was fun to watch. He was wild at times, he seems to have no touch pass in his repertoire, and he and his receivers seemed out of synch at times. But he is mobile, has a cannon for an arm, and really looks like he has a future in the NFL. He looks like a big improvement over Billy Joe Tolliver.

Other observations from the stadium that probably did not find their way on camera:
  • In the second half, I noticed a family of Packer fans in the first row of seats, behind the Packer bench. From where I was, it looked like a woman with her two kids, the daughter dressed in Packer duds and the son going incognito. The woman seemed to be trying to get the attention of Packer players, so I watched to see if she had any success. I finally did see Brett Favre wave in the direction of someone in the crowd, and I think it was toward this family. Then, later, I saw a security guard taking something from Bill Schroeder and deliver it to this family, so my suspicion is that they succeeded in getting Billy's autograph.
  • The most animated group of Packer fans in my vicinity was a family,a woman and several kids. The woman was wearing a Na'il Diggs jersey. In this part of the country, a Na'il Diggs jersey is definitely a special order item. Could they have been family members?
  • In the closing minutes of the game, the police came out in force to make sure people keep off the field. I noticed Barry Stokes having an extended and apparently amiable discussion with a member of the California Highway Patrol.
  • After the game, Eric Allen (the other defensive back beaten on the Bradford bomb) brought his two young kids onto the field to meet Brett Favre. It was a cute scene.