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.