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.