Tuesday, January 1, 2002

2001 in Review

Last night, we brought to a close a year many of us would rather put behind us, and today we welcome what we hope will be a much better year. Outside the football world, 2001 was a terrible year. A controversial Presidential election split the country right down the middle as the year began, and the stock market and the whole economy were in the tank. Then came the unfathomable terrorist attacks by Bin Laden's foot soldiers. Thousands of our fellow citizens lost their lives because of a handful of religious fanatics. And on and on. It was a year we will never forget, and a year that helped us football fanatics to put our fanaticism into some perspective, for a change.

But back to the Packers. 2001 started off quietly, too quietly, as the Packers were out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. On the bright side, that string of four straight victories in December, 2000 against NFC Central opponents left us with a sense that 2001 could bring better things for the Packers.

And sure enough, the Packers started out the 2001 season with a bang, winning the first three games in a fashion that was impressive, except for nagging doubts about the quality of their opponents. They then dropped a close game in Tampa, and then quite unexpectedly beat the World Champion Ravens in Green Bay. That was, in some ways, the high point of the season. Since that time their record has been 7-3, which is pretty good, but the three losses were to teams they should have beaten, and a couple of the victories required either miracle finishes (in Jacksonville) or serious nail-biting (in Detroit, and in Chicago). Most frustrating of all was the Packers' tendency to lose an "easy" game immediately after an important victory. All of this leaves one thinking wistfully of what might have been if the Packers had not dropped one of those games.

Sunday's game looked like it might fit right into that mold. The Packers had made the playoffs the week before, and now the Packers had no running game, the passing game was mostly misfiring, and the defensive line was being gashed by the Vikings' running backs, despite the total absence of any passing game from the Vikings' third string quarterback. The Packers were letting the Vikings hang around through the entire game, and when the Vikings scored to go ahead in the 4th quarter, 13-10, it looked like an upset in the making. But then the Packers turned it on, Packers marched down the field on the next drive, and went ahead for good.

What was the story? Were they just toying with the Vikings? Not exactly. It turns out from the post-game interviews that there was method in the Packers' madness, at least on defense. They were determined not to let the Vikings' receivers (especially Randy Moss) get open, and if that meant less attention to defending the run, so be it. The Packers were pretty sure that the Vikings would not win the game on the ground, and it turns out they were right. On offense, the picture is more complicated. The running game was not working, but the passing game was also misfiring, with a combination of off-target passes and dropped passes. This is the kind of inconsistency we have seen on and off all year, except this time it did not cost the Packers the game.

My sense is that the Packers are a year away from doing any serious damage in the playoffs. Living here in 49er country, the 49er fans seem to have the same question about their team that I have about the Packers: how is this team going to beat the Rams? The answer is that neither the 49ers nor the Packers have much chance of doing that. Of course, on any given Sunday anything can happen, but speaking for myself, I am not making any reservations for New Orleans.

Still, the season for the Packers has at least two weeks to go, and that is a much better situation than the Packers found themselves in a year ago. There are no guarantees, but the Packers have a reasonable shot of beating any other NFC team in the playoffs, except the Rams in the dome. So if things go right, the Packers could even end up in the NFC Championship game, and I suppose if someone else knocks off the Rams (like the Buccaneers?) they could possibly end up in the Super Bowl. But that seems like too much to ask of this team. A much more likely scenario is a first-round victory, followed by a frustrating loss in the second round. That will have been a very good season for the Packers, and something to build on for next year.

In the meantime, Happy New Year to Packer fans everywhere, and to all Americans.

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