Wednesday, December 25, 2002

We're Number Two!

“We’re Number Two! We’re Number Two!”

Okay, maybe it doesn’t have the same ring as the more traditional “We’re Number One” cheer, but in the NFL, being the number two seed in the playoffs is a vast improvement over being the number three seed. I didn’t really think that the Packers would move up to the number two seed. The Eagles refuse to lose a game (and they continued to win this week), and even though the Buccaneers have looked a little shakier in recent weeks, I didn’t really expect them to lose at home on Monday night.

As for the Packers’ win over Buffalo, for the second time this month, a Packer player played through a personal tragedy. In this case, Vonnie Holliday learned on Saturday that his second cousin, a rising star high school athlete, had collapsed and died that day. Holliday had to break the news to his relatives, many of whom had flown in on Saturday for the Packers’ game against the Bills. Holliday not only played Sunday, he set a team record for sacks in a game, by sacking Drew Bledsoe five times and forcing three fumbles in the process.

The Packers, by beating Buffalo, became the only team in the league this season to go undefeated at home. That is a matter of pride for the Packers and their fans. Mike Sherman emphasized this point by going around the stadium with several players after the game, to offer “high fives” to the fans, and by stating in his post-game comments that the Packer fans are undefeated this year at home.

The most striking thing about the game itself, other than Vonnie Holliday’s performance, was the wind. Both Sherman and Favre were emphatic in their post-game comments that the wind was MUCH worse than the previous week at San Francisco (not to mention that it was a lot colder). It was swirling, and moving mostly across the field (whereas in San Francisco it moved from one end of the field to the other), so that it was very difficult to either predict, or compensate for it. Sherman said that when the wind affects Brett Favre’s throws, you really know it is windy. Favre said that this was the worst combination of wind and cold in which he has played.

Then on Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers, another franchise with a storied history, did their friends from Green Bay an enormous favor by beating the Buccaneers, 17-7. It was the greatest gift from the Steelers franchise since the famous “Yancey Clause” game on Christmas Eve of 1995. In that game, Yancey Thigpen dropped what should have been a touchdown pass in the end zone late in the game, ensuring the Packers would win the NFC Central Division for the first time in the Brett Favre/Mike Holmgren era. The Buccaneers’ loss, combined with the Packers’ win over Buffalo, moved the Packers past the Buccaneers and, at least temporarily, into the number two seed in the playoffs. If they stay there, they will get a week off to get healthy before starting the playoffs at home, and in my judgment a much improved chance of hosting the NFC Championship game.

To maintain the number two seed, all the Packers have to do is beat the Jets in New Jersey on Sunday. That won’t be easy, as the Jets are playing pretty well. But the Packers, overall, are a better team, and therefore can and should win this game. If you want to get a little greedier, you could hope for the Giants to beat the Eagles on the same field in New Jersey on Saturday. If the Packers win and the Eagles lose, the Packers become the number one seed, and then we can all use the more traditional version of the cheer. The Eagles really could lose to the Giants, as the Giants have played very well in recent weeks, but then I have been saying that the Eagles were bound to lose some games ever since Donovan McNabb was injured.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The Ninety Percent Solution

A few random thoughts and local flavor from the Packers’ big, wet weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. For me, the weekend started Saturday morning. On a weekend like this, I wear Packer stuff pretty much wherever I go and whatever I do. So my wife and I were at a meeting in San Francisco Saturday morning. When we were about to take a break, a guy said, "This has nothing to do with what we have been talking about, but what is with your Packer shirt?" I said "This is our big weekend - at least I hope it is." Later, talking on the side with him, I said, "We have never missed a Packer game in San Francisco or Oakland in over 22 years of living here." He said, "Oh, well if you have lived here that long you must have a bit of mixed loyalty." To which I replied, "Not for a minute, not even for a second." So we were on a roll.

Sometimes when the Packers are in town, we try to figure out where they are staying, and then hang around their hotel. We got our picture taken with Reggie White that way before the NFC Championship game after the 1997 season, for example. This year, we didn’t get the chance to go over there, but I did read in the paper that Packers’ plane was delayed because of the weather, but that the Packer fans waited as long as it took at the team hotel. You’ve got to love those Packer fans.

My theory has been that, if the Packers can just win all of their games, someone will slip up in front of them, and they may sneak into a number 2 (or even a number 1) seed. That would be a huge development, since it would give them a badly needed week off before their first playoff game. Well, the Packers have now won three games in a row. But then the Buccaneers pulled out another game on Sunday, when they certainly could have lost. And the Eagles can't keep winning with their third string quarterback. But they do. So all the Packers can do at this point is to keep winning and hoping.

We had a really fabulous time at the game on Sunday, along with maybe 20,000 fellow Packer fans. It is hard to estimate, but I think there were a lot more Packer fans this time than in the "Terrell Owens" game, for example. My shiny new NFC North Champions hat from the Packer Pro Shop (which arrived exactly when they told me it would, those guys at the Packer Pro Shop are great) made a big hit with lots of the fellow Packer fans. The weather was bad, of course. It rained, at times quite heavily, throughout most of the game. Because we were invited by a good friend to watch the game with a bunch of 49er fans in a suite, we stayed completely dry. But from our dry vantage point, the weather was bad, but not nearly as bad as it was for the NFC Championship game here after the 1997 season. That day we needed all the rain gear we could get our hands on.

As the game started, we realized that Gilbert Brown was not playing, which came as a shock, since we had not seen or heard any of the pre-game shows. That seemed like a really bad sign, but the defense played better against the run than it has in weeks. The first half seemed kind of sluggish, with both teams playing fairly conservatively, and it ended with the 49ers leading, 6-3.

Then things changed in a hurry. We had assumed that the Packers would pick on the 49er defensive backs throughout the game, after watching the way the Eagles second and third string quarterbacks picked them apart a few weeks ago. In the first half, the Packers went with a more balanced attack, and the running game was not working that well. But the Packers marched down the field on the opening drive of the second half, throwing on 6 out of the 8 plays in the 79-yard drive, and scored a touchdown to take the lead. Four plays later, the Packers intercepted Garcia on a deflection, and quickly moved 29 yards for another touchdown, throwing on 4 out of the 6 plays on that drive. These drives were classic examples of using the pass to set up the run.

The momentum in the game had changed dramatically. We were struck by the fact that these two drives had resulted in touchdowns against the wind, meaning that things should be easier for the Packers and harder for the 49ers in the 4th quarter. After the second touchdown, it seemed as if the Packer fans were about to take over the stadium, as their cheers seemed almost as loud as the noise being made by the 49er fans at other points. In fact, if the 49ers had not scored their only touchdown of the day on the very next drive, I think the crowd would have been mostly Packer fans by some time in the 4th quarter.

But of course they did, and as a result, the game ended up as a nail-biter. On the final drive, as the 49ers moved methodically down the field, the game had every appearance of being headed for another Terrell Owens disaster, just like the playoff game after the 1998 season. But the Packers played better on defense this time, and Jeff Garcia made a couple of critical bad decisions on the last few plays. His incompletion on first down from the Packers’ 14 yard line was a bad choice. He could have run for 8 to 10 yards. And his fourth down pass was completely unfathomable to me (but totally welcome). Owens was covered tightly, and so presumably Garcia worked through his progressions leading to an incomplete pass to the tight end at about the 7 yard line. But the problem with the pass was not that it was incomplete, but that it had absolutely no chance of getting a first down. What Garcia did, most likely, was to follow the progression rules of his system, without applying the judgment factor that says in a case like this it is better to try to force a pass to someone in the end zone than to throw a pass at the feet of the tight end at the 7 yard line. That is a mistake that Brett Favre (or Steve Young, for that matter) would never have made.

And so the Packers emerged with the win, for the 9th time in 10 tries in the Brett Favre era. Living here through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the glory years of the 49ers, it sometimes seemed as if no team would get the upper hand on the 49ers for long. And yet, starting with that first playoff game between the Packers and the 49ers after the 1995 season, Brett Favre and the Packers have beaten the 49ers 90% of the time. That is the best record the Packers have against any team in the Brett Favre era, other than a couple of teams that the Packers have only played 2 or 3 times. Yes, it is even better than the Packers’ record against the Bears over that period of time. This era is not going to last forever, so enjoy it while you can.

Traffic was unbelievably bad on the way home. California drivers don't know how to drive in the rain. But this gave us plenty of time to listen to the 49er post-game show on the radio. There were heavy doses of whining and complaining. Several callers felt that Gilbert Brown (!?!) should have been penalized for what they called his "forearm shiver" on Garcia. Then there was complaining about Steve Mariucci, and how he can't get the job done (the point being that the reason he was brought in was to beat the Packers). There was complaining about play-calling (the 4th down play, the 49ers didn't throw downfield enough, Garcia should have run for the first down, how could they call a running play to Garrison Hearst when they needed a touchdown, etc.). The host of the show wasn’t buying most of the complaints. So then he was accused of being too supportive of the team, and not critical enough. Then they complained about the 49er ticket holders selling their tickets to Packer fans. This was just great fun. It made the 2 hour plus trip home a lot easier to take.

Then, Monday morning, on John Madden's call-in on KCBS radio, they discussed the Packer-49er game. The sports guy said that the 49ers, to a man, say that they are not that concerned about having to go on the road during the playoffs, and that they can win on the road, including Lambeau Field. He asked Madden if he agrees. Madden: "Uhhhhh, no. When you talk about playing the Packers in Lambeau Field in the playoffs, now you are talking about not just a 5 year or 10 game streak, you are talking about a team that has NEVER lost a home playoff game in history." Sports guy: "Someday they are going to lose a playoff game at Lambeau Field." Madden: "Yeah, but it won't be to the 49ers."

Sunday, December 8, 2002

Eerie Parallels?

Much has been made in the last few weeks about the parallels between this season and the 1996 season, which ended with the Packers' victory over New England in Super Bowl XXXI. The Packers rolled their way to an 8-1 record in 1996, before injuries started to take their toll. With a depleted group of receivers, they lost a couple of games in a row (to the Chiefs and then to the Cowboys) to drop to 8-3. Then, the team rallied, after signing Andre Rison as a replacement receiver, and did not lose a game for the rest of the year, including the crowning glory Super Bowl victory in New Orleans.

But before getting back on track, they looked like they were in danger of losing their third straight game, at St. Louis (not a very good team at the time), where they trailed 9-0, and then 9-3 at the half. Doug Evans sparked the comeback in the third quarter when he intercepted Tony Banks' pass and ran it in for a touchdown to put the Packers in front, and they never relinquished the lead.

The same general story can be told about the 2002 season, so far. The Packers had an 8-1 record, before injuries (most recently to Chad Clifton) started to catch up with the Packers. The Packers lost consecutive road games at Minnesota and at Tampa Bay. They then played a game against a lesser opponent, the Chicago Bears, and they played poorly in the first half, trailing 14-6 at the half. And once again, defensive plays sparked the comeback, first, an amazing all-out effort by Javon Walker (playing defense after Favre's pass was intercepted on the last play of the half), running down the Bears' ball carrier who seemed surely on his way to a touchdown. And then, the other Walker, Rod, pulled an equally amazing defensive play in the second half to steal the ball away from the center and quarterback just as it was being snapped, with the Bears poised to score from the Packers' 1 yard line. The Packers roared back to win that game, and continued the win streak this week against Minnesota.

So, are the Packers on their way to home field advantage, a cruise through the playoffs, and another Super Bowl win? Who knows, but it looks like it will be much harder to pull off a Super Bowl victory this year. The parallels simply don't hold up when you look more closely. The Packers, in 1996, were a really dominant team, except for that stretch in the third quarter of the season. They started strong, and they finished strong, and they were never in much danger of losing any of the three playoff games that year.

This year, the Packers had a few convincing wins in the second quarter of the season, but otherwise every game has seemed in danger of being lost. Unlike 1996, when Desmond Howard was the Packers' secret weapon on special teams, this year, the Packers' special teams have been ordinary at best. But why take my word for it? During the Tampa Bay game, the announcers said that they had asked Brett Favre to compare this year's team to the 1996 team. Favre said that the 1996 team was much stronger than this year's team. The announcers seemed surprised to hear this, but anyone who has watched all of the games would have to agree with Favre.

Home field advantage itself is going to be difficult or impossible to achieve this year. The Packers are tied with the Eagles and the Buccaneers for best record in the league at 10-3, but both of those teams have tie-breaker advantages over the Packers, so even winning their remaining games will not guarantee home field advantage. Just today, the Buccaneers played the Falcons. You might think the Falcons, with the sensational Michael Vick, would have a shot to beat the Buccaneers, but the game was not close. The Eagles, with their third-string quarterback, went to Seattle to play the Seahawks. But again the game was not competitive. The 49ers, who trail the Packers by a game, had a game they easily could have lost at Dallas, but they rallied to win it at the end of the game. So, today at least, the Packers got no help whatsoever from other teams. And they are going to need help to get the home field advantage.

Next week, the Packers travel to the birthplace of the West Coast Offense, San Francisco. The 49ers seem vulnerable, based on their last couple of games, and yet despite their vulnerability they have managed to pull out wins in most of their games. The Packers don't have to look very far to get a game plan as to how to beat the 49ers. All they have to do is pull out the tapes of the Monday night victory by the Eagles (another West Coast Offense team) against the 49ers a couple of weeks ago. The Eagles, with their second and third-string quarterbacks, clearly displayed the weakness of the 49ers defensive backs. If the offensive line can give Favre some time, he should be able to carve the 49ers up. I will be there, of course. I have never missed a Packer game in San Francisco or Oakland in the 22 years I have lived here.