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.

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