Sunday, December 28, 2003

All on the Line

Is it any wonder that I hate the 49ers so much? This is being written Saturday night, after the 49ers failed, miserably, to offer the slightest bit of assistance to the Packers in their quest to make the playoffs. The Seahawks had a 1-6 record on the road going into this game, and the 49ers were 6-1 at home. Sounds like a good matchup for the 49ers, eh? And if the 49ers had won, the Packers would have been in the playoffs, period, no other games required, no strength of schedule analysis. Plain and simple.

So what did the 49ers do? After jumping off to a 14-0 start, they were outscored 24-3, and lost the game. This was not quite as outrageous a situation as the one I can recall from the 1980's, when the 49ers just had to play a decent game against a lesser opponent, which would have gotten the New York Giants into the playoffs, but, in the immortal words of Phil Simms, the 49ers "laid down like dogs", lost the game, and kept the Giants out of the playoffs. This time, they just played without any spark or inspiration from the second quarter on, apparently thinking more about their trips home than about the game at hand.

As a result, Packer fans need to buckle their seatbelts tomorrow, follow not just the Packer game, but get out their schedules and calculators to keep track of the other games as well. The only simple scenarios are these: (1) if the Packers win and the Vikings lose (not likely to happen), the Packers will win the division. (2) if the Packers win and the Cowboys win, then the Packers are the 2d wild card (unless the Vikings lose, in which case the Packers win the division). (3) if the Packers lose, they are out. Beyond, this, if the Packers win, the Vikings win, and Cowboys lose, it will come down to the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker, and the Packers will probably
be left out of the playoffs.

I can't go on any longer without acknowledging the awe-inspiring way Brett Favre and the Packers played on Monday night. I thought, Sunday night, that it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Favre would play Monday night,for reasons having nothing to do with his games-started streak, and having everything to do with his loyalty and commitment to his team and teammates. The thing I was less sure of was how he would play. I could imagine him playing really well (but not as well as he actually played), but I could also imagine one of those games where everything goes wrong, like that playoff loss at St. Louis two years ago. The result was unforgettable, and
I am happy that we were there to see it. Even my kids, who don't follow football as much as they used to, were quite impressed.

But to me, just as impressive as the way Favre played was the way his teammates played - especially the receivers. I have been watching these receivers all year, and they NEVER play as well as they played Monday night. With the exception of the potential touchdown pass at the start of the second half, the receivers seemed to catch anything anywhere near them. This game was a fitting tribute by Brett Favre to his father, and a great show of support from his teammates to Favre. As Mike Sherman said, he wishes he could put what they had going that night in a bottle and pull it
out any time it is needed.

A couple of comments about the scene at the Network Associates Coliseum. When the Packers' offensive starters were introduced, the first ten were booed (as expected) by the crowd, and then Favre got a semi-cheer from the crowd. I was listening to the Raiders radio guys at the time, and they characterized it as a "standing ovation" for Favre. A lot of people were standing (throughout the introductions), but to call it a standing ovation was quite a stretch in my view. It was nice, but let's not get carried away.

Then, when I watched the tape of the TV broadcast later in the week, I noticed that Madden and Michaels made quite a point at the beginning of the game about how they expected a lot of Packer fans, but not many showed up. One of them said "about 400 of them are here." Well, that is way off-base. I would guess maybe 20% of the crowd was made up of Packer fans. I was a bit disappointed with this - I really thought the crowd would be 30 or 35% Packer fans. But there were a lot of us there, and Madden and Michaels missed the boat. Finally, at the end of the game, my daughter noticed one of the Packer players was high-fiving people over in the Black Hole area, and she wondered what that was about. I was shocked, too, until I realized that it was Grady Jackson, a former Raider.

My predictions for Sunday, December 28. The Packers will win, I think pretty easily. There could be a letdown after the difficult and emotional week, but I think that the enthusiasm of the home crowd for Favre and the team will provide enough of a boost to keep things going. I think the Vikings will also win. They have had a lot of problems in the second half of the season, but I do not expect them to fall to the Cardinals like the Packers did back at the beginning of the year. And, I think the Cowboys will beat the Saints, even though the Cowboys, as I understand it, have now clinched a playoff berth as a wild card, and cannot be the division winner. So there is a chance of the kind of letdown by the Cowboys that could kill the Packers, but I don't think it will happen. These results would put the Packers in the playoffs as the second wild card.

Friday, December 19, 2003

A Perfect Day

I don't know about you, but I can't find much of anything to complain about from last Sunday. First, I woke up to find out that Saddam Hussein had been captured. That was a good start. Then, the Rams beat the Seahawks (that one I expected) and the Bears beat the Vikings (I didn't have enough courage to come right out and predict that one). I was flipping back and forth between these two games, enjoying both very much. I hope you saw the way the Vikings game ended. In the closing minutes, with the Bears leading 13-10, the Vikings got the ball back and had driven to the Bears' 10 yard line. Then, Culpepper went back to pass, Moss went up for the ball in the end zone, it was in his hands for what would probably be the winning touchdown, when the Bears' defensive back just scooped it out of Moss' hands and came down with the ball for the
game-preserving interception. That might be the best play by a defensive back of the new millennium so far. It sort of looked as if he was trying to bat the pass out of Moss' hands, but it was a controlled bat, instead of smacking the ball as hard as he could, and he literally just scooped it away from the great Moss. What a way to win a game and help the Packers out.

Now it was time to switch to the Packer game, although somehow the NFL Sunday Ticket (and I guess the whole FOX network) forgot to throw a switch, so that the Packers were actually ahead 7-0 by the time they switched to the game. Other than a few really painful minutes at the start of the 4th quarter, this game went exactly as I had hoped. [Ed. note - the Packers beat the Chargers, 38-21.] The result: the Packers are now tied for first in the division (with complicated tie-breaker implications at the minute) and tied for the first wild card (with a clear tie-breaker advantage over the Seahawks). If the Packers win their last two games, it is almost certain (but not yet 100% certain) that they will be in the playoffs.

Looking forward to this weekend, the Chiefs play at the Vikings on Saturday. The Chiefs are not as good as they seemed at times this year, and the Vikings might not be quite as bad as they have seemed in recent weeks. Still, I think the Chiefs have enough strength and motivation to beat the Vikings. On Sunday, I don't think it is reasonable to think that the Cardinals will beat the Seahawks, so the Packers will not likely get any help there. It is debatable whether it is better for the Packers for the Cowboys to win, or to lose, but in any event I expect them to beat the Giants.

Which brings us, of course, to Monday night. The re-match of Super Bowl II. Another game between the same two teams who were playing the day that Leroy Butler invented the Lambeau Leap. Most likely the last time the Raiders will ever play against Brett Favre, and most likely the last time the Packers ever play against Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. Lots of history in this game, and despite the fact that most of the Raiders' home games have been blacked out here in the Bay Area, so that I have not seen as many Raider games as you might expect, I cannot believe that the Raiders are as bad as their 4-10 record. In fact, the Raiders' victory over the Ravens last week (who were fighting for a playoff spot) tends to prove the point, and hopefully will help the Packers to avoid complacency.

My wife was driving during the Raiders game last week, and heard the radio announcers say that the Raiders' attendance was the lowest of the year. Bear in mind, even if the Raiders were out of the playoffs, the Raiders sort of had a score to settle with the Ravens, since the Ravens kept them out of the Super Bowl a few years ago. Still, the paid attendance was 45,398 in a stadium that holds over 63,000 in football configuration. I just checked (Friday afternoon)on, and it looks as if there are nothing but single tickets left for the game Monday night. Who bought all those extra tickets for the game this Monday? You know as well as I do who bought the tickets. I think that means that the crowd will be approximately one-third Packer fans on Monday night. Including yours truly and family, of course. (A little advice to Packer fans attending the game: be careful, some Raiders fans are just as crazy as they appear.)

I am not saying it is going to be easy, but I think the Packers will win this game, probably convincingly. The Packers' running game is too strong for the Raiders' depleted defense, and if they try too hard to stop Ahman Green, I think that Favre's thumb is now getting healthy enough for the passing game to do the trick. The Packers' defense may have some deficiencies, but are Rick Mirer and a couple of the oldest receivers in the league going to beat them? I don't think so.

If all goes well, the Packers will be in sole possession of first place in the NFC North by late Monday night.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Doing Things the Hard Way

My Mom would sometimes say that I liked to do things the hard way. I suppose there is some truth to that. But if she thought I had this tendency, she should have seen the 2003 Green Bay Packers. During the course of this season, the Packers have lost games on the road to 2 of the worst teams in the league, the Arizona Cardinals and the Detroit Lions. They have also lost home games to 2 of the (arguably) best teams in the league, when they had the upper hand but let games against the Chiefs and Eagles get away from them. I still have trouble believing the Packers really lost that game against the Chiefs.

I realize that almost every team can play this mind game almost every year, but just imagine if the Packers had beaten the Cardinals and the Lions, or if they had not let the Chiefs game and the Eagles game get away. They would be leading the division at 9-4, with a realistic hope of a bye week in the playoffs, if not home field advantage. If they had won all 4 of these games, they would be tied for the best record in the league at 11-2.

Of course, Packer fans who have watched the games know that these Packers are not playing like an 11-2 team, or even (at least most of the time) like a 9-4 team. But, in doing things the hard way this year, they have put a lot of pressure on themselves in these last 3 weeks of the season. They are a game out of first place to the Vikings, and if the Vikings beat the Bears in the cold this weekend, the Packers will also have screwed up any chance at having a tie-breaker advantage against the Vikings, since the Vikings will finish their NFC North games with a better divisional record. The Packers also trail the Seahawks and Cowboys by a game for a wild-card spot, although at least in this instance, the Packers have the tie-breaker advantage locked up against the Seahawks because of the Packers' victory over the Seahawks in week 5 of the season.

So, what lies ahead for the Packers? Two road games against 2 of the worst teams in the league, the Chargers and the Raiders, followed by a home game (now anything but an automatic win) against a good Denver Broncos team. The Packers could lose any or even all of those games, but to have a real shot at the playoffs, they must win all of them. If they do, I think they will get into the playoffs. I think Seattle (itself a bad team on the road) will lose this Sunday at St. Louis. And I would not be shocked if the Vikings lose to the Bears on Sunday, although I am not really expecting it. Both the Vikings game and Seahawks games will be just about over by the time of the kickoff in San Diego. In all likelihood, there will be good news in at least one of those games. Maybe, just maybe, the Packers will manage for a change to win a game when they have a chance to move into a tie for a playoff slot.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Lions and Chargers and Bears . . .

. . . Oh, my!

The Packers played things just about right against the 49ers on Sunday. On defense, they decided to blitz more than they have all year, to see if the 49ers' young quarterback could be rattled. Turns out he could, and was, so the Packers kept it up, with nice results all day long except for the 4th down touchdown to Terrell Owens. On offense, it was Green, Davenport and Fisher as the main course, with the bomb to Javon Walker as the appetizer. And what a tasty appetizer it was! Just like that, the Packers about doubled their longest pass of the year so far. Especially since the injury to Favre's thumb, they have not even tried many long passes, and those they have tried have been incomplete or intercepted. So it was a welcome development for Favre to complete a long pass for a touchdown. If nothing else, it serves to remind defensive coordinators that they cannot completely ignore the pass while trying to stop the Packers' now-dominant-like-the-1960s running game. As Favre said after the game, the Packers knew they would run the ball a lot, and the 49ers knew the Packers would run the ball a lot, and yet they just could not stop the running game.

But the main point of this short article is to send out a note of caution about over-confidence. Sure, the Packers have won 3 of the last 4 games, dispatching a couple of playoff teams from last year, as well as the division-leading Vikings. Sure, the Packers only face one team with a winning record the rest of the year (the Broncos, now 6-5, at Lambeau Field in the last week of the season). Barring major injuries to the Packers, they will be favored in every game for the rest of the year. But when facing the Lions and Chargers and Bears of the league, the Packers are vulnerable to that old bugaboo of over-confidence. All of these teams are also professionals, some of them will be highly-motivated to pull off an upset (e.g. the Lions in their traditional Thanksgiving Day game), and with Favre's thumb being what it is, it would be a good idea to put these opponents away early, not let up, and not rely on the
possibility of coming from behind at the end.

The Packers' last trip to Detroit on Thanksgiving is a good example. In the 2001 season, the Packers were (as they are now) a much better team than the Lions. The Packers cruised to a 29-13 lead in that game, before turning on the auto-pilot for the rest of the game. The result: the Lions got back into the game with a touchdown and 2-point conversion, to make it 29-21. They then recovered the onside kick, and scored another touchdown with 10 seconds left. Only a missed 2-point conversion prevented the game from being tied. Nobody needs that kind of indigestion on Thanksgiving!

Best wishes to everyone for a Happy Thanksgiving, a Packer victory, and no indigestion.

Friday, November 21, 2003

49er Week

The Packers' up and down season continues. After the stirring victory over the Vikings 3 weeks ago, they let one slip away against the Eagles the following Monday night. Then they put on a very impressive show to win against the Buccaneers in Tampa, and now here come the San Francisco 49ers to try to spoil things for them.

Before leaving the Buccaneer game, I just have to comment on two things. That 98.5 yard drive to win the game was one of the sweetest drives seen on a football field in a long time. As one of the TV guys said, if that drive happened in a playoff game, it would be as famous as Elway's "The Drive" against Cleveland years ago. It included what was probably Favre's best pass of the day, on third down from the 1, it included Packer dominance in the running game, and it included Mike Sherman's wonderful decision to go for it on 4th and 1 at the Buccaneers' 16 yard line. When Driver was stopped short of the first down, I hoped that Sherman would go for it, but was afraid he would chicken out, as so many coaches would do in that situation. I think he deserves congratulations for making a tough but great decision.

The other thing is the performance of the running game, but especially that of Najeh Davenport. You don't really expect the backup running back to have that kind of impact on a game, but when Green was out in the 4th quarter, the Packers didn't lose a thing when Davenport came in. In fact, it was probably on Davenport's 27-yard gain as part of the game-winning drive that my wife yelled out "That guy is like a truck!" I suppose you might even say that he is like a dump truck, if you were so inclined. But seriously, I like the way all the runners are playing, and of course lots of credit has to go to the offensive line, who also get credit for keeping that idiot Sapp away from Brett Favre, and for ending the Buccaneers' streak of games with a sack.

Moving on to the 49ers, last year I commented on the fact that the Packers have beaten the 49ers 90 percent of the time (9 out of 10 games) starting with that first playoff game played out here in San Francisco in January of 1996. Normally, this would be cause for a fair amount of confidence in Packer fans about this Sunday's game, except for three problems. First, the Packers' home field advantage seems to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. They have ALREADY lost three games at Lambeau Field this year, never mind that horrible loss in the playoffs in January. Second, there is the little matter of Favre's broken thumb, and the weather forecast for Sunday: cold and rainy. The last time the weather was like that was the Eagles' Monday night game, and that didn't go too well for the Packers.

Third, the 49ers are playing against a backup quarterback on Sunday, Tim Rattay. I have commented on this before, but the Packers have had the weirdest way over the years of making backup quarterbacks look like one-game shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame. You can take any number of examples, but offhand I cannot remember a situation where the Packers played against a backup quarterback, made life miserable for him, and cruised to a victory. (If you can remember one, please email me so I will feel better about the whole deal.) Also, from what I have seen of him in the last two weeks, Rattay has looked pretty good. Last year, at the end of the Packers-49ers game, I thought Jeff Garcia made two critical errors which basically cost the 49ers any real shot at winning the game (and probably cost Mariucci his job, as well). The final mistake was throwing his fourth down pass to the tight end at the Packers' seven yard line. The pass was incomplete, but even if it had been completed, there was almost no chance that it would have resulted in a first down. To me, it was a case of not using the brain power to realize that you had better throw the ball in the end zone in a situation like that, even if the guy in the end zone is covered. From what I have seen, Rattay cannot be counted on to make that kind of stupid mistake, so the Packers need to make sure that the game is not close at the end.

Finally, we learned this week that Bob Harlan has been elected to the Packers' Hall of Fame. This is an honor that is richly deserved. Bob Harlan started the ball rolling that brought Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre and Reggie White to Green Bay, and led to one Super Bowl win and another one that got away. He also gets most of the credit for the renovation of Lambeau Field, which, despite the temporary jinx that seems to have caused, was absolutely essential for the long-term health and stability of the Packers. He has my sincere congratulations and thanks.

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Things Getting Interesting

Well, things are getting pretty interesting around the NFC North. Going into last week's game, the Vikings were leading the division at 6-1, the Packers were 3-4, and the Packers were almost certain to lose the Sunday night game to the Vikings. It was in the dome, Favre's personal house of horrors, and with a broken thumb, yet. I really could not think of a reasonable scenario under which I could convince myself that the Packers would win the game.

Plus, I was in New York with my kids, and despite the Eastern time zone start, I figured I would miss a good chunk of the game. I just hoped that there would be something worth watching by the time I got back to the hotel.

I made good use of my cell phone checking the score with my wife, and when I rolled into the hotel in the third quarter, amazingly, the Packers were leading, 20-17. I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the game, including Favre's "bat out of hell" block on Ahman Green's run. (I call it that because he took off like a bat out of hell, just aching to get a block. And what a block it was.) I also loved Javon Walker's touchdown catch of the ball thrown, probably intentionally, a bit behind him. And when I eventually saw his other TD, the one where he cut back to the right to get into the end zone, I liked that one even better.

So, the Packers pulled within two games of the Vikings. My brother-in-law called me early Monday morning, on my way to the airport, to say "Just when you are about ready to count the Packers out, they pull out a game like that." And he certainly is right. I had prepared myself for the Packers' loss, and realistically, that would have knocked them out of playoff contention. And then they won, under the most improbable circumstances.

And now, as I type this, the Vikings are in the process of losing their third game in a row, which will leave them at 6-3, while a Packer victory tomorrow night would bring them to 5-4. Now THAT would be interesting.Which means, of course, they probably will lose. But sitting here today, there is reason to hope that the Packers can pull within one game tomorrow night. That is much more than I would have expected just eight days ago. I can't wait for the game.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Bye Week

Dateline: Philadelphia, PA. I am here in Philadelphia to scout out the Packers' upcoming opponent, the Eagles. In our pre-game meeting with the Eagles tonight, they told me . . . .

OK, I made that up. Except for the part about being here in Philadelphia. I am here for a firm meeting, which ended early this afternoon. As a bunch of us were standing outside the small conference room where we had finished up a small break-out meeting, who walked by? Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, Phil Simms and others I did not recognize. The Jets are here to play the Eagles tomorrow, and I gather that Simms must be broadcasting the game. So he was going in for the pre-game meeting, not me, and it was with the Jets, not the Eagles. Pennington, in case you are interested, is still wearing a small, soft, removable cast on his hand, and I gather that the Jets plan to get him some playing time tomorrow.

Ah, yes, Chad Pennington. The guy who got the Packers started down their slippery slope last year. In the 9 games since that count, starting with that game, the Packers have gone 3-6. But I imagine they will turn it around after the bye week, and will probably run the table to finish 12-4.

Oops - daydreaming again. I really have to stop doing that. The truth is, the Packers are more likely to finish 0-9 than 9-0. Not that they will do either. They will probably end up something like 8-8, just like the bad old Forrest Gregg days.

The Packers just don't seem to have what it takes to win consistently. The single thing they seem to need most is some pass rush. They never have any pass rush unless they blitz, NEVER! In this league, without at least some occasional non-blitz pressure on the quarterback, you are not going to win a lot of games. The result is that they are wasting one of the last years, if not the last year, of Favre's career, which is a shame.

At this point, I think about the most one can hope for is some positive momentum by the end of the year. Maybe a nice 3 or 4 game winning streak, sufficient to convince Favre that it is worth returning for another year or two. I suppose they might even make the playoffs, although I would not count on it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Do Politics and Football Mix?

Greetings from the sunny state of California, home of the ever-more-bizarre Gubernatorial Recall Election. Today's news is that Arianna Huffington has dropped out of the race. This leaves Governor Davis running against his own pathetic record, with the main candidates trying to take his job as Cruz Bustamante on the far left, Tom McClintock on the far right, and Arnold Schwarzenegger somewhere in the middle.

A week or so ago on one of the local talk radio shows, the host, Ronn Owens(who thought up the name Ronn, by the way?) was interviewing one of thec andidates. McClintock, if I recall correctly. McClintock argued thatBustamante, from his perspective, is even worse than Governor Davis. Owens responded, only slightly facetiously, that he has said all along that Governor Davis' anti-recall slogan should be "Bustamante would be even worse."

How, you might ask, am I going to connect this up with the Packers? Here is how. I know that the Packers have a kind of a new slogan, referring to the remodeled Lambeau Field: "Rebirth of a Legend." But as long as they are coming up with new slogans, how about this one: "The Bears and Lions are even worse." Kind of catchy, isn't it?

This is my way of saying that I wouldn't want to get too excited about the Packers' dominating performance over the Chicago Bears last night. Oh, it was fun to watch, and all. But it was only the Bears. My wife even started to feel a little sorry for the Bears, but I wouldn't go that far. Let 'em suffer!

The Packers may have evened their record at 2-2, but I am afraid that there is a real good chance that they will be 2-4 in a couple of weeks. Both of the next two games are at home, so the Packers certainly have a shot at winning at least one of the two, but the Seahawks and the Chiefs just look like better football teams to me right now, as much as it pains me to sayit.

I liked the aggressiveness of the Packer defense last night, although it was a bad sign when even the Bears started to make the game close early in the4th quarter. I still wonder why the Packers are not taking a few more shots downfield with the passing game. Maybe the problem is that they are not completing the few long passes they try, so they are shying away from it.But nothing loosens up the defense like a long completion once in awhile.The point was made vividly in this football market on Sunday by the vaunted match-up between two of the biggest jerks in the NFL, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. The Vikings, even with their backup quarterback, just like to chuck the rock downfield. Moss goes up for the ball, and most of the time he comes down with it. Either way, the defense has to adjust to take account of the long ball. By contrast, Owens complains early and often that the49ers are not throwing the ball downfield, as he takes shots at his teammates, his coach, etc. The result is that it is not that hard for a good team to shut down the 49er offense.

I have not seen much of the Seahawks or Chiefs this year. I do know that, unlike the Bears, both of these teams have hugely successful running games.Blitzing on the majority of downs, like they did with the Bears, will not have the same effect on the Seahawks and the Chiefs. The Packers need to find a way to slow down Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes, and they need to be more efficient in taking advantage of their own scoring opportunities. A few turnovers won't hurt, either.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Hottest Team in Football?

Wait - did you think I was talking about play of the Green Bay Packers? Actually, they might be the hottest team in football three days from now. The forecast for Phoenix Sunday afternoon is for a high temperature of 104 degrees. Of course, it is a dry heat.

Setting aside the weather forecast, the Packers have a long way to go before they can be considered the hottest team in football. Favre, in particular, looks like he is not in a groove yet. But the running game was working so well, and the defense played well enough to dominate the game against the Lions. So much so that, after about 10 minutes of the game, I had to remind myself that it was way too early to count the game in the win column.

It was good to see Antonio Freeman back on the field, and it was nice to see the warm welcome he got from the fans. Whatever his problems, and however much he has lost a step since 1996 and 1997, he was a big part of the reason that the Packers went to the Super Bowl those two years.

This week's game is one of those games that can turn into a nightmare. It is, as Wags [Ed. note - Wags was another columnist on the South End Zone web site at the time.] pointed out in his column, all too easy to take an opponent lightly. And if you wanted to take an opponent lightly, this would be a logical candidate. And the heat, dry heat or not, has to be debilitating on the players as the game goes on. So it is not too hard to envision a scenario where the team that is more used to playing in those conditions wears the other team down as the day goes on.

The good thing is that there is, as far as I can tell, no such thing as a home field advantage for the Arizona Cardinals. In last week's game, I read that there were 27,000 tickets sold, but maybe only 15,000 people present. This, in a stadium holding 72,000 people. For this week's game, I read somewhere that 55,000 tickets have been sold. Who knows how many will actually show up for a game with the temperature over 100 degrees, but it is a very safe assumption that the majority of people in the seats will be rooting for the good guys. I hope they have plenty to cheer about.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Preseason Blackout Blues

This is a tough time of year for Packer fans not living in the State of Wisconsin. With all due apologies to Hoagy Carmichael, I’ve got those No TV Reason, Packer Preseason, Blackout Blues.

Two weeks ago, I caught the beginning of the Hall of Fame game against the Chiefs before leaving the office, planning to watch the end of the game on tape later that evening or the next day. Of course, the end of the game never happened, and I couldn’t get motivated to go back and watch any more of the 9-0 bore-fest from the parts I had missed.

Then, last week, I knew that the game against the Falcons would not be televised here, but I figured I could at least listen to part of the audio feed on my computer. Wrong. Turns out the league is charging for the audio feeds this year. I can’t blame them – they have been giving away the audio feeds, and there was no reason to think that they would continue to do so forever. And I willingly pay for the NFL Sunday Ticket to watch the regular season games on TV. But I will be darned if I am going to pay for audio-only feeds on a preseason game.

Finally, last weekend, I got to watch the entire Packer game against the Browns. It tended to confirm what I had been hearing and reading – big problems on defense, fewer problems on offense now that the starting offensive linemen and receivers are playing. But even this game seemed in jeopardy of not happening for awhile on Friday, what with the blackout on the east coast and with reports of sporadic outages in Cleveland continuing during the day on Friday.

And now, having escaped from the big blackout, I am plunged back into darkness for two more weeks, as the Packers finish their pre-season games at home, but without the benefit of national telecasts. I can’t wait for the regular season to start, when DirecTV will rescue me from my temporary Packer blackout.

I hope to have more to say as the real season approaches. For now, I am crawling back under my rock.

Thursday, January 2, 2003

Ready for Prime Time?

I had looked forward to a quiet week of watching wild card games, waiting for the Packers to play next week, after their bye week off. Everything had been set up so perfectly. First, the Buccaneers lost last Monday night, giving the Packers an opening as wide as a barn door to claim the number 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, and a bye week to rest up and get healthy. Then, my daydream came true, and the Giants beat the Eagles at the Meadowlands on Saturday, opening the way for the Packers to claim home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Now, I knew that the Jets were a good team, and that they were playing extremely well, and I knew that they were playing the Packers at the Meadowlands. So I figured that there was a good chance the Jets might win the game. But I also expected (or at least hoped) that the Packers would rise to the occasion, given everything that was on the line. The 2002 Packers are not a dominant team, and it is doubtful that they would be dominant even if they had not suffered the injuries they have endured. But most if not all of their margin for error has been eliminated by the injuries. This is why I have assumed, for some weeks now, that the Packers would not end up in the Super Bowl this year. But the one thing that could have changed all of that was home field advantage. The Packers in their current beat-up state may not be invincible, even at home, but the odds of a Super Bowl appearance would have improved dramatically with a win against the Jets on Sunday.

This year's struggle for home field advantage was truly bizarre. Nobody seemed to want it. First, the Buccaneers gave away their own shot at home field by losing to the Steelers. Then the Eagles failed to nail it down, by losing to the Giants (despite the Giants’ friendly efforts to fumble away the game). Then, when the Packers had it sitting right at their feet, they could not take advantage, and could not even keep the game close, so the Eagles ended up with home field by default.

So instead of a week off to rest up, the Packers go from the frying pan (Chad Pennington) into the fire (Michael Vick) and a game against the Falcons on Saturday night. And I find myself on a plane to Chicago with my son as I write this, so we can be there way up in Row 58, Section 128, in the chilly night air (and maybe snow!) to watch the game. Early in the season, before most people knew who Chad Pennington was, Michael Vick was already becoming the young, exciting phenom at quarterback. He almost beat the Packers in a brutally hot opening day game at Lambeau Field. The Falcons, after lots of early excitement, ended up backing into the playoffs, after their own problems in the last few weeks were not quite enough to knock themselves out, but only because the New Orleans Saints were losing even more games than the Falcons. The Falcons could not score a potential game-tying touchdown last week against the Browns after four shots at it inside the 5 yard line, seemingly frittering away their playoff hopes, but their season was saved when the Saints also lost their game.

So the Falcons meet the Packers Saturday night, with neither team exactly on a roll. The league's experiment with Saturday night playoff games last year turned out to be a smashing success, given everything you could ask for in the Oakland at New England game, a good matchup, a close game, heavy snowfall, and even a controversial, game-deciding call. I suspect the league thinks that all the elements are present again. Brett Favre, the aging superstar, gunning for one more Super Bowl ring before retiring. Michael Vick, the next generation of superstar quarterbacks. ABC's own superstars in the form of the Monday Night Football crew. Lambeau Field, on a night when the tundra actually might be frozen, and now with the likelihood of snow.

I'm not saying it will be easy, but I think the Packers will win this game. The conditions on Saturday night should be such that Michael Vick will be slowed down, hopefully enough for the Packers' defenders to keep up with him. I would feel a lot better about this game if I knew that Driver and Sharper would be ready to play, but as of this writing they are both listed as questionable. I also think the Giants will easily defeat the 49ers. The Giants are on a roll, and the 49ers are not. The 49ers' defensive backs are not very good, and I keep thinking of the Giants carving up the Vikings' defensive backs in the NFC Championship game a couple of years ago.

If these predictions come true, it will be Green Bay at Tampa next week, along with the Giants at Philadelphia. There are lots of interesting story lines there, but that is a subject for another column, next week, if and when my predictions pan out.