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.