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.