Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Sudden Death

To tell you the truth, I was kind of hoping for a laugher. You know, the kind of game where Pederson and some of the other backups can get some playing time, and where a Packer win is all but assured in the third quarter. That way, I figured, even if the Packers did not get a bye, at least the starters would not get as banged up. Plus, laughers tend to end sooner, and since we were driving back to Chicago after the game for a flight Sunday night (through a snow storm from Fond du Lac on, as it turned out), we would have a better chance to make the flight.

Well, so long as the Packers ended up winning, it is hard to complain about being present for one of the all-time great playoff games, the only one to ever end on an interception return for a touchdown. "Sudden death" doesn't get much more sudden than that.

It is possible to argue that, if the Packers had this much trouble with the Seahawks, it is a bad sign, but I saw it the other way. My view was that this was an inspired and hard-fought game, almost completely error-free, between two teams that know each other pretty well. In fact, if the Seahawk receivers played as well as Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawk defense, I think they would have won the game. I like Matt Hasselbeck, and it is too bad that he had to be the guy who made the game-ending error, but that is the way it goes in football.

What an aggressive and gutsy call by Ed Donatell (defensive coordinator) to go with an all-out blitz on that last play, resulting in the game-winning interception return. So many times, fans complain that their team lost the game because they played conservatively on defense, trying to avoid any big mistake, with the result that the other team marched down the field in small chunks to win the game. Ed Donatell's call, approved by Mike Sherman during the timeout, was as diametrically opposed to that approach as possible. It is no wonder that Donatell raced into the end zone after Al Harris to congratulate him, as he undoubtedly would have been raked in the press if the all-out blitz had resulted in a game-winning touchdown for the Seahawks. Mike Sherman took the same approach on offense, in less dramatic fashion, by going for it successfully on a couple of fourth downs. This aggressive approach to coaching seems to have inspired the players to play aggressively. As Sherman said, in the playoffs you have to go get the game, rather than waiting for the game to come to you.

But, as great a game as it was, I suspect that the Packers' season will end this week in the City of Brotherly Love. It's not that the Eagles are so much better than the Packers, or that the home-field advantage is decisive in this case (after all, the Eagles only went 5-3 in their new stadium this year). Instead, I think that the bye is the key to the win. It is really hard for a team that played in the Wild Card round to beat a team that had a bye. In fact, the No. 1 seed in the NFC has not lost its first playoff game since 1987 (when Minnesota knocked off San Francisco). Reaching even further back into the record book, the Packers have not won a game in Philadelphia since 1962, having lost 6 in a row near the shore of the Delaware River. On the other hand, all of those road losses were played on the concrete surface of Veteran's Stadium, and this week's game will be played on grass at the new Lincoln Financial Field. So maybe the Packers will have a better chance.

If you want to make a case for the Packers winning, consider this. While the Packers lost to the Eagles at Lambeau Field on November 10, there are a number of things that have happened since then that cut in favor of the Packers. That game was played in the rain, always a wild card in a game, whereas the weather Sunday should be cold but dry. In that game, Brett Favre had not yet gotten used to playing with his broken thumb, and that, combined with the wet ball, led to him fumbling 3 times, including the final fumble that prevented any chance at a comeback. In that game, Ahman Green also fumbled twice, before changing the material on his forearm to something not as conducive to having the ball slip out. And finally, Grady Jackson was playing sparingly in his first game with the Packers that night, whereas now he is fully integrated into the defense.

So that is my case for the Packers having a real shot. As against that, you have to consider that the Eagles were without a number of their starting defensive backs that night, and most or all of them will be back for the game. And although the Eagles will be without their leading rusher, Brian Westbrook, in the Eagles' "running back by committee" approach this should not be as big a factor as it would be for other teams. While the Packers have a much better chance in Philadelphia than they would have had in St. Louis this week, I still think the Eagles will win. It will take another inspired game by all concerned, and a few key Eagles mistakes, for the Packers to prevail, but I am not sure they have enough left in the tank. If they do, then maybe this really is a team of destiny.

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