Last Sunday's Packer victory against the Cowboys (even though I did not predict it) represented about two-thirds of what I hoped for and expected from the Packers this year. A dominant, aggressive defense controlling the game, combined with a special teams unit at least good enough not to cause problems for the team. The third that was not quite there was of course the offense. I was looking for an offense powerful enough to grind it out whenever that is needed, with a combination of the running game and the short passing game, and explosive enough to put the fear of the big play in the mind of the opposing defense.
When the defense comes within a garbage-time touchdown of shutting out a team like the Cowboys, that is news. I have complained, several times this year, about the "play-it-safe" defensive strategy. I wanted to see more aggressiveness, putting the opposing quarterback back on his heels, not knowing where the next rush is coming from. Now, obviously, every time you devote more players to rushing the quarterback, you take the chance of giving up a big play. And yet, in the Vikings games in particular, the opposite philosophy led to the quarterback being way too comfortable in the pocket, and able to pick the Packers to pieces. So I was very anxious to see the Packers put more pressure on, and that is exactly what they did on Sunday.
Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com says it all: "Capers Brings the Heat." I'm glad somebody at ESPN keeps track of these stats, so the rest of us don't have to: in the first 8 games, the Packers devoted 5 or more players to rushing the QB on 40.6% of the snaps. On Sunday: 51.3%. The result was what one would hope for: the Packers sacked Romo 5 times, more than three times their average per game of 1.6. Now let's face it, the Cowboys didn't play very well on offense. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Packers' defense helped to bring about that result. Romo, at this point qualifying as a veteran quarterback, looked confused and harassed all throughout the game. Charles Woodson, of course, had an amazing game, and was rewarded by being named NFC Defensive Player of the week. What with the two forced fumbles, the interception, and the sack, this is probably the sort of game Woodson was thinking of when he said, after the first Vikings loss, that the Packers have a lot of tools in the bag that they were not using.
In the lead-up to the 49ers game this week, the local SF Bay Area media are focusing, more than on any other thing, on the connection between Aaron Rodgers and 49er quarterback Alex Smith, going back to draft day in 2005. (For example, here: "49ers' Alex Smith, Packers' Aaron Rodgers Forever Linked.") My wife heard the same basic story line on KGO radio, which used to carry the 49er games. The consensus seems to be that Rodgers was lucky to be Favre's understudy for three years. By contrast, Smith was the starter for half of 2005 and 2007, all of 2006, none of 2008, and then half of this year. This is the first regular-season meeting of the two quarterbacks, although they both played in a stinker of a game in San Francisco last year (written up here).
There is a lot of history in this match-up of the Packers and 49ers, most of it in the Brett Favre era. A lot of coaching connections, too, going back to the time when the Packers hired Mike Holmgren off of the 49ers staff, and including the 49ers hiring ex-Packer assistant Steve Mariucci, and even including the Packers hiring Mike McCarthy away from the 49ers, after he was one of those at the 49ers who decided not to draft Aaron Rodgers. Brett Favre had an uncanny mastery over the 49ers, playing 11 games, and losing only in the "Terrell Owens game." This will be Aaron Rodgers first chance (in a game that counts) to show that he can keep it going.