Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Playoff Berth Clinched

I had the great fun of attending Sunday's game against Seattle, with my son, Ben. The Packers absolutely spanked their opponents, by the score of 48-10. Simultaneously, the New York Giants were losing to the Panthers, something I did not expect after the Giants' domination of the Redskins the previous Monday night. The effect of these two events was that the Packers clinched a wild card spot in the playoffs, thus avoiding the dreaded final week drama about whether the Packers make the playoffs. And finally, on Monday night, the Bears (of all teams!) beat the Vikings, in what sounds like it was a great game. This makes Brett Favre's record 0-7 in road games below 40 degrees since 2005. Now that is what you call a great week of football!

We were flying back from Chicago to San Francisco on Monday night. If the flight had left on time, we could have listened to the end of the game on the radio, driving home from the airport. But because the flight was 2.5 hours late (due to unspecified "security issues"), we missed it all. We got exactly 2 updates from the pilot during the game (remember, this was a flight from Chicago, so you might think there was some interest). He came on to tell us that the score was tied, 30-30, with 16 seconds to go in the 4th quarter. No sense of the drama that led up to that, but he did add that the dispatcher had said that the Bears had multiple opportunities to put the game away but, quoting the dispatcher, "naturally, they didn't." He came back on later to announce that the Bears had won, 36-30, in overtime. The reaction to both announcements was the same: stone cold silence. I guess nobody flying from Chicago cares? I suppose I can understand that in a way, given the Bears' season, but still, I expected some reaction. It certainly differed from the reaction on the Chicago to San Francisco flight during the playoffs two years ago, when the announcement that the Cowboys had lost to the Giants was greeted with cheers.

A couple of notes from the game, things that you probably did not see if you watched the game on TV. First, Milwaukee native and American Idol finalist Danny Gokey sang the national anthem, and did a fine job of it (see video here). And at the end of the game, since it was (barring a miracle) the last game at Lambeau Field this year, Charles Woodson and Donald Driver did victory laps around the perimeter of the field, high-fiving all the fans in the bottom rows of the stadium.

The Packers now travel to Arizona for the final regular-season game, with there being at least a 2/3 chance that they play Arizona again the following week in the playoffs. That makes for weird incentives for both teams. Both teams would surely want to play well and win the game, to increase their own confidence that they can do it again the following week. But neither team wants to show all its cards this week, lest they tip off the opponent as to how they intend to play the game that really counts. With the Packers having won 6 of the last 7 games, and barely lost the 7th game, they have to feel pretty good about themselves about now. Peter King, of Sports Illustrated, says that he wouldn't want to play the Packers right now.

At the same time, the Cardinals have played well in most of their games this season. They have the same record as the Packers (10-5), but in the NFC West, that is easily enough to win the division. Although I don't follow their games very closely, they have seemed less impressive in recent weeks, during which time they lost twice, and didn't look that great in some of the wins. Their quarterback, Kurt Warner, is only a little younger than Brett Favre, and at times he looks pretty old out there. But there is no doubt that he can pick apart a defense if given the time to throw. So the Packers would be well advised to bring some pressure on defense.

Another issue for the Packers this week is whether, and if so to what extent, to rest starters. The Packers are a wild card team no matter what, and are highly likely to be the number 5 seed. They could drop to the number 6 seed if the Packers lose and the Cowboys win, but the only real difference between no. 5 and no. 6 is that no. 5 has a very slim chance of hosting the NFC Championship game, while no. 6 has absolutely no chance. So one could take the view that there is not much at stake here. If this team had been performing at a high level of precision for weeks, maybe you could argue that the Packers should rest starters. But they haven't. The Packers took awhile to get into a rhythm against the Seahawks. The Packers' defense gave up ridiculous yardage and point totals to the Steelers. The Packers trailed the Bears in the fourth quarter. The Packers started a bit sluggishly against the Ravens. To me it seems clear that the Packers still have lots of things to work on. So I come out very strongly on the side of playing the starters, playing the game to win, and resting the starters only if the game is well in hand toward the end of the game.

Keeping some of the game plan in reserve for the following week is quite another question. That makes a lot of sense. So I would see no problem in playing a plain vanilla game plan, on offense and defense, but playing hard to win the game. Save the trick plays, the new offensive and defensive wrinkles for the playoffs. But if the Packers bench a lot of starters at the start of the game, or start resting players in the second quarter, that to me would show a foolish degree of over-confidence in how ready the Packers are for the playoffs.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Charles Woodson, Nick Collins and Aaron Rodgers for being selected to the Pro Bowl squad.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Last-Second Disaster

That final drive of the game, with the Steelers scoring the game-winning touchdown on the final play, was so painful to watch yesterday. Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette had the same thought I did on the game-winning TD pass by Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace: it was like the 1995 "Yancey Claus" game in reverse. Back in 1995, when the Packers were still more than a year away from their Super Bowl win, the Steelers came to town on Christmas Eve. With the Packers clinging to a lead, the Steelers drove down the field, and Yancey Thigpen of the Steelers gave the Packers a Christmas present by dropping what should have been the game-winning touchdown. In fact, he described it as a Christmas present at the time. The drop gave the Packers their first division championship in 23 years, and they made it as far as the NFC Championship game before losing to the Cowboys. This made such an impression on the Packer fans that they cheered Thigpen years later when he returned to Green Bay for another game.

But of course, this time the Steeler receiver caught the ball, and the Packers lost the game. To add insult to injury, the Vikings lost Sunday night to the Panthers, meaning that the Packers would have still been alive to win the division but for the loss against the Steelers. Not that they likely would have won the division - but they would have had a shot and would have gone a long way toward clinching a playoff spot by winning this game.

I am out of town, and saw the game at Casey Jones Grill in Phoenix, home of the Desert Packer Backers group. A nice sports bar, with all the games on, but with the sound up on the Packer game, and with special sound effects to commemorate good plays, scores, etc. The Packer fans there were excited when the Packers finally took their first lead of the game in the fourth quarter, and when the Packers held the Steelers to a field goal on the ensuing drive. When the Packers had a 3rd and 14 at the 25, the sense of relief was palpable when Rodgers completed a touchdown pass to James Jones which, with a 2 point conversion, gave the Packers a six-point lead. Relief because nobody rooting for the Packers wanted to see Mason Crosby line up for a go-ahead field goal, after he had already missed a medium-range field goal earlier.

So, after all that had happened, and the Packers finally had a 36-30 lead, it was just devastating to watch the Steelers march down the field for the game-winning touchdown, after the Packers' lead had been so hard to achieve. It is not as if there were no opportunities to put the game away. The Packers intercepted Roethlisberger on one play, but the interception was nullified by a very clear illegal contact penalty. Charles Woodson had a chance for an interception on another play. The Packers just missed a sack that would have run out the clock. But the thing that frustrated me the most was Dom Capers' decision to rush only 3 or 4 players on most of the plays of the drive. I can see the arguments on the other side - the Steelers had moved the ball up and down the field all day, including (at the point the drive started) over 400 yards passing. So, in that sense, what the Packers had been doing on defense was not working, why not try something else, basically the old "prevent defense?"

But I would argue that the prevent defense is the worst decision you could possibly make. If the Packers have had trouble stopping Roethlisberger's passing game all day, why would you think it would improve your chances if you only rush 3 or 4, letting Roethlisberger have as much time as he needs on most plays? Sure, you have more players dropping back in coverage, but it is a truism that if you give a quality quarterback enough time, eventually someone will get open. I am not arguing for an all-out blitz on every play, but I am arguing that you need to put some pressure on in the hopes of disrupting the passing game. Otherwise, if you give the quarterback enough time, and if there are enough seconds left on the clock, they will just methodically move down the field and score. Which is exactly what happened.

The defense was so essential in some of those games that made up the five-game winning streak. But the defense let the team down yesterday, both generally (no turnovers, way too many yards and points given up) and especially on that last drive. The lessons I take away from this game are:
  1. Something has to be done about the Mason Crosby problem before he loses another game for us. Whether it is just a mental thing with him right now is not clear, but he is not performing at an acceptable level. (See here for the ugly details on his slump.)
  2. No more prevent defenses in protecting a lead of 8 points or less. Ever.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bears Swept Away by Packers

The Packers certainly still have some things to clean up in the remaining three weeks. But still, they completed a sweep of the Bears on Sunday, with the Bears hanging on to slim playoff hopes as they went into the game. This is the sixth season with Lovie Smith as the head coach of the Bears, and interestingly enough, this is the first time in those six years that the Packers have swept the Bears. When he was hired, he famously said that his first goal was to beat the Green Bay Packers, and he has done a pretty good job of that, until this year.

The Packers looked pretty good on offense in the first couple of drives (it is hard to look bad on a 62 yard, 1 play touchdown drive), but the offense started to sputter soon enough. Jennings dropped what looked like a touchdown pass on the second drive, and Rodgers misfired on 3rd and 7 on the next one. So instead of what could easily have been a 21-0 lead, the Packers were ahead only by the score of 13-0 instead.

But no matter. The defense played another solid, even dominant, game, and thanks to that effort, the Packers won their fifth game in a row. True, the Bears did go ahead in the third quarter, by the score of 14-13, so the Packers could easily have lost this game. In fact, I don't think there is any doubt that they would have lost this game last year. But now, and thanks largely to the strength of the defense, they have the ability to re-group, score some more points, and put the game away. That is what they did in the 4th quarter against the Bears, just as they did last Monday night against the Ravens.

Dom Capers again deserves credit for the creativity of his defensive game plans. First of all, you have to love any defense that has an alignment known as the Psycho Defense. I'm sure the players themselves love the defense, just because of the name. But seriously, a 1-5-5 defensive alignment? What a great way to deal with the fact that there were so many injuries on the defensive line, so that Capers wasn't really sure who he would have available at game time. And it was very successful when it was used, most likely by confusing Jay Cutler so that he did not know where the rush was coming from, and which players were covering the receivers.

The Packers are now in an excellent spot to make the playoffs as a wild card. They probably will make the playoffs with one more victory, and will definitely make it with two. I am sure we can all remember years where the Packers had to win all their games, plus three out of five games (or whatever) had to go a particular way for the Packers to make the playoffs. The problem is, things don't always go as planned. Would many of us have predicted that the 49ers would beat the Cardinals tonight? Or that the Raiders would beat the Steelers last week? It is hard enough to get your own games right, without having to rely on some other team. So I like the fact that the Packers can get this done all by themselves, starting this week in Pittsburgh.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Four Games to Go

Watching the second half of the Packers' Monday Night win against the Ravens was like torture for this Packer fan. The first half had started off very slowly, with lots of dropped passes and even more penalty flags. But as the half went on, the Packers started looking a little more like themselves on offense, and even scored a big touchdown right before the half, to make the score 17-0.

And then, right on schedule, came the second half, with a definite "here we go again" feel to it. Donald Driver's fumble led to one Ravens touchdown, and when the Packers got the ball back, Rodgers' pass took a weird bounce off of Driver's leg, and was intercepted. One long pass later (complete with an obligatory pass interference call against Tramon Williams) and it was first and goal at the one yard line. Two plays later and the score was 17-14. On the very next drive, despite passes being dropped all over the field, the Packers still managed to get in easy field goal range, but a dropped snap led to a missed field goal.

After a terrible series for the Ravens, the Packers got the ball back again, and drove quickly for a touchdown to take a 10 point lead. But then another special teams letdown allowed a long kickoff return, which would have gone for a touchdown but for Tramon Williams running the returner down from behind. Following this great play, Tramon Williams was called (again) for pass interference in the end zone, and it was again first and goal at the one. On first down, Charles Woodson reacted to the handoff by charging into the Ravens' backfield and tripping up the runner at the three. This was critical because it resulted in the Ravens throwing the ball on second down. Not just any pass, mind you, but the dreaded rainbow all the way from the right sideline more than half way across the field. The ball was intercepted by (who else?) Tramon Williams, meaning that Williams had made two of the biggest plays of the game, to go along with his pair of end-zone interference penalties.

As nerve-wracking as it was watching parts of the second half, on balance I am really happy with the way the game went. Let's face it, the offense or the defense will occasionally have an off day. The special teams have off days more regularly. That is going to to happen - the question is, how does the rest of the team react? In this case, the offense really looked out of synch for most of the first half, and for parts of the second half. Rodgers made bad throws on quite a few passes, and receivers repeatedly dropped what looked like catchable balls. But the defense was dominant throughout the game, with a performance that was marred only by the plethora of penalty flags. There was even a redemptive quality to the defensive performance (vaguely reminiscent of Ryan Grant's redemption in the 2007 season playoff game against the Seahawks), in that Tramon Williams made those two, essentially win-preserving plays, despite being called for the big pass interference penalties.

Looking back on the last four games, something has happened to turn things around, especially on defense. I was very critical of the defensive game-plans earlier in the year, especially in the Vikings games. I thought that the Packers were not aggressive enough on defense, and that as a result they just let Favre carve them up. Well, something has changed. Maybe Dom Capers has realized the error of his ways, and started calling the defense more aggressively. More likely, Capers realized that it was going to take some time for his players to really internalize his new defense, and so he called the games more cautiously until he was sure the players were ready for a more aggressive game-plan. And that time seems to have come in the past four weeks. Whatever the case, Capers certainly deserves credit for the improved play of the defense. And the result is that the defense is playing well enough to keep the Packers in the game, even if the offense is mis-firing, and even if the special teams give up some big plays. That is a good feeling.

Now, with four games to go, the Packers have only one home game left, but at least they only have one game against a team with a winning record (the Cardinals). None of these games are "gimmes" (if a team that lost to the Buccaneers can ever consider a game to be a gimme). The other three opponents have records of 5-7 or 6-7, so they obviously are capable of winning a game. So a dominating defense, and a more consistent offense, would be a great way to spend the rest of the regular season.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Three Game Streak on the Line

The Thanksgiving day game certainly did not start off with a bang for the Packers. First, Jordy Nelson fumbled the opening kickoff which, with the help of a roughing the quarterback penalty, led to a Lions' touchdown. Then the Packers had a sustained and impressive drive, but which ended in a missed field goal. Then the Lions drove into Packer territory quickly on the next drive. "Oh, no" (or some more colorful expression), Packer fans everywhere must have wondered, is it going to be one of those days? But Nick Collins' athletic interception at the sideline ended that drive, and it was almost all Packers for the rest of the game, which ended in a 34-12 final score. I almost forgot to mention the fantastic game Donald Driver had. Driver had 7 catches for 142 yards (including two long bombs) and a touchdown. Good enough to merit the Golden Turkey award (or whatever they call it) at the end of the game.

So the Packers go into the Monday night game against the Ravens as the proud owners of a 3-game winning streak. The timing could not be better. This leaves the Packers with a 7-4 record, with 5 games to go, which means that, almost no matter what happens, they will be in contention for a wild card spot into the last couple of weeks of the season. There is no cause to get too carried away. This 3-game streak is made up of one win against a good team (the Cowboys), another against a mediocre but improving team (the 49ers) and one against a bad, banged up team (the Lions). Still, despite my quibbles about easing up in the 4th quarter of games, the Packers were impressive in all three games and had leads of 17 to 22 points in the 4th quarter of each game.

The Baltimore Ravens will undoubtedly be a tougher opponent than the Lions. In the last three weeks, they crushed the Browns, almost upset the undefeated Colts, and beat the Steelers (who were without Roethlisberger). Three things lead me to predict a Packer victory. First, the Packers have been making a much more concerted effort to have a balanced offensive game plan, which will serve them well against a tough defense like the Ravens. Second, even though the Packers still lead the league in sacks given up, they have improved dramatically in the last three games, partly because of a more balanced game plan, and partly because Rodgers has done a better job of getting rid of the ball. Finally, while the Packers were hurt badly by the loss of Aaron Kampman and Al Harris, their replacements played well against the Lions and then got 11 days to get ready for their next game.

Now, if we could just arrange for the Vikings to lose to the Cardinals, and for the Packers to beat the Ravens, it would be a heck of a good football weekend.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Steve Hayes on Old-Man Injuries

Well, I realize that I haven't written anything yet on the Lions game last Thursday, or on the upcoming Monday-nighter. I will try to get to that over the weekend. But this is just too rich not to share. Fellow Packer blogger Steve Hayes, of the Weekly Standard, Fox News, and the Packer Geeks blog, has written an article on "Old-Man Injuries" that struck home with me. As I commented at his blog, if you think it is bad now (I think he is about 38 years old), just wait.