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.

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