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.


  1. "This makes Brett Favre's record 0-7 in road games below 40 degrees since 2005."

    What is his record in home games under 40 degrees since 2005?

  2. If they play a "plain vanilla" defense, they will give Warner the chance to pick them apart and build his own confidence. It would be better prep for the playoff game to blitz constantly so that Warner never gets going and gets banged up, even if that ultimately means losing the first game.

  3. Rick: On your comment no. 2, you could be right. But my thought was not "plain vanilla" in the sense of absolutely normal 3-4 base defense on every play, but rather plain vanilla in the sense that they don't unveil new wrinkles on defense, no trick plays on offense, etc. In other words, lots of pressure is good, a variety of passes, runs, pump fakes, draw plays, screen passes, etc. is fine, but nothing new. Save the new innovative stuff for the following week. On your comment no. 1, I don't know, but I could look it up. It isn't too favorable either, but better than 0-7.