Things can happen in any game. A player drops a pass he should have caught, a ball is stripped out at the worst possible moment, the ball slips out of the quarterback's hand. "That's why they play the games," as Chris Berman likes to say. But at a certain point, those things become a pattern, or at least suggest that there is some kind of a problem. And I think there is a problem. The most obvious problem is the injuries, but everyone has injuries during the year. And even though the Packers have had more than their share this year, it is no excuse for the way they are playing. Take our division rivals, the Bears. They lost their starting quarterback for a game a couple of weeks ago. Their backup quarterback, the very far over the hill Todd Collins, played poorly. He threw for a total of 32 yards, with no touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Not exactly the kind of stats that will usually lead to a victory. But the Bears won, by the score of 23-6. Matt Forte, the kicker (Robbie Gould) and the Bears defense made that happen.
No, I think the real problem is not injuries, but coaching. We are seeing repeated coaching mistakes: not putting pressure on the quarterback, not throwing the ball near the goal line, bad clock management, and lack of discipline leading to too many penalties.
One of my complaints last year was that the Packers seemed to hang back in coverage against elite quarterbacks, like Favre, Roethlisberger, and Kurt Warner. My feeling was that the Packers (either McCarthy or Capers) wanted to avoid looking bad on long pass plays resulting from the elite quarterback beating the blitz. But the result was less spectacular but just as bad: these quarterbacks picked the Packers apart when given the time to sit in the pocket and wait for the open receiver. Last week, against the Dolphins and without Clay Matthews, I saw the Packers doing the same thing. There was no pressure on the quarterback, and McNabb had plenty of time to pass. Coaches study game tapes. All they have to do is look at the tapes of the games against the Vikings last year to realize that the sit back in coverage strategy was not working. So try something else.
The only thing keeping the Packers in contention right now is the fact that there is no dominant team in the NFC. They may have lost three of the last four games, but at 3-3 they are still only a game behind the teams with the best records in the conference (the Giants, Eagles, Bears, Falcons and Saints). Clay Matthews is expected to be back this week, and even Atari Bigby and Al Harris may be activated. Donald Driver expects to play despite his injured quad. So they still have time to turn this around.
The Vikings don't have the magic they had last year, and Favre is hurting and much less effective. Some serious pressure on Favre obviously carries risks, but it also has the promise of causing Favre to make some of his trademark mistakes. If the Packers don't win this week against the Vikings, they will have squandered the chance to stay near the top.