For the second time this year, the Packers' hype has gotten way ahead of their performance on the field. Before the season, they were favored by many to go to the Super Bowl, and after they started the season 2-0, that didn't seem out of the question. When they lost three of the next four games as a cascade of injuries started to take effect, Packer fans' expectations came back down to earth. Then, when they went on their four game win streak, including a couple of blowouts, the hype started to return. Just last week, Peter King made the case that the Packers are the best team in the league. That changed today, as the Packers have dropped to no. 4, but with the comment that they have an excellent chance to return to the Georgia Dome for the NFC Championship game. One of the talking heads on one of the pregame shows Sunday said that the Packers are the best team in the NFC right now. Best team in the NFC? I am having trouble making the case that they are the best team in the NFC North. I am not yet in Jim Mora territory with this team, but I am getting closer.
The little things I have in mind include:
- The return of the penalty bug. They didn't set any record for penalties this time, but just had enough of them (8), and at inopportune times, to cause some real problems.
- Regression on special teams. While the special teams seemed to be getting better for a couple of games, yesterday they were not impressive. They gave up too many yards on Falcons kick returns, they didn't get much yardage on Packer kick returns, and they committed too many penalties on special teams plays.
- Questionable play calling in short yardage situations. Just take goal line plays. The Packers had 6 plays during the game inside the Atlanta 5 yard line. Four of those plays were runs. One run by Nance (no gain) and three runs by Rodgers, resulting in a 1 yard gain, a disastrous fumble recovered by the Falcons, and a 1 yard TD run on a quarterback draw by Rodgers.
- Poor decisions on challenges. For a couple of weeks there, Mike McCarthy was on a roll on challenges. But not against the Falcons. The costly one was the non-catch by Gonzalez on 4th down, that led to the touchdown by the Falcons at the end of the first half. I accept that in the other team's stadium, you don't always get a quick look, and that McCarthy got word from upstairs too late. But the Packers had two timeouts left in the half, and it was obviously a pivotal play. McCarthy and/or the people upstairs need to make a quicker decision here. Worst case, it costs them a timeout that, as it turns out, they did not need anyway.
In principle, I support the idea of trying to establish the running game. Some semblance of a balanced offense is obviously a good thing, and it helps to keep the quarterback upright and the defense off-balance. But the pattern I see developing with the Packers has three phases. In Phase I, they start off the game trying to establish the running game, which does not work, with the result that the Packers start off slowly, and frequently find themselves in a hole. Then in Phase II, they abandon the running game and go with a passing play on practically every down. They are usually much more successful in this second phase. Finally in Phase III, after the success engendered by the pass-on-every-down philosophy, the Packers find that the opposing defense is so concerned about the pass that the running game becomes more effective.
I could be nuts to make this suggestion, but if the three-phase pattern mentioned above is correct, then wouldn't the Packers be better off skipping Phase I and starting with Phase II? If they came out passing on every down (sure, mixing in some play-action passes, screen passes, roll-out passes where the defenders don't know if Rodgers will pass or run), does it not stand to reason that they would get off to a better start, probably get ahead in the game, and get to Phase III where the running game opens up, that much earlier? That is my thought, anyway.
It is not a shocking development for the Packers to lose by a field goal, on the road, to a team that came in at 8-2. Nevertheless, this loss has large implications. They now find themselves at 7-4, looking up at 3 NFC teams with better records - the Bears at 8-3 in the division, and the 9-2 Falcons and the 8-3 Saints in the NFC South. They have also dropped out of a playoff spot based on this week's games (the wild cards would currently go to the Saints and Giants). I still think that the Packers can win the division, although in fairness the Bears have not been playing down to my level of expectations for them, so who knows? While lots of strange things can happen, just looking at the records of the playoff contenders and their remaining opponents, I don't see much chance that the Packers can end up with the no. 1 seed in the playoffs. They might have a better shot at the no. 2 seed, but it will probably depend on tiebreakers that are too speculative to calculate now with 5 weeks left.