Sunday, January 24, 2010

Vikings-Saints Comments

At last, the civil war among Packer fans is over, for this year at least. I know that it is a bit weird that I am writing to comment on the Vikings-Saints NFC Championship game before I have even finished and published a post about the Packers' loss to the Cardinals. But with the Vikings having lost to the Saints, and the Saints heading off to their first-ever Super Bowl, it seems like a good time to pipe in with a few comments.

If my own family and friends are typical, there has been a sometimes-heated battle going on for the last two years about Favre's post-Packer career. It was bad enough last year, but at least Favre was playing outside the division, and not against the Packers. And, in any event, the Jets didn't even make the playoffs. But it really got bad this year, when he signed with the Vikings, when he beat the Packers, solidly, twice, and when he continued to play as close to a flawless season as he ever has, all the way to the NFC Championship game.

I have one cousin whose "status" on Facebook today was wishing Favre an awesome day. Another cousin admitted to experiencing schadenfreude over the outcome of the game. One friend was rooting for Favre, mostly just because it is incredible that he can play the game at this level at age 40. Another relative (and here I really do need to be discreet to protect the guilty) has been photographed wearing a Vikings' Favre jersey, and seems to have been rooting for him all year.

A Packer fan I met yesterday said she was rooting for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl so that Favre would retire. It may take awhile before we find out, but I am pretty sure he will retire anyway. Now, the cynical might say that it doesn't take Nostradamus to predict that Favre will retire, and that the real question is whether he will play again. We'll see, but I don't think he will.

In my immediate family, all four of us were rooting for the Saints today, with differing sets of reasons and intensity. One of us would have been OK to see Favre go to the Super Bowl again if it turned out that way, while the rest of us (including me) did not want to see that happen. I have been very unhappy with Favre the last two years, so I suppose I am at the more militant end of the spectrum.

The thing that I have probably found most irritating about this year was that Favre played so magnificently. Favre's best two years as a Packer were probably 1995 (which ended with a loss to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game), and 1996 (which ended with the Super Bowl victory against the Patriots. In the regular season in those two years, Favre had three times as many touchdowns as interceptions (38-13 in 1995 and 39-13 in 1996). That was as good as it got for Favre, with a much closer ratio of TDs to interceptions in every other year.

Until this year. Favre had 33 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions this year in the regular season. Almost 5 to 1 touchdowns over interceptions. This is the year he chooses to play flawlessly, for the Vikings? And he had several other career-best stats for the Vikings this year. Of course, there are reasons for this. I am no fan of Brad Childress, but I have to give him credit for reining in Favre's wildness, probably better than any coach in Favre's career. Favre probably never had as dominant a running back in the backfield as he had this year. Favre certainly had a better offensive line with the Vikings than he did in recent years with the Packers. Favre always made the receivers around him look better than they really were, so I am not giving a huge amount of credit to the receivers, though they were good. To sum it up, with the exception of the 1996 team, I don't think Favre ever had the combination of great offensive line, dominant running game, dominant passing game, and dominant defense that he had this year. So it makes sense that Favre and the Vikings had a great year.

But still, for the Vikings and their fans to get the benefit of all the good side of Favre, and almost none of the downside that Packer fans lived with every year, was infuriating to me. Today, the downside returned. Because of the pressure the Saints brought on Favre all day long, he was hit often, hit hard, and he was hurting badly by the end of the game. It is no accident that both of Favre's interceptions took place in the second half. (As an aside, the Saints did to the Vikings this week and to the Cardinals last week exactly what the Packers should have done, and could have done with a better defensive plan, but that is another column for another day.)

It was poetic justice for Favre to effectively end the Vikings' season with an interception on his final pass, just as he had done to the Packers two years ago. The pass tonight was just as incomprehensible as the one against the Giants two years ago. Yes, the late throw back across the field is the sort of thing that he has done his entire career, and he has gotten away with it many times over the years. But it is still a stupid throw. Michael Irvin (believe it or not) said it well on the NFL Network when he said that the real problem with the throw was the situation. He was at a point on the field where the Vikings had some shot at the game winning field goal even with an incomplete pass, and a much better shot if he gained a few extra yards, with his legs if necessary. To throw a low-probability, high risk pass in that situation is inexcusable. (By the way, although I did not remember this, Favre's last pass for the Jets was also intercepted - I think I am detecting a pattern here.) [Ed. note - upon further review, it was Favre's second to last pass for the Jets that was intercepted. His last pass, with 17 seconds left in his last game, was completed to Leon Washington, who then lateraled it back to Favre, who then tried to pass it again to Jerricho Cotchery, which of course resulted in a penalty for an illegal forward pass. You can't make this stuff up.]

But despite how critical I have been of Favre, my hat is off to him. He was really battered today, and was limping around for much of the second half. He demonstrated again today that he is probably the toughest quarterback in the league. He was largely responsible for keeping the Vikings in the game, despite their six fumbles. He has always showed a lot of heart in his play, and today was no exception.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More Random Playoff Thoughts

Playoff time for the Packers has me thinking about various things in the days leading up to the game.

Whisenhunt Controversy

The first is the controversy/"nontroversy" over Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt's comments earlier in the week. The Arizona Republic had an article on Tuesday in which it was suggested that Whisenhunt was upset with the Packers for running up the score in both last week's game, and in the preseason game between the two teams. (The Packers starters led by a combined 71-10 in the two games before going to the sidelines.) "They had their plan," Whisenhunt said. "I guess they felt good about what they were doing." While Whisenhunt's whining might have been more implied than express, naturally Mike McCarthy was asked about it. He wisely refused to take the bait:
"I am worried about my own football team. His feelings toward my team or my feelings toward his team, it's a non-topic with me. I told you, I stood in here Monday and Wednesday last week and told you what our goal was. We went out there to keep our momentum going. He took a different approach."
In the meantime, Whisenhunt felt compelled to backtrack the next day, saying yes, he was peeved, not with the Packers, but with the approach of his own team, and with the way they handled it. Sure, Ken, anything you say.

Week 17 "Exhibition" Games

This little brouhaha over Whisenhunt's comments made me reflect on the broader topic of teams tanking games that "don't matter" at the end of the season. This is not a new phenomenon. Since I live in the San Francisco area (and am not a 49er fan in any way, shape or form) I still remember vividly the 1988 season finale, when the 49ers tanked their game against the Rams, which had the effect of keeping the New York Football Giants out of the playoffs. Phil Simms angrily, and quite correctly, accused the 49ers of "laying down like dogs." But if it has been going on for some time, I can't recall a year when so many teams tanked so many games. In week 16, the Colts tanked the game against the Jets. In week 17, the Cardinals tanked the game against the Packers, the Colts tanked their game against the Bills, the Saints tanked their game against the Panthers, the Bengals tanked the game against the Jets, and others (like the Patriots) could be argued to have done so. Note that the Jets made the playoffs exclusively because of gift victories in weeks 16 and 17.

Season ticket holders already resent being forced to buy full-price tickets to preseason games. Now, if there is a good chance that week 16 and week 17 games may also be phony games, this just increases the irritation factor. But as bad as that is, how demoralizing it must have been for fans of the Steelers and other teams that were hoping for that final wild card slot, to watch the Jets just waltz their way into it courtesy of lay-down game plans by the Colts and Bengals. It is not easy to devise a perfect solution to this problem, but if this season is any indicator, then the problem is getting out of hand. Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has an interesting idea on this score. In the meantime, in the absence of a solution, I will simply be hoping for cosmic payback for all of the teams that refuse to play real games in their final game or two of the season. Nothing would make me happier than to see them all go "one and done" in the playoffs.

Charles Woodson

Finally, for a feel-good note leading up to the game, take a look at this Yahoo article on Charles Woodson. He is certainly having a sensational season, and he deserves all the accolades he is getting. Even though I live in Raider country, I watch as little of the Raiders as I can get away with, thanks to the NFL Sunday Ticket. So I can't say that I knew (or remember) most of the grumblings about Woodson when he was with the Raiders. But I am sure glad that he is with the Packers now, and that he is as happy with being in Green Bay as the fans are to have him there.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Playoff Rematch Coming Up!

The Packers beat the Cardinals Sunday in Arizona, by the score of 33-7. This, combined with the Vikings victory over the Giants, means that the Packers return to Arizona to play the Cardinals in the playoffs next Sunday. As if that isn't weird enough, there are two other rematches next week from today's games. The Eagles again will play at Dallas, and the Bengals and Jets will play again, but this time in Cincinnati. It would be way too tedious to look it up, but I would bet that there have never been 3 rematches from the final week of the season to the first week of the playoffs before.

The Packers and Cardinals approached the game so differently that it is hard to know what to make of it. By game time, the Cardinals knew that they could not get a bye week (because the Vikings had won), and so they evidently decided to treat this as an exhibition game. They started pulling starters in the second set of series of the game. The Packers, on the other hand, played almost all of their starters until well into the 3rd quarter. So I guess both teams have their own talking points about the results. The Packers know that they dominated the Cardinals, from the first possession of the game. When they add this to the fact that the Packers' starters dominated the Cardinals' starters in the preseason, and the fact that the Packers are one of the hottest teams in the league, having gone 7-1 in the second half of the season, the Packers have ample reason for confidence that they can beat the Cardinals again next week.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, can say "well, we weren't trying to win the game, we were just trying to get our people rested up and ready for next week." Fine. It is not a crazy strategy. But I have a hard time believing that the Cardinals are not doubting themselves a bit today. If we recognize that there is a strong mental element to the game of football, then these things matter, and I think the Packers had the far better strategy in Week 17.

Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, the turnaround the Packers had in the second half of the season was sensational. Lots of fans and writers (including me) were ready to ship out the whole coaching staff and some of the players after the Packers lost to the Buccaneers. But those same coaches and players deserve an enormous amount of credit for the improvements we have seen. It seems clear now that the Packers' defense was just not fully adjusted to the new 3-4 alignment, and that the more comfortable they have become, the better they are playing. And they are playing better despite the losses of Aaron Kampman and Al Harris for the season.

On offense, Ryan Grant has gotten stronger as the year progressed, and so has Jermichael Finley. Aaron Rodgers has been solid all year, except for his share of the blame for all of the sacks early in the year, and as the offensive line improved, and he started getting rid of the ball faster, he became one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Interestingly enough, though, as the Packergeeks note in their blog, as good as Rodgers is, it is not even clear that he is the team's MVP, given the play of Charles Woodson. The talking heads on the NFL Network after the game were agreed that Woodson probably secured the league's defensive MVP award with this game.

I have seen a few comments around the web today about how odd it is that the Cardinals had the roof closed on their stadium on such a beautiful day today. I even saw speculation somewhere (can't find it right now) that maybe the Cardinals are faking out the Packers by closing the dome today, thinking that they will leave it open next week. I can just about assure you that it will be closed next week, too.

My wife and I were in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago. Before arriving, somebody mentioned in passing that they slide the field out of the stadium on a tray between games. I had never heard of such a thing, and it sounded doubtful to me. So we looked it up online, and it is true. More on that in a minute.

We also learned that they have stadium tours, so we took the tour. Here are a couple of pictures showing the field resting outside the stadium (in the rain that day) and showing the inside of the stadium without the field in place (the field slides out in the gap under the words RED ZONE at the far end of the picture).

During the tour, the guide was asked when the stadium roof is open for games. We also had dinner with some cousins of mine, formerly from Milwaukee, who go to lots of Cardinals games. Both the tour guide and my cousins explained that the roof is always closed (or nearly always closed) during Cardinals games (as opposed to other events). Apparently Kurt Warner likes the roof closed, so that there is no wind. And so the Cardinals always have the roof closed. [Ed. Note: cousin Beth, while unfortunately outing herself as a Cardinals fan, reminds me that increasing the crowd noise is also a factor favoring the Cardinals keeping the dome closed next week and every week.]

Obviously, I would expect a much closer game next time. I assume that the Cardinals will be favored by a few points, unless the oddsmakers were so impressed with the Week 17 beat down that they make the Packers the favorites. (In fact, I would think that all four home teams will be favored.) But I think that the Packers are the more complete team of the two. The Packers have scored more points (461 vs. 375), have given up fewer points (297 vs. 325), they have a better overall record (11-5 vs. 10-6) and they had a better second half (7-1 vs. 5-3). I like the Packers' chances.