Friday, January 28, 2011

Initial Thoughts on the Super Bowl

"It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness."
That was the fortune in my fortune cookie last night. Well, let's see. Fifteen players on injured reserve. Barely (or should that be Bearly?) making it to the playoffs as the 6th and final seed. Playing three playoff games on the road, and winning them all to make it to the Super Bowl. Yes, I guess that was a pretty rough road.

I re-watched most of the December 20, 2009 game against the Steelers the other night. That was the game in which the Packers were behind or tied most of the game, only to gain the lead for the first time in the fourth quarter, lose the lead, re-gain it, and lose it and the game on a touchdown on the final play of the game. The score was Pittsburgh 37, Green Bay 36. I wrote about the game at the time. When the Packers defensive players and coaches cued up the tape this week, it was enough to make practically everyone in the room sick. I'm sure the Steelers defensive coaches had similar sentiments. It got so bad during the game that Pittsburgh, in the fourth quarter, did an onside kick after taking the lead because they knew they could not stop the Packers.

Michael Lombardi of the NFL Network (no relation to the namesake of the Super Bowl Trophy) summarized one of my biggest complaints about the Packers in a single paragraph, and then applied that gripe to the upcoming Super Bowl:
The Packers can play dominant football and I have wondered how they lost six games. Sunday was an example of how. They seem to have lulls in the game and allow their opponent to hang around. For as talented and competitive as the Packers are as a team, they don't seem to have the killer instinct to put good teams away. It almost cost them against Philadelphia and then again in Chicago. They better learn how to finish before taking on the Steelers.
I could not agree more, and I will say it again: I want to see the Packers take on the approach of the New England Patriots who, in Packer Blogger Jersey Al's memorable phrase, go out and execute teams "like cold-blooded killers."

There are plenty of examples out there. In the regular season, there was the Minnesota game at Green Bay. The Packers let the Vikings hang around in the second half, to the point where it took an instant replay to overturn what would have been the winning touchdown for the Vikings. There was also the Patriots game, where the Packers were ahead most of the game, only to lose the game in the fourth quarter. In the playoffs, there was the Eagles game. The Packers led for much of the game by 11 points, but it took a last minute interception in the end zone to cement the win. Or the NFC Championship Game, where the Packers led by 14-0, and it could easily have been 17-0 or 21-0. But they let the Bears hang around, and it again took a last minute interception in Packer territory to seal the deal. Michael Lombardi is exactly right: if the Packers intend to win the Super Bowl, and if they are fortunate enough to get ahead in the game, they had better learn to bring the hammer down.

Both the Packers and the Steelers are playing much better defense than they did in the last game in December, 2009. One of the Steelers' biggest defensive playmakers, Troy Polamalu, didn't play in that game but is expected to play this time. On the Packers' side, the defensive players are playing dramatically better than last year, due (in my mind) to a combination of three things: (1) greater familiarity and comfort with the defensive scheme in the second year since Dom Capers installed the 3-4 defense; (2) upgraded players in some cases, and better play by the same players in other instances (for example, the often-victimized Jarret Bush was a starting defensive back against the Steelers last year, but is a backup now, and he has in effect been replaced by a combination of Charlie Peprah and Sam Shields); and (3) a greater tendency to put pressure on the quarterback (again, probably due to greater comfort with the players in the system).

Somebody was kidding me today, saying "I think the Steelers will score 47, and the Packers . . . ." I cut him off by saying that I am pretty sure that is not going to happen. The Steelers gave up 20 points per game in the regular season in 2009, but only 14.5 points this year. The Packers gave up 18.5 points per game in the regular season in 2009, but only 15 this year. I would be nothing short of stunned if more than 70 points are scored in this game, like they were the last time the Steelers and the Packers met.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Super Bowl Bound!

(Photo by Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press)

Well, I am ecstatic about the Packers' 21-14 win in the NFC Championship over the Bears, despite the fact that the Packers did not play a very good game, at least on offense, after the second quarter. To take it a step further, I am not real happy with the play calling on offense or on defense in the second half. A little too much "take no chances and preserve the lead" on offense, and a little too much "sit back in coverage and don't give up any big plays" on defense. I am also worried about Aaron Rodgers, who never seemed like himself after taking the shot to the head by Julius Peppers. Fortunately, he has two weeks to get ready for the SUPER BOWL!

Basically, the win was preserved by some excellent individual plays on defense, including the two interceptions by Sam Shields, and the interception return for a TD by B.J. Raji. He is a young guy, so he probably does not remember this first hand, but he was perilously close to Leon Lett-Don Beebe Super Bowl territory. He should look it up and learn for the future.

I am not sure if my posts over the course of the season fully reflect this, but after the injuries set in early in the year, I did not believe that the Packers could make it to the Super Bowl this year. I felt that it was just one of those things, like the case of the 2008 Patriots, who lost Tom Brady in the first game, and played well (11-5) but did not even make the playoffs. I thought that the Packers might make the playoffs this year, but I did not expect them to go very far in the playoffs if they did.

Nevertheless, in each individual playoff game, I predicted a Packers win. I thought they could beat the Eagles if they played well and avoided mistakes. I thought they could beat the Falcons, but only if they were very fortunate and avoided big mistakes (like kickoff returns for touchdowns, for example). And I thought they could, and really should, beat the Bears. In fact, I probably felt more confident about the Bears' game than either of the other two playoff games. Still, when five games in a row are must-win games, something is bound to go wrong in one of them, especially when the team is not at full strength. Put it this way: what were the chances, as of five weeks ago, that the Packers could win every one of the next five games, all against playoff teams or playoff contenders, with three of the five games on the road?

In that stretch, as I said, something was bound to go wrong and cost the Packers a game (and, in this case, the season). Take the NFC Championship game. The Bears pulled within 7 points twice in the fourth quarter. That put the Packers in quite a bit of jeopardy. A stripped ball, a deflected pass, a snap over Rodgers' head, a defensive back who slips on the turf, and we could be looking at a tie game. Which is why it drives me crazy when Mike McCarthy goes into "protect" mode, or when Dom Capers starts to dial back the pressure, resulting in two fourth-quarter touchdown drives for the Bears. "All's Well that Ends Well," Shakespeare said, but still, I prefer to see the Packers keep the pedal to the metal on offense, and the boot on the throat on defense.

Game balls have to go to Sam Shields and BJ Raji on defense. James Starks (74 yards rushing and a TD) and Greg Jennings (130 yards receiving) would certainly get game balls on offense. And punter Tim Masthay certainly gets a special teams game ball as well. He averaged 41.5 yards per punt, and 34.5 yards net. With Devin Hester returning punts, that is really special, special teams play.

I remember very well what it felt like, as a fan, for the Packers to beat the Dom Capers-coached Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game in January of 1997, on their way to Super Bowl XXXI. It brought (quickly-freezing) tears to my eyes sitting in the stands. It had, after all, been XXIX years since the Packers went to the Super Bowl. Thankfully, we didn't have to wait that long this time, as it was only XIII years from Super Bowl XXXII to Super Bowl XLV.

So, sure, there are lots of things to criticize, there are causes for concern, heck, there may not even be a normal season next year due to contract issues. But let us pause to savor the moment, and the minor miracle of a team that overcame this kind of adversity to reach the Super Bowl. And for all that to happen by beating the Chicago Bears in the most momentous game in the history of the rivalry just adds a little extra.

If that isn't enough, consider the youth of this team. Unlike the Bears, for example, the core of this team is young and capable of being Super Bowl contenders for years to come, even if some of the older veterans (like Charles Woodson and Donald Driver) win their Super Bowl rings and retire.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NFC Championship Preview

Mike McCarthy, in his post-game speeches and in his press conferences, has described how he has talked to his team about playing 16 quarters of football. (For example, here.) They have now finished 8 quarters, and have the opportunity to play another 4 quarters on Sunday. I like this way of putting it. It is, in one sense, just a variation of the old "we play one game at a time" notion, but with two improvements. The first improvement is that it keeps the players' eyes on the ultimate goal - to win the Super Bowl. It is not just about playing the next game, but about completing all 16 quarters. The other thing is: by speaking in terms of quarters rather than games, at least subtly the point is made that you have to play complete games, all four quarters of each of the four games.

I wonder if McCarthy talks about 16 quarters, in part, as a reminder to himself, that he should not go into a shell in the third or fourth quarter with a lead. I criticized him earlier in the year for this, and as recently as the Eagles wild-card game. At some level, I think McCarthy realizes that he has to fight the impulse to go into "protect the lead" mode, and so the "16 quarters" idea also emphasizes to him that he has to make four quarters of play calls in each game, and not just three quarters.

Which brings us to the NFC Championship game. Packers and Bears, for a trip to the Super Bowl. A veritable avalanche of articles and blog posts this week discuss how monumental this game is, and it would be hard to disagree. This is a game we will remember for the rest of our lives, win or lose. Sure would be better to be on the winning side.

The Packers lost to the Bears in week 3, and they barely beat the Bears in week 17. So, not to belabor the obvious, but clearly the Packers could lose this game. But when I try to analyze the teams, I don't see any reason that the Packers should lose this game. The Bears have a better running game than the Packers, although James Starks helps a lot, even if he doesn't even the score. The Bears have better special teams than the Packers. The defenses, even though very different in approach, and with different strengths, could at best be called even, although in reality the Packers' defense has been more productive and more consistent. (Consider that the Bears only scored 16 offensive points against the Packers in their two games, i.e., an average of 8 points per game.) The Packers' passing game is far superior to the Bears, and even though Jay Cutler looks pretty good at times, he is not an elite quarterback, and Aaron Rodgers is. Overall, the Packers' offense is better and much more consistent than the Bears' offense.

The Packers lost the game in Chicago mostly because of a flurry of penalties. They also gave up a punt return touchdown to Devin Hester and a couple of turnovers did not help. Since that game, the Packers have improved dramatically on the penalty front and they at least have a plan (as shown three weeks ago) to keep Devin Hester in check. In the home game three weeks ago, the game may have been close, but it was really only as close as it was by virtue of several overthrown passes, a fumble by Driver, and a great interception by Charles Tillman.

So I think the Packers will win this game, and it might not be close. I would predict a score of something like 24-14. I understand that Willie Davis will be the honorary captain for the Packers. That seems fitting. Both defenses in this game will be important factors in the outcome of the game, and Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis was a great Green Bay Packer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Still Flying High

"I've been following football for 50 years. This was the greatest individual performance in a playoff game I have ever seen."
Mike Ditka, on Aaron Rodgers' performance in routing the Falcons last night, 48-21, on Sunday's NFL Countdown on ESPN. That is a hell of a statement from our old rival, Da Coach.

As of eight days ago, Aaron Rodgers' playoff record was 0-1 and some TV talking heads were suggesting that he can't win big games. Eight days later, his record is 2-1, and he has racked up some of the gaudiest playoff statistics imaginable for a young player who is really just coming into his own. And he did it in three games, all on the road, and (in the case of the two games this year) without two players who were expected to be among his most potent weapons this year, Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley.

If he stays healthy, Aaron Rodgers could be fun to watch for a long time to come. And the Packers may have the best quarterback transition since Joe Montana gave way to Steve Young. Here are a couple of interesting stats. In all his playoff games, Brett Favre threw for over 300 yards 4 times, and the most yards he ever had in a playoff game was 331, in a loss to Dallas after the 1993 season. Rodgers has thrown for more yards than that in 2 of his 3 playoff games. Meanwhile, in all his playoff games, Brett Favre threw 44 touchdowns, as against 30 interceptions. No, it was not just our imagination that he threw an awful lot of interceptions. Aaron Rodgers has thrown for 10 touchdowns and 1 interception in his 3 playoff games.

Aaron Rodgers Career Playoff Statistics







@ Arizona






@ Philadelphia






@ Atlanta












And then there was Tramon Williams. He sealed the win last week against Philadelphia with a leaping interception on the left side of the end zone. Last night, he had a mirror-image interception on the right side of the end zone late in the second quarter, to keep the game tied at 14-14. The Packers took the ball, went on one of their four touchdown drives of 80 yards or more, and went ahead by the score of 21-14. The Falcons tried hard to tie it up or at least get a field goal before the half, aided by a couple of defensive penalties against the Packers. They got as close as the Packers' 26, but a very timely Clay Matthews sack backed them up to the 35, and forced the Falcons to use their last time out. With 10 seconds left in the half, the Falcons decided to try to get a few extra yards on an out pattern, to make the field goal attempt a little shorter. The problem was, everybody knew the pass had to go to the sideline, including Tramon Williams, who recognized the formation, read the play perfectly, intercepted the ball at the 30, put a move on Matt Ryan and one other Falcon, and took the ball in for a 70 yard touchdown return on the final play of the half. Now that is a prime time play by a prime time player.

All in all, you could say that Aaron Rodgers and Tramon Williams have made a pretty good case for why they should have been selected to the Pro Bowl. Then again, with one more win, they would not be able to play in the Pro Bowl this year anyway.

More on the NFC Championship Game later this week. But here is a great little fact I just heard on the NFL Network. If the Packers play the Bears in the Championship Game next week (which I expect - this article is being wrapped up just as the Bears game is about to start), it will be the first playoff game between the Packers and the Bears since the 1941 Western Division Championship Game.

A family note. My brother Bruce and his family decided to go down to Atlanta for the game, and evidently had a fabulous time - much better than when they went to the last Falcons game down there. I await his pictures from the game.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Preview of Falcons Game

The big question is, can the Packers keep things rolling against the Falcons, and roll on to the NFC Championship Game (most likely in Chicago)? Since the Packers played at Atlanta a mere seven weeks ago, that game is an excellent place to start.

The Packers lost that game, 20-17, when Matt Bryant kicked the game-winning field goal in the final seconds. How did they get there? Well, both Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan played excellent games, with very few incomplete passes, no interceptions, and one touchdown pass each. The Packers had no running game (Aaron Rodgers was the leading rusher for the Packers), while the Falcons got 110 yards and a touchdown out of Michael Turner. Everyone acknowledges that Turner got a big assist from the Packers' defense, which had a very bad day in only one category - tackling the guy with the ball.

One way to look at it is that the big difference in the game was two turnovers by the Packers. In the second quarter, the Packers got the ball to the Atlanta one yard line, before the ball was knocked out of Rodgers' hand, where it bounced into the end zone and was recovered by the Falcons. The Packers lost either three or seven points on that fumble, and they lost the game by three points. So that was a big turnover. And then in the fourth quarter, from the Atlanta 41, Rodgers' fourth-down pass to Driver was incomplete, just barely. The Packers were not yet in field goal range at the 41, but they were getting close.

The Falcons have had the advantage of getting a week off, plus their last couple of games didn't involve much pressure, since (I believe) they already had a bye wrapped up. So they should be rested and ready. Occasionally you see one of these second round playoff games where the team that had a bye seems rusty, but overall the record of teams that had a bye is excellent. (One source says that teams with a bye have won 75% of the time since 1990.)

On the other hand, in the seven weeks since the last Packers-Falcons game, the Packers have had some ups and downs, including heartbreaking losses to the Lions and Patriots. But on the positive side:
  • They have now won three must-win games in a row, a laugher against the Giants, and uncomfortably close games against the Bears and Eagles. (While winning must-win games is a good thing, it causes one to wonder when they might get to the point that they are running out of gas.)
  • They have cleaned up their penalty problem quite a bit in recent weeks, being called for roughly half the penalties in recent games, as compared to the prior Falcons game.
  • The Packers have dialed up the pressure on defense in most of the games since the Falcons game, with generally favorable results. In the Falcons game, based on a quick review, the Packers were more passive on defense.
  • In the last few weeks, based in part on more continuity on special teams, the Packers have finally started giving up fewer big plays on special teams. A big kickoff return, aided and abetted by a Packer facemask penalty, was a huge factor at the end of the Falcons game.
  • Finally, if James Starks is for real, the Packers may finally have found a running game again, which would be enormously beneficial to the offense this week.
How do all these things balance out? Well, it makes sense that the Falcons are favored by a couple of points. They are the number one seed in the NFC, they had a bye week to get healthy, and they are playing at home. But the two teams were very closely matched the first time, and the Packers have improved in the ways noted above. I think the Packers will win this game, but like almost all Packer games, it will be close.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Eagles Down, Falcons Coming Up

The Packers started the 2010 season by beating the Eagles in Philadelphia by the score of 20-17. This was a big win for the Packers, because they had not won in Philadelphia since 1962. The game started story lines for each team that would last the whole year. In the case of the Packers, Ryan Grant and Justin Harrell were knocked out for the season, beginning a long list of players who ended up on injured reserve. In the case of the Eagles, the Packers did them a favor, of sorts, by knocking starting quarterback Kevin Kolb out of the game, which led to Michael Vick eventually claiming the starting quarterback position, where he proceeded to lead the Eagles to 10 wins and the division crown. But it wasn't easy - Vick led a comeback for the Eagles, and it took a 4th down stop, in Packer territory in the final two minutes to seal the win.

This week, the Packers supplied the other bookend to the Eagles season by sending them home for the offseason by the score of 21-16. This was the first Packer playoff win in Philadelphia (or anywhere else), ever. If James Jones had better hands (he dropped what would likely have been a long touchdown pass late in the second quarter), or if the Packers had better play calling when trying to grind down the clock, this game might not have been so close. But as it was, it required another stop in the final minute to ensure the win. This time, it came in the form of a game-sealing interception by Tramon Williams in the final minute of the game. (Photo by Evan Siegle of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.)

As a footnote to the Tramon Williams interception, my joy at seeing him come down with the ball was immediately replaced with a second or two of abject terror. He was not touched as he went to the ground in the end zone, and he popped up and began sauntering out of the end zone. It was clear from his body language that he was not intending to run the ball out of the end zone, he was just running to celebrate. But the ball was live, and he apparently did not realize it. So he could have spiked the ball in celebration, or perhaps flipped the ball in the direction of the official, and in either case this would be treated as a fumble, possibly turning the ball back to the Eagles. Fortunately, Charlie Peprah realized what was happening, and got Williams to go to the ground, where Peprah and Nick Collins surrounded him to make sure that nobody could reach in and pull out the ball. Take a look at the video, here.

On offense, it seems to me that there were two keys to this game. The first, and one that augurs well for next week, was the re-discovery of a running game. On the second series, James Starks established what Mike McCarthy called the hot hand, and became the main running back for the rest of the game. He had 23 carries for 123 yards, and added a couple of pass receptions. The running game has been missing in action since Ryan Grant was knocked out. If Starks can consistently gain yards on the ground, that might be just the missing link we have been looking for.

The second key was the 80 yard drive the Packers mounted in the third quarter, immediately after Rodgers fumbled, and the Eagles scored quickly, to make it 14-10. The Packers got the ball back, and put together an 11 play, 80 yard drive, eating up over 6 minutes, and ending with a beautiful screen pass for a touchdown to Brandon Jackson. The Eagles had just gotten a turnover turned into a touchdown, and the momentum of the game might have shifted to the Eagles, but for the Packers' 80 yard drive.

Improvement is still needed. The Packers' receivers have just got to stop dropping balls that would have been touchdown passes. James Jones is the worst offender, but in other games other receivers have dropped TD passes as well. That kind of inconsistency can be a killer in any given game. And while, on the whole, I like the way the Packers called the game, on both offense and defense, I still have a problem with the cautiousness with which they approached the game while protecting the lead late in the game. On every possession after the Packers went ahead 21-10, with 22.5 minutes left in the game, the Packers ran on every 1st down and on every second down. That might conceivably work if the Packers had an overwhelmingly dominant running game. But they don't. It gets a lot easier to play defense if you can predict what your opponent will do on every 1st and 2nd down play. It is no coincidence that the Packers never crossed midfield after adopting this approach. Only great defense preserved the game for the Packers - since the Packers' offense did nothing in the last quarter and a half of the game.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Wild Card Weekend Pregame Thoughts

This is the oddest and most interesting stat I have heard in some time: the Packers never trailed, in any game all season, by more than 7 points. (Source here.) They are the only team in the NFL for which that is true, and the Packers as a team have never done this since the NFL-AFL merger. This might be less surprising if the Packers were 13-3 or 14-2, but for a 10-6 team? Almost unthinkable. So when we say that the Packers' defense is good enough to keep them in contention in every game, I guess I frankly did not realize how true that is. The flip side is that the Packers are losing a lot of very close games, but I think that is something we already realized.

I watched the abbreviated NFL Network version of the Week 1 Packer win over the Eagles last night. When Kevin Kolb was knocked out of the game, the Packers were obviously not prepared for Vick to be the full-time quarterback, as opposed to running a few wildcat plays here and there. Interestingly, they did not put that much pressure on him, blitzing on only a handful of plays. I have to think that this is more the result of not having a game-plan for Vick, rather than a return to the 2009-style Packer defense, where opposing quarterbacks (mostly the elite ones) were treated with kid gloves. In the 15 games since, the Packers have put lots of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, including the elite and the not-so-elite. So I don't think there is any doubt that the Packers will come after Vick on Sunday with some specially-designed, Michael Vick pressure plays from Dom Capers. That is not necessarily all good, since Vick has scrambling abilities that most opposing quarterbacks do not. But my hunch is that the pressure will cause more problems for Vick and the Eagles than it will for the Packers' defense. Vick was getting knocked around quite a bit in the last month or so of the season, and I doubt if he is 100% going into the game. He is probably a little less nimble, and a little more anxious about getting hit, than he would be if he were fully healthy.

The best news is that the Packers seem to realize that sitting back in coverage most of the time will not cut it. In the 2010 season, my perception is that the Packers blitzed more frequently than in 2009, especially against the elite quarterbacks. I am sure somebody keeps these year-over-year stats, but I have not seen them, so I am relying on my perception. But this week I saw some quotes from Charles Woodson that suggests the players (and, by extension, the coaches) are well aware of the need for more pressure than they applied last year:

“(Being aggressive is) very important. We know what we’re going up against,” said Woodson, who blitzed more than a dozen times last Sunday against Chicago’s Jay Cutler and finished with a sack, eight tackles and three pass deflections. “We know that dynamic that Vick is. He’s a very big part of what they’re doing right now. He makes a lot of plays with his feet, but we’ve got to make sure we stay aggressive and make him run if he has to and make sure that we do our job in the back end. But aggressive, that’s the way we like to play.

"I don't think anybody on our team believes we played aggressive enough (against the Cardinals). We kind of took what they gave us. So this year is not going to be that way."

Now that is music to my ears.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

By the Skin of Their Teeth

Well, that game against the Bears was certainly nerve-wracking. It took a 4th quarter touchdown for the Packers to win the game by the score of 10-3. After playing their most complete game of the year last week against the Giants, "all" the Packers needed was to beat the Bears, at Lambeau Field, to assure a spot in the playoffs. And the Bears had wrapped up a bye last week. And by game time, the Bears must have known that the Falcons had won, locking up the no. 1 seed, so that the Bears had no chance of improving their playoff spot in this game.

But this is one of the oldest rivalries in the NFL. And Bears coach Lovie Smith had been saying all week that he would play his starters for the whole game, and that they were going to try to win the game and knock the Packers out of the playoffs. Hats off to Lovie Smith, who must not have gone to the Bill Belichick school of NFL coaching, and therefore means exactly what he says. I have occasionally fulminated over this business of tanking games in the closing weeks of the season (most recently a year ago this week).

How maddening it would have been for the Giants this week to see their playoff hopes go up in smoke because Lovie Smith and the Bears weren't really trying to win the game. There really is an issue of the integrity of the game involved here, so I must give credit to Smith for playing as if the game mattered, as it certainly did to the Giants and to the Packers, and as it did potentially to the Buccaneers. Of course, the Bears' players might have had ulterior motives. Donald Driver reports that Bears players told him that they did not want to see the Packers in the playoffs, because the Packers have a good team. But ultimately the decision on who stays in the game was Lovie Smith's.

The Packers' defense played a masterful game against the Bears, giving up only 3 points and getting twice as many sacks as they gave up in points. It is a bizarre but interesting stat that shows that the Packers lost 6 games this year (and two more in the preseason), and every loss was by either 3 or 4 points, even though the offense sputtered in many of those games. It tells us that this defense is good enough to keep every game close, and to give the Packers a chance to win every game. Which is exactly what they did this week. Due to a combination of strong play by the Bears' defense, along with an off day by some of the Packers' receivers, and some questionable play-calling on offense, the Packers needed every bit of help they could get from the defense.

In addition to strong contributions from the usual suspects on defense, Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews, the Packers also got a critical red zone interception by Charlie Peprah, and a game-sealing interception by Nick Collins. Most interesting was the contribution by Erik Walden, signed in October, who started Sunday for Frank Zombo at outside linebacker. Zombo, of course, replaced the injured Brad Jones earlier in the season. So the third-string linebacker Walden stepped in to register 2 sacks, 10 tackles and one assist in the game, including the points-saving sack of Cutler on 3rd and goal from the 4 yard line in the second quarter. We have known all year that the Packers have adjusted well to devastating injuries, but Erik Walden is the latest example of the extraordinary depth of this team, not to mention the skill of the coaches in bringing a guy signed off the street up to speed in two months.

On offense, I really have two main issues in this game. Obviously, the Packers' offense was somewhat out of sync, but they did have some success, especially in the first, third and fourth quarters. Dropped balls, Driver's fumble, overthrows by Rodgers, and an athletic interception prevented the Packers from scoring more points. But in the second quarter, I saw way too many empty backfield formations, resulting in one sack and a number of scrambles. I would have thought that the Packers, against this defense, would have known that an empty backfield was a bad idea. The good news is that they must have figured it out, since they abandoned the empty backfield in the second half. And, what do you know, that is when they scored their points!

The other thing is the play-calling in short yardage situations, especially the first time the Packers found themselves at the one yard line. Based on Kuhn's success last week, the "Kuuuhn" chant went up from the crowd, and sure enough, the Kuhn run was stuffed. On second down, Rodgers' pass after a fake QB sneak was low, resulting in the timing being messed up, and then on third down he was sacked. The Bears, who have the second best rushing defense in the league, seemed determined not to let Kuhn beat them, and their rushing defense was up to the task. More good news, though: the Packers seemed to figure this out, too, and the next time they had first and goal at the one, the play-action pass to Donald Lee resulted in an easy touchdown.

In the playoff game against the Eagles, the Packers are going to have to play much better on offense, while keeping the defense and the special teams playing at a high level.