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.

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