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.

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