The Packers finished the first quarter of their season on Sunday, by beating the Denver Broncos by the score of 49-23. Based on the way the Lions and Packers finished last year, I am not surprised that they are both doing well so far this year. But I am stunned that there are only two 4-0 teams left in the NFL, and they are both in the NFC North! Unless one of these teams goes on a losing streak, every game the Packers and Lions play becomes important. Neither team wants to fall behind the other with both looking so good.
It would be tough to overstate how great Aaron Rodgers looked in this game. He became the only quarterback in history to throw for more than 400 yards, and throw four touchdown passes, and rush for two touchdowns in a single game. James Starks did a credible job rushing with Ryan Grant sitting out this game, and the wide receivers stepped up when the Broncos decided to make sure that Jermichael Finley did not have a repeat of his 3 touchdown performance against the Bears. I have to admit that when Donald Driver was taken off on a cart in the second quarter, I thought he would be out for some time and, given his age, it certainly seemed possible that we had just witnessed the end of his career. When he came back into the huddle at the beginning of the second half, and ultimately scored a touchdown, the sense of relief, admiration and inspiration in the stadium was palpable, even just watching it on TV. He is one of the good guys, and will always be remembered as such.
Meanwhile, problems continue on the defensive side of the team. The problems are most glaring when long passes are completed against the Packers, and so the obvious solution is better secondary play. Even Dom Capers seems to attribute the problems to changes in the secondary, with Morgan Burnett stepping in to replace Nick Collins. While this undoubtedly is part of the problem, I don't think that the defensive backs are the only problem. From my viewing of the game, I come down on the side of those who say that the problem starts with the lack of pressure on the quarterback (for example, take at the game summary by the Packergeeks). Unlike during the run to and through the playoffs last year, the Packers' defensive line is just not getting enough pressure on the quarterback - or at a minimum, they did not get enough pressure on Sunday. Was it the failure to sign free agent Cullen Jenkins during the off-season, who signed instead with the team formerly known as the Dream Team? Was it the injury to Mike Neal? Obviously, both of these contributed to the problem, but so far, Dom Capers has not found the solution. When three or four rush the quarterback, the quarterback usually has plenty of time to sit back and wait for something to develop. Only when Capers sends additional rushers does the quarterback have to rush his passes, and then of course there are fewer guys left in coverage, so it is easier to complete the passes. If you saw the Jets-Ravens game on Sunday night, you saw an example of pass rush by the Ravens that was so overpowering there was not much Mark Sanchez could do. When they blitzed, they got there so fast Sanchez had little chance to unload the ball, and even when they didn't blitz, they still got enough pressure on him to disrupt things. I have not seen enough of that from the Packers this year.
What a pair of prime time games we have coming up this week. Sunday night, it is the Packers returning to the home of last year's no. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons, hoping to repeat their performance from last year in the playoffs. On Monday night, the undefeated Lions host the NFC North Champion Bears. Lots of potential playoff implications in these two games. For the Falcons and the Bears, it is a chance to start to recover from their disappointing 2-2 starts, and get back over .500 for the year. For the Packers and the Lions, it is a chance to go to 5-0 and state a solid case for being elite teams in 2011. For both teams, it will be another significant test, after starting out with the same record against similar teams.
The Packers have beaten two good teams (Saints and Bears), and two mediocre teams (Panthers and Broncos). The Lions have beaten two pretty good teams (Buccaneers and Cowboys), and two mediocre teams (Chiefs and Vikings). The major difference is that the Lions have had to stage startling comebacks in two of their games (Vikings and Cowboys). This shows that the Lions have learned how to win, and that they never give up. But it also shows a weakness, in falling so far behind to one bad team (Vikings) and to one pretty good but nicked up team (Cowboys). They can't keep that up forever. Either they get better in the early stages of games, or they start falling short in their furious comebacks. The Lions are better than the Bears, and they are playing at home. I think they will be 5-0. In the case of the Packers, I acknowledge the power of the "revenge" factor for the playoff game last year, but the Packers overcame the same factor against the Bears. The Falcons offense just does not seem as strong as it was last year (they only scored 12 and 13 points in their two losses), while their defense seems just as vulnerable as the Packers showed it to be last year. I think the Packers will also be 5-0.
Occasional ramblings by Tom Freeman, a life-long Green Bay Packers fan, season ticket holder, and shareholder, now living on the idyllic Central Coast of California. My articles were previously published on the South End Zone web site.