Friday, November 4, 2011

Second Half of the Season Starts Now

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

"Christian Ponder has already had a better rookie season than I had."  Troy Aikman, after the first 20 minutes of the Packers' pre-bye game, with the score 14-7 Vikings.

The Packers set all kinds of individual, team and league records in the game, and overcame early deficits to beat the Vikings, 33-27, sending themselves into the bye week as the only undefeated team left in the league.  However, nagging issues continue to cause concern to the fans and, I would hope, to the players and the coaching staff.

First, a few of the records:
  • Mike McCarthy reached 25 road victories as a head coach faster (after 44 games) than any other Packer coach in history, other than Vince Lombardi (36 road games).
  • The Packers' 13 game winning streak in games that count is the best in Packers' history.
  • The Packers won their 700th game.  The Bears are the only other team with 700 or more wins.
  • Aaron Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history with a passer rating of 110 or higher in each of the first seven games of a season.
And now, the concerns.  It is tough to get too worked up about problems on a 7-0 team, but there are some. Not really on offense, and not to any significant extent on special teams.  On offense, the Packers continue to play lights-out football.  I don't think you can play any better than Aaron Rodgers is playing, the receivers are doing a good job this year of catching the ball, and the running game is much more productive than it was for most of last year.  The Packers ground out the last minutes of the Vikings game with a couple of rushing first downs, for heavens' sake.  That didn't happen for the Packers very much in recent years.  Despite some injuries on the offensive line, the line is providing pretty good protection for Rodgers.

On special teams, I no longer have to hold my breath every time there is a kicking play.  The kick coverage team has given up a couple of long returns, but they don't seem to me to have the raging inconsistency of the last couple of years.  Randall Cobb has run back one kick for a touchdown, and every time he touches the ball on a kicking play, he has the potential to do something big.  He may not be at the level of a Devin Hester or Desmond Howard, but he is a vast improvement over the returners we have had in recent years.

Which brings us to the defense.  The Packers are giving up too many points, way too many yards, and are allowing teams to stay close enough to make things scary at the end of games.  The game against Minnesota was a perfect example.  At times in the third quarter, I thought the Packers would end up winning the game by 20 or more points.  But instead of destroying the Vikings when they were down, the Packers let the Vikings creep back into the game.  Watch games of the Patriots from a few years ago, or even watch the Saints against the Colts in week 7, and you will see teams that have the killer instinct.  The Packers don't seem to have that going for them right now, and they didn't really have it last year, either, even though the defense seemed better last year.  Just take the playoff games.  Of the four games, only the Falcons game had a relaxing finish.  In the Eagles, Bears and Steelers' games, the opposition had a shot to win the game in the final minutes.

So what is the problem?  Is it the loss of Cullen Jenkins to the Eagles?  The loss of Nick Collins to injury?  Another year of wear and tear on Charles Woodson?  The defensive players are admiring their Super Bowl rings when they should be getting ready for the next week's game?  I think all of these things (except for the last one) contribute to the problem, but I suspect that the biggest problem is that the defense has just not gelled this year, what with the changes that have taken place.  A week off may have provided a little respite from the daily grind for the players, and given a little extra time for Dom Capers to work on some new wrinkles.  I do think more aggressiveness on defense, and a little less "bend but don't break" philosophy would pay dividends.  It is also worth noting that we had a bit of the same problem last year.  The Packers had 5 wins in the regular season last year by 18 points or more.  One of those games was in the first half of the season, and the other four were in the second half.  So maybe we will see the Packers' defense play better in the second half this year, too.

Since the bye week fell almost in the middle of the Packers' schedule, the second half of the season effectively starts on Sunday, at San Diego.  Living here in California, we considered driving down to San Diego for the game, but ultimately decided against it.  I have bad memories from the last Packer game I went to at San Diego (yes, that game), but scheduling had more to do with it than bad memories.  The Chargers are expecting the biggest crowd of the season on Sunday, and Scott Crevier, of the South End Zone web site, reported on his way to the game that there were lots of Packer fans in the Orange County airport, three days before the game.  So it seems safe to assume that the Packers will find San Diego almost to be a home away from home.

Eight of the last nine games of the season are against teams with winning records at this point (Minnesota is the sole exception).  So the last half of the season is not going to be easy, and I am pretty sure that the Packers will lose a game or two along the way.  I doubt that this week will be one of those losses.  The Chargers are just not playing up to my expectations of them.  Last Monday night, they lost a close game to the Chiefs in overtime, but they looked terrible in the process, and Philip Rivers, in particular, just looked out of sync.  They will have to play a much better game on Sunday if they expect to beat the rested Packers.

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