What great fun it was to watch the Packers and Bears play on Christmas night. We had my brother and family (visiting from Wisconsin) over to watch the game, along with good friend Myles and family. Son Ben was home from school for a couple of weeks, and daughter Sarah was at the game, along with her Panther fan Andrew, who is such a big football fan in general that he decided to become a Packer shareholder. From the very first drive, mostly in the no-huddle offense, with the screen pass being the key play in the drive, it became clear that the Packers had figured out a way to adapt to their makeshift offensive line, resulting from a series of injuries.
If there is one stat that stands out for me in the Packers-Bears game last week, it is this. In the official NFL Gamebook of the game last week, the name of Julius Peppers appears exactly once. In the list of starting defensive players. He had no tackles, no assists, no sacks, no nothing. Aaron Rodgers was never sacked, and in general was hit only when he ended up running with the ball, which happened a couple of times on busted plays, and a couple of other times on scrambles. On defense, it was another story. The Packers again gave up over 400 yards, including 199 rushing yards, mostly to a running back nobody ever heard of before. The Packers got no sacks on defense. More than any other single factor, the continued absence of Ryan Pickett contributed to the defensive problems. I am anxiously awaiting his return. The Packers simply cannot continue to play defense like this in the playoffs, if they expect to win some games.
It will be interesting to see what approach Mike McCarthy takes in this week's Lions game. As a season ticket holder, I hate exhibition games, and I hate being required to pay full price for them. I have fulminated in the past over the business of teams with playoff seeding locked up "tanking" their Week 17 game, making no real effort to win, and in the process knocking some other team out of the playoffs. Just last year, I gave high praise to Lovie Smith and the Bears for giving it their all in Week 17, playing as if their game against the Packers mattered (which it did, in playoff life-or-death fashion, to the Packers and Giants). This week's game against the Lions does matter, for playoff seeding purposes, to the Lions and Falcons. And it matters for Packer team record purposes. The 2011 Packer team is the only Packer team to win 14 games in a single regular season. Obviously, no Packer team has ever won 15 in a regular season. There is another team record at stake: the Lions have not beaten the Packers in Wisconsin since 1991, coincidentally just before Favre and then Rodgers arrived on the scene.
Now obviously, if the Packers get out to a comfortable lead, McCarthy will start taking starters out of the game. And I fully assume that he will pull the trigger earlier than he might in any other week. But I hope and expect that the Packers will go out and try to win the game, and go into the playoffs on a high note.
The Press-Gazette notes that it was 50 years ago this weekend that Green Bay first become Titletown, USA. On December 31, 1961, the Packers hosted the NFL Championship Game and destroyed the Giants, 37-0. I could not readily put my hands on it to scan it for this blog post, but somewhere around the house is the New York Post sports page from the day after the game. It was given to us by Judy's old boss (a Giants fan) in the mid-1980's, meaning we have had it about as long as he did before giving it to us. I am pretty sure that Vince Lombardi would have gone out and tried to win the game this week. So should Mike McCarthy.
It just figures that, as soon as I jump on the "undefeated Packers" bandwagon, they go out and lay an egg on the field. All season long, I have been saying that I figured that the Packers would lose a game somewhere along the way. Then, last week, I finally said that I thought the Packers would win their final 3 games to end the regular season undefeated. You could say that I jinxed the team, but I think the odds just finally caught up with them. (That, and the fact that the Packers were out-played on both sides of the ball, and out-coached as well.)
All year long, we have seen Aaron Rodgers carry the Packers on his back. Receivers would drop balls, the defense would give up too many points, the running game would struggle, but the MVP-caliber play by Aaron Rodgers would bail out the team. And in some games, we have seen the defense give up enough points to put the win in jeopardy, but then they would come up with the big turnover or stop to save the game. The week 1 win against the Saints is a perfect example of both of these phenomena in action. Rodgers was unstoppable in the passing game, and the defense came up with the big stop from the 1 yard line with no time left on the clock.
The question always was: what happens in a game that is close where the defense doesn't come up with the turnovers? Or what happens in a game that is close where Aaron Rodgers doesn't have a sensational game? Well, now we know, since the Chiefs game involved: (1) no turnovers generated by the Packers' defense; (2) a very sub-par performance by Aaron Rodgers, who completed less than 50% of his passes; (3) lots of drops by the receivers; and (4) a rushing game that was productive, but not given enough chances to move the ball. The result was a loss to the Chiefs, by the score of 19-14.
I have been out of town since the game, and have not had the chance to go through the painful exercise of watching the game again. This may well be one of those games I never get around to watching again. We watched the Chiefs game in a Packers bar in Las Vegas. Let's just say that this place was no Kettle of Fish. The Kettle of Fish is a great Packers bar in Manhattan, where we watched the Monday Night Packers-Broncos game during the 2007 season. Everything was great about that bar, and we would return any time we are in New York during football season. Whereas this bar in Las Vegas was full of smoke (hey, it's Las Vegas), not particularly friendly, and someplace we would avoid if in Las Vegas again during the season.
I am finishing this blog post after the Saturday (Christmas Eve) day games. The 49ers beat the Seahawks, and as a result, the Packers still need one more Packer win or a 49er loss in order to clinch home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. So Sunday night's game matters to the Packers, in every possible way. The Packers ought to go out and win this game and get HFA out of the way, without leaving anything to be decided in the final game. The Bears will be without starting quarterback Jay Cutler and starting running back Matt Forte. The Bears have decided that Caleb Hanie is not the answer, and so they will start Josh McCown at quarterback against the Packers. The Packers have plenty of injury problems of their own, and will be playing without Greg Jennings, Bryan Bulaga, Chad Clifton and Ryan Pickett. The Bears usually play very well against the Packers, but the psychology of this game is all in the Packers' favor. The Packers have HFA to play for, they ought to be mad as hell and a little embarrassed about last week's game, and should want to get that taste out of their mouths. The Bears, while still alive for the playoffs, have lost four games in a row, and it would take a minor miracle for them to end up with a wild card spot. That is a recipe for a Packers victory, and I suspect they will beat the Bears easily.
During the first few offensive plays for the Raiders, I wondered if we Packer fans would be in for "another one of those days." The Packers gave up a couple of passes for first downs, and it looked like the Raiders would just march down the field. But just like that, Clay Matthews got after Carson Palmer, causing Palmer to hurry his throw, which resulted in an interception by D.J. Smith. After a Raiders penalty on the Packers' first snap (the first of many Raiders penalties to follow), Ryan Grant broke off a 47 yard touchdown run, and after that, the only question was how bad it was going to get for the Raiders.
At some point during a commercial in the middle of the second quarter, Judy (my wife) said, "what is the score now, 31-0?" And indeed it was. The Packers eventually gave up some points, and the final score was Packers 46, Raiders 16. It is a bit of a cliche to say that the game was not as close as the score, but it really wasn't. The Raiders, their fans, and the local media here in the Oakland area are well aware that the Raiders were blown out for the second week in a row. The online version of the game story in the Oakland Tribune has a different headline, but my local print paper's article on the game is titled: "Another 34-0 Deficit, Another Debacle."
The Packers' defense looked much more like its normal 2011 self this week, meaning they give up way too many yards, they don't get enough sacks, but they really do "bend" mostly without "breaking," and they continue to be among the best ball-hawking defenses in the league. (Against the Raiders, they intercepted Palmer four times, and recovered a fumble.) Truth be told, the Raiders dropped a lot of catchable balls in the game, and the Raiders committed lots of penalties, and both factors made things easier on the Packers' defense, but still, the point is that the defense looked like the kind of defense the Packers can continue to win with.
Against the Raiders, it was the offense that had an off day, if you can consider it an off day when you score 39 points on offense, and give your backup quarterback lots of playing time in the third and fourth quarters. There were balls that should have been caught, balls that were just a little off target, and one ball that was wrestled away from our sometimes unstoppable tight end, Jermichael Finley, for an interception. However, in the absence of James Starks, Ryan Grant looked like the Ryan Grant of a couple of years ago, breathing some new life into the running game just when it is needed, as the weather gets cold.
Rodgers, in the course of having his "off" day, managed to tie the Packers' team record for TD passes in a season, at 39. The record was held by Brett Favre, for 39 TD passes in 1996, which was of course the year that the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. The Packers also set the team record for points scored in a season, by reaching 466 points. Rodgers and the Packers have three more games in the regular season to add to those record totals.
The injury to Greg Jennings is obviously a major concern. I consider him to be one of the top 4 playmakers on the team, along with Rodgers, Matthews and Woodson. As of this writing, it looks like he will miss the last 3 weeks of the regular season, but that he should be back in time for the playoffs. Normally, one would expect a problem when a player of Jennings' caliber misses three games, but the 2011 Packers have what can only be described as an embarrassment of riches at WR, most prominently Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Donald Driver, and Randall Cobb. I think they will be just fine.
I heard an interesting fact on the local (San Francisco) CBS post-game show: the Raiders have not beaten the Packers since Ronald Reagan was in office. That would have been September 13, 1987, when the Raiders came to Lambeau Field and beat the Packers, 20-0. That was so long ago that I have no recollection of the game, but the starting quarterback for the Packers was Randy Wright, and this was during the period that Randy Wright and his successor, Don Majkowski, were sharing the starting quarterback duties. (Special Randy Wright memories: the gnarly older woman with the gravelly, smoker's voice who sat behind us in our old seats at Lambeau Field, and/or her partner, could be counted on at least once each game to yell out the following lines: "Randy Wrong, Randy Wrong." . . . "Come ON, youse guys, DO something!" . . . "Yah, I seen him piss away the Rose Bowl.")
Dredging up these Randy Wright memories brings to mind another thought. While the Wright / Majkowski sharing of the starting quarterback job was a weird experiment, it is probably closer to the typical team's quarterback situation than what the Packers have had over the last 20 years. Most teams struggle to find the right long-term quarterback, and may go through a couple of starting quarterbacks a year for a number of years before settling on their guy. Think of the Chicago Bears, for instance. But since the third week of the 1992 season, the Packers have had exactly two starting quarterbacks (not counting the concussion-induced start by Matt Flynn last year), both of whom are probably headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The only other back-to-back quarterback combination I can think of that is even comparable is Joe Montana - Steve Young in San Francisco. We are lucky enough to be living through another golden age of Packers football, and we should, from time to time, take a moment to reflect on that.
And, of course, we are also living through what might end up being the most magical single season for a team in history. Earlier in the season, I always thought that the Packers would lose a game here or there, and they still might, given the fact that the defense is not playing at the same level as it did last year. But there are only three games left in the regular season. The 5-8 Kansas City Chiefs, who fired their head coach this week, don't seem like they will be the ones to knock off the Packers. The 7-6 Bears, probably without Jay Cutler and possibly without Matt Forte? It could happen, as they do usually play the Packers very well, but I doubt it. The self-destructing 8-5 Lions, playing in the cold? Very little chance. We will talk about the playoffs later, but at this point, having gotten by the Lions, Giants and Raiders, I think the Packers will end up 16-0.
In the course of one day, the Packers: (1) won their 18th straight game, a streak that began with their win against the Giants last year; (2) successfully completed the third quarter of the regular season without a loss; (3) achieved a 12-0 record for the first time in team history; (4) clinched a playoff spot when they beat the Giants on the last play of the game; (5) executed a classic one-minute drill to lead to the final play victory; and (6) clinched the NFC North Title later Sunday evening when the Lions lost. Not bad for a day's work. As for goals for next week, the Green Bay Press-Gazette Facebook page, NFL Historian Jon Zimmer reports that a win next week will match the best start ever by a defending Super Bowl Champion (matching the 1998 Denver Broncos).
Still . . . it is impossible to ignore the problems on the Green Bay defensive side. From total points given up (35) to total yards allowed (447) to gain per rush (5.0) to gain per pass (8.5), this was not an elite defensive performance against the Giants. And the Giants, while talented, are not really an elite team, having been crushed by the Saints on Monday Night Football six days before the Packers played them. The Packers started the game with starters Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk inactive, and ended the game with Charles Woodson out with a concussion. But the Packers and their fans have come to expect that the "next man up" will get the job done. Looks like Woodson will be back this week, Hawk may be back, but Bishop probably will not be ready this week.
And now another wildly inconsistent team, the Oakland Raiders, comes to town on Sunday. It was only four years ago that I reminisced about some of the great moments in Packers-Raiders history, from Super Bowl II, to the first Lambeau Leap, to the Irvin Favre game. So rather than repeat that history now, just go take a look at the 2007 article.
The Raiders, at 7-5, are tied for first place in the AFC West, but as of now would lose the tie-breaker to the Broncos, and would finish out of the playoffs. They have beaten some good teams, but have also lost, in embarrassing fashion, to the Chiefs and to the Dolphins in the last six weeks. Suffice it to say, a team with a positive record, at 7-5, but with a negative points differential (giving up more points than it scores), is unlikely to be able to keep up with the 2011 Green Bay Packers. I expect a fairly easy win (but bear in mind, I expected the same last week, too).
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Meanwhile, the Packers' latest sale of stock is underway, as I mentioned last week. Sure, being an "owner" of the Green Bay Packers is not, in any meaningful way, an investment. But the fact that we, the fans, actually own our team is, and always has been, one of the greatest things about the Green Bay Packers. Apparently I am not the only one who feels that way, from comments sent in by shareholders to ESPN's NFC North reporter, Kevin Seifert.
Many people, including me, thought that the Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit was one of those games that the Packers could end up losing. Even though the Lions had lost a few of these holiday games in a row, traditionally they played well on Thanksgiving; they beat the Packers at Detroit last year; and until a few weeks ago, it looked like both teams might go into this game undefeated. I was particularly concerned about the Lions' fierce pass rush, led by the Lions' defensive star Ndamukong Suh.
The game started slowly, and at halftime the score was only 7-0 Packers. Certainly, it was anybody's game at that point. Not only were the Packers not running away with the game, you could make a case that they were lucky to be ahead. The Lions had twice as much time of possession in the first half, twice as many total yards, almost twice as many passing yards. A Stafford interception by Clay Matthews led to the only Packer points of the half, but other than that short scoring drive, the Lions' defense was doing an excellent job of slowing down the Packers.
How fitting it was, then, that the turning point in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions turned out to be a penalty by Suh. I just have not been watching much of the Lions so far this year. So I knew that Suh had been getting a reputation for dirty play, and I knew that the Bears in particular had complained about it a lot, but I didn't have a personal opinion about it. In fact, I saw a story on ESPN about Suh and Jahvid Best buying new equipment for a high school team that had all its football equipment stolen, and I thought, "maybe he is not such a bad guy," and maybe it was just the Bears whining.
But then I saw the play where he pushed Evan Dietrich-Smith's head into the ground several times and then stomped on his arm, resulting in Suh's ejection from the game. That was bad enough, but to hear his post-game explanation, that he had lost his balance and put his foot down to regain his balance just served to enrage me. Boomer Esiason, Shannon Sharpe, and Bill Cowher all just hammered him during the halftime show of the second game, and has so have all the commentators since. And well they should. It would be one thing if, as Charles Woodson did after throwing a punch earlier in the year, Suh just said that he had lost his cool, that he doesn't want to be that kind of player, and tried to move on. But to stand up there, in pure denial mode, and say he was trying to regain his balance? It is just ridiculous. A former college teammate of Suh's even called him delusional. While the Lions had stopped the Packers on the play in question, so that they would have kicked a field goal to make it 10-0, the penalty and ejection of Suh led directly to the Packers scoring a touchdown instead, to take a 14-0 lead, and to go on to win the game 27-15.
Since I first put down these thoughts in a draft post almost a week ago, Suh has apologized to just about everybody but Evan Dietrich-Smith, but thanks to his post-game comments, everybody saw right through his belated apology. The Commissioner imposed a two-game suspension, Suh appealed, and his appeal was rejected almost immediately.
So, after a mini-bye week when the players got a few days off to relax and heal, the Packers move on to play the Giants this week in New Jersey. While the Packers, at 11-0, have won 17 in a row dating back to last year, the Giants have lost 3 in a row, and find themselves in second place in their division, and, as of now, would finish out of the playoffs if the season ended today. Plus, we all recall, the Packers took the Giants apart last year, beating them 45-17 in week 16 last year. So between the desperation factor and the revenge factor, could the Giants be the ones to end the Packers' win streak? Maybe, but I doubt it.
Last year, as I noted at the time, the Giants went into that week 16 game with almost as much at stake as the Packers, who never would have even made the playoffs if they lost to the Giants in week 16, or to the Bears in week 17. Plus, the Giants had just suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Eagles, much as they suffered a big loss to the Saints this past Monday night. Last year, they collapsed in the face of the Eagles' 4th quarter rally, capped by the DeSean Jackson punt return touchdown in the last minute that, with the benefit of hindsight, made it possible for the Packers to make the playoffs. This year, they were just beaten, from start to finish, by the Saints, who led 21-3 at halftime and never looked back.
I just don't think the Giants are playing well enough now to beat the Packers. Not only have they lost 3 in a row, but they have been outscored by their opponents this year. Going into a game against the Packers, having given up more points than you are scoring all year, is not a situation calculated to lead to a good result. I think the Packers will keep their streak alive for at least another week.
Just in time for Christmas and Hanukah, the Packers are offering another stock sale, starting next Tuesday. When the Packers last did this (in 1997), my wife, my kids and I all bought stock, and have never regretted showing our support for the Packers this way. It is not, in any normal sense, an investment. Proceeds will be used to fund additional Lambeau Field expansion, including the new end zone seats which will be built. A summary of some of the information available about the stock sale is available here. Full disclosure information will be available later.
Anyway, thanks to Packer blogger Jersey Al and to my friend Peter Chen for reminding me of the stock sale. Go out and become an NFL owner!
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.