Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gut-Check Time

Photo by Jeffrey Phelps, AP

In my last post, I was wondering when the last time was that the Packers got off to a fast start.  One word from me apparently was all it took.  Against the Titans, the Packers led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, 20-0 at the half, and 34-0 at the end of the third quarter.  They went on to win 55-7, losing the shutout in the final two minutes of the game.

Not only that, but the Seahawks (yes, the same blasted Seahawks who almost screwed up the Packers' season with the Fail Mary game) went out and put a major hurt on the 49ers.  Who knew the Seahawks were for real?  But apparently they are, having scored 58, 50 and 42 in their last three games.  This really shook things up.  It put the Packers in the no. 2 seed for now, with the bye week that entails, it left the Vikings clinging to the no. 6 seed, but probably needing to beat the Packers next week to hold onto it, it moved the Packers-Vikings to the 3:25 pm (LFT) time slot next week, and it leaves the final NFC playoff spot to be determined in the Sunday night Cowboys-Redskins game.

Now comes the test for the Packers.  After starting the season 2-3, I remember having discussions with family and friends about whether the Packers could even recover sufficiently to make the playoffs.  Ten games and nine wins later, they have made the playoffs, won the division, will have a home game, and all they need is one last win against the Vikings to secure a first round bye.

I can think of seasons where the Packers had to depend on the outcome in another game in the final week to see if they made the playoffs.  Sometimes it worked out (as in the miraculous Cardinals-Vikings game to close the 2003 season, when the final play of the game, on 4th and 24, knocked the Vikings out of the playoff and the Packers into the playoffs).  More often it did not.  I can recall some game in the late 1980's or early 1990's when the Monday Night crew, in the final game of the regular season, kept going for reaction shots to Don Majkowski's den, where he and several teammates were watching the Packers' playoff chances going up in smoke.

Without looking it up to find an example, I know there have been other years when the burden was on the Packers, to win in order to advance to the playoffs, or to win to better their position in the playoffs.  In some of those cases, they came up short and failed.  Well, they get another chance on Sunday, before a national audience, to go into the playoffs on a high note.  The Vikings are playing better than I expected this year.  True, they are last in the league in passing offense, as might be expected with Christian Ponder at quarterback, but they are third in the league in rushing offense, thanks to the marvelous year Adrian Peterson is having.  Peterson needs 208 yards rushing to break the all-time single season rushing record, so he obviously has lots of motivation to play well, and the Vikings will probably need to win to get the wild card spot.  So there is a lot on the line for the Vikings.

Packer fans might be a little gun-shy about getting a bye week, after last year's debacle against the Giants, but let's not kid ourselves.  A week off to get healthy, at this time of year?  Plus the opportunity to get to the Super Bowl after winning only two playoff games, instead of three?  It is a no-brainer to try to get that bye week.

So, to spur the Packers along a little, let me offer this: I wonder when the last time was that the Packers came out and just shut down a top-notch running back, basically taking him out of the game as an impact player?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Remember the Titans?

Trivia question: when was the last time the Packers got off to a fast start in a game?  Because they certainly didn't do it against the Bears last Sunday.  The Packers misfired on their first offensive series, with Rodgers throwing the ball behind receivers several times, and took a couple of sacks on the first two series, before ending a scoreless first quarter.  To make matters worse, they came close to giving up an interception on one tipped ball, and they almost had their first punt blocked.  The Bears got on the board first, in the second quarter, with a TD pass to new public enemy no. 1, Brandon Marshall, before the Packers finally seemed to get started in the game.

At the end of the day, the Packers were able to win the game in what would have been a comfortable fashion, but for one of the worst coaching calls in recent memory - the 4th quarter Randall Cobb "throwback" trick play punt return - Cobb caught the punt, then threw the ball across the field.  It looked like it could have been a good play with lots of potential in the right situation.  The receiver could have done a better job of going to get the ball, but instead the ball was fumbled and recovered by the Bears.  Close to your own goal line?  Leading by 11 points and with 8 minutes left, when the Bears have had almost no offense all day long?  I just don't see the risk-reward balance on this play as making it even close to being a sensible decision.

Mason Crosby missed another pair of field goals, from 43 and 42 yards.  This has got to be a mental issue at this point - Crosby has talent, but is not executing the kicks.  I question whether there is a better kicker out there bagging groceries and waiting for a call, so I am reluctantly in McCarthy's camp on this - Crosby is our kicker, period, so get over it and hope he gets through this soon.  Meanwhile, for an amusing look at a kicker who apparently is available to replace Crosby on a moment's notice, take a look at this video, located by the Acme Packing Company website.

Trap Game Ahead?  And now the Tennessee Titans come to Lambeau, for the last regular season home game of the year.  The Titans are 5-9, and have given up 396 points this season.  Only the Raiders and the Bills have given up more (402).  But they also have Chris Johnson who, as the Jets found out Monday night, is capable of taking over a game.  And the Packers have been known, from time to time, to give up big games to running backs.  So this game could be one of those games that could jump up and bite the Packers.  But I doubt it.  As bad as the Jets are now, the Titans only beat them by 4 points, despite a 94 yard touchdown run by Chris Johnson.  The Packers are just a better team, and the Titans are a little out of their element playing in Wisconsin in January.  Still, there is no margin for error if the Packers hope to rise to the no. 2 seed, so it would be advisable for them to "remember the Titans."

Bye Week Possibilities.  I really figured the 49ers would lose to the Patriots on Sunday night.  And of course, if they had, the Packers would be sitting at the No. 2 NFC seed right now.  I sort of gave up hope when the 49ers were ahead 31-3.  But I kept watching, mostly for Fantasy Football reasons.  Lo and behold, the Patriots tied it up at 31, before losing the game 41-34.  So the question now becomes, assuming the Packers beat the Titans, can the Seahawks give the Packers a little help by beating the 49ers?  It would be a welcome "payback" by the Seahawks to the Packers, after the "Fail Mary" game.  It almost seems like completely different 49er and Seahawks teams will be playing Sunday night, as compared to their last meeting 10 weeks ago, when the 49ers won, 13-6.  Both teams are scoring a lot more points now.  The Seahawks scored 50 or more points the last two weeks, admittedly against bad teams.  But the way they are playing now, the Seahawks certainly have a shot, and it would not even be a huge upset if they won.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bear Down Against the Chicago Bears

Mike Daniels makes the Lambeau Leap
Let's see - a magically beautiful snow game, the Packers falling into an 0-14 hole due in part to turnover(s), Ryan Grant on the field, the Packers come back to win the game.  Why does this all seem so familiar?  Ah, yes.  The famous Snow Globe Game.  The final score against the Lions last Sunday was not as convincing, just 27-20, but given that the Bears and 49ers both lost on Sunday, the significance of the victory over the Lions can't be underestimated.  Sunday's game against the Bears, of course, will be even more significant.

After getting back Sam Shields last week, it looks like the Packers will finally get Clay Matthews back on Sunday.  Unfortunately, Jordy Nelson, James Starks, C.J. Wilson, and Charles Woodson are still out.  My thought has been that the only upside to this year's raft of injuries was that the Packers would start to get back some of those players not on Injured Reserve at just the right time to close out the year strong and go into the playoffs.  There is still room for that to happen, but it is not happening as fast as I would have liked.  The return of Greg Jennings was offset almost immediately by the loss of Jordy Nelson, so the Packers continue to be slightly short-handed at receiver.  That said, the return of Matthews should be an enormous benefit to the Packers this week.  Maybe the brightest spot for the Bears' offense this season is the Jay Cutler - Brandon Marshall connection (32 catches in his last three games).  While the burden for defending against Marshall will fall primarily on the defensive backs, more pressure on Cutler will definitely contribute to holding Marshall in check.

Meanwhile, the Bears have given up 170 or more rushing yards in each of the last two games (against the Vikings and Seahawks).  If only the Packers had a rushing game.  Oh, wait!  The Packers, all of a sudden, have one, having gained 140 or more against the Lions and Vikings.  Ryan Grant, who I assume will get more than one carry on Sunday, has a history, both of performing well against the Bears, and of performing well when the weather turns sloppy.  So I look forward to seeing what he can do against the Bears.  Plus I like the three-headed monster of a running back group of Ryan Grant, DuJuan Harris, and Alex Green.  They each have different styles, they each have shown that they can be effective (assuming, in Ryan Grant's case, that there is gas left in the tank) and they all are healthy and should have fresh legs at this time of the season.  If the Packers can keep a semblance of a running game going, they will be hard to stop.

The Bears always seem to play a tough game against the Packers, but I don't see the Bears actually winning the game on Sunday, especially missing Brian Urlacher, Tim Jennings, and a couple of other defensive players.  Full disclosure: I always think the Packers will beat the Bears, so I am not necessarily a good judge of this game.  But there are lots of stats that tend to back me up on this one.  I see big days for the Packers' running backs, and big days for at least a couple of the receivers, most likely Jermichael Finley (believe it or not) and Greg Jennings.  The Packers have started off the last two games very slowly, and dug themselves considerable holes before turning things around.  If they can avoid that fate this time, the game may not be close.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Which Packer Team Will Show Up?

Green Bay Press-Gazette Photo
The game against the Giants two weeks ago left me in a very foul mood.  You figure that a team will lose some games in a season.  Every team since the 1972 Dolphins has done so.  But the Packers in 2012 have found some creative and different ways to lose games this year.  The opening day loss to the 49ers was just a case of getting beat by what was, on that day anyway, a better team.  The Seattle "Fail Mary" loss was one for the ages - but in a bad way.  We will be talking about that game 20 years from now, the way the Bears fans still talk about the Majkowski-Sharpe "Instant Replay" game from 1989 (except the call in this case really was a travesty, unlike the call in the "Instant Replay" game).  The Indianapolis "Epic Collapse" game was shocking and disgusting at the time, but now that the Colts are 8-4, we can see that they are a much better team than we assumed.

But the Giants game was just an old-fashioned ass-kicking.  The Giants beat the Packers in every facet of the game, and it wasn't even close.  How bad was it?  Kevin Seifert of ESPN gives the ugly details.

The Giants may or may not "have the Packers' number" (whatever that means), but they have shown repeatedly over the last 6 seasons that they know how to exploit the weaknesses in the Packers' team.  The thing that made me more angry than sad is to read that the Packers' players said that they played the game without emotion.  This has been repeated in many venues, including   I can excuse the players for making physical mistakes (like taking a bad angle on a tackle), or for not being good enough (like Tramon Williams trying to cover Hakeem Nicks) a lot easier than I can excuse them for not playing with emotion.  The division lead is on the line, after a long, hard slog to get back in first place in the NFC North.  The Packers had two playoff losses to the same Giants in the last 5 seasons, interrupting what looked like Super Bowl runs.  The Packers (arguably) play better on the road than at home.  And then they come out and get man-handled, and their excuse is that they "played without emotion?"

Anyway, this left the Packers trailing the Bears by a game for the division lead, with 5 games to go.  The toughest remaining game for both teams is the week 14 matchup between the two, which in many scenarios will decide the division.  But given the beat-down administered by the Giants, could anyone be faulted for fearing that the Packers would drop another game somewhere along the way, making the game with the Bears irrelevant?  That, I have to admit, is what I was worried about going into the Vikings game.

And there were moments during that game when it looked like that was exactly what would happen.  After getting off to a 10-0 start ("hey, this is going to be easy after all") thanks to an unbelievable catch in the end zone by James Jones, the game started slipping away.  When the Packers started practicing their "OlĂ©!" tackling technique on Adrian Peterson, another 10 point lead was blown, and the Packers trailed 14-10 at halftime.  It was about to get worse, when Morgan Burnett (MVP of the game, according to my daughter) pulled in the first of his two interceptions to cut off a Minnesota scoring drive. 

Of course, the Packers went on to win the game, so everything was good.  On top of that, the Bears lost in overtime to Seattle, and the 49ers lost to the Rams in overtime.  Which put the Packers back in first place in the division, and got me to thinking about the possibility of passing up the 49ers for the second seed and the bye.  Until my daughter brought me back to earth by pointing out that it is crazy to think about that, with the Packers looking as inconsistent as they have this year. 

So which Packer team is the real one?  The team that looks great in beating the Texans?  Or the team that gets crushed by the Giants and blows a huge lead to the Colts?  If the "good" Packers are the real team, this is the time of year for them to step up.  We will start to find out, tonight, against the Lions.  The Lions obviously have some talent, and the Packers obviously have lots of injuries.  But if this is a team that is going to contend for a championship, there is no excuse, this time of year, at home, for not going out and taking care of business.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bye Week Blues? No, Bye Week Bonus!

As much as the Packers may have needed a bye week to have a chance to get healthy, their fans usually don't look forward to the bye week.  Sure, you can watch other NFL games, or clean out your garage, or catch up on some paperwork or whatever.  But usually it is a letdown, a lost Sunday right in the middle of the football season.

Going into the weekend, the Packers were on a four game winning streak, with a 6-3 record, sitting in second place in the division.  "If the playoffs started today," as they say, the Packers would be a wild card, and the 5th seed, looking up at the four division leaders.  So what happened to those four division leaders?  The number one seed Falcons, previously 8-0, went out and lost to the New Orleans Saints, despite having a couple of opportunities in the closing minutes to take the lead.  The Saints had an impressive goal line stand in the final two minutes of the game to preserve the win.

The 7-1 Chicago Bears were the number 2 seed, and led the Packers by a game and a half.  But a sloppy weather game in Chicago, and a concussion for Jay Cutler, was all it took for them to lose their second game, to the Texans.  Truth be told, they didn't look that good even before Cutler got knocked out, having scored only 3 points in the first half with Cutler at the helm.

The 6-3 New York Giants not only lost their game to the Bengals, but they looked pretty bad in the process.  They gave up big plays on defense, turned over the ball 4 times on offense, and didn't look very good on special teams, either.

The 49ers started the day at 6-2, and because they opened the season by beating the Packers, they would win any head-to-head tiebreaker with the Packers.  They battled the Rams to a 24-24 tie.  This was heartbreaking for the Rams, since they gave up several opportunities to win the game in overtime alone, on devastating penalties.  The good news about the 49ers ending up in a tie is that it makes it highly unlikely that the Packers and 49ers will end up in a head-to-head tie at the end of the year.

So the Packers picked up ground on every NFC team that was ahead of them in the playoff race.  Not a bad days' work for a bunch of guys sitting on the couch watching TV.  As a result, the Packers now control almost all aspects of their 2012 destiny.  If they just keep winning, they will win the NFC North, and start the playoffs with a home playoff game.  For a team that, a month ago, was at 2-3 and heading off to face the unbeaten Texans, that is pretty good.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Packers' Best Game of the Year

Green Bay Press-Gazette Photo by Evan Siegle
Loss-Win-Loss-Win-Loss-Win.  Could a team be any more inconsistent than that?  Which team is the real Packer team?  The team of the collapse of epic proportions from the Colts game?  Or the team that went out and knocked off the unbeaten Texans, on the road, in convincing fashion?  I wish I knew.

Until the Texans game, you could say that the Packers had not performed particularly well in any game.  They lost to the 49ers, Seahawks and Colts.  The Packers were outplayed and out-coached by the 49ers.  There may be an asterisk next to the Seahawks loss, but you wouldn't want to have to defend the proposition that the Packers played well in that game.  And as for the Colts game, the Packers played a good first half, and then fell apart at the seams to lose the game.

What about the two previous wins?  The Packers beat the Bears solidly, but then again I am not really a believer in Cutler or the Bears, despite their division-leading 4-1 record, so color me somewhat unimpressed.  The win against the Saints was important and satisfying at one level, but (a) they barely beat the Saints and could easily have lost; and (b) the Saints are not the Saints of a couple of years ago.  So the Packers not only needed a win against the Texans, they needed a convincing one, for the sake of their own confidence and the confidence of their fans.  This game ought to do the trick.  The Texans were not only undefeated, they were looking like a Super Bowl contender.  They had one of the highest-powered offenses in the league, featuring Arian Foster and Andre Johnson.

Despite all that, the Packers outplayed the Texans from the first possession on, and won the game 42-24.  They looked good on offense, and on defense, and on special teams (other than the blocked punt that was recovered for a TD).  Alex Green did a solid if unspectacular job of replacing Cedric Benson, and the passing game looked the best it has looked all season, even if it is still not quite at the level of last year.  On defense, the Packers put pressure on Schaub all night long, sacked him three times, and intercepted him three times.  Both Foster and Johnson were kept in check, and Schaub finished with 232 yards, no TDs and 2 interceptions.

The frequently frustrating James Jones seems to be taking a step forward this year.  He has caught two TD passes in 3 consecutive games, including the sensational catch pictured above.  No Packers player has done that since DON HUTSON did it a long time ago.  That seems impossible to believe.  Jennings, Driver, Freeman, Brooks, Sharpe, Lofton, Dale, McGee, Dowler, and Howton never did it, but Hutson and Jones did?  That is pretty remarkable company.  Speaking of Packer records, how about Aaron Rodgers?  He tied the all time Packer record for TDs in a single game (6), set by . . . Matt Flynn last year.

The Packers lost another starter for the year (D.J. Smith) and several other players were knocked out of the game with injuries that looked less serious.  The backups played well, especially rookie defensive back Casey Hayward, who made two interceptions and looked great.  Now the Packers will finish their three game road trip at St. Louis, where the Rams are also 3-3.  The Packers are favored in this game, so you would certainly think that they have a good chance of winning 2 of 3 on the road trip, and getting above .500 for the first time this year.  Maybe the Packers have the rest of the league exactly where they want them, with a 3-3 record, just like they had in 2010.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Quarter Season Review

Photo from Facebook Timeline
With a quarter of the regular season behind them, where do the Packers stand?  They scratched their way back to even with a 2-2 record, by beating the desperate New Orleans Saints, 28-27, last Sunday.  But they came uncomfortably close to losing a second game in a row attributable in part to bad calls, this time by the returning regular referees. 

Late in the second quarter, the Packers led, 21-7, so it is unfortunate that they even put themselves in a position to possibly lose the game.  The big play allowing them to build the 21-7 lead was another trick play on special teams.  In the second quarter, on 4th and 1 from the Packers' own 17 yard line, McCarthy called a fake punt, a direct snap to John Kuhn who gained 5 yards and the first down.  I admire the gutsy nature of the call, and I am glad that Coach McCarthy has enough confidence in his players to make crazy calls like this.  But the key word is "crazy."  I just think this kind of a call, at that point in the game, is reckless.  The play worked, so McCarthy comes out as the hero.  I still think it is the wrong call.

At the quarter season mark, here are the things I like best about the way the Packers are playing.  I like the renewed emphasis on the running game.  It is an interesting question how Cedric Benson matches up with Ryan Grant, or with other Packer running backs in recent history.  (A satirical look at this question is here.)  But whatever the answer, the Packers seem to be working themselves into a state of mind where they are putting more reliance on the run.  This is a very good thing, given the sack totals against Rodgers this year when they forget about the run.  I like the gutsy calls on special teams, even though I happen to think the one discussed above was a reckless one.  It keeps the other teams guessing, and until the Packers start to get burned on these calls, there is no downside.  I also like the way the Packers are finding innovative ways to use Randall Cobb.  He is a really talented young player on a team that is overloaded with receivers.  So every time they find a different way to use him, it is a plus.  I am also beginning to get a good feeling about some of the new defensive players, Nick Perry and Casey Hayward in particular.

My biggest overall concerns about the team so far are these.  First, the offense, although effective enough to win most of the time, just has not seemed right.  Maybe it is not realistic to compare this year's offense to last year's, which was nearly unstoppable most of the time.  But between dropped passes, passes off the mark, and 16 sacks given up, the offense is under-performing.  Second is the defensive play-calling, and here I am thinking primarily of the Saints game.  I can understand Dom Capers being concerned about leaving his rookie defensive players too exposed, but when you give up 446 passing yards to Drew Brees and almost lose the game, something is not going too well.  Capers sometimes has a tendency to rush 3 or 4 against an elite quarterback, and drop everybody else in coverage.  In theory this could work, but in practice doesn't it seem as if the elite quarterback always carves up the Packers' defense?  You could say that the Packers gave up an 80 yard TD pass to Morgan in the Saints game on a play where they did rush more players, undercutting my argument.  But the truth is that the TD resulted from a coverage breakdown by the defensive backs, not as a result of applying more pressure.  Finally, there are clock management / challenge issues.  In the Saints game in particular, McCarthy made a poor decision on a challenge in the first half, and another challenge later, which left him with no challenges left when Darren Sproles fumbled the kickoff after the Packers went ahead, 28-27.  It was a flat-out blown call, but McCarthy had no opportunity to get the call reversed, due to the lack of challenges.

So now the Packers head off on a three game road trip, to Indianapolis (1-2), Houston (4-0) and St. Louis (3-2).  It is really important that they come away with at least two wins on the trip, and of course the most obvious game that they "should" win is at the Colts tomorrow.  They need to start to re-claim that killer instinct, where they go in and put a game away early on.  Let's hope they get it done.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sleepless About the Seattle Game

Broadcast Screen Capture by Scott Crevier, Frame 3 © Scott Crevier
Hmmm - what to discuss today about the Packers @ Seahawks game?  Here's an idea, how about the officiating on the final play of this week's game?  The Packers lost to the Seahawks, 14-12, on a disputed touchdown pass on the final play of the game.

Scott Crevier, proprietor of the South End Zone web site, and the guy who encouraged me to start the predecessor to this blog, put up some screen captures showing the final play.   Not to go all Zapruder film on this, but to me, the most conclusive frame is the third one (shown above and at the link to Flickr).  The first frame shows that Packer defensive back M.D. Jennings had possession of the ball prior to Seahawks receiver Golden Tate, so under the plain reading of the rule (see below), this is not simultaneous possession.  The second frame arguably shows both players with hands on the ball, but the third frame shows Tate's hand come off the ball before sticking his hand back in there in the 4th frame.  So if there is any doubt about the simultaneity of the possession, I think the third frame shows that this is Jennings' ball, because he had it throughout, while Tate's possession was (a) later; and (b) (at best for Tate) lost before being re-established.

The rule (Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5) says:

Simultaneous Catch. If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.
It is hard to see the status of Tate's left hand throughout the play, but let's assume for the sake of argument that he had his left hand on the ball throughout.  It is possible to catch a ball with one hand, obviously, as some recent high profile plays have shown - none more prominent than David Tyree's catch in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XLII.  But in the context of the play last night, I think Golden Tate still loses out because part of possession is control.  Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 requires control of the ball as a part of the concept of catching the ball.  Sure, if both players had both hands on the ball throughout the play, the fact that Jennings is holding the ball against his chest might not negate the simultaneous possession of the ball.  But where Jennings (in my view, clearly) appears to gain possession first, followed by Tate getting his right hand on the ball, then taking it off, then putting his right hand back on the ball while Jennings cradles the ball with both hands against his chest, you simply cannot say that Jennings did not have control of the ball first.

You know the call must be bad when a player for a divisional rival speaks up to say that the Packers were robbed.  I don't think I have ever heard a case where the commentators are as unanimous as they are on this one being wrong.  Take the "Instant Replay" game from 1989, for example.  The Majkowski to Sharpe touchdown pass was either the game winner, or Majkowski was over the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball, so that it was an illegal forward pass.  It was a very close call, dependent in part on exactly how you determine whether a player is over the line of scrimmage.  The Bears, I am told, put an asterisk on this game in their media guide to this very day.  A call had to be made, it was called an illegal forward pass, and then the call on the field was reversed, making it the game-winning touchdown.  There is general consensus that it was the right call (indeed, even the Bears fan in the stands with us admitted, on seeing the replay, that it was a TD).  But people still argue about the call 23 years later.

But in this week's game, the commentary is, so far as I can tell, unanimous that the call was wrong.  There were lots of other questionable calls in the game (including the phantom pass interference call on Shields, and the roughing the passer call on Erik Walden, negating an interception, both in the closing minutes), and not all of them were in favor of the home team.  But everyone seems to agree that this call was wrong.  So the call was blown.  So what?  I generally take the view that you can't complain about bad calls - it is poor form, nobody is perfect, and what is the point?

But this is different because the replacement referees brought about this travesty.  I am not close to the details of the labor dispute, but my instinct is to support the League over the referees.  But what is happening now is just not acceptable.  The referees are not up to the task, and the League needs to solve this problem.  There were problems in other games in the first three weeks, and there was a certain sense that we were heading to a disaster if this did not get resolved.  Now the disaster has happened, and a bad call by refs directly changed the outcome of the game.

As a fan, as a season ticket holder, and as an owner of the team, I am outraged by what happened last night.  There are only 16 games in the regular season.  A game like this can cost the Packers the playoffs, or at a minimum can affect playoff seeding.  Nobody else seems primed to run away with the NFC North, so I remain hopeful that this will not screw up the entire season for the Packers.  But it certainly could.

I will be contacting the league office this morning (if I can ever get anything other than a busy signal) to complain about what is happening, and to urge the league to get this thing resolved before another disaster happens.  There are more than 350,000 owners of the Green Bay Packers.  It would be great if we could all get involved in protesting this.

The League has just released a statement on the play, in which the League acknowledges that Tate should have been flagged for offensive pass interference (which is not reviewable), but otherwise supports the decision not to overturn the call on the field.  Who has possession of the ball is reviewable on a play in the end zone (but not outside of the end zone), but the League's position is that there was no indisputable evidence to overturn the call on who had possession.  So the matter is final, as far as the League is concerned.  But it need not be final with the fans, season ticket holders, and owners of the Packers and other teams.  Please contact the League and let them know (politely) how you feel about the situation.

Here is the contact information for the League, as best I can determine it since I can't get through to the League on the phone, and since they don't list their contact information on their website.  The contact info I am most confident about is the League's main phone number, but as mentioned it is consistently busy this morning.
National Football League
345 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10017
(212) 450-2000 (phone)
(212) 681-7599 (FAX)
(212) 450-2027 (Roger Goodell, supposedly) (supposedly)

A couple of final thoughts.  As Aaron Rodgers put it, they shouldn't have let it come down to the final play.  There is a book about elections titled "If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat."  But it should apply to football, too.  The Packers needed to get their act together in this game, and they didn't until the second half.  McCarthy and the coaching staff made some great adjustments on offense at halftime.  Why not do it earlier?  And as for M.D. Jennings, whatever happened to the idea that you just knock down a Hail Mary pass, not try to intercept it?  Plus, if he had rolled more aggressively away from Tate on the ground, he would have had sole possession by the time the late-arriving refs got there.

We fans may not readily be able to put this game behind us.  But the team must do so.  The talented but desperate 0-3 New Orleans Saints are coming to town on Sunday.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Back in First Place!

Cousin John Belzer's photo from The Fifty/50 bar in Chicago
Quotes of the week:
"We understand that Jay was excited about his new weapons, but it's the same old Jay.  We don't need luck.  We just need to be in position.  Jay will throw us the ball."  Charles Woodson, reacting after the game to Cutler's pre-game comment to the effect that he wished the Packers "good luck" in covering his receivers.
"Yeah, I dream about throwing four picks and getting sacked seven times."  Jay Cutler, giving a great sarcastic answer to a stupid question about whether he had imagined the game turning out this way.
So here is the story of the short week leading up to the Bears-Packers game last Thursday night.  The Packers had looked horrible on Sunday against what (I must reluctantly admit) is one of the best teams in the league, while the Bears looked pretty good against 2011's worst team in the league.  Fans on both sides over-reacted wildly.  Packer fans were measuring out rope to hang themselves, while the silly guys below the border were making special signs for their bars about how the Packers suck.  Jay Cutler joined in the fun, taunting the Packers about how they would not be able to cover his receivers.

But, as Chris Berman loves to say, "that's why they play the games."  Oh, the delicious irony of it!  Jay Cutler stops pouting for a few minutes so he can pop off about how great his receivers are, and then the Packers go out, knock him on his backside, intercept him repeatedly, and force him to contemplate what might have been.  The defense played in a way that was reminiscent of the 2010 season, with Matthews getting half the 7 sacks, and with Tramon Williams getting half of the 4 interceptions.  Some of the new defenders, like Nick Perry, did not overtly have a huge impact on the game.  But at the same time, I have to wonder how much his presence opposite Matthews, along with the addition of other new defenders like Jerrel Worthy, ended up deflecting just enough attention to allow Matthews to have a game as disruptive as Packer fans love to see.  The final score of 23-10 was closer than the game felt, as the Packers completely dominated the game on defense.

There were so many things that went right in this game, that it bears emphasis that a lot of improvement is still needed, especially on offense.  Yes, Cedric Benson looked much better out there on Thursday, gaining 81 yards, and even a marginal running game would be a big help.  Yes, the Packers are finding lots of ways to get Randall Cobb more involved in the game plan, and he looks like he is ready for the opportunity.  But Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 8 times in 2 games, and that is not a trend that is likely to keep him healthy all season.  And the passing game continues to be just a little off.  Too many drops, too many passes not quite in the perfect spot.  If the passing game was just a little more in sync, this game would have been a blowout.

Special kudos to the special teams, for pulling off the sweetest fake field goal I have seen in a long time.  And on 4th and 26!  It is almost enough to take away some of the awful taste of that other 4th and 26 play all those years ago.  This one was so unexpected that I could not even figure out what happened when watching it live.  Who does a fake field goal on 4th and 26, when any gain less than 26 yards just turns over the ball?

Meanwhile, the Packers are back in 1st place in the NFC North tonight.  After spending the entire 2011 season in 1st place, they dropped into last place on the first week of this season.  But the Vikings and Lions both lost on Sunday, so every team in the division is now 1-1.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pressure is On: Here Come the Bears

On this short week, I have almost run out of time to say anything about the 49ers beating the Packers, 30-22, before turning my attention to Bears week.  The Packers, in losing their second straight game that counts with their second straight stinker of a performance, have left many Packer fans tearing their hair out.  My predictions for the game were about as wrong as they could be.  The Packers' offense was not fine, although there were a couple of bright spots - Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley.  Cedric Benson not only did not rejuvenate the running game, he made it look worse than last year.

The Packers' defense was not significantly improved.  They still can't seem to manage much pressure without blitzing, and there were times in this game when (a) the loss of Desmond Bishop in the middle really hurt; and (b) the weaknesses of the defensive backs were evident.  Tackling was atrocious, never more so than on the Gore touchdown run.

The 49ers defense, meanwhile, was better than I gave it credit for, while the offense, and even Alex Smith and Randy Moss, played better than I expected.

There were questionable decisions by the coaches, and (at times) horrible clock management, such as at the end of the first half, when poor clock management helped to set up Akers' record-tying 63 yard field goal.  There were also plenty of questionable decisions by the referees, although the latter did not have an impact on the outcome, and in fact the Packers probably benefited from bad calls more than they suffered from them.

As for the Bears, they now come to town in a position to put the Packers in a deep, but not quite insurmountable, hole.  Lovie Smith perceives his job as Bears coach being to beat the Packers, so nothing would be sweeter for him than to go two games up on the Packers with two games played in the season.  I don't see it happening.  The Bears' traditional strength may be on defense, but they are not on the same level as a defensive squad as the 49ers, and so I think the Packers will not sputter on offense as much as they did on Sunday.  Heck, Cedric Benson might even gain a few yards here and there.  The Bears only gave up 63 rushing yards last week, but it was in a blowout win, so the Colts had to abandon the run early on.  The Bears do look improved on offense, with the addition of Brandon Marshall, and I am sure they will score some points and maybe keep it close for awhile, before the Packers put the game away.  But I have to admit, it is hard to feel a lot of confidence after re-watching last week's Packers game tonight.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

It is Time!

The title of the post of course refers to Kevin Greene's second half exhortation to Clay Matthews in Super Bowl XLV.  Matthews proceeded to force the fumble that did a lot to secure the Packers' victory over the Steelers.

"It is Time" also seems apt to me as we approach the week one matchup with the 49ers.  As a person who really doesn't follow any other sport, the off-season seems to go on forever, and I almost can't believe that the season has started with the opening night matchup of the defending champion Giants against the Cowboys.  (I think I read that, in the 8 or 9 years since the league started the opening Thursday night game featuring the defending champions, the Giants are the first defending champion to lose.)  So the season is off to a good start, from the standpoint of playoff positioning.

What will the Packers do this season?  There is no reason to expect the offense to be anything other than excellent.  Aaron Rodgers said something to the effect that the law of averages suggests that his stats will not be quite as impressive as last year, there might be more interceptions bouncing off of shoulder pads, etc.  Cedric Benson as the starting running back (at least for now) tells me that our running game should be improved, even if he is fumble prone based on his history.  So the offense should be fine.

The defense was the question mark last year, and the Packers have already lost two starters from opening day last year - Nick Collins (released due to his injury) and Desmond Bishop (on injured reserve).  But the Packers first six draft picks were on defense, so it is hard for me to see how the defense will not be improved.  I am counting most on Nick Perry, starting at Outside Linebacker, and Jerel Worthy, at defensive end, to provide some more of the pressure that the Packers were missing last year.

Here in the SF Bay Area, they seem to think that the 49ers will be contenders for the Super Bowl this year.  I will believe it when I see it.  I know they played very well last year, but I am not a believer until I see a better passing game.  I'm not sure how much the loathsome Randy Moss has left, and my primary issue with the 49ers is Alex Smith.  Aaron Rodgers, he ain't, and I have it on good information that Jim Harbaugh keeps him on a very short leash.

My week one prediction: Packers 31, 49ers 20.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Training Camp Opens!

After the bitter way in which last season ended, it feels as if we have been waiting forever for football to start back up again.  Normally, I might watch the Packers' last game around this time of year, just to get me ready for the season.  But I am having trouble summoning up the courage to watch that disaster again.

But this week, football really is back.  I attended my first Shareholders' Meeting on Tuesday, via webcast.  I have been a Shareholder since 1997, but it has never seemed worthwhile to take a trip from California for the Shareholders' Meeting, and I never just happened to be in the midwest anyway around the time of the meeting.  So I was excited to find that the Packers were webcasting it this year, presumably because of the huge influx of new Shareholders from the recent stock sale. The webcast seemed to do the trick, because the figures released at the time showed that more people attended by webcast than were physically present in the stands.

The meeting itself was about as interesting as I expected (meaning, not very).  Most of it was very dry, and Ted Thompson certainly did not break any real news, after making it clear when he started that he would not.  I did learn that Ed Policy is the new General Counsel.  Upon checking, as I assumed, he is the son of the famous Carmen Policy, former President of the 49ers and Browns.  He thus joins Eliot Wolf as a second generation football guy on the Packers' staff.

More information was provided about what they are calling the Titletown District, on and around Lombardi Avenue, where the Packers have purchased additional land.  Although it was not clear from what was said at the meeting, my understanding is that the idea is to create a sports and entertainment complex in the surrounding area, resulting in additional revenue streams for the Packers, along the lines of Patriot Place, the shopping complex adjacent to Gillette Stadium.  I also learned a little about the Packers' Heritage Trail, a walking tour of Packer-related historical sites in Green Bay, which I must check out when I get a chance.

But meanwhile, training camp starts today, and as I said, it feels like it is about time.  The biggest news before the first practice was the release of Safety Charlie Peprah.  He had a tough 2011 (I don't know if anybody had a worse game in the playoff loss to the Giants), and he has had some injury problems, but he was also a significant contributor at times, especially in the Super Bowl season.  Since the release took place before the first practice in training camp, it is hard to believe that the Packers already have his replacement assigned.  But my assumption is that it will be either second-year player M.D. Jennings, or maybe 4th round draft choice Jerron McMillian, and of course it has been speculated for some time that Charles Woodson may spend more time at safety this year.  Right on cue comes word that in the first training camp practice, Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson lined up at safety, with Morgan Burnett and Jarrett Bush lining up at corner.  An article on the Packers' website makes it sound as if this is not just a fluke, but rather a plan to move Woodson to safety and see who makes a splash at cornerback.  Let the teeth-gnashing begin.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Driver's Last Dance

Most of the Donald Driver news these past few weeks has been about his performances on Dancing With The Stars.  Indeed, he is one of the final three contestants, and one of the three will win the Mirror Ball trophy in this week's shows.  More on that in a minute.

But then, this past week, Donald made the following announcement on his Facebook page and on Twitter: "Hello everyone: I'm a Packer for life. It will never change. Go Pack Go!!!!"

I immediately assumed that this meant he is in the process of signing a new contract, that will ensure he is member of the Packers for the rest of his playing days.  When I read that his agent has been dropping hints of a new contract, I was reinforced in that belief.  But there are other interpretations.  It could mean that Driver is retiring, and therefore will have spent his entire career with the Packers.  It could mean that he is going to be released, and that even if he plays elsewhere in the future, he will always consider himself a Packer for life, i.e., a change of uniform will never change his allegiance to the Packers.  Tom Oates, for example, seems to read this comment as a precursor to Driver's departure, not to a new contract.

For now, nobody knows what Driver's future with the team will be.  I certainly hope he stays.  I understand the argument, basically that with Jennings, Nelson, Jones, and Cobb, not to mention other young receivers, every snap Donald Driver plays in effect keeps one of these guys off the field.  But he is a team leader, and a good guy loved by the fans, and he is still a contributor on offense and even on special teams (remember him recovering several onside kicks last year?).  We will probably hear Driver's fate not long after the conclusion of Dancing With The Stars.

Speaking of which, Packer fans should be out there supporting Donald on Monday night.  Although I was not a regular viewer of this show in past seasons, all season long the judges have been saying that this is the best group of dancers they have ever had on the show.  Which really means that any of them can win the trophy.  The remaining contestants, classical singer Katherine Jenkins, and model/actor/Cuban heart-throb William Levy, are very strong performers, and in fact have scored more points, cumulatively over the entire season, than Donald.  So he needs the support of his fans to pull him over the goal line.

The show is on tonight (Monday, May 21) at 8:00 EDT and PDT, and 7:00 CDT.  You can start to vote as soon as the show starts in your time zone.  You can vote on your landline, on your cell phone, and by creating an account at and voting online, at this page.  The telephone number to vote is 1-800-868-3403.  Let's help Donald Driver win the Mirror Ball!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Clifton, Collins and Driver

The report is out this morning that the Packers will release Nick Collins.  It has seemed for awhile now that this was where the Packers were heading, what with Coach McCarthy making comments about how he would not want Collins to play if Collins were his son.  Without having lots more information about the injury, and without having the medical knowledge to evaluate it, it is hard to know if this is the right call, or an overly cautious reaction by the Packers.  But I am sad for Collins, who was certainly a talented player and a valuable contributor to the Packers' march to Super Bowl XLV.  I wish him well, hope he gets another chance to play if that is what he wants, and hope that he stays healthy.

Meanwhile, the Packers released LT Chad Clifton a few days ago.  Given his age and his injury history, it is hard to be surprised about this.  But he was a fixture at LT, until injuries started knocking him out of games.  Who will replace him?  The Packers have drafted two LTs in the first round the last two years.  Bryan Bulaga, drafted in 2010, seems settled in as the starting RT.  Derek Sherrod, drafted in 2011, played in spots before breaking his leg in December.  He is expected to be ready for training camp.  Marshall Newhouse, a 5th round draft pick in 2010, got a lot more playing time than Sherrod last year, and acquitted himself well.  So I suspect that the LT battle will be between these two, rather than looking for another LT in the draft this year.

On the Dancing With The Stars front, Donald Driver continues his impressive dancing career, with a very effective foxtrot this week.  Even though he slipped slightly during one maneuver, Donald and his partner Peta still got 27 out of 30 points.  Jersey Al posted a link to the video here.  Len Goodman, the "Simon Cowell" of the show (more or less), told Peta that Donald's talent is greater than the routine they did Monday night, and that she should challenge him more in future dances.  The waltz is up next week.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Off-Season Update: Donald Driver

I hate the off-season.  A family member once said that they should play football year-round.  I doubt the players' bodies would hold up for that.  But as a fan, I would love it.

Help is on the way.  Within the next two weeks, the draft will take place, and the season schedule should be released.  Time to start getting ready in earnest for the season.

In the meantime, we have Donald Driver on Dancing With the Stars.  This morning on Good Morning America, they had a nice interview with Donald.  If you watch it to the end, you will learn that Donald is a much better receiver than defensive back.  Thanks to Cheesehead TV for posting the video: Donald Driver on GMA.

UPDATE: Donald and Peta danced the Argentine Tango this week (video at the link).  I liked their dance much better than the dances when I went to an Argentine Tango show.  It wasn't a close call, they survived for another week.

And now I see, courtesy of Cheesehead TV, that Donald and Peta are slight favorites to win the competition.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Packers-Giants Post-Mortem

(Photo my Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

On Sunday, the Packers' season, which looked like it could turn out to be one of the great seasons in Packers history, came to a crashing and disappointing halt.  The visiting New York Giants ended the Packers' season, just as they did four years ago, this time by the score of 37-20.

I went in for a dental appointment on Monday afternoon.  I'm sure you can see this line coming from a mile away - I feel like I spent two afternoons in a row at the dentist.  In the waiting room I read, wistfully, Peter King's Postseason Predictions in Sports Illustrated from a couple of weeks ago: "I see New Orleans and Green Bay facing each other again [in the NFC Championship Game], with the survivor going on to win the Super Bowl."  Yeah, me too.

All year long, the Packers have set various records, week to week.  Well here is another one.  The Packers became the first ever 15-1 team to be "one and done" in the playoffs.  While it is painful to see the Packers squander their no. 1 seed position this way, it should be noted that 4 of the last 5 number 1 seeds in the NFC have been knocked out of the playoffs without reaching the Super Bowl (New Orleans in 2009 was the exception).  Not that this helps very much - I am still walking around in a daze two days later - but at least the Packers are not alone in wasting a great season.  (It was sad having to cancel my travel reservations for the NFC Championship game, so that didn't help matters, either.)

Before getting into what went wrong, it is appropriate to give some credit to the New York Giants.  They outplayed the Packers on offense, on defense, and on special teams, and in my opinion the Packers were outcoached, as well.  Or as Greg Jennings said on his Facebook page Sunday night: "Hats off to the NYG on their win today.  They played a very sound game and we didn't do enough on our end to get this one.  Thank u Packer fans for your commitment to excellence all season in bringing us closer together as a team as we fed off u all season.  We'll bounce back."

So what went wrong?  Aaron Nagler of Cheesehead TV said that the Packers picked a terrible day to play their worst game of the season, and that is certainly true.  Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette says that this game will go down as the most disheartening playoff loss in team history.  I'm not at all sure I agree with him, but why quibble?  This was plenty bad enough.

I have not even re-watched the whole game yet, but to me it was a large collection of little things, all of which worked against the Packers.  (And since the Packers benefited from a couple of bad calls by referees in their favor, it is horrifying to note that things could have been even worse.)  Aaron Rodgers was off the mark on some of his passes, including what should have been a touchdown to Jennings in the first quarter.  Was rust from an unnecessary week off a factor?  I don't know.  I was not in favor of resting healthy starters for competitive reasons, but there is no question that Rodgers did not look sharp.  Rodgers also had Jennings open for an easy touchdown in the third quarter, but Umenyiora stripped him on the play for a fumble.  In Rodgers' somber post-game press conference, he was asked about the play.
Q: "On the play where you fumbled, did you see how open Greg was?"
A: "Yes."
This terse answer, together with the look on his face, says a lot about the missed opportunities in this game.

If Rodgers was off on offense, the receivers and running backs were even worse.  There were either 6 or 8 dropped passes in the game, depending on how you count them.  Since the Packers averaged about 2 dropped passes per game during the regular season, this hurt, killing promising drives in the process.  Both Ryan Grant and John Kuhn are dependable ball carriers; but they both fumbled away the ball in this game (in Kuhn's case, it was his first career fumble).

On defense, it is probably not fair to single out one player, but nobody had a worse game than Charlie Peprah.  Peprah was the one who hit Hakeem Nicks, but did not wrap him up, on what turned out to be Nicks' long touchdown catch.  At the end of the first half, he took a bad angle and failed to get Ahmad Bradshaw on the ground when the Giants ran the ball with 15 seconds left, allowing him to get out of bounds and set up the Hail Mary pass.  Peprah and Woodson were the players with the best shot to break up the Hail Mary pass, but didn't.  This game, more than any other game this year, shows how much it hurt to lose Nick Collins early in the season.  Peprah is a decent player, but he was a big downgrade from Collins.  The latest word on Collins is that he will be reexamined in March, and will decide based on medical advice (and before the draft) whether he can come back and play again.

But most fundamentally, the problem on defense is what it has been all year: the inability to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing.  So, if the Packers rush 3 or 4 on a given play, there is no pressure, and the quarterback has plenty of time for someone to get open.  If the Packers blitz, they get pressure, but if the quarterback gets the ball out quickly enough, somebody is going to have an opening to make a big play.  It is no fluke that the Packers gave up as many yards as they did on defense this year, but two factors allowed them to mask the problem and go 15-1: (1) the MVP quality of play by Aaron Rodgers; and (2) the turnovers generated by the defense.  On a day when Rodgers did not play like an MVP, and when the Packers lost the turnover battle, we now see what can happen.

This problem will have to be addressed in the draft and/or free agency, with the top priority being the defensive line.  I will have more comments on the Packers' needs later, after we see which coaches (if any) are hired away or simply replaced by the Packers.

Putting the pieces together, how do we explain (1) a sub-par performance by our MVP quarterback; (2) an extra dose of dropped passes; (3) fumbles by our normally reliable running backs; (4) sloppy tackling on defense; (5) worse than usual pass rush; and (6) poor play in the secondary?  I had predicted that the team would use Coach Philbin's son's death as a rallying point.  But Andy Hayes (of Packergeeks) was at the game and points to some things not visible on TV that really do suggest that there was something lacking, emotionally, from the team's effort.  So I have come to the conclusion that this was a far bigger, and more negative, factor than I would have anticipated.

It has been a good run for the Packers in the first few years with Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback.  Despite the disappointing end to this season, the core of this team is young and good enough that there should be more opportunities in the coming years.  The caveat is that I thought the same thing when the Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII.  I was convinced that the Favre era Packers would rack up a couple more Super Bowl wins, but we found out that nothing comes easily, and nothing is guaranteed.

*  *  *  *

I had occasion over the weekend to reflect on the way that technology has changed the lives of sports fans.  When my wife and I spent a week in England in October 1983, we literally had to wait until Monday and buy the International Herald Tribune to find out who won the football games on Sunday.  (We were happy to learn that the Packers beat the Buccaneers, 55-14, October 2, 1983).  But on Sunday, we watched the game at home with friends, while our son watched the game while flying on Jet Blue, and our daughter watched it with Wisconsin expats in Amsterdam.  The expats were Erik and Mary Jo Tunison, who own Eat at Jo's restaurant in the Melkweg entertainment complex, near the Leidseplein.  They showed themselves to be classic Wisconsin people, by being nice enough to invite a total stranger to watch the game with them, just because she is a Packers fan!  As Erik said afterwards, "We had a good time, except for that one little thing..."  Eat at Jo's is on my list of places to go, if I ever get back to Amsterdam.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Divisional Games Predictions

(Official Twitter picture of shovelers lined up outside Lambeau Field)

Some snow over the last few days led to another one of those charming Packer rituals today - citizens lining up for the chance to help shovel out the stands in Lambeau Field.  There were so many volunteers that more would-be shovelers were turned away than were able to actually get in to shovel.  Weather should not be a problem for the game, as the forecast is for a high of about 30 degrees, with nothing more than snow flurries.

The weekend of the divisional playoff games has finally arrived, and none too soon for those of us who have been waiting anxiously for the past two weeks.  The one must-read article of this week is an ESPN piece on Brandon Jacobs and Tramon Williams, high school teammates in tiny Napoleonville, LA.  The overall point of the piece is the astronomical odds of these two kids from the bayou country both earning Super Bowl rings.

The part about Williams is fascinating.  He was smart and talented, but a little too small and a little too slow to be the ideal cornerback, and so he didn't attract any attention from college scouts, who only paid attention  to his teammate Brandon Jacobs.  So he gave up on football and went to college, where he watched the Louisiana Tech team from the stands until he decided he could cover better than the players on the field, and walked on.  After college, he wasn't drafted, but spent his rookie training camp with the Texans until he was cut.  The Packers' scouting staff, who notoriously take a different approach to scouting, invited him up for a tryout.  When Charles Woodson saw him make a play in practice, he said "Holy crap, who is that guy?"  And so, Tramon Williams ended up as another one of the free agent miracles found by Ted Thompson and his staff.

The article ends with a detailed look at how Williams made the game-turning interception for a touchdown on the final play of the first half in the playoff game against the Falcons last year.  It gave me a greater appreciation for Williams, who may not have had the impact this year that he did last year, but has a chance to do so again in the playoffs.  Even if I was not already pumped up for the Giants game, reading this article would have gotten me ready.

It is not unusual for there to be an upset in each of the first two weeks of the playoffs, like last week's upset of the Steelers by the Broncos.  But this week, as I look through the list of games, I think all of the favorites will win.  The Saints are the only road team that is favored over the home team, the 49ers, and in my view, with good reason.  The Saints' offense will be too much for the 49ers, even though the 49ers' defense is vastly improved now that Jim Harbaugh is coach.  Or to put it another way, even if the 49ers' defense slows the Saints down a little, I can't see the 49ers scoring enough points.  Harbaugh has quarterback Alex Smith on a very short leash, which will not be conducive to keeping up with the Saints.

Tebow time, I expect, will end on Saturday against the Patriots.  This game is similar in some ways to the Saints-49ers game.  The Broncos have a pretty good defense, although not close to being as good as the 49ers' defense.  But their offense is another story.  They, too, have a quarterback with a limited set of skills, as compared to most of the other playoff quarterbacks.  They will not be able to keep up with the Patriots, who will probably get off to a big lead and never relinquish it.

In the other Sunday game, I don't have much feel for the Ravens and Texans.  They both have quality defenses, and offenses that have done better than I would have expected.  So, in the absence of better information, I am going with the home team Ravens.

In the Packers-Giants game, there has been an awful lot of coverage focusing on how the Giants beat the Packers 4 years ago in the NFC Championship game, how fearsome their defense is, how powerful their running game is, and how talented the receivers are.  All well and good, and obviously there is truth in all of these points.  But the Giants are still wildly inconsistent, and for all the talk about how bad the Packers' defense is, the Giants have given up more points than the Packers have, and the Packers have generated far more turnovers on defense than have the Giants.  The Packers are as healthy and rested as they have been all year, and as Greg Jennings said earlier this week, they have not forgotten who kept them out of the Super Bowl 4 years ago.  We all know that Aaron Rodgers is not as likely to make the game-killing mistake, as his predecessor did in that game.

Finally, there is the wild card effect of the Packer family tragedy this week involving the death of Coach Philbin's son.  Analyzing what effect it might have on the play on the field may be cold, but there is a large emotional component to the game of football.  The death of Michael Philbin could turn out to be a huge distraction for the team, or the source of enormous motivation.  I think back to the Monday Night game in Oakland in 2003, the day after Irvin Favre died.  We were lucky enough to be there, and I don't think we will ever forget it.  Favre had a stellar game that night, but he certainly did not do it by himself.  The offensive line gave him protection like they had not done since 1996.  And the receivers went out and caught any ball that was anywhere near them, something they had not regularly done that year.  In other words, the other players went out and played beyond their normal level, in an effort to win that game for Brett Favre.  My thought is that the 2011 team will play their hearts out, for Coach Philbin.

If everything breaks right for the Giants, they obviously have the talent to beat the Packers.  But when you add up all of the factors mentioned above, I think it is much more likely that the Packers will win, and it may not be that close of a game.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Look Back at the 2007 NFC Championship Game

Well, the Packers got (in my opinion) the least favorable matchup for their first playoff game next Sunday.  I thought that either the southern dome team (the Falcons) or the northern dome team (the Lions) would have been easier for the Packers to handle than the Giants, who both play outdoors in cold weather, and have the confidence booster of having beaten the Packers in the NFC Championship game four years ago (Giants 23, Packers 20, in overtime - Favre's last game as a Packer).

There were at least 15 Packers who played in that ice cold overtime game four years ago who will be expected to play on Sunday.  The Green Bay Press-Gazette informs us that there was exactly one current player who suited up for that game but did not play: Aaron Rodgers.  Will he be the difference-maker?  I hope so.

Kevin Seifert of ESPN describes that game as one of the most disappointing Packer games ever, and it is hard to argue with that (although there are certainly other candidates: Super Bowl XXXII, the 4th and 26 Eagles game, and the Michael Vick playoff game come to mind).  I remember well the elation we all had when the no. 2 seed Packers, unexpectedly, got to host the NFC Championship game after the Giants knocked off the no. 1 seed Cowboys.  But the Packers did not play well that night, and of course everyone remembers Favre's final pass as a Packer, which was intercepted in overtime and led to the game-winning field goal.  To be sure, Favre was not the only one who played poorly.  My son and I went to this game, and I can remember saying to him, at the beginning of the overtime session, that the Packers might end up winning this game, but they certainly don't deserve to win it.

This is one of those games that I don't think I have ever gone back to watch again, even though I recorded it at the time (Super Bowl XXXII was another one).  But thanks to the NFL Network (I love these guys!) I am watching it again tonight, as they are replaying it right now.  There were some great individual plays (like the Driver 90 yard touchdown that took place while I was in the Lambeau Field bathroom), but overall, the Packers suffered from the total lack of a running game, an inefficient passing game, an inconsistent defense, and of course the interceptions.

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In the midst of getting ready for this week's game against the Giants, the Packers' family has been struck by a terrible tragedy, as Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin's 21 year old son, Michael, was first reported missing, and then was found dead after having fallen through the ice of the Fox River.  As the father of two young adults in their early 20's, I cannot imagine the anguish of the Philbin family.  My prayers are with them.  

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ready for the Playoffs?

(Photo by Dan Powers, Appleton Post-Crescent)

Until I got around to re-watching the Lions' game on Thursday, I had forgotten what a mess it was in the first few minutes.  First, Pat Lee (in place of the inactive Randall Cobb) mishandled the opening kickoff, with the ball rolling through the end zone for a touchback.  Matt Flynn had the ball stripped away on the first possession, resulting in a turnover and a touchdown.  Then, Pat Lee (evidently through inexcusable ignorance of the rules), mishandled the second kickoff, resulting in a safety and a 9-0 hole.  Tim Masthay free-kicked the ball, despite not having been given a signal by the officials for live action.  And of course there were some dropped passes, too.  Those first few minutes were ugly.

All of this seemed slightly beside the point in the wake of the 45-41 victory over the Lions, with Flynn setting all-time Packer records for TD passes in a single game, with 6, and for passing yards in a game, with 480.  He also managed to position himself very nicely in the free agent market, having another sensational game in only his second career start.

There was a lot to like on offense, despite a makeshift offensive line, with the Packers scoring 45 points against a playoff team that was actually trying to win the game, in a vain effort to avoid a trip to New Orleans to play the Saints this weekend.  I was not a big fan of sitting relatively healthy playmakers like Rodgers, Matthews and Woodson, on top of players who were actually injured and inactive like Jennings, Bulaga, Starks and Cobb.  But the Packers sat them all anyway, and yet they still managed to win the game, extend their team record for regular season wins in a single season to 15, and extend their home winning streak against the Lions to 21 years.  The Packers scored the most points of any team in the league this season, with 560, and of course they had the best record in the league as well.  It was also a nice touch for the Packers to let Rodgers call the offensive plays in the first half, which can only help him in calling audibles when he is on the field.

On defense, it was pretty much the same story as it has been for most of the year, but worse.  The Packers gave up 520 passing yards, 41 points, 575 total net yards, and 5 passing TDs to Matthew Stafford.  Stafford, and some of his receivers, are quality offensive weapons, but for a dome team to have that kind of an offensive game in blustery conditions outdoors, against the number one seed in the NFC, is sort of disgraceful.  Despite the Packers' 15-1 record this year, they gave up 359 points in the regular season, over 22 points per game.  For a point of reference, the no. 2 NFC seed 49ers gave up 229, and in the AFC, the Ravens, Steelers and Texans all gave up fewer than 300 points.  The Packers finished the regular season by edging out the AFC's no. 1 seed, the Patriots, for last place in the league in yards allowed per game.  So there is very little question in my mind that the Packers' problems on defense are, at a minimum, going to make it tougher for them to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

On the slightly brighter side, in watching the game a second time, it confirmed for me that the Packers played a very plain version of their defense against the Lions.  I assume they did this, in part, because they might be playing the Lions again in the playoffs, and, in part, because of the absence of their two biggest playmakers on defense, Matthews and Woodson.  The Packers blitzed infrequently during the game, and I did not notice a lot of defensive stunts, either.  Yet despite the plain and simple version of the Packers' defense, they still managed to come up with turnovers, two interceptions (by Shields and Bush) and two fumble recoveries (by Burnett and Crosby).  Add some complexity, blitzes and stunts to the mix and the likelihood of turnovers in the playoffs will increase.

There has been a lot of discussion this week about who would be the most favorable opponent for the Packers in their first game.  Personally, I think it would be the Falcons - a southern dome team playing outdoors in Green Bay in January.  But I think it is much more likely that it will be the Giants, which will happen if the Lions lose to the Saints (which I think is highly likely) and if the Giants beat the Falcons.  The Giants-Falcons game is tougher to predict, but the Giants seem to be peaking at exactly the right time, and even though the Giants have been wildly inconsistent this season, I expect them to win.