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.

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