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.