Friday, January 11, 2013

Next Stop, San Francisco

Your Humble Correspondent with Family & Friend

When it was announced that the Vikings had made starting quarterback Christian Ponder inactive for the
Saturday night playoff game against the Packers, the logical reaction was to think of this as a plus for the Packers.  The Packers had a huge problem stopping Adrian Peterson in the regular season, and the Vikings beat the Packers last week in the regular season finale largely because Ponder played the game of his career so far, putting the Packers in the position of having to defend not only Adrian Peterson, but also a newly-productive Christian Ponder.  With Ponder out in favor of Joe Webb, the argument would be, the Packers could now focus almost exclusively on stopping Peterson.

That was not my reaction.  I had just arrived at my seat in Lambeau Field when my brother-in-law Bruce Casper sent me a text message that Ponder was inactive.  I didn't really believe him (he has been known to BS me, from time to time), but I quickly confirmed that it was true.  But I have been writing for over 10 years about what I call the Brad Hoover Syndrome, where a backup player gets an unexpected start against the Packers, and turns out to be the key player in the Packers' loss.  Ever since Brad Hoover got a start for the Panthers in a 2000 Monday Night game against the Packers, in place of Tim Biakabatuka, I have treated these situations as potential poison.

Thankfully, in this case things worked out exactly as they should have.  I had not seen Joe Webb play since he replaced Brett Favre (then with the Vikings) a couple of years ago.  In the first series, I realized that I had forgotten how mobile the guy is.  He and Peterson combined to run the ball down the field, leading to the Vikings getting their only lead of the day, at 3-0.  But I soon also remembered what a poor quarterback he is.  He is inaccurate, and makes poor decisions under pressure.  Twice he threw "pop-ups" as he was under extreme pressure, and only his lucky stars prevented these passes from being intercepted or returned for touchdowns.  I could not help but be troubled by the second half, after the Packers took a 24-3 lead.  They seemed to go to sleep, coasting for the rest of the way, with one 3-and-out after another.   Not a great plan, and one to be avoided at all costs in a game against a team with more firepower.

So now the Packers will be coming out here to Northern California to play the 49ers.  This game has so many echoes for me.  The very first playoff game I ever attended was Packers at 49ers, in January 1996.  It was the coming out game for the Packers.  Sure, they had been in the playoffs the two prior years, but had not made much noise.  And here they had to play the defending world champion 49ers, at Candlestick, in the second round of the playoffs.  I almost didn't go, thinking that they would probably lose, but since I had attended every Packer game since 1980 in Northern California against the 49ers or Raiders, I decided I had to go.  (That streak is still alive, and I will be there Saturday night.)  That January 1996 game was the first time you really had to look at the team and say "these Holmgren/Favre/White Packers might actually win the Super Bowl."  They didn't, that year, but did so the following season.

That game was the first of four years in a row where there were playoff games between the Packers and 49ers, with three of those games in San Francisco.  There was the euphoria of the emergence of the Packers in January, 1996, the dismantling of the 49ers at Lambeau in the freezing rain the next year (the year of Super Bowl XXXI), the drowning of the 49ers at Candlestick in the heavy rain the following year (the year of Super Bowl XXXII) and then finally, the Terrell Owens game at Candlestick the following year, where both teams were well past their prime (the Terrell Owens game was also Mike Holmgren's last game as Packers' head coach and, for that matter, the last radio game for Max McGee and Jim Irwin).

Local media here in the days leading up to the game have been surprisingly guarded in their outlook for the game.  "Rodgers has edge vs. 49ers," said one article, while "QB duel would not favor S.F.," said another.  There was coverage of the fact that former 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo still has nightmares about the Packers and Cowboys.  And of course there has been coverage everywhere of the ironic fact that California-native Rodgers grew up as a 49er fan, while Wisconsin-native Colin Kaepernick grew up as a Packers fan.  So this is a huge personal game for both starting quarterbacks, and of course the chip on Rodgers' shoulder is legendary by this point.  The Packers have played inconsistently at times during this season, but whereas they lost 3 of their first 5 games, they have won 10 of their last 12, and they are probably healthier now than they have been in months.  Sure, the Packers could lose this game, and they could lose it badly if the 49ers get in a rhythm and the Packers get in a rut.  But I like the Packers' chances against a young QB playing his first playoff game, and against a fearsome defense, but one that is a bit banged up at the moment.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Exorcise the Demon

Going into the final week of the regular season, the Packers had the chance to secure a week off and get some rest before starting the playoffs.  Of course, they blew that chance and let the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson run wild all over the Metrodome, leading to a 37-34 loss to the Vikings.  At times, one could be forgiven for wondering if the Packers had just decided to let Adrian Peterson get the all-time single season rushing record, as some kind of twisted and belated Christmas present.  Sort of like Brett Favre falling to the turf to give up a sack to his pal Michael Strahan.

I ran out of time this week to go back and re-watch the game, so I haven’t counted up the number of times Peterson bounced a run to the outside, whereupon the Packers defender realized that he had an impossible angle to get to Peterson, and had to adjust the angle so as to give up another 10 or 20 yards, but at least have a chance to catch up to Peterson.  Suffice it to say that it seemed like it happened a lot. 

Heading into the playoffs, there were a lot of potential revenge games that could have materialized for the Packers’ first game.  Would it be a chance to pay back Seattle, for (as it turns out) costing the Packers a bye week, and coming darn close to ruining the Packers’ season?  Would it be the Giants, with the Packers getting one more chance to show that the Giants’ defense does not really have the Packers’ number?  How about a flashback to all those Packers-49ers playoff games from the 1990’s and a chance to avenge the disastrous Terrell Owens game?

Nope.  Instead, the Packers get a do-over.  Another chance to show that the Packers don’t always give up 200 yards rushing to Adrian Peterson.  Another chance to stop the otherwise unimpressive Christian Ponder from carving them up.  And (forgive me for this) a chance to “wipe away” the Randy Moss playoff game from January 2005. 

To get it done, the first thing they have to do is do a better job of tackling.  The Packers showed in week 13 that you can give up a lot of yards to Adrian Peterson and still win the game, so long as you don’t also let Christian Ponder have time for a shoe shine and a shave while sitting back comfortably in the pocket.  Ponder had what was probably his best day in the NFL against the Packers last Sunday.  

The most interesting article I have read this week is by Kevin Seifert of ESPN.  He brings the stats to show that, in the first game between the two teams, the Packers blitzed 75% of the time on third down, and on those downs, Ponder was horrible.  For reasons known only to Dom Capers, on third down in the second game, the Packers only blitzed 25% of the time.  We all saw the results.  I am sure that Ponder has improved over the course of the year, and in particular he has looked much better in the last month, but he is not as good as he looked in that game.  So the second necessary change is to get in Ponder's face some more, and the turnovers will come.  One interception is all it would have taken to turn around the game last week.  Move the game outside in the cold, give the Packers a home crowd, rush more than three on third down, and the Packers should win this game.  It might not even be close, but given the way that the Packers rarely put away a lesser opponent, it probably will be.  Something like 31-24.

My wish list for the game includes a lot of rushing yards for Grant and Harris (I would love to see the first 100 yard rushing game for the Packers in a long time), a few catches for Donald Driver in what will most likely be his last home game, more sacks for Clay Matthews, a smashing return for Randall Cobb, and a sack or an interception (or both!) for Charles Woodson.  The most important item on my list is probably the rushing game for the Packers.  With Evan Dietrich-Smith and Don Barclay now starting on the offensive line, it is to be expected that these young players are more advanced in run blocking than they are in pass protection.  So rather than have Rodgers drop back 50 times and take 5 or 6 sacks, it would be great if the Packers could get the running game going, with the one-two punch of Grant and Harris, and take some pressure off of Rodgers.  If the Packers win Saturday night, they take a trip to my backyard to play the 49ers the following Saturday night.  That matchup will be a tough one for the Packers, if it happens.  But first things first.  Time to exorcise the Adrian Peterson-monster.