|Contra Costa Times Sports Section, Dec. 30, 2013|
|San Francisco Chronicle Sports Section, Dec. 30, 2013|
What if the Bears' defensive back had picked up that Aaron Rodgers fumble in the second quarter that looked like an incomplete pass, or even batted it out of bounds? Presumably the Bears, too, are coached to pick up loose balls just in case. What if Boykin, having scooped it up, tossed it in the direction of the ref before Rodgers came up and told him to run? The ref would presumably have jumped out of the way of the ball, and at that point everyone would realize it was a live ball.
What if the Packers players did not succeed in talking Mike McCarthy into going for it on 4th and 1 in the final drive, and the Packers never got the ball back? What if the snap that Rodgers was so clearly not expecting did not basically lodge between Rodgers' hand and body, but bounced off in another direction?
What if, on the final touchdown to Cobb on fourth down, John Kuhn had gotten less of a piece of Julius Peppers, or Peppers' outstretched hand had tripped Rodgers up, or Rodgers didn't see Cobb flying free, or Cobb got his feet tangled with the defender or, heaven forbid, Cobb dropped that ball (it happens)? This drive represented, as Coach McCarthy aptly said, Aaron Rodgers' finest hour as a Packer. It may also have represented John Kuhn's finest and most significant single play as a Packer.
Rodgers showed the effects of all those weeks off. Both of his interceptions, in the first 16 minutes of the game, looked like his fault. The red zone interception, only the fourth red zone interception of his career, looked particularly bad. Where and to whom was he throwing the ball? The ball tipped by Jordy Nelson and then intercepted was poorly placed, too high and behind Nelson. But Rodgers got better and better as the game went on, and the Packers, both in blocking (Kuhn was in to block, to my eye, much more frequently than usual) and in play selection (greater emphasis on short drops and running plays) did a good job of keeping Rodgers from getting hit as much as he usually is hit.
Jordy Nelson was obviously glad to have Aaron Rodgers back. He had his best day by far, in catches and yards, since Rodgers went out, getting 10 catches for 161 yards. We learned, on the Aaron Rodgers radio show on New Year's Eve, that Nelson did this despite having the flu and throwing up on the team bus after the game. The Packers, without Rodgers, were scoring about 9 fewer points per game than they score with him in the game, and they obviously needed those points on Sunday. And Randall Cobb, you could say, was eased back into action. He was thrown to only twice, but caught both balls for touchdowns, including the game winner.
Here in the SF Bay Area, the 49ers fans are already looking past the Packers. We watched the KTVU 10:00 news Sunday night, and one of the fans was looking forward to the NFC Championship game, 49ers at Seattle, in a couple of weeks. Yep, the Green Bay Packers are essentially just a speed bump on the way to the NFC Championship game. Coach Jim Harbaugh is already thinking about keeping his team in the midwest between the Packers game on Sunday and the Panthers game the following week.
The photos at the top of the page are the Monday morning front sports pages from a couple of the local newspapers. At least some in the local media are being a little more level-headed about this, with one writer pointing out that the 49ers have blown sizable leads two weeks in a row, and that doing so in the playoffs is not going to work. Another writer noted that the 49ers secondary is a bit shaky heading into the playoffs.
But let's face it, the Packers are also going to have to play better against the 49ers than they did against the Bears. If Rodgers throws another couple interceptions, that will be trouble. If the Packers give up more long kick returns, they may never recover. The Packers did a decent job on defense, especially considering the absence of Clay Matthews. They gave up 121 yards rushing, and 226 yards passing. But the Bears probably should have rushed more, as they were getting 5 yards per carry. And the Bears would have had a lot more passing yards if their elite receivers hadn't dropped a number of catchable balls. I am not counting on the 49ers to make the same mistakes. And I would not count on the Packers converting three fourth downs in a single drive to score the game-winning points, either.
The Packers have some obvious advantages at home. It turns out that the 49ers have not played a single game with temperatures below freezing in the three years Harbaugh has been the coach. Assuming the Packers manage to sell out the game (shockingly, in doubt as of Wednesday morning), the home crowd should help the Packers and hurt the 49ers. But the Packers are slight underdogs in this game, and it makes sense that they are - if for no other reason than that the 49ers have a much better defense.
As it happens, we have attended the last three Packers-49ers games, opening day 2012, the playoff game last year, and the opening day game this year. The Packers lost all three of those games. The superstitious among us will be glad to know that we are not going to the game this week. Happy New Year!