Saturday, October 25, 2014

Geaux Pack Geaux!

I got kind of busy and did not post anything last week,  So it is time now to reflect on how the Packers, who were once a very disappointing 1-2, are now 5-2 and in relatively good shape.  "If the playoffs started today - the Packers would be the number 6 seed."  True, but awfully premature at this stage.  The Bears and Vikings seem well on their respective ways to self-destruction.  If only somebody could drop a couple of extra losses on the Lions, the Packers might really be primed for a trip to the playoffs.  Maybe the Lions, who are playing at 6:30 am Sunday morning (California time) can give us a good, early start to the weekend.

But first, a word or two about the Dolphins and Panthers games.  The Dolphins game started out with a very crisp Packers drive for a touchdown.  It looked like it might be an easy victory despite the heat and humidity.  But of course that is not what happened.  The Packers' defense played very well, with interceptions by Hayward and Shields, but the Packers' offense sputtered for the rest of the first half, which ended with the Packers only up by the score of 10-3.  I hate 7 point halftime leads, because one big play and the game is tied.  Sure enough, in the second half, the Dolphins scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives, with the Packers' defense looking really gassed on the second and third drives.  This put the Dolphins up, 24-17, in the fourth quarter.

Watching the game a second time, it is amazing how many plays and decisions that turned out to be game-saving were made.  Crosby's TD-saving tackle on a kickoff return before the Dolphins' first possession of the game.  The Packers' defense stopping Miami cold on 4th and goal from the 1 yard line.  With 4:13 left in the game, and with the Packers having 4th and 6 from the Dolphins' 12 yard line, McCarthy took the field goal and counted on the defense to get the ball back.  That looked like the wrong call to me at the time, given how tired the Packers' defense looked in the second half, but it worked out and the Packers' got the ball back with 2:04 left.  That final drive had plenty of drama.  Micah Hyde started it with a 17 yard return to the 40 yard line.  Then Starks gained 12 yards on the only play the Packers could really afford to try a running play (because of the 2 minute warning).  Then TJ Lang fell on the ball after it was stripped from Rodgers' hands, leaving the Packers with a 4th and 10, which they converted on a pass to Nelson.  And then, of course, with Dan Marino in the stadium, Rodgers pulled off the famous fake-spike pass to Davante Adams.  The rookie played like a seasoned veteran on that play, not only figuring out or realizing what Rodgers was up to, but making an excellent move to get more yards, and then ensuring that he would get out of bounds to stop the clock.  It wasn't just that play, either, as Adams played well for the entire game.  Finally, the game-winning TD to Quarless.

If any one of those plays and decisions had gone the other way, the Dolphins would have won the game.  Indeed, The Dolphins game was the sort of game that the Packers would have lost most of the time in recent history.  The elements were against them, and after giving up the lead, it would have been easy for exhausted players to accept the defeat and fold.  Hey, you can't win them all, after all.  But instead, they got a stop on defense when they needed it most, and they pulled off a highly improbable touchdown drive to win the game.  That win counts for a lot in my book.

The Panthers game was completely different - a dominant performance on both sides of the ball,  The Packers scored 21 points in the first 13 minutes of the game, and did not allow a single first down to the Panthers in that time.  It was one of those games where both starting quarterbacks sat out significant chunks of the fourth quarter, the Packers because the game was well in hand, and the Panthers because there was no hope and no reason to risk injury to Cam Newton.

With one more game before the bye week, it would be a huge advantage to come out of the Super Dome with another win, a 6-2 record, a 5 game winning streak, and no worse than a tie for the lead in the NFC North.  On paper, you would think that the Packers should win this game.  They are definitely on a bit of a hot streak, while the Saints are a disappointing 2-4.  Prior to the season, I counted this game as a loss for the Packers, but that was at a point when I assumed the Saints would be playing better than they have been.  But the Saints are a good team, better than their record, they have won 13 home night games in a row, they have won both of their home games this season, and they are pretty desperate for a win to stay in contention.  Beyond that, 3 of their 4 losses have been close (3 points or less).  Only the Cowboys blew them out, 38-17.  For all those reasons, I have to predict a Packers' loss tomorrow night.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Refreshed Packers Head for Stormy Weather

Photo by Tom Lynn, Associated Press
Last week's Minnesota at Green Bay Thursday night game was just what the Packers needed.  In beating the Vikings, 42-10, they not only won their second game in a row, they moved (after Sunday's games) into a first place tie in the NFC North, they played their second excellent offensive game in a row, and they played their best defensive game of the year so far.  This laugher of a game, which was over by halftime, then gave them a "mini-bye week" of 10 days to get ready for their next game, at Miami on Sunday.

One interesting stat from the NFL Network pre-game show before the Packers-Vikings game really struck me.  Going into the week 4 games, there were nine teams whose record at the time was above .500 (actually the number was 10, including the Seahawks, but since the Packers have already played them, I think they were excluded by whoever created the stat).  Of those nine teams, the Packers only play one more (the Eagles, at home, in week 11).  So while the Packers got off to their maddeningly traditional slow start this year, there is lots of room to win games as the year goes on.

Linebacker Julius Peppers had a record-setting night.  He picked off a tipped pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown.  This made him the first player in NFL history to have both 100 sacks and 10 interceptions.  The most impressive part of the return was his instinct to cut almost all the way across the field, in order to have a cleaner path toward the end zone, and to pick up a pack of blockers.  He also outraced a pretty fast Minnesota running back, Jerick McKinnon, on his way to the end zone.  He had to be reminded about the Lambeau Leap in the excitement of the moment, and his leap, shown in the picture, was less than impressive.  From my observation, he needed more of a running start, and according to Jordy Nelson, he also picked the highest part of the wall.  After the game, he promised the laughing NFL Network crew that he will do a better job next time.  May that next opportunity come soon!

I don't quite know what to make of the Miami Dolphins, the Packers' next opponent.  I watched most of their last game, against the 0-4 Oakland Raiders.  They beat the Raiders soundly, but then again, it was the Raiders.  They also beat the Patriots in Week 1, which is more impressive in my mind, but it also was before the Patriots started to get their act together.

The weather on Sunday should be hot and humid, with a good chance of thundershowers, which could be a challenge for players used to practicing and playing in the fall climate in Green Bay.  The game, as of the time I am writing this, is not even sold out, which is usually a pretty good indication that there will be lots of Packers fans in the stands, and thus not much of a homefield advantage, other than the weather.

Purely based on offensive and defensive stats, you could argue that the Dolphins are a better team than the Packers in several categories, including rushing defense, overall defense, and rushing offense.I am not going to say that the Dolphins will be a pushover for the Packers.  But despite these stats, I think the Packers will win the game, and probably win it handily.  The Packers have a top flight quarterback and receivers, and our top flight running back might be coming around, finally, as well.  The Dolphins have some pretty good running backs, but I am not that impressed by their quarterback or receivers.  On defense, for better or for worse, the Packers have been a "bend but don't break" defense this year so far, so the poor stats (especially in rush defense) overstate how bad the defense has played.  Looking over the Dolphins' defensive players, I just don't see a lot of playmakers; in fact, I only recognize a few names of the Dolphins' starters.  Whereas, in the case of the Packers, there are quite a few players capable of making game-changing defensive plays.  The game is being shown to a surprisingly large part of the country, probably because of the Packers' improved performance over the last couple of weeks.  I can't wait for game time!