Thursday, November 27, 2014

Statement Game, Part Deux?

Two weeks ago, the Packers made their statement by beating one of the top teams in the NFC, the Eagles.  Then they avoided, just barely, falling in their trap game against the Vikings in TCF Stadium.  On Sunday, they get their chance to make another statement by beating the Patriots, probably the top team in the AFC, in what some people are calling a possible Super Bowl preview.

About the Vikings game - sure, we all expected the Packers to dominate the game, and they really did not do that.  They never trailed in the game, but they never really took control of the game, either.  It was the classic sort of game where the better team plays down to the level of the competition, and lets the other team hang around and hang around, all game long.  There were a number of contributing factors.  First, the Packers just seemed flat.  Rodgers missed some passes, and should have been intercepted at least once, and receivers dropped some passes that they normally would catch.  The Vikings played a lot of cover-2 defense, which seems like it always frustrates Rodgers, and it does tend to decrease the efficiency of the Packers' offense.  Teddy Bridgewater looks like he might be the real deal for the Vikings, but he was wild on Sunday, especially early in the game.  If he had completed some easy passes, instead of overthrowing them, and if his receivers had not dropped a handful of catchable passes, the Vikings might well have won the game.

Still, the positive parts of the Vikings game were the effect that the Packers suffered through a subpar performance and still managed to win the game - somewhat like the Jets and Dolphins games, both of which they could easily have lost.  And there is nothing more satisfying than to see the Packers get the ball back, with over 3 minutes to go, and watch them grind it out on 5 straight Eddie Lacy runs, for two first downs, to get the game into kneel-down time.

What about the Patriots?  They have the best record in the AFC at 9-2, and they are on a 7 game winning streak, after a maddeningly slow start of 2-2.  People were beginning to question whether Brady was over the hill, but just like that, they turned it around.  In their seven game winning streak, only one win has been by less than 15 points (they beat the Jets by 2 points).  One of the things that I have always admired about the Patriots is the way that they keep their foot on the gas until the game is way out of control.  So if the Patriots get ahead of the Packers on Sunday, there is no hope that the Patriots will slow down the game and give the Packers a chance to catch up.  The Packers will have to seize the opportunity themselves, with no help from the Patriots.

I can make the case for the Patriots winning the game.  They have two top cornerbacks, so they should have a better chance to keep Nelson and Cobb in check than most teams.  Both teams have high-level passing offenses and middle of the pack rushing offenses,  They both have middle of the road passing defenses, but the Patriots have a much better rushing defense, and the Patriots have shown that they are willing and able to emphasize the run offense when that is the easier way to score points.  If the Patriots win the game, it will be likely be because of the Packers' Achilles' heel: rushing defense.

But I am predicting a Packers' win.  True, the Patriots have won 7 in a row, but the Packers have won 7 out of their last 8 games, and are 5-0 at home (thanks to the furious comeback against the Jets).  The Packers do have, on a year-to-date basis, one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, but I would suggest that the statistic is out of date.  Since the Packers started to use Matthews inside, the Packers have given up 55, 109 and 112 rushing yards in those three games.  If they did that all season long, the Packers would have a top 10 rushing defense.

It is interesting that Brady and Rodgers have never started against each other - a fact made possible by Rodgers' concussion in 2010.  Matt Flynn played instead, and came close to upsetting the heavily-favored Patriots.  But this time, we get two of the best quarterbacks in the league, both (I would argue) sure future Hall of Famers.  This will be an interesting battle, between the classic pocket passer in Tom Brady, and the newer model, more mobile quarterback in Rodgers.  According to the NFL Network, there has never been a game in which the starting quarterbacks have more career touchdown passes.  Brady and Rodgers have 603 combined passing TDs.  In second place is a Roethlisberger-Favre matchup late in Favre's career - those two had 589 passing TDs.  This should be a great matchup.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Statement Made - Now Avoid the Trap Game

Photo by Jeff Hanisch, USA Today
Last week, I made the comment that the Packers hadn't really beaten any good teams yet, with the possible exception of the Dolphins, and that they really needed a "statement" game.  Well, beating the high-flying, at the time 7-2 Eagles, by the score of 53-20, qualifies as a statement in my book.  The Packers turned in their second 50 + point game in two weeks, and dominated the Eagles on both sides of the ball, and (to some extent) on special teams as well.

The Eagles gained a lot of yards, but the Packers forced just enough mistakes to hold them to 20 points.  For the second week in a row, Clay Matthews' part-time gig as an inside linebacker paid dividends, with Matthews causing matchup problems inside, and registering a sack when lined up outside.  Julius Peppers scored his second interception return touchdown of the year, and did a MUCH better Lambeau Leap this time.  I assume he has been practicing.

On offense, in re-watching the game, I was impressed by the front line's protection of Rodgers.  He was sacked once, but otherwise generally had plenty of time.  If I am not mistaken, this is the first time in years that the same 5 offensive linemen have started every game all season, despite some of them being banged up in a number of games.  That continuity is making a lot of difference, as is more attention to quick releases by Rodgers, screen passes, and other mis-direction plays.  The highlight of the game for me, even though the game was already out of reach, was Eddie Lacy's 4th quarter "boom . .boom . . boom" style touchdown on a short dump-off pass to the left side.  Thirty-two yards and five would-be tacklers later, Lacy was in the end zone.  Most of the country missed the score, as Fox, I think, had already switched to another game, but what an impressive effort by Lacy.

One thing that I have not seen written about anywhere is whether Jordy Nelson hurt himself in the first quarter of the game.  Watching on TV, we both had the impression that he came up with a slight limp after a long incomplete pass on a free play, when the Eagles jumped offsides.  He missed a couple of plays, then returned and played the rest of the game, and did not appear on any injury reports this week, so I have to assume he will not be hampered in any way on Sunday.

Special teams was more of a mixed bag.  Micah Hyde had a great punt return for a touchdown, but there was also a botched extra point and a missed extra point.  If you are going to miss easy kicks, do it in blowout games where it doesn't make any difference.

This week, the Packers get to play the Vikings outdoors, at the University of Minnesota.  It will be the first Packers-Vikings road game played outside since 1981.  While the Metrodome was mostly a house of horrors for the Packers in the Brett Favre era, the same has not been true for the McCarthy-Rodgers era.  The Packers are 8-1-1 in their last 10, and 3-1 in the last four games at the Metrodome.  Playing outdoors in Minnesota, if anything, has to be a plus for the Packers.  The Vikings' temporary stadium only holds 52,000, and of course with an open end, and an open roof, it has to be easier on the ears than the Humptydome.  Weather shouldn't really be a factor either way, as the high will be near 40 degrees, unless it is raining.

The Vikings are playing better recently than they were earlier in the year, and Teddy Bridgewater looks like he will be a definite upgrade for the Vikings at quarterback.  All of which sets this game up as a potential "trap" game.  The Packers have had many of these games over the years.  The would-be perfect season in 2011 was spoiled by the trap game against Kansas City.  The Chiefs had their own trap game Thursday night against the previously winless Raiders.  Still, I just can't see the Vikings keeping up with the Packers on Sunday, and I expect a comfortable win.  You could argue that the Packers are "peaking" too early this season, but I don't think that it will make any difference on Sunday.  And, if the Lions lose in their visit to New England on Sunday, the Packers will find themselves in sole possession of first place in the division come Sunday evening.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How Sweet It Is!

Jarret Boykin, blocking the punt before it is kicked
"How Sweet It Is!"  This was a catch-phrase made  popular by entertainer Jackie Gleason, in the various iterations of his TV shows in the 1950's and 1960's.  It was also the first thing my mother-in-law, Carole Casper, said about Sunday night's Packers-Bears game, which the Packers won, 55-14.  And sweet it was.

At times over the years, I have almost succumbed to the delusion that the Packers-Bears rivalry is not such a big deal as it used to be.  After all, the Packers have dominated the Bears for more than 20 years now, starting with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, and continuing under Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers.  Favre's record against the Bears was 22-10, and I am almost surprised that his winning percentage wasn't higher.  I think a different figure was presented on the Sunday night broadcast, but I counted the games myself, and Rodgers' record is 12-3, including the NFC Championship game in 2010.  So the aggregate record is now 34-13 over 23 seasons.

But saying that the rivalry is no longer a big deal is lunacy.  The Packers-Bears rivalry has everything going for it.  The David and Goliath aspect - the smallest town franchise in major sports against one of the great American big cities.  The fact that the teams are only a couple of hundred miles away from each other.  The fact that they are in the same division and play each other twice a year.  The sneering "Cheesehead" slur by Bears fans that was turned into a thriving business by Foamation.  Let's not forget that it is the oldest rivalry in the NFL, and that the Packers and Bears are numbers 1 and 2 in total NFL Championships (the Packers are number 1, of course).  I can well remember the years when a Packers losing season could be salvaged by beating the Bears at least once.  And I think the shoe is now on the other foot.

Most Packers fans under their mid-50's have never witnessed a more lopsided win over the Bears than the Packers achieved Sunday night.  But I am older than that, and in fact my dad took me to my very first Packers game in 1962, when the Packers beat the Bears 49-0 at Lambeau Field.  Somewhere, buried deep in a box of stuff, I even have a black and white snapshot I took in the stands that day.  So I have a little history with the Packers and the Bears, including having lived in the Chicago area for a couple of years, and having a daughter who lives there now.

If you think the rivalry is not that important, then consider that Lovie Smith was brought to Chicago with the explicit, number one goal, of beating the Packers.  I didn't remember that the idea of trading for Jay Cutler was also about beating the Packers, but the announcers mentioned that Sunday night.  Irony alert: his record is now 1-11 against the Packers.  And wasn't Marc Trestman, the "boy genius," also brought in to upgrade the offense, in order to beat the Packers?

Still not convinced?  How about the fact that one Chicago Tribune columnist thinks that Marc Trestman should have been fired at halftime?  Or what about the Packer fan who ordered a customized Packers jersey, number 6, Cutler?

So yes, upon further review, Sunday night's destruction of the Bears was a big deal.  I am sure I am missing some of the records that were set or tied, but they included: Rodgers set an NFL record by throwing his 16th TD pass of 70 yards or more; Rodgers had his first career game with 4 TD passes in the first half; Rodgers tied Daryle Lamonica's record by throwing 6 TD passes in a half; Rodgers became the first player to throw 10 TD passes and no interceptions against a single team in a single season; the Packers set a team record for points scored against the Bears; the Packers set the record for most points scored against the Bears in one half; the 42 point halftime lead was the second largest halftime lead in history; and (this one is my favorite) the Bears became the first team to allow 50+ points in successive games since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons.

The most interesting development in the Bears game was the Packers having moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker for the majority of his snaps.  Everybody knows that the Packers' defense has had a problem with the running game all season long.  Prior to Sunday's game, the Packers had given up an average of 153 rushing yards per game, and never gave up less than 108 rushing yards.  By lining up Matthews inside, everything changed, and the Packers gave up only 55 rushing yards to the Bears.  That just cannot be a coincidence, although there are two factors in the Bears game that may not apply in any other game: the element of surprise, and the fact that the Packers got up so far so fast, thus taking the Bears out of their normal mix of running and passing plays.

But the Packers have no time to rest on their laurels.  This Sunday, the high-flying Eagles come to town, ready to match their no-huddle offense against that of the Packers.  A few weeks ago, I would have seen this game as a loss for the Packers.  Then, after QB Nick Foles was knocked out with a collarbone injury, I thought the Packers had a much better chance.  But then when I watched the Eagles lay waste to the Panthers on Monday night behind backup Mark Sanchez, I started to be concerned again.

But after re-watching both the Packers game and the Eagles game, I am cautiously optimistic about the Packers' chances.  While the Eagles ran up the score to 31-7 in the first half, they did this with the benefit of 4 turnovers by the Panthers, an additional turnover on downs, and 5 sacks against the hobbled Cam Newton.  I don't expect the Packers to be similarly generous to the Eagles, and I also have trouble believing that Mark Sanchez, even with the high-powered Eagles offense, will be able to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  I would guess that the game will be high-scoring, but that the Packers will come out on top.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pivotal Bears-Packers Game

Picture by NBC Sports
Bears-Packers Week is always special for me.  It reminds me of the very first Packers game I ever attended, against the Bears, in 1962 (the Packers won, 49-0).  I think of the intensity of the rivalry, and the iconic players and coaches who participated in it (Nitschke, Butkus, Ditka, Gregg, Halas, Lombardi, Payton and others too numerous to mention).  I think of the memorable games - the Monsoon Bowl on a Halloween night, the game after Walter Payton's death, decided on a blocked field goal, the NFC Championship game after the 2010 season, and, of course, the Instant Replay Game.

Twenty-five years ago this week, during what I call the "Majic Man Season," we were in the stands for the Instant Replay game.  Our seats were (at the time) in the end zone, the end zone on the other side of the field from the decisive play.  The Packers trailed, 13-7, in the final minutes of the game, until on 4th and goal from the 14 yard line, Don Majkowski threw what looked like the game-winning touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe.  Except there was a flag - illegal forward pass - Don Majkowski was over the line of scrimmage when he released the ball.  (The rule has since been changed, but at that time only the point where the ball was released mattered.)  Majkowski's body could have been over the line, but if the ball left his hand behind the line, the pass was a good one.  The replay official called for a review, which lasted forever.  There were no massive, crystal-clear replay boards in the stadium at the time.  But we had a portable TV with us, and we watched it over and over on the tiny screen.  Even the Bears fan next to us concluded that it was a touchdown, and after a four minute review, so did the replay official.  The Packers went 10-6 that year, and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, but it was still a pivotal and important game for the Packers and their fans.

This week's game is pivotal, too, for essentially the opposite reason.  If the Packers win this game, they will be 6-3 and in reasonable good shape, while the Bears will be 3-6, and even more in disarray than they are already.  If the Bears win, suddenly they will be back closer to the top in the division at 4-5, just a game behind the Packers at 5-4.  Under this scenario, maybe the Lions will end up running away with the division (or not, time will tell).  But in either case, this is an important game.

Both the Packers and the Bears had a bye last week, so they will be well rested.  The Packers should have both Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields back, and apparently Rodgers is just fine with his hamstring injury, but both T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton are questionable.

What can we learn from the Packers' loss to the Saints two weeks ago (44-23) and from the Bears' loss to the Patriots the same day (51-23)?  The Packers were in the Saints game, and in fact poised to take the lead in the third quarter, when disaster struck as Rodgers tweaked his hamstring.  His reduced mobility led to an uncharacteristic interception on that same drive, and another one later in the game.  While the Packers did score one more touchdown in the game, Rodgers was not himself for the rest of the game, and that, combined with the Packers' inability to stop the run or the pass against the Saints, turned the game into a blowout.  This week, the return of Burnett and Shields should help on defense, but I wonder how much the possible loss of starting guards Lang and Sitton will hurt the Packers by allowing more pressure on Rodgers and less effectiveness in the running game.  In the Saints game, the Packers made great use of Eddie Lacy in the passing game (8 catches for 123 yards), and it would be nice to see Rodgers get enough protection to allow that trend to continue.

The Bears were blown out by an even greater margin by Tom Brady and the Patriots two weeks ago.  That game was never close, despite decent efforts by Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Martellus Bennett.  But while the Bears had some success on offense, their defense was completely outmatched by the Patriots' offense.  The Bears had some injuries on defense, and they are healthier now, but it is no accident that the Bears have given up more points than anyone in the division.  Their defense just isn't as good as we traditionally expect of the Bears.  The Packers beat the Bears handily on the road 6 weeks ago, and I expect them to do the same Sunday night at home.

To help get you ready for the game, here are a few interesting/amusing things to watch and read.  More coverage of the Instant Replay Game.  A video of the decisive play in that game.  And a collection of Jay Cutler interceptions thrown to the Packers.  Go Pack Go!