Friday, December 19, 2014

No Margin for Error Left

Most Creative Use of Mouthpiece Award Winner
Ever have a multi-stop business trip, where things go haywire on the first stop, and it threatens to throw a monkey wrench into all of the rest of your plans?  Well, the Packers had that kind of a first stop in Buffalo last Sunday, losing to the Bills 21-13.  They were in it, sort of, until Rodgers was stripped of the ball near the goal line late in the game, and whirled around but could not find the ball.  Eddie Lacy picked the ball up in the end zone and tried to advance it.  Unfortunately for Lacy and the Packers, this brought into play the "holy roller" rule, and thus was a safety, whether or not Lacy got out of the end zone.

The holy roller rule arose out of a 1978 play involving Ken Stabler and Chilton, WI high graduate Dave Casper of the Oakland Raiders.  With seconds left in the game, and the Raiders trailing, Stabler, about to be sacked, "fumbled" the ball forward, where it was bobbled and rolled into the end zone by Casper, where he recovered it for the winning touchdown.  Of course, there were calls for the league to "do something" about this.  In a football application of the old principle that hard cases make bad law, the league came up with the holy roller rule, which basically states that in the final two minutes of a half, only the player who fumbles the ball can advance it.  Thus, when Rodgers could not find the ball, as soon as Lacy picked it up, it was a dead ball in the end zone and a safety.  Ironically, the rule was probably never necessary.  If, as was admitted at the time, Stabler intentionally fumbled the ball in an effort to have a chance for someone to advance it, then it could have been ruled an incomplete forward pass, or maybe even intentional grounding, and in either case the ball could not be advanced.  So, I would argue it was just a bad call, not a cause célèbre calling for a new rule.  But anyway, rules are rules, and the way the Packers had been playing, they didn't have much of a chance anyway.

On the plus side, Cobb and Nelson become the first pair of receivers in the long history of the Packers to have 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, each in the same season.  Jordy Nelson's best play of the game, however, might have been on defense.  A pass to Nelson was nearly intercepted and might have been returned for a touchdown, but for Nelson getting a hand on the ball and knocking it out of the defensive back's hands.

But the negatives far outweighed the positive.  Jordy Nelson dropped what should have been a 95 yard TD. That is something that nobody would expect out of Nelson.  And it wasn't just him.  Receivers dropped what looked like 5 or 6 catchable balls throughout the game, and Rodgers was uncharacteristically off on a number of passes.  He had two interceptions, one of which was a tipped ball, like all his previous interceptions this season, but the other was just a bad pass.  Rodgers had the lowest QB rating of his career.  He also had the most incomplete passes in a game in his career.  Remarkably and inexplicably, McCarthy did not respond to the problems in the passing game by calling more running plays, screens, draw plays, etc.  He certainly should have.

And, as a little footnote, there were more problems in the kicking game, as Crosby's 53 yard field goal attempt was blocked, and the Packers' special teams gave up a punt return for a touchdown.

The Bills have the kind of defense that Rodgers generally has problems with.  If they can put pressure on with 4 rushers, and drop everyone else in coverage, problems ensue.  This is the sort of thing that Seattle does to Rodgers, or occasionally the Jim Schwartz-led Lions.  Not entirely coincidentally, Schwartz is now the defensive coordinator for the Bills.

This game featured the worst announcer pair I have ever heard, Justin Kutcher and David Diehl.  My working theory is that they were switched in to cover this game after Fox decided to show the Johnny Manziel game to most of the country, because they acted as if they had done no preparation whatever for the game.  Bryan Bulaga's name was repeatedly pronounced "Beluga" until they finally figured it out in the 4th quarter.  Maybe they grew up listening to the Raffi children's song, Baby Beluga.  Or maybe they love caviar.  Poor Micah Hyde had his name butchered as "Makiah Hyde."  The Old Testament Prophet must be rolling over in his grave.  One of the announcers had the verbal tic where he pronounces the "T" in Kyle Orton as if it were a glottal stop, not a letter to be pronounced.  And I can't count the number of times during the game that one of them said, "my mistake."

The Packers, of course, have to put all the negatives behind them and move on to the Tampa Bay game.  Fans have no choice but to do the same.  The Packers' loss to the Bills puts them in the position where they dropped back into a tie with the Lions, and it is a severe blow to any thought the Packers had of claiming the number 1 seed.  But if they beat the Buccaneers on the road and the Lions at home, the Packers still win the division and get at least the number 2 seed (and the resulting bye).

So the Packers have a lot to play for, and no remaining margin for error.  I was amused today by a Press-Gazette article remembering the time that Brett Favre had to wave his arms to quiet the Packer fans' "Go Pack Go" chant in the Tampa stadium.  I remember the game more for the way it set off a rant from Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer after the game.  Anyway, that was against a Buccaneers team that made the playoffs.  This year, the Buccaneers are 2-12.  While the Buccaneers usually have trouble selling out home games, this game was sold out 6 months ago, and the tickets are now reselling way over face value.  You tell me who is buying those tickets.  To put it a different way, if the Packers have trouble with the Buccaneers in their home away from home, then they are in a heap of trouble overall.  I expect a convincing win from the Packers.  It is time to play like champions again.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Road Trip Awaits the Packers

The Unstoppable Jordy Nelson (photo by Jim Biever,
Almost everything went the Packers' way in the first half, last Monday night against the Falcons.  Other than a crisp first drive by the Falcons, to tie the game at 7-7, it was all Packers, all the time.  When Rodgers hit Nelson for the last score of the first half, to make it 31-7, Jon Gruden said "the rout is on."  And if you look at the stats for the first half, you would think the same thing.  In every single offensive category, the Packers were outperforming the Falcons.

With the way that the Packers have played this year, fans could be forgiven for thinking that the days of "playing it safe" with a lead had gone away for good.  One of my complaints, for years, had been that the Packers take their collective foot off the gas with a lead, stop playing aggressively on offense and defense, and frequently let lesser teams climb back into the game.  The Packers really haven't done that this year, and they have blowout wins against the Bears, Vikings, Panthers, Bears again, and Eagles to show for it.  

So what happened in the second half?  Since when do we expect to see the Packers give up 30 points in a half, while scoring only 12, to lead to a final score of 43-37?  Well, you can't take anything away from Julio Jones, who set the all-time record for receiving yards against the Packers, with 259.  And it could have been worse if he didn't sit out part of the 4th quarter with an injury.  All game long, it looked like they needed safety help over the top to cover Jones, but they usually did not provide it.  And it wasn't just Jones.  It was the Falcons' passing offense and the Packers' passing defense in general.  Even though no receiver other than Jones put up big numbers, 8 other receivers caught passes, and Matt Ryan ended up with 375 passing yards.

Julio Jones is certainly a top-flight receiver, but the Packers have controlled better quarterbacks (for example, Tom Brady) and have done a better job of controlling other top receivers (Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson).  So I do think that the second half was a bit of an anomaly, and most likely represents a letdown or an example of taking the second half off.  If so, it is appalling that it happened.  But if it did, there is no better outcome than for the Packers to hang on and win the game anyway.  This gives them the benefit of the win, against a conference opponent to boot, and keeps them tied for the best record in the league.  But, almost as importantly, it serves as an important reminder and warning that they can't get away with this stuff, even against a team that is, objectively, not as good as other teams the Packers will have to play in the playoffs.  Better to learn that lesson now than on the first (or hopefully, the second) weekend in January.

Now the Packers head off on a two-game road trip, first against Buffalo, and then against Tampa Bay.  I will take a closer look at Tampa Bay next week, but offhand that game does not concern me.  Not only do the Buccaneers have the worst record in the league at 2-11, but the stands will be half full of Packers fans.  Any Packers fans in the area should get tickets now.  You can't have a better time in late December than sitting out in shirt sleeves, in a friendly road venue, and watching the Packers.  (I'm talking to you, Marc B. and David A.)

The Bills, on the other hand, are a bigger test.  Weather should not be an issue, with temperatures in the mid-30s and not much chance of rain or snow.  But the Bills could be an issue.  They have a pretty decent record at 7-6, they are playing at home, and they still have a shot at a wild card spot.  In fact, with a bunch of 8-5 wild card contenders in front of them, a loss to the Packers would be close to devastating.  This will not be a team with their bags packed, waiting for the off-season to start.

The Bills have not played that well on offense, but their defense is outstanding.  No team in the AFC has given up fewer points than have the Bills.  The defense is coached by old Packer nemesis Jim Schwartz, so although the team may not have played the Packers in four years, the defensive coordinator knows the Packers very well.  The offensive line of the Packers will have its work cut out for it in keeping Rodgers upright and healthy against the Bills' defense.  The Packers, in my opinion, have the best quarterback in the league and the best set of receivers.  Rodgers and the receivers will have to put some points on the board, especially if Eddie Lacy is hampered or out of the game.

On top of that, and for whatever it is worth, the Bills have scored more points on offense than the Packers' other remaining opponents, the Buccaneers and Lions.  Kyle Orton, the current starting quarterback, has a surprisingly good record as starter against the Packers, and the rookie wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, will also test the defense.  So it is important that the Packers' defense plays much better than they did last week.  I think the Packers will win the game, but probably by less than 7 points, so we may to sweat this one out, too, just like the last two weeks.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Morning Game Day Thoughts

Photo by USATSI
The photo above depicts the key defensive moment in last week's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots.  The Packers were playing one of the best teams in the league, with the league's best record at 9-2, and the Patriots were on a 7 game winning streak, with one of the best quarterbacks in the league at the helm.  The Packers had never trailed in the game, but it had been a close game since the second quarter, with the Packers never leading by more than 9 points in that span.  On offense, the Packers' main problem all day had been in the red zone, where they ended up having to settle for four field goals and one missed field goal.

So when the Packers' drive in the fourth quarter stalled, and Mason Crosby kicked his fourth field goal of the day to bring the score to 26-21 with 8:45 left in the game, Packer fans could be forgiven for contemplating the possibility of a long, clock-eating drive, ending in a go-ahead touchdown by the Patriots.  While the Packers' defense had kept Brady under control all game, they had never sacked him, until it was 3rd and 9 from the Packers' 20, after the Patriots' drive had consumed over 5 minutes of the clock and 52 yards.  It was at that moment that Mike Daniels and Mike Neal came up with the only Packers sack of the game, putting the Patriots too far out to try a fourth-down play, and forcing them to try to kick a field goal, which they missed.  Two Lacy runs, one clutch pass to Cobb, and 3 kneel-downs later, the game was over.  While this game was obviously not a Super Bowl, the Daniels-Neal sack immediately reminded me of Reggie White's two, back to back sacks of Drew Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI, to effectively finish out the game.

Back when the Packers were 1-2, none of us really contemplated the Packers being in a position to win 7 out of 8 games, or to knock off two division-leading teams like the Eagles and the Patriots within a three week span.  But they have done exactly that.  Keeping more of their players healthy has been a big factor, obviously, but so has the continuing development of young players like Eddie Lacy and David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley and Davante Adams (other than his big drop of what would have been a touchdown pass) on offense, and like Datone Jones, and Micah Hyde, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on defense.  And finally, the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit.  Over the years, many of us have been critical of Mike McCarthy and his staff, for poor clock and game management, unimaginative play calling, being slow to adjust within games, etc.  But I have to admit that the Packers, for most of this year, have been doing a better job of changing things up to keep the opposing teams off balance.  On defense, the creative use of Clay Matthews in the last four weeks has made a huge difference in the overall performance of the defense, and on offense, last Sunday's game showed how the creative use of Randall Cobb in many different alignments can create massive problems for the opposing team's defense.  Where was all this creativity hiding for the last few years?  Hard to tell, but let's enjoy it while it lasts.

Much has been made this week of Bill Belichick seeking out both McCarthy and Rodgers after the game to have a few words with them.  Neither McCarthy nor Rodgers would disclose what was said, but it is fair to assume that Belichick was acknowledging the excellent play-calling and performance of the Packers in the game.

The Packers have four winnable games left in the regular season.  Atlanta at home, Buffalo and Tampa Bay on the road, and then the huge rematch with the Lions.  The Falcons, despite their 5-7 record, should not be taken lightly.  They still have Julio Jones and Roddy White on offense, and if Matt Ryan gets hot, they can score a lot of points.  They have also won 3 of their last 4 games, including a win over Arizona, so they are getting their season back on track after a really poor start.  Plus, at 5-7 they are like the old joke about the two men being chased by a bear.  Since they currently actually lead the NFC South, they don't need to win enough games to have a good record; they just need to finish in front of the Saints and Panthers.  If they do, they will win the division and host a home playoff game.

We all remember that it was just four short years ago that the Falcons had the best record in the NFC, and the Packers knocked them off on the way to Super Bowl XLV.  They have lost a lot of players since then, but they still have plenty of talent.  And this is, for the reasons noted, a big game for the Falcons.  But I don't see them pulling off a massive upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field.  I think the Packers will win this one by at least 10 points.  Go Pack!