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.

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