Friday, January 9, 2015

Ice Bowl Rematch?

Photo by Scott Crevier
What an interesting week this has been.  Almost by accident Tuesday evening I found a 90 minute show on the NFL Network on the subject of the Ice Bowl Game from the 1967 season.  I am old enough to remember the Ice Bowl game, but I never saw it live: in those days, all home games were blacked out in the local market, whether they were sold out or not, and living in Appleton, the only TV stations we got were from Green Bay.

It was interesting to watch the Ice Bowl excerpts and related interviews.  I don't think it was excerpts from the game broadcast itself, as I don't think they kept the tapes in those days, and it had the look of film, not tape, in any event.  Rather, I think it was NFL Films footage of excerpts of the game, with someone doing a cold, almost disembodied voice-over.  I know that the broadcasting style was different in those days.  The classic Ray Scott description of a touchdown pass was "Starr . . . Dowler . . . touchdown!"  Still, I find it hard to believe that an actual game broadcast would have been so bland, with not a trace of excitement displayed for touchdowns, turnovers, big plays, etc.  And then Wednesday morning, the NFL Network was showing the Green Bay at Dallas NFC Championship game after the 1995 season.  So, as is fitting for the second round of the playoffs, there has been a lot of coverage directed to Dallas and Green Bay.

In addition to all of the articles about the upcoming game itself, and about the horrendous call/non-call in the Lions-Cowboys game, there are lots of print and web articles out there about the Ice Bowl (for example, this one from the L.A. Times), and whether it will be Ice Bowl cold this Sunday (it won't).  And now I see that the Cowboys are hoping for it to be as cold as possible for the game.  I agree with the author that this is likely to be a little "whistling past the graveyard."  It is sad, but true, that the Packers are no longer invincible in playoff games at home.  In the past 13 years they have lost more than their share of home playoff games, after never having lost one before that time.  But I still don't buy that the Cowboys are hoping for cold weather.

All of this focus on the Ice Bowl makes  a lot of sense.  The Packers have not hosted the Cowboys in the playoffs in the 47 years since that epic game.  Lots of football fans may be a little fuzzy on the details of that game (who played, how cold was it, who won, was it the Super Bowl, etc.) but every football fan has heard of the Ice Bowl: it is one of the iconic games of NFL history.  

How is that possible, I thought, when I first heard that it has been 47 years since the last Dallas at Green Bay playoff game?  Well, for starters, for most of those years, the Packers were pretty bad.  They made the playoffs exactly twice between 1967 and 1994, and they didn't get close to the Super Bowl either time.  Starting in 1993, the Packers have made the playoffs most years, but the only Packers-Cowboys playoff games have been played in Texas.  This history serves, for me, as a stark reminder that the Packers, of the last 20 plus years, are an historical anomaly.  Most teams are not blessed with back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Most teams don't make the playoffs 18 times in 22 seasons.  Most teams have regular down periods lasting more than a couple of years.  I can see it in my own family.  My wife and I grew up in the Packers' golden age of the 1960's.  Our kids are in their 20's.  They literally cannot remember a time when the Packers weren't almost always in the playoffs.  So they have grown up in another Packers' golden age, starting when Favre came off the bench in 1992, and lasting to the present day.  But it was not always so, and it won't always be so in the future, either.  So, as fans, we should relish the Favre-Holmgren-Rodgers-McCarthy Packers while we still can.

As for the game, I find myself nervous, and I imagine that most Packers fans feel the same way.  There is the recent history of very discouraging home playoff losses.  There is the fact that the Cowboys are unbeaten on the road, while the Packers are unbeaten at home.  Irresistible force vs. immovable object?  Something obviously has to give, and one of those streaks will be broken by late Sunday afternoon.  Most ominous of all is the Rodgers calf injury.  I can imagine all kinds of scenarios, all the way from Rodgers looks great, and the Packers are sand-bagging the Cowboys a bit, to Rodgers will look like the second coming of Lynn Dickey - a great quarterback but completely immobile, and in much worse shape than the Packers have let on.  My own take is that McCarthy and Rodgers will do everything possible to keep Rodgers in the pocket, and the line will take it on itself to protect him, and as we saw in the Lions game two weeks ago, he can still be effective even without the added factor of mobility.  Even though the Cowboys are not known for blitzing, one has to assume that they will try testing Rodgers with a few blitzes early on.  It is vitally important that the Packers are ready for this, and have a quick outlet receiver available on every passing play.  If Rodgers can beat the blitz a few times, I assume that the Cowboys will revert to their normal approach.

The running game will be critical for both teams.  On paper, the Cowboys have a better rushing offense this season than the Packers.  But I don't think that DeMarco Murray has been as effective since breaking his hand.  Given the weather conditions and Murray's injury, I expect Eddie Lacy to gain more yards in the game than Murray.  On defense, again, on paper the Cowboys look like they have a better rushing defense than the Packers.  But, as I have said before, I think the statistic is somewhat outdated.  If you look at the Packers' rush defense since they started playing Matthews inside on the early downs, I think that the Packers have at least an equal, if not better, rushing defense than the Cowboys.

As for passing offense, under normal conditions it would be a no-brainer to pick the Packers as having the better passing offense.  But it may not be as clear on Sunday, since (a) Tony Romo seems to be more reliable than he has in past years, and (b) the Rodgers injury is a huge wild card.  But I still expect Rodgers not to make mistakes, especially at home, and I think Romo can still be counted on to throw an interception or two.  Dez Bryant is a tremendous talent at receiver for the Cowboys, as is Jason Witten.  But if, as appears likely now, Davon House is able to play, I like the Packers' chances to keep these receivers at least somewhat in check.

Anyway, I think the Packers will win, and my daydream is that it won't even be close.  More likely, the Packers will win by 10 points or less.

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