Thursday, January 15, 2015

Slingin' in the Rain, Seattle Style

Photo by Tom Freeman
My daughter and I went to the Cowboys-Packers game on Sunday. Between traffic delays and a huge crowd waiting to get in the gates of the stadium, we barely made it in time for the game. In fact, we arrived as the National Anthem was being sung, and managed to peek up from the tunnel to see the fly-over before the game. We made it to our seats before kickoff, in time to witness lots of frustrating moments in the first half.  We had real doubts that the Packers would win, starting in the second quarter, but it turned out to be a great game after all, with the Packers prevailing, 26-21.

The first half was, at times, excruciating. While the crowd started out the game creating lots of noise, there were times in the first half when we all started to have enough doubts about the outcome that the crowd was, to some extent, taken out of the game. Rodgers was obviously immobile, but to make matters worse, he was missing passes that one normally assumes he will make. And Eddie Lacy missed lots of snaps after the first drive, causing us to wonder if he was hurt, too (we learned later that he was having an asthma attack).

The turn-around in the second half was pretty spectacular.  Rodgers started to look much better, even if he was still quite immobile.  Better passes led to fewer missed connections.  Eddie Lacy returned, and ended up being one of three Packer players having over 100 yards from scrimmage in the same playoff game, something that had never happened before (the others were Davante Adams, and, thanks to that last amazing catch to help run out the clock, Randall Cobb).

The picture above depicts the team lined up, about to snap the ball on the game-winning touchdown, as I saw it from section 114. Well, technically it depicts the team lined up right before Rodgers had to burn a time out as the play clock expired. The time out allowed me to post the picture on Facebook before the play was run, in time to look like I knew the game winning score was coming all along.

If I had to name MVPs of the game, I suppose that the obvious choice on offense has to be Aaron Rodgers, given his gutty performance under the circumstances. But you can't ignore the trio mentioned above, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy. While it is fair to expect high level performances from Cobb and Lacy, Adams' performance was totally unexpected - this was the best performance of his rookie season. After an early drop, with the fans in our section grumbling about how McCarthy should take him out and play somebody else, he went on to have a great performance. The juke he made on his touchdown catch was one for the ages. And on the final, game-clinching drive, the third down catch he muscled away from the defender, who seemed to have the better chance to catch the ball, and then proceeded to gain 26 yards, was really a fabulous play. On defense, even though I did not really appreciate it while sitting in the stands (one misses too much sometimes without seeing all the angles on TV replays), the MVP had to be Julius Peppers. His strip of DeMarco Murray, in the third quarter, in all likelihood saved a touchdown. And since the Packers won by 5 points, the importance of this play can't be underestimated.

But my personal non-player MVP is the Diamond Vision operator in Lambeau Field, Kregg Shilbauer. Normally, the way replays work in Lambeau Field is that, after a couple of seconds, a logo appears on the boards, followed by the play shown from the beginning, and then sometimes from different angles. But on the Dez Bryant non-catch with 4:36 left in the game, the procedure was different. Almost immediately, with no logo, and without bothering with the beginning of the play, Shilbauer started shuttling the action backwards from the end of the play, showing Bryant rising off the field, getting the ball, leaping over Sam Shields to get it, then forward, then back and forth several times in slow motion. In other words, he wanted to make sure that Mike McCarthy had an opportunity to watch the important part of the replay, over and over again, in time to make his own decision on a challenge without having to rely on the judgment of others calling down to him from the coaches booth. Now look, given the magnitude and circumstances of the play, I think that McCarthy more or less had to throw the challenge flag, regardless of what he was being told, but Mr. Shilbauer made sure that he had a personal and detailed view of the play.

I have read that both Rodgers, and I think Tramon Williams, instantly knew, based on the "Calvin Johnson play" from 2010, that this should be ruled incomplete, based on the "process rule." Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 reads: "If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete." I have to assume that at least some of the coaching staff knew the rule as well. So after looking at the replay, the decision to challenge was an easy one. The ball very clearly touched the ground, and it very clearly popped loose for a split second, with both of Bryant's hands off of the ball.  It is hard to see how the call could not be reversed.

Almost immediately, the whining and complaining about this call started. A Patriots fan friend, despite saying that he was rooting for the Packers, said that the win was tainted as a result of the call.  To me, that is dead wrong, and I pointed out to my friend that it is like saying that the Brady "tuck rule" play in the AFC Championship game years ago made the Patriots' trip to the Super Bowl tainted. In both cases, the calls after review were clearly correct under the letter of the rules. You want to say that it is a bad rule? Or that the rule should be changed?  Fine. But these were 100% correct applications of the rules as written. End of story.  (And if you are still not convinced, I can only point out that the Packers drove down into easy field goal range by the end of the game, with the Cowboys having at least as much incentive to stop them as they would have if they had retaken the lead.  In other words, the Packers would have won the game, in all likelihood, either way.)

Anyway, the Packers now head to Seattle for the NFC Championship game, the second NFC Championship game in Rodgers' tenure, and the third in McCarthy's. The forecast is for an 80% chance of rain on Sunday.  Could the weather be an equalizer?  You never know what will happen when players and footballs start sliding around.  It does remind me of the last NFC Championship Game the Packers played on the West Coast, in a downpour.  The Packers easily beat the 49ers, 23-10, and the game wasn't as close as the score.  Sunday, by the way, is also Julius Peppers' 35th birthday. I wish him the very best birthday ever.

Do the Packers have a chance in this game?  Heck, the Broncos were bigger underdogs to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. "On any given Sunday," and all that. But the Packers are and should be underdogs in this game. Even if Rodgers were 100% healthy, they would not be favored, given the home field advantage and how well the Seahawks are playing. The Seahawks put a lot more pressure on the quarterback, as compared to the Lions and the Cowboys, and that is not good with a hampered quarterback.  Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, especially when he is out of the pocket. Unfortunately, he can't get out of the pocket right now.

The Packers' big super-secret surprise defense, unveiled at Seattle in week 1, fizzled out rather spectacularly in that game, and they don't really even use that defense much anymore. Fortunately, the Packers' defense is much improved since that time, particularly after the bye week changes principally involving moving Clay Matthews around. But being honest, it is more likely that the Seahawks will win than that the Packers will win. Betting odds say that the Packers have around a 30% chance of winning. I think the true odds are a little higher than that.  I still expect to be disappointed on Sunday.  But yes, paraphrasing Jim Carrey, I am telling you that there is a chance.

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