Friday, October 30, 2015

Battle of the Unbeatens

Image by NBC Sports

Where, exactly, do the Packers stand as they finish their bye week and charge into the rest of the season?  The objective metrics say they are in great shape.  They are 6-0, one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the conference.  They have scored 164 points, while giving up only 101.  Only two teams (Patriots and Cardinals) have a greater margin of points scored over points given up.  On defense, the Packers have more sacks than any team in the NFC, and trail only the Broncos in sacks.  On offense, only Brady and Palmer have more TD passes than Rodgers (and those two have played 7 games, not 6).  Among full-time starters, only Brady has fewer interceptions.

And yet . . .  somehow it does not feel as if the Packers are in great shape.  From the fact that the offense has struggled now for three games in a row, to the fact that the defense, previously dominant, gave up a record-setting number of yards to Philip Rivers and the Chargers before the bye, there is a real sense that this team is fortunate to be sitting at 6-0.

Maybe they are, in some sense.  But I have always admired the teams that find a way to win the games that could easily have gotten away from them.  And I have frequently complained, in years past, when the Packers found ways to lose games that they could have, or should have, won.

The current Packers team is not only finding ways to win games, they are getting help from the most unexpected places.  Jordy Nelson is out for the season, Davante Adams has missed several weeks, and Ty Montgomery is injured in the middle of the game?  Jeff Janis steps in and makes a couple of big plays.  (Speaking of unexpected, could anyone have predicted, as of July of this year, that James Jones would be averaging a touchdown per game for the Packers?)  The Packers lose several defensive backs in free agency, and then Morgan Burnett misses several games?  No problem, Damarious Randall not only makes the game-preserving play on fourth down, he actually baits Philip Rivers into making the throw so he can bat it down.

State of the NFC North:

It has been obvious for weeks that only the Vikings (4-2) pose a serious division challenge to the Packers this year.  The Bears are 2-4, while the Lions have the worst record in the league at 1-6.  My Lions fan friend Al points out that it has gotten so bad that there is a petition pending to revoke the passports of the Lions while they are in London for their Sunday morning game.  I can't support that petition, since a new Lions team constructed from scratch could turn out to be better than the current team.  But anyway, the point is that the Packers' first goal is to win the division, and they are in great shape to do just that.

Sunday Night Game

The Sunday night game against the Broncos has the makings of a classic.  Two 6-0 teams meeting in a nationally televised game.  Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, meeting each other for the last time, unless they happen to meet again in Super Bowl 50.  A lot of Packers-Broncos history, from the Monday night blizzard game back in 1984, to Super Bowl XXXII, to the Monday Night overtime game won on the bomb from Favre to Jennings on the first play of overtime in 2007.

The Packers' biggest problem will be when the Packers have the ball and the Broncos' are on defense.  The Broncos' defense is ranked no. 1 overall.  while the Packers' offense is in the top half of all teams.  Here, the bye week could make a major difference for the Packers since, in my view, injuries have been a big part of the Packers' struggles on offense.  Davante Adams has missed more time than he has played, while Randall Cobb has been hobbled by a shoulder injury, and both Eddie Lacy and James Starks have struggled with injuries.  Thanks to the bye, Adams should be back and fine, Cobb should be better, and so should Lacy.  So the Packers will have a better chance of getting the running game going, and of stretching the field with outside deep balls to Adams.

On the other side of the ball, if you think that the Packers have under-performed on offense, you should take a look at the Broncos' offense.  They are in the bottom 5 and you can't really blame it on injuries, either.  Peyton Manning is clearly nearing the end of his career, and does not seem to have the zip on the ball, or the accuracy, that he used to.  The departure of Julius Thomas to Jacksonville hurts, because he was and is one the best tight ends in the league.  And they can't seem to get the running game going, either.

Having said that, I have the uncomfortable feeling that Manning will turn it around at some point, and look like the old Peyton Manning, even if he can't maintain it for the rest of the season.  Could Sunday night be the game where he turns it around?  Let's put it this way - a nationally televised Sunday Night game, after a bye week off, is a pretty good candidate for a game in which Manning looks rejuvenated.

So I expect to see the Broncos bring out not only their formidable defense, but an offense that looks much better as well.  I am betting that the Packers' off-day on defense against the Chargers was a bit of an anomaly, and I am also betting that the Packers' offense will be improved with the return of healthy (or at least healthier) Adams, Cobb and Lacy.  The bottom line is: obviously this game could go either way.  But I like the Packers' chances, in what will likely be a very close game.

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