Wednesday, December 28, 2016

One More for the Title!

The Unstoppable Jordy Nelson, photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
I feel like such a sucker, for believing in the Vikings' hype earlier this year.  When the Vikings cruised to a 5-0 start, despite having lost Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson, it was hard for me to see how they would not win the division.  After all, the Packers, after 5 games, were 3-2, and the Lions were 2-3.  And that, of course, was before the Packers' 4 game losing streak.  And before the Lions went on a tear, winning 8 out of 9.

But then the Vikings started to self-destruct, losing 8 out of the next 10 games, including their 38-25 loss to the Packers on Saturday, and they now find themselves out of the playoffs.  There was a time, not too many weeks ago, when I didn't think the Packers could catch either the Vikings or the Lions, and yet they caught and passed the Vikings and now have tied the Lions with a chance to win the division outright.  It is all about the Packers and the Lions now, with the division title (and possibly a Wild Card for either Packers or Lions) on the line next Sunday night when the Packers travel to play the Lions.

The funniest thing about the Vikings' loss to the Packers, at least to me, is the mutiny that evidently happened among the Vikings' defensive backs.  The game plan was for Xavier Rhodes to shadow Jordy Nelson for the entire game, but the DBs themselves decided that they would just cover their normal sides of the field, in the normal fashion.  This lasted, depending on which version you believe, either for only one series (according to Coach Mike Zimmer), or until halftime (as the defensive backs originally said before clamming up), before Mike Zimmer could re-assert control over the mutineers.  In re-watching the game, it is 100% clear that the mutiny was in full effect until halftime.  The game tape may not lie, but evidently Mike Zimmer does.  If Rhodes was shadowing Nelson in the first half, then he is the worst shadow in the history of the game.  In the first half, the rogues gave up 145 yards and two touchdowns to Nelson.  In the second half, under the Mike Zimmer game plan, they gave up 2 catches and 9 yards to Nelson.

The return to form of Aaron Rodgers over the past 7 or 8 weeks, combined with the re-emergence of Jordy Nelson as the receiver he was before his injury last year, and the creation out of nothing of a semblance of a running game with Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael, are responsible for how well the offense is playing.  The defense is much spottier, and if the Packers make it to the playoffs, I question how far they can go unless the defense improves.  But the return of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to being playmakers, despite playing through significant injuries, is a big plus, and if the Packers could just keep a group of defensive backs healthy for an entire game, they might have fewer problems.

I guess you could fault the Packers for going into a bit of a shell in the fourth quarter against Minnesota, but I really don't have a problem with that.  Unlike the prior week against the Bears, where they started playing a lot of loose zone with 15 minutes left to go, and only leading by 17, in the Vikings game, the Packers were ahead by 25 points with 9 minutes to go when they decided to go into some version of the prevent defense.

So on we go to the very last regular season game, with the NFC North Division Championship on the line.  The league and NBC must be delighted to have an old-time rivalry like the Packers and Lions in this final slot.  The emotion in the stadium will be high, as well as in living rooms across the country and elsewhere.  If I were a Lions' fan, I would be a little leery of matching up Matthew Stafford and his two-game losing streak against Aaron Rodgers and his five-game winning streak.  Still, the Lions play well in their dome, Stafford has played very well over the last couple of years, and they certainly have the ability to win this game.

I think that the Packers are the better team, and should win this game.  My biggest concern is the Packers' defensive backs.  Not only do they have lots of injuries in the defensive backfield, but they have a penchant for turning relative no-name receivers into one-week wonders, like they did with Adam Thielen last week, and like they did with Marvin Jones in the first meeting with the Lions.  And let's not forget that the Lions have some quality receivers who could do the same thing to the Packers' defense, principally Golden Tate (cue bad memories) and Eric Ebron.  So even without Calvin Johnson, the Lions are a threat.  Until last week, I would also have been concerned about whether the Packers could put any pressure on Stafford, but the ability of Matthews and Perry to play through their injuries last week makes me feel much better on that score.

In the Lions' Monday night loss to the Cowboys, at first it seemed that the Lions and Cowboys would just match each other, score for score, until maybe the team with the ball last won the game.  But the Cowboys were able to adjust, start to put more pressure on Stafford, and mistakes ensued (an interception, a lost Stafford fumble, and a missed field goal).  After the Lions pulled ahead 21-14 in the second quarter, the Cowboys went on to score 28 unanswered points to put the game away.  In my viewing of the game, putting pressure on Stafford was the key to achieving this result.

For the Packers, the important thing is not to put themselves into a hole, as they did last year at Detroit.  Obviously, that game resulted in a Packers win, but relying on an untimed play and a Hail Mary pass is a low-probability way to win a game.  If they can just play the game they have discovered over the last five weeks, involving quick release and rhythm passes, just enough of a running game to keep the Lions honest, punctuated by shots down the field to Nelson, Adams, and now Cook, and maybe an occasional unusual play like a jet screen to Janis, they can maybe get off to a fast start and start to take some of the emotion out of the Lions and their fans.

Then, if the Packers have a lead in the second half, for heavens sake don't try to just sit on it!  The Lions have been the kings of comebacks.  They have apparently come from behind to win games in the fourth quarter or overtime 8 times this year!  This record apparently qualifies them as the best comeback team in the history of the NFL.  Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers are presumably well aware of all this.  So if they find themselves with a lead, they simply must keep their feet on the gas, on both sides of the ball, until any Lions comeback would definitely be too little, too late.  Doing this might well turn out to be the biggest key to the entire game.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Two More to Run the Table!

Montgomery Running Free, Photo by Evan Siegle,

On last week's Bears game, which the Packers won, 30-27, let's not forget one thing.  If Davante Adams caught either of the two touchdown passes that he dropped, we wouldn't all have been having heart attacks late in the 4th quarter.  I am a big fan of Davante Adams, but not only did he not help the team on Sunday, he hurt it by having catchable touchdown passes thrown his way, and then dropping them.  Let's hope he turns things around in the next two games.  He has now shredded the gloves he used last week, so I suppose that is a start.

The all-time record between the Packers and Bears is now tied, at 94-94-6.  This is the first time that the Packers have not trailed the Bears, all-time, since 1933.  We can thank 25 years of Favre and Rodgers at quarterback, and Holmgren and McCarthy (and the others) at coach for evening the score in games.  And in points, the all-time record now stands at Green Bay, 3,335, Chicago, 3,331.  When you stop to think of how close the games and points have been, how this is the oldest rivalry, and how the rivalry has the City Slicker vs. Country Bumpkin aspect to add to it, it is not hard to understand how this is really the greatest rivalry in the history of the game.  At times over the last 25 years, the rivalry may have seemed more intense with the Vikings, or with the Cowboys or 49ers or Seahawks, and maybe this year and last with the Lions, but nothing really matches up with Packers-Bears.

I don't think the game announcers ever mentioned the direction that the wind was blowing during the game.  But I think it had to have been blowing from left to right, as you watch the TV broadcast.  With two exceptions, all the rest of the points in the game were scored by the team moving from left to right, i.e., with the wind if my supposition is correct.  The only exceptions were Crosby's late second quarter field goal, set up by (one of several) huge runs by Ty Montgomery, and the game-winning field goal by Crosby as time expired, set up by the improbable 60 yard bomb to Jordy Nelson.  This can't be a coincidence.  The wind must have played a significant role in this game, even though the backup announcing crew never mentioned it.

In thinking about the impact of the wind, consider that this is another of those games where McCarthy and Capers can be accused of going (at least in large part) to the prevent defense and the kill-the-clock or prevent offense.  After all, they were leading 27-10 after three quarters.  All they had to do was run some clock, and keep the ball in front of them on defense.  What are the chances that the Bears, with their whatever-string quarterback, will score 17 points in the 4th quarter, after scoring a total of 10 points in the first 3 quarters?  Well, as it turned out, the chances were 100%, and the Packers should consider themselves lucky that they won the game.  Even when the Packers did try to blitz, rather than play a soft zone, in the 4th quarter, it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle, as the Bears now had momentum on their side.

This just drives me nuts.  There is obviously a point in a game, considering the time left and the score at the time, where dialing it back helps to improve the chances of winning, by lessening the chances of an explosive negative play.  And I suppose you could say that things turned out OK; after all the Packers won the game.  But as I said, they are lucky to have won the game.  What happens if Micah Hyde doesn't bat away the touchdown pass on the Bears' final drive, or if the Bears decide to go for it and get a TD on 4th down?  I just don't think there is any question that the Packers dialed it back way too soon, with an entire quarter left, and with the wind (under my theory) at the backs of the Bears.  I just wish that McCarthy and Capers would learn this lesson.  Sometimes you think they have learned it, for example last week against Seattle.  But on Sunday they almost "prevented" the Packers from winning the game with their conservative approach in the 4th quarter.

Anyway, now we have a Christmas eve, Minnesota at Green Bay game tomorrow.  When the Vikings started off at 5-0, including a defensive battle against the Packers, this game had the looks of a division-decider.  After all, the Vikings were 5-0, the Packers were 3-2, and the Lions were 2-3 after 5 games.  But now, the Vikings have gone 2-7 in the next 9 games, including losing 4 of 5 road games (beating only the Jaguars on the road).  They are fighting for a slim shot at a wild card, and more realistically are just fighting to be the spoilers for the Packers.

The Vikings' offense has regressed during the year, and their offensive line is a mess.  The return of Adrian Peterson seemed to do nothing for them last week, and he is still listed as questionable on the injury report.  The Vikings' defense, on the other hand, has played very well for most of the season, keeping them close in the games they lost, even against a team like the Cowboys (to whom they lost, 17-15).  Until last week, that is, when they got blown out, at home, by the Colts, 34-6.  I would be pretty shocked if the Vikings beat the Packers tomorrow.  I think this game has the potential to be a very solid win for the Packers, maybe even permitting some (voluntary!) Brett Hundley time in the 4th quarter.

May the Packers bring Packers' fans all over the world a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Statement Made - Time to Keep it Going

Adams 66 Yard TD, Photo by Evan Siegle,
Not only is it Chicago Bears week, it is "tie up the Bears series all time" week.  After blowing the chance last year in the Thanksgiving debacle, the Packers again get a chance to tie up their all time record with the Bears on Sunday, which now stands at 94-93-6 in favor of the Bears.  If they manage to tie up the record, something I have been waiting to see for many years, it will the first time since 1933 that the records have been even.

Meanwhile, according to the current forecast, the HIGH for the day in Chicago on Sunday is expected to be 1 degree.  If that is the kickoff temperature, it would end up becoming the fifth coldest game in Packers history, edging out a Lions game in 1990 during the long-forgotten Blair Kiel era.

I can't think of a convincing case as to why the Packers should lose to the Bears.  The Bears do always play the Packers tough, and last Thanksgiving's Favreapalooza game is perfect evidence of that.  And while the Bears have only won 3 games, those 3 games were against the 49ers (so that one doesn't really count as much of a win) and against the Lions and the Vikings.  And they came very close to knocking off the Lions again last week.

On this morning's edition of Good Morning Football, Bears linebacker Sam Acho, the Bears' nominee for the Walter Payton award, was a guest.  In addition to reciting a soliloquy from Richard III on the show, he also mentioned that the Bears led the Packers in the fourth quarter of their first game.  Actually, it was the third quarter, but given his knowledge of The Bard, maybe we need to extend him some poetic license.  In that game, the Packers went on to put it away with 20 unanswered points.  But if you want to detect a pattern in the games the Bears have won and come close to winning, they seem to play very well against division rivals.  Earlier in the year, maybe the Bears would have a better chance.  But I don't see the Bears hanging with the newly resurgent Packers' offense, and I think the Packers will win, even if it ends up being closer than you might expect.

And now, let's reflect for a moment on one of the great "statement" games of the Mike McCarthy era.  The Seahawks have been the Packers' nemesis going back to the Fail Mary game in 2012.  And of course no loss can compare with the epic collapse of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game in January 2015.  Just taking those two games puts the Seahawks under Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll in a special category for the Packers.  Along with the traditional division rivals, the Seahawks are now a rival, just like the 49ers and Cowboys were back in the 1990's.

The Packers found themselves a rare home underdog going into the game on Sunday, and the Packers seemed to create some motivation for themselves out of that fact.  While I had expressed optimism that the Packers could win the game, I certainly never expected anything like what I saw (the Packers won, 38-10).  This was, without doubt, the Packers' best performance of the year, and probably of the past several years.  I may be forgetting some other equivalent statement game, but off the top of my head the one that comes to mind is the Packers' rout of the Falcons, on the road, in the 2010 playoffs.

On the Packers' side, there were three things evident in this game.  First, Rodgers' accuracy is definitely back now.  Just as he was missing receivers on both long and short passes earlier in the year, he is making those passes now.  The first touchdown, the 66 yard bomb to Adams, was so reminiscent of other Rodgers touchdown passes in other years, usually passes to Jordy Nelson.  But Rodgers just flicked that ball over 50 yards in the air, with nothing but his arm, as his feet were not set.  Second, if it was not already clear, Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael need to be the primary running backs going forward.  Both of them are much better at making things happen right now, as compared to James Starks.  With Starks in the concussion protocol because of a car accident, of all things, this may be a moot point.  But they need Montgomery and Michael out there at running back.  Finally, while the defense may not be as stifling as it looked for a few weeks at the beginning of the year, they have now played three games in a row in which they have not given up more than 13 points.  If they can keep that level of performance up, the Packers may run the table after all.

I don't watch all the Seahawks games, but I have not seen the Seahawks look this bad in quite a while.  Poor Russell Wilson.  He seems like a nice young man, and I like him.  But he looked like Jay Cutler out there on Sunday.  It goes without saying, when a quarterback throws 5 interceptions, that he is not having a very good day.  It is true that 3 of the interceptions came on balls that bounced off other players.  So that, in a sense, is bad luck.  But he was truly off, even if you ignore those unlucky bounces.  It was never more evident than on the first two drives, when he overthrew receivers on both drives.  Both plays looked like touchdown passes, as the receivers were wide open.  But instead they resulted in a total of 3 points.

The Seahawks were undoubtedly hurt by the loss of free safety Earl Thomas the week before.  And as mentioned, Wilson's bad day was exaggerated beyond belief by the bad luck of having balls bounce off people and into the hands of Green Bay defensive backs.  That's fine.  This is a team that is an excellent team, and it is well-coached (even though I can't stand Pete Carroll), as the Packers have found out multiple times in past games.  But in addition to all that, they seem to always get the benefit of every weird call or botched play against the Green Bay Packers.  So it was nice to see the lucky balls bounce the other way for a change.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Let it Snow!

Cobb's TD, photo by Wm. Glasheen, USA Today
After many squandered early opportunities by the Packers, Sunday's game against the Texans sat at 7-7 at the end of the third quarter.  Just exactly what fans did not want to see.  There was no good reason to think that the Packers would go on to lose the game, after all they were at home, in a snowy Packer environment.

And yet - the Texans' offense had just come alive to tie the game, the Packers had not scored or even moved the ball much since the second quarter, and in a snowy environment, even more than in any other game, all it takes is a defender slipping, or a ball getting knocked out of the hands, and a game can take a crazy turn.

So, when the Texans punted the ball to the Packers' 2 yard line late in the 3rd quarter, as a fan I was just looking for a couple of first downs to improve the field position battle.  Instead, the Packers produced a magnificent, 98 yard drive (108 yards counting a 10 yard penalty) to score what turned out to be the winning touchdown.  Then, after forcing a punt, they followed it up with another drive, this time 89 yards, to put the game out of reach at 21-7 (the final score was Green Bay, 21-13).

So what do we make of the Packers now?  Are they as good as they looked in the fourth quarter?  Or as listless as they looked for most of the rest of the game?  I don't think it is unfair to say that the 98 yard drive served to keep their playoff hopes alive, but the question is, how alive are they at this point?

For starters, I didn't think they would win both of the last 2 games, so I start out from a place of skepticism about how good the team is.  And the Seahawks were overpowering, at home, against the Panthers last week.  But on closer inspection of their record, they are under .500 on the road (2-3-1).  They have lost to the Rams, Saints and Buccaneers, and tied the Cardinals, and of those teams only the Buccaneers even have a winning record at this point.  So they can be beaten outside of their noisy home stadium.

Weather and injuries will be factors.  As of now, the forecast calls for 1 to 3 or 2 to 4 inches of snow, depending on the source, and with a late start time, it is almost a certainty that snow will be sticking all over the field.  The Seahawks have plenty of bad weather in their stadium, but rarely do they have snow.  In fact, I saw that Richard Sherman has never played in the snow, so that tells you something about Seattle weather.  Russell Wilson played at the University of Wisconsin, so he says "I'm hoping it's a downpour of snow."  I don't think downpour is quite the right word (he has been in Seattle too long), but this is a smart thing to say even if he doesn't mean it.  So weather will be a factor, a wild card, and that wild card ought to favor the home team used to playing in those conditions.

The Seahawks lost their excellent free safety Earl Thomas for the year last week, and the Packers have already announced that linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Nick Perry for the game.  Half a dozen others are listed as questionable, although all of them participated in practice today on a limited basis.  Mike Pennel has been suspended for the last four games of the season, so he will be missing, too.

I think the Packers can win this game, and maybe even should win the game, despite being listed as underdogs.  I would feel much better about this game if it wasn't Seattle.  There is too much of a history of crazy things in Seattle games, although most if not all of those crazy things have happened at Seattle.  It should be a fun game to watch.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Running the Table?

Davante Adams TD, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
The saying goes that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  If that is so, the proof of Aaron Rodgers' comment that the Packers would run the table would have to begin with a single win, as it did on Monday night at the Eagles, 27-13.  And it was certainly a pleasure to watch a Packers win, for the first time after a four-game losing streak, and an even greater pleasure to see the Packers play well in all three phases of the game.  All four if you count coaching, as both McCarthy and Capers seemed to have excellent game plans in the same game!  Which doesn't happen all that often.

Although, to be honest, after the first two drives of the game, the game looked like it might be another one of those no defense, 48-47 affairs, with the last team with the ball winning the game.  But the Packers' defense (and, for that matter, the Eagles' defense to a lesser extent) settled down rather nicely.  And even the special teams contributed, especially with the punt downed at the one yard line (although the kick was very close to being a touchback).  Since the Eagles ended up scoring a FG on the drive, it is good that they had to go all the way from the 1 in order to score.  A touchback could easily have led to a touchdown.

Davante Adams put on a show again on offense, catching 5 passes for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It is safe to say that he won't spend any more time on my fantasy football bench.  You can certainly make a case that Adams is the best performer on offense right now, other than Rodgers himself.  Rodgers was driving us all crazy just a few weeks back, but the adjustment that was made over a few weeks, to move toward a quick-release, dink and dunk offense (and I do not mean that as an insult, but as a compliment in the context of this season), with occasional shots down the field, has really brought him back on the right path.  Argue it however you will, I think he has looked good to excellent in 5 of the last 6 games, with the Titans game being the major exception.  So even though they lost 4 of those games, it is hard to put those losses all, or even mostly, on Rodgers.

So are the Packers in a position to run the table, squeak into the playoffs, and make some noise in the playoffs?  It's a little hard for me to see that happening.  For starters, I don't think it is reasonable to assume they can win all their remaining games, even though three of the five are at home.  I especially have a hard time seeing them beating the Lions in the dome in week 17.  Yes, I know, the Packers were leading the Lions 31-3 in the first game before the Lions started their comeback.  But it is hard to argue that the Lions have not played as the better team for the rest of the season to date.

Still, who knows?  It has been a crazy season in many ways.  You can think back to the improbable 2010 Super Bowl run, but in fairness, even though the Packers truly had to sneak their way into the playoffs that year before getting hot, they still had a 7-4 record after 11 games, unlike this year's team's 5-6 record.  As of today, the Packers would have to leapfrog over 4 other teams (Saints, Vikings, Buccaneers and Redskins) just to sneak in as the 6th seed in the playoffs.  That is a tall order, but they have 5 weeks to do it.  Getting by the Lions to win the division would be even better, but bear in mind, the Lions have won 6 of their last 7 games, so that is no small task.  But apparently Brett Favre, on his SiriusXM radio show, has predicted that the Packers will win the North.

The Packers play the Texans at Lambeau Field tomorrow.  The Texans have a better record, at 6-5, and lead their division, so they are not pushovers.  But they have won only once on the road (at the Jaguars), have lost two in a row, and of course are without the great J.J. Watt for the rest of the season.  Brock Osweiler, who everybody expected to take over for Peyton Manning in Denver, went to the Texans instead.  But he hasn't played all that well, throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12), despite having some quality receivers (Hopkins, Fuller, Fiedorowicz).  So maybe the Packers will have another few chances for takeaways tomorrow.

I think the Packers should win this game.  That would be very welcome, as it would keep the chances for a playoff berth realistic.  Go Packers!