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.

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