Friday, January 20, 2017

Four More Quarters for a Shot at the Super Bowl

Mason Crosby, photo by Evan Siegle,
I have been so far under the weather this week that I didn't know if I would come up for air before the weekend, and I guess I barely did.  But here are a few brief comments on the Cowboys game (which the Packers won 34-31 on the final play of the game), and then the upcoming Falcons game in the NFC Championship Game.

Well, I predicted (with trepidation) that the Packers would beat the Cowboys, and when they were ahead 21-3 and then 28-13, I was feeling pretty good about my pick, and more importantly, about the game.  There were so many "wow" moments in the game, and so much has already been written about them.  The TD to Rodgers on a free play.  Dallas area native Ty Montgomery living a dream and scoring two TDs in the Cowboys' stadium.  The Cobb toe tap sideline catch (announced by the crew as Rodgers "throws it away").  The even more spectacular Cook sideline catch.  The decision to go for a 56 yard Mason Crosby field goal, when a miss would have given the Cowboys great field position to win the game.  The 51 yard Mason Crosby field goal to win the game, as time expired, with the obligatory time out to ice the kicker.  Remember when Mason Crosby was a problem a few years ago?  Not any more.

The one I want to highlight, though, is a couple of plays before the Cook miraculous sideline catch.  Rodgers sustained a blindside sack at the Packers' 31 yard line.  If he had fumbled, as you would expect he would on a sack like that, the Cowboys would probably have recovered the ball right there, in perfect position to kick the game winning field goal themselves.  I really don't know how Rodgers avoided the fumble, but by doing so he saved the game.

Now obviously it was a little disheartening to let the Cowboys close the score to an 8 point margin before halftime, and it was a lot disheartening, if not heartbreaking, to let the Cowboys tie the game at 28 and then again at 31 in the fourth quarter.  We Packers fans have some history with blown leads in the playoffs, and it seems (without adding up each instance over the years) that it doesn't usually end well.  Just two comments: at least the blown leads this time did not result from a "prevent defense" or "kill the clock offense."  That would drive me crazy.  Instead, if you rewatch the game, the blown leads really happened "organically" in the course of the game, meaning the Cowboys adjusted their offense to rely more on the passing game, and the Packers made some errors here and there (like the Christine Michael error on the kickoff he bobbled, or Rodgers' interception) that contributed to the blown lead by changing around the field position game.  But here, for a change, the Packers were the ones to pull off the last second victory after blowing the lead, rather than the other way around.

There are two obvious Packers-Falcons games to think about in evaluating the Packers' chances on Sunday.  In the 2010 playoffs, when the Falcons were the number one seed, the Packers blew the doors off the dome, winning 48-21.  I can't put much stock in that game.  It was 6 years ago, and there has been much turnover on both teams since then.  Besides, that was at a time when the Packers not only had a healthy offense, but also a healthy defense, sporting such defensive backs as Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins, and Charlie Peprah.  If Aaron Rodgers was the no. 1 star of that game, then Tramon Williams was no. 2, with his two interceptions, including the 70 yard interception for a touchdown on the final play of the half.

So what, then, about the game against the Falcons, at the dome, earlier this year, which the Falcons won, 33-32?  This was the first of four losses in a row for the Packers, ending up with the "run the table" moment when the Packers had fallen to 4-6.  There were 7 lead changes in the game, and the Packers had the lead at some point during each of the 4 quarters.  At the end, the Falcons scored the final points on a touchdown pass to Sanu, and in this case 31 seconds left was not enough time for Rodgers to get the offense downfield for a possible winning field goal.  So the Packers of 2016 can certainly play with the Falcons, and don't have any reason to fear going into the Georgia Dome.

But in re-watching that October 30 game, the most amazing thing to me is the Packers' inactive list: Randall Cobb, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, James Starks, Clay Matthews, Ty Montgomery, and Jared Cook.  Could the presence of some of those players on the active roster make a difference on Sunday?  You bet it could.  I assume Jordy Nelson will be out, but I assume Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison will be able to play, as will Randall Cobb and Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery.  That should take care of the offensive side of the ball.  On defense, the defensive backfield is a bit of a mess, but Damarious Randall will play, and Morgan Burnett may be able to play.  I assume Quinten Rollins won't be able to play, because as far as I know, he is still in concussion protocol.

I think the Packers will win this game, by a fairly close score, and advance to Super Bowl LI.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"We're Better with 18 on the Field, and he Showed it Tonight"

Hail Mary Photo by Evan Siegle,
Just after the Packers finished their 38-13 victory over the Giants, in the post-game sideline interview with Erin Andrews, Aaron Rodgers finished with this comment: "And Randall Cobb, who this offense has been missing for a long time.  We're better with 18 on the field, and he showed it tonight."  That was never more clear than Sunday against the Giants.  He has had a 3 touchdown game once before (in a September game against the Chiefs in 2015, with nothing much on the line) but nothing with the significance of this playoff game.  He also tied an NFL record held by many players, including Sterling Sharpe, for catching 3 touchdowns in a playoff game.  I think this was probably Cobb's finest game as a Packer.

Armchair GMs have been wondering if the Packers should part ways with Randall Cobb, what with the emergence of younger receivers like Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison (although Geronimo's breaking marijuana charge this week does not assist his cause, certainly, as he probably is facing a suspension, most likely next season).  At any rate, I hope this game does away with such talk.  I would hate to see Cobb leave.

If  Cobb and Rodgers were the players of the game on offense, is there any doubt that Clay Matthews and Jake Ryan were the players of the game on defense?  Clay Matthews had only one tackle, but it was one for the ages.  He knocked the ball out of Eli Manning's hand, in a classic "empty hand" play (meaning that Manning's arm moved forward, but the ball was already loose as a fumble).  Matthews knew it, the referee knew it, but nobody else on the field seemed to have any idea, despite the fact that there was no whistle.  So Matthews was yelling at closer teammates to grab the ball, but they must not have heard him, so just as Giants RB Paul Perkins was casually bending down to pick up the ball and hand it to the official, Matthews took matters into his own hands, clocked Perkins, and recovered the ball himself.  It is probably easier to realize what is going on while watching the game on TV.  But Matthews was smart to realize that there had been no whistle, go after the ball!  That's the way players are taught.  Why was Matthews the only one paying attention on either team?

Sam and Chelsea at the Game
I have to admit that I missed how important Jake Ryan's play was to the defense, until my daughter Sam Freeman, who usually goes to playoff games with me, pointed it out after the game.  Since I could not go to this game, I am thankful that her good friend Chelsea Bundy (and potential budding Packers fan despite her Yinzer upbringing!) was able to use the ticket on short notice and go with Sam!  Anyway, I then looked at the stats (12 total tackles and assists to lead the team) and re-watched the game to realize how right she was.  Even when he didn't make the tackle or assist, he was still frequently in the mix.  I have liked him all along, but this was quite a game in a spot where the linebackers had to play well to help relieve the pressure on the defensive backs.  Dom Capers' creative use of his depleted defensive backs made them much more effective against the Giants than I expected them to be.  But plays by the linebackers, especially Ryan, contributed significantly to the effective defensive results.

The Packers, once they started playing some offense toward the end of the second quarter, completely over-matched the Giants.  But it has to be noted that the Giants contributed rather mightily to their own demise.  If it had not been for missed passes by Manning, dropped passes by their vaunted receivers, and little production from their running game, the Packers might have been behind by 14-0, instead of 6-0, and who knows how that might have affected the momentum of the game?

Just as an aside, I was intrigued by Troy Aikman's reference to Paul Perkins' uncle playing in the Ice Bowl.  So I looked it up.  Perkins' uncle was Don Perkins, the leading rusher for the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl with 51 yards on 17 carries.  In an ironic coincidence, nephew Paul had exactly the same yards per carry on Sunday, and was the leading Giants's rusher with 30 yards on 10 carries.  When your leading rusher only averages 3 yards per carry, and doesn't have that many carries, this is not a recipe for success.  Obviously, both the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, and the Giants on Sunday, came up losers against the Packers.

And speaking of losers, what a head case Odell Beckham, Jr. is, to have punched a hole in the wall outside the locker room, especially after all the on and off field controversies involving him this year.  To coin a phrase, the Packers should fix the wall, and make the Giants pay for it.  He is obviously very immature, or very hot-headed, or both.  And then I see that the Giants players trashed the plane on the way back to New York, so that the next flight was delayed for several hours because of the cleanup.  The Giants deny it.  I call BS on the Giants.  The Giants have a serious discipline problem on their hands, and they need to clean it up by next year.

Beckham Hole, Photos by Carl Deffenbaugh, Fox 6 News, Milwaukee
Well, on to the Cowboys this coming Sunday.  With their record of 13-3, having lost (ironically) only to the Giants all year before essentially conceding the final game to the Eagles by playing mostly backups, the Cowboys look like a much more formidable opponent.  Aaron Nagler puts very well the three things the Packers have to do if they are to beat the Cowboys: (1) they have to overcome the likely loss of Jordy Nelson for the game; (2) they have to find a way to slow down Ezekiel Elliott; and (3) the Packers have to get off to a fast start.  The way Cobb and Adams played on Sunday, they will go a long way toward dealing with the probable loss of Nelson.  Add in Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery, and I think even if Nelson does not play, the Packers are in good shape.  Stopping or slowing down Elliott will not be easy, but it will be essential, and has to be done without opening the floodgates to Prescott and his quality receivers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten.  I would not count on Prescott to throw as many bad passes, or on Bryant, Beasley and Witten to drop as many passes, as the Giants did on Sunday.

And once again, they need to get off a fast start.  Fooling around for the first 26 minutes of the game will just not cut it.  McCarthy needs to force Rodgers, or Rodgers needs to force himself, to start off with a quick, in-rhythm, short passing game, instead of dancing around in the pocket, taking sacks, and not being willing to pull the trigger, as he did for much of the first half against the Giants.  If the Giants had played better, Rodgers might never have been able to start the rout that started late in the second quarter.  The Packers will never be able to survive wasting the first 26 minutes of the game against the Cowboys.

The Packers that lost to the Cowboys 30-16 in October, dropping to a 3-2 record, were not playing at the level they are playing now.  They had not found their rhythm, as they have over the last 7 weeks, they were already without three defensive backs in the game (Shields, Rollins and Banjo) and Jared Cook was injured and inactive.  The Packers also, very uncharacteristically, gave the Cowboys 4 turnovers (an interception, and fumbles lost by Rodgers, Nelson and Montgomery).  Again, since the seven game winning streak started, the Packers just don't do that anymore.  Rodgers has thrown no interceptions in those games, and the Packers have far more takeaways than turnovers lost.

The Cowboys are the number one seed in the NFC for a good reason.  They played well, consistently, all year long, while the Packers and the rest of the NFC did not.  But right now, there is no hotter team in the NFC than the Packers.  The Cowboys are much worse against the run than were the Giants, so the Packers ought to be able to gain some yards on the ground, taking some pressure off the passing game.  Those things give the Packers an excellent shot, even against the number one seed, and even on the road.  With some trepidation, I am predicting a Packers victory, nothing like the blowout against the Giants, but maybe by a touchdown, with a late TD pass by Rodgers sealing it, or perhaps a late interception by the Packers' defense preventing the TD by the Cowboys to tie the game.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Running Another Table?

Geronimo Allison, Photo by Evan Siegle,
Oh boy.  They really did run the table.  Or did they?  Maybe "run the table" includes the playoffs and they are just 60% of the way there.  For now, by beating the Lions 31-24, the Packers have won the division again, and will host the Giants on Sunday afternoon for a playoff game, when nobody but Aaron Rodgers thought they could do that 6 weeks ago.

The Lions game did not go at all as I expected (other than the final result).  I thought one team would jump out to a quick start (as happened for the Packers in September, or as happened for the Lions last December).  Instead, both teams played somewhat sluggishly, and the first quarter was scoreless.  Add in half a dozen penalties for the Packers in the first half, and Clay Matthews' crushing, embarrassing dropped interception (likely resulting in a 14 point swing on the series), and it was disturbing but maybe not surprising that the Lions led 14-10 at halftime.

The Packers started the second half sharply, marching down the field to take the lead on a Davante Adams touchdown.  Going into the fourth quarter, the Packers led 17-14.  But with defensive backs Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Makinton Dorleant out of the game with injuries, this seemed like a tenuous position, especially given the Lions' status as the kings of comebacks, as I noted last week.  But the Packers put two touchdown drives together when it mattered, and the jerry-rigged Packers secondary did a remarkable job of holding the Lions in check.  They did give up 10 points, including the Hail Mary touchdown, but they got enough stops when they needed them to finish off the win.

A brief tribute to the New York Giants is in order before turning to the upcoming game.  I knew that the Giants were saying all the right things about playing to win against the Redskins last Sunday, but then don't teams always say that, even if they end up sitting all their starters?  And yet they really did play to win and won the game, when the results meant nothing to the Giants, and everything to either the Lions or the Packers about getting into the playoffs.  That kind of integrity means something to me.  I have to wonder if the back story is that the Giants' organization still stings from the time that the 49ers, in the immortal words of Phil Simms, "laid down like dogs" in a similar situation and cost the Giants a spot in the playoffs.  Whatever the motivation, good for the Giants.

Obviously, nobody can forget the last two times the Giants came to Lambeau Field in the playoffs.  There was the NFC Championship Game in January 2008, when the Giants beat the Packers in overtime, 23-20.  The second coldest game in Packers history, and the coldest game I have ever attended.  The winning field goal was set up, fittingly it seems, by the final ill-advised interception in Brett Favre's Packers career.  And then there was the time in January 2012, when the Giants abruptly ended the Packers' 15-1 season by beating them, 37-20.  The Packers never led in the game, and were never even tied with the Giants after the second quarter.  Four Packers turnovers in the game contributed to the Packers' inability to come back and make a game of it.

But those games were 5 and 9 years ago, a lifetime in "football years."  Each team has a few players still around from the 2008 game, and a few more from the 2012 game, but these are very different teams.  The Giants have a new head coach, Ben McAdoo, a former Packers assistant coach, and a new offensive scheme.  I would argue, with more than a little wishful thinking thrown in, that the match between the Giants and the Packers at Lambeau Field in October is a far more relevant measuring stick than the playoff games.  The Packers won the October game, 23-16, at a time when both the Giants and the Packers were not playing very well.

Looking back at that game, it is interesting that Shields and Randall were out, so the defensive back trouble had already begun, and so was Jared Cook.  Eddie Lacy had maybe his best game of the season, but injured his ankle, which led to him being put on IR a couple of weeks later.  Rodgers missed a few passes, and his receivers dropped a few more.  Rodgers completed only about 50% of his passes, and threw 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.  This game was a rare case where Rodgers threw a pair of interceptions and still won.  The best performers in the game were the offensive linemen.  They protected Rodgers so well that he was never sacked and rarely hit. The Packers were never really threatened in the game, but they definitely did not play up to the standard we have seen in the last 6 or so weeks.

Similarly, the Giants were off that day, and indeed they went into the game with a 2-2 record, and ended at 2-3.  Their running game was poor, and has improved a lot since then, and Manning missed some passes (including a sure TD on broken coverage) and his receivers dropped catchable balls.  The flip side of the Packers' offensive line protecting Rodgers is that the Giants could not apply any pressure without blitzing.  The bottom line is that both teams played a mediocre game that day, and the Packers came out on top.  We should not expect a mediocre game out of the Giants this time, as they have gone 9-2 since then, losing only to the Steelers and Eagles.  And the Packers cannot afford a mediocre effort this time, or they will be bounced out of the playoffs by the Giants again.

I agree with one of Aaron Nagler's comments on Facebook live on Wednesday.  Jared Cook is a huge key in this game.  The Giants have not covered tight ends well, and the Packers beat the Giants in October even without Jared Cook, and without much contribution by Richard Rodgers.  With a healthy Jared Cook?  This might be just what the Packers need to offset their problems in the defensive backfield.  You might even call him the Packers' secret weapon, since they are 8-2 with him in the lineup, and 2-4 without.

The defensive backs are of course a problem, but Dom Capers managed better than I thought he would against the Lions, once the defensive backs started dropping like flies.  The Packers need to apply some pressure on Manning, preferably without having to blitz.  Manning has no mobility and will either hit the deck or throw it away in the face of pressure.  A little pressure from the defensive line, in other words, will go a long way toward solving the defensive back problems.

But the overall secret to winning this game is to get off to a fast start, as they did in October by scoring on the opening drive.  No taking the first quarter off, as they did against the Lions.  Get ahead of the Giants, and the Packers will start to take away parts of the Giants' game plan.  The way the Packers' offense has been playing, they ought to be able to do this.  I am expecting the Packers to win, and end the Giants' playoff curse against the Packers.