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.

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