Friday, January 8, 2021

Packers Earn Bye with Convincing, but Imperfect, Win Against the Bears

D-Train, Photo by Mike Di Sisti, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Beating your oldest rival in the league, on the last week of the season, to lock up the number one seed and get a bye week, is not a bad way to finish out the regular season!  That is exactly what the Packers did last Sunday, at Soldier Field, beating the Bears, 35-16.  The Packers also did what they could to knock the Bears out of the playoffs, but when the Rams beat the Cardinals, the Bears backed into the playoffs anyway as a Wild Card.  

More records were set or tied on Sunday.  Aaron Rodgers finished with 48 TD passes, to beat his old team record of 46.  Davante Adams broke the Packers' record for catches in a season, and tied the team record for receiving TDs at 18.  Both records had been held by Sterling Sharpe.  And Adams beat those records while missing 2.5 games this year.  If you don't remember how good Sterling Sharpe was, take a look at some of his highlights on YouTube.  

My daughter reminded me this week that when Shannon Sharpe went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he self-effacingly said the following:
"My big brother, Sterling, I’m the only player of 267 men that’s walked through this building to my left that can honestly say this: I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame, and the second best player in my own family."
And the thing is, it was a charming thing to say, but I think it is also true.  That's how good Sterling Sharpe was.  So for Davante Adams to break one record and tie the other just shows what a dominant player he has become for the Packers.  Oh, and then there are the silly records.  The Packers became only the fourth team in NFL history to finish the season with more touchdown passes than punts in a single season.  And the Packers had more touchdown passes than field goal attempts in 2020.

The Packers' win was convincing, but still very imperfect.  As good as the Packers' offense was, after catching a 72 yard touchdown pass from Rodgers in the first half, Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped what should have been another long bomb for a TD at the start of the second half.  Big deal, they still won by 19?  Sure, but the drop led to a punt, and it seemed as if the offense went into a funk for most of the third quarter.  Drop that pass against the Buccaneers or the Saints, and the result might not be the same.  

And then there was the continuing game of Russian Roulette known as the Packers special teams.  The misadventure this week was newcomer Tavon Austin's fumble of a punt, resulting in a Bears recovery deep in Green Bay territory.  The defense, as it did all day except for the first drive, stiffened and held the Bears to a field goal.  So it could have been worse.  But this is the kind of mistake that can kill in the playoffs.

Anyway, the important thing is that the Packers have locked up the home field advantage for any games they play, and the bye week to get a bit healthier before their first playoff game.  The last time they had the number one seed was the 2011 season, when unfortunately they got knocked out in the divisional round by the pesky New York Giants.  Meanwhile, the Packers have played in 4 NFC Championship Games with Rodgers at QB, but they have all been on the road.  They beat the Bears, at Soldier Field, following the 2010 season, and went on to win Super Bowl XLV.  But they lost the other three NFC Championship Games in which they played, at Seattle following the 2014 season, at Atlanta following the 2016 season, and at San Francisco following the 2019 season.  It is high time that the Packers host, and win, an NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field.  And this might be the year they do just that.  

Unlike last year, when going into the playoffs nobody could figure out how the Packers were going to beat the 49ers, if they met up in the Championship Game, there is no team in the NFC about which I have the same feeling this year.  True, the Buccaneers look like a bad matchup for the Packers, especially bearing in mind how the Buccaneers kicked the Packers around in October, but the Bucs are a Wild Card team, and would have to survive two road games even to get to Green Bay.  

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Let's watch some football this weekend, with no pressure since the Packers will be home watching the games along with us.  There will be plenty of time to worry about next week's game once we find out who the opponents will be.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Bears are Last Obstacle to Home Field Advantage

Fun in the Snow, Photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com

 In a game that didn't matter as much as it might have (because the Seahawks won earlier in the day), the Packers nevertheless rose to the occasion, putting together their most complete performance of the year in demolishing the Tennessee Titans, 40-14, who were 10-4 coming in and heading for the playoffs.  The Packers played four quarters on offense and defense, scoring 19 and allowing 7 in the first half, and then scoring 21 and allowing 7 in the second half.  So there was no "lull" period in Sunday night's game.  

Aaron Rodgers said in the post-game interview that he was sitting on the couch earlier in the day, watching the snow and hoping it would last until game time.  Sitting a couple of time zones away, I was doing the same thing.  One of my top Lambeau Field experiences was a snow game, and the word "magical" always comes to mind when I think of that game.  So I just knew that a snow game would be so much fun to watch.  What I was less certain of was whether it would be more beneficial to the Packers, just because they are used to the weather, or whether it would allow "King" Henry to just run all over the Packers and inch closer to a 2000 yard season.

On offense, the Packers' super secret surprise star was Algiers Jameal William Dillon, Jr. ("A.J. Dillon").  Many Packers fans have been wondering all year when we would see more of Dillon.  Obviously, he missed multiple weeks with what must have been a bad case of the Coronavirus.  He returned to action December 19 against the Panthers.  He had one carry, for 18 yards, in the second quarter.  You would have thought that was enough to earn some carries in the second half, but it didn't.  It took a cold night in the snow against the Titans to bring Dillon out into the spotlight.  

Was that the plan all along?  Save Dillon for a weather game late in December and into the playoffs?  Rodgers has remarked in the past about the value of having a big powerful running back in bad weather.  At 247 pounds, with massive legs, Dillon surely fits the bill.  Still, I have a feeling that this was not exactly the plan.  Rather, with Jamaal Williams inactive for the game, they planned to get Dillon a few more carries.  And then when Aaron Jones got nicked up in the second quarter, they had to lean on Dillon more than they had planned.  And wow, did he ever make the most of his opportunity.  He won't be a super secret surprise weapon any more, but what a change of pace running back he is for the cold weather.  As a slight footnote, the Packers brought back the jet sweep motion with Tavon Austin on Sunday night, and I can't help but believe that this mis-direction also helped the offense.

On defense, Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine came up with some wrinkles to stop Derrick Henry, including 5 and 6 man fronts on obvious rushing downs, to stop the run first, and see if Ryan Tannehill, a good quarterback with some good receiving weapons, could beat the Packers.  The bet being made by Pettine was that the defensive backs can cover man-to-man, and thus control the passing game despite being short-handed in the backfield.  The Titans could not make the Packers pay.  Instead, the Packers held Tannehill to 121 yards passing, while coming up with a pair of sacks and a couple of interceptions.  There was a series in the second where the Packers got a sack, a tipped ball, and another sack to force a 3 and out.  I did not know our defense could do that!

Meanwhile, Henry still gained 98 yards on the ground, so you could say he had a reasonably productive game.  But he had very little impact on the game.  He was outplayed by A.J. Dillon (124 yards and 2 touchdowns) and essentially equaled by Aaron Jones (94 yards, 0 touchdowns).

There were some glitches on special teams, including a missed extra point, a failed two-point conversion, and a blocked field goal that didn't actually count because of a penalty.  And speaking of things that didn't count, holder/punter J.K. Scott actually made a tackle on the blocked field goal, but that, too, was wiped away because of the penalty.  So special teams continue to not be all that special under Coach Shawn Mennenga, and you have to think that there is a good chance the Packers will be looking for a new Special Teams Coach in the off-season.  

Now the Packers go to Chicago, with lots on the line for both teams.  The very unfortunate New Year's Eve news was that David Bakhtiari was knocked out for the year in practice Thursday with an ACL injury.  That is a huge loss for the Packers, as he has been the Packers' most consistent offensive lineman in many ways.  On the other hand, Bakhtiari has missed time this year, as have other offensive linemen, and the Packers never really missed a beat.  The Packers have better quality depth in the offensive line than I had realized going into the season.  This injury, if nothing else, should serve as a reminder to Rodgers to get the ball out fast, on rhythm, before the Bears' rush can get to him.

The league has cleverly put the Packers-Bears, Seahawks-49ers, and Saints-Panthers game all at the same time (3:25 Lambeau Field Time), to ensure that the 3 NFC teams angling for the number one seed, and the bye, in the playoffs, are playing at the same time, for maximum dramatic effect.  The Packers get the number one seed in two possible ways: a Packers win or a Seahawks loss.  That's it.  In this weird year where the home field advantage doesn't mean as much, you can make a case that the Packers have the most to gain  from home field advantage of any team in  the league.

The Bears get into the playoffs two ways: with a Bears win or a Cardinals loss.  And, you got it, the Cardinals-Rams game is also being played at the same time.  So nobody gets an early peek at whether they really need to win the game or not.  At least on the NFC side, it is a perfect set up.  

Meanwhile, while we were paying very little attention to the Bears during their 6-game losing streak, it turns out that they are now on a 3-game winning streak, including dominant wins (for what it is worth) over the Texans and the Jaguars.  Plus, David Montgomery is now the number 5 running back in the league (in yards gained rushing).  And Mitch Trubisky has looked much better in his second stint as starting QB this year.  

Apart from the continuing headache of special teams, I don't think there is much argument  that the win against the Titans, in dominant fashion, over a team most likely headed for the playoffs, was the most complete game the Packers have played all year.  You talk about a team rounding into shape just as the playoffs are approaching?  If the Packers can win convincingly against the Bears in Week 17, they just might turn out to be the team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs.  Let's hope the Packers start off 2021 with a bang!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Ugly Win Keeps Packers at Number One with Two Weeks to Go

Rodgers, Looking As Shocked as the Fans Were By What He Saw


 In the lead up to Saturday night's Panthers game, I read lots of stuff to the effect that the Panthers have made lesser quarterbacks look like Aaron Rodgers, and that the Panthers don't have much pass of a pass rush, or great defensive backs.  The consensus was that the Packers would feast on the Panthers' defense.  Never mind that the Panthers have almost made an art form of losing games where they had a chance to tie or win the game at the end of the fourth quarter.

And a feast is just what it looked like for the first three Packers' drives, after which the score was Packers, 21-3.  It was all fun and games, and when Rodgers ran the ball in for the second touchdown, even an opposing Panther player seemed like he was enjoying the "I love gold!" celebration put on by Rodgers and the other Packers.  (See photo below.)


And then the lull started, earlier than usual, and this time mostly on the offensive side of the ball.  In the late second and third quarter, the Packers had 5 straight possessions ending in punts (mostly 3 and outs), while the Panthers clawed and scratched their way back into the game.  By the time the Panthers' fourth down pass fell incomplete with 13 seconds left, the Packers should have felt lucky to escape with a 24-16 win.  

I thought something was missing from the offense on Saturday night, apart from a lack of energy and execution after going up 21-3: the jet sweep motion.  This has been an effective technique all year long to show Rodgers how the defense reacts to the motion.  But if the Packers ran any jet sweep motion plays at all, I don't remember them.  Why not?  Tyler Ervin may be out, but presumably one of the reasons the Packers signed Tavon Austin was to run this motion.  I don't understand it, and hope to see it again on Sunday night.

By the way, the Packers also beat the Panthers at Lambeau Field last year.  Oddly enough, it was by an identical score (24-16), in identical weather (low 30's at kickoff).  Last year's game also came down to the final drive by the Panthers, where the game came down to a stop of Christian McCaffrey at the one yard line on the final play to preserve the win.  This is sounding like a bad habit for the Packers, except, as mentioned, the Panthers have had a bunch of games that they have lost this year despite having the chance to tie or win the game late in the fourth quarter.  So maybe the Panthers are one of those snake-bit teams that are better than their record reflects?

The good news is that the Packers are 11-3, and still in the driver's seat for the number one seed.  But the bad news is, as Rodgers said on the field after the game, that the disappointing way the second half played out left a bad taste in his mouth.  Or as someone on Facebook said, "Another win that feels like a loss."  I wasn't happy either, but I am going to argue that the situation is not as bad as it felt immediately after the game.

If this was a "bad win" for the Packers, they weren't alone in getting a bad win this week.  The Seahawks, at 10-4 and also fighting for a chance at the number one seed and a bye in the playoffs, barely hung on for a 20-15 win against the Washington Redskins Football Team.  Washington, depending on how you count it, was arguably down to their 3rd string quarterback.  Washington drove into Seattle territory on their final drive, but alas, ending up turning over the ball on downs.  The Buccaneers, now 9-5 and fighting to catch the Saints for the NFC South division crown, had to come roaring back from a 17-0 deficit against the 4-10 Falcons, before finally pulling ahead in the 4th quarter for a 31-27 win.  Is that an ugly win, too?  Or does the comeback aspect of the game make it feel better to Buccaneers fans?  The Cardinals, fighting for their playoff lives, had to hold off the not-very-good Eagles for a victory, with the Eagles taking several incomplete shots at tying the game in the final seconds.

Speaking of ugly wins, how about ugly losses?  The Rams, 9-5 and fighting to win their division, lost to the previously winless Jets, 23-20.  They got behind and could not catch up, losing the game, despite starting their final drive in Jets territory thanks to a big punt return.  And of course the Saints lost to the Chiefs, 32-29, with the Chiefs running out the clock to put the game away without giving the Saints one last chance to win it.  Maybe this wasn't an ugly loss, because of the quality of the defending champion Chiefs, but it counts the same in the record book.  

To sum it all up, of the 7 NFC teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs, there were 3 losses this week (Saints, Washington, Rams) and 4 wins, all of which were ugly in some ways (Packers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Cardinals).  I tend to focus only on my own team most of the time, rejoicing some times, and despairing other times.  Stepping outside the NFC for a minute, if you are unhappy with the "quality" of the Packers' 4 game winning streak, imagine if you were a Steelers fan.  Their 11-0 start is coming crashing down all around them with a 3 game losing streak, including losses to the not-so-great Washington team, and the really bad Bengals team Monday night.  It is worth having a little perspective here, that winning an NFL game isn't ever easy, and most if not all of the other teams go through the same sorts of problems.  I take some comfort in the fact that the defense again played better on Saturday night, especially in the secondary.  They also again held the opposing running backs to manageable yardage, and they forced a game-changing turnover at the goal line when Krys Barnes knocked the ball out of the outstretched hands of Teddy Bridgewater as he attempted to dive over the line for a touchdown.

Anyway, it is now clear that the Packers can secure the number one seed in a number of ways.  The easiest is to beat the Bears in Week 17, in which case it becomes irrelevant whether they win or lose against the Titans on Sunday night, and it is also irrelevant what any other team does in the final two weeks.  Unfortunately, the Packers can't know for sure this week that they will beat the Bears next week.  So they need to play their starters, play hard, and beat the Titans.  Now, it should be noted that if the Rams beat the Seahawks earlier on Sunday, then a Packers win against the Titans will secure the number one seed for the Packers Sunday night.  

I have an uncomfortable feeling about this game.  I suspect that the Seahawks will beat the Rams, resulting in a letdown for the Packers, who might then be a little too focused on the fact that "all" they need to do is beat the Bears the following week, and thus not play well against the Titans.  Derrick Henry can almost single-handedly win a game.  I am hoping the Packers will get it done, but I could easily see the Packers dropping this game.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Another Breed of Cat Coming to Town Saturday Night

Adams TD, Photo by Leon Halip, AP

The Packers' win against the Lions on Sunday (31-24) was a momentous one, because it clinched a playoff spot for the Packers, as well as the NFC North division title.  It also moved the Packers into the number one seed in the NFC, because of the Saints having been upset by the Eagles.  The Packers are now in the driver's seat, since they control their own destiny.  

Maybe you don't remember those years where the Packers had to play their last game and then wait to see if the Vikings, or the Rams, or whoever, would lose to let the Packers sneak into the playoffs.  I do remember them.  So I savor the fact that the Packers have clinched the division with three weeks to go.  It is worth noting that the toughest game left on the schedule for either the Packers or the Saints is this week's Kansas City at New Orleans game.  Assuming that the Chiefs win (as they are favored to do), this would give the Packers a little cushion in case they stumble in one of their final three games.  

Meanwhile, there were more milestones on Sunday.  Davante Adams became the first player ever to have 90+ catches, over 1100 yards, and 14 TDs over the first 13 games of the season.  Which sounds great enough just as it is.  And then you stop to realize that he only played in 11 games.  And for Rodgers, his milestone of the day is that he is the first player ever to have 39+ TDs, and fewer than 5 interceptions, after 13 weeks of a season.  I know, these records being set are a little funky - 14 TDs?  39 TDs?  13 games?  These are not nice round numbers.  But still, it says something about the monster year these two stars are having.

The first half was not all that satisfying, being that the Packers went into halftime tied at 14.  Time of possession was almost even, and the Lions had more passing yards than the Packers did in the half.  But the third quarter was dominated by the Packers.  They possessed the ball for over 13 and a half minutes, allowing only a 3 and out to the Lions.  The Packers scored once in the third quarter, and again early in the fourth quarter, to make it 28-14.  At that point, the game was under control.  

Except it wasn't, really.  Remember that fourth quarter slump problem we have discussed in prior blog posts?  I had it in mind, and was concerned that the Lions would claw their way back into the game.  Our Lions' fan friend, Al, threw out a prediction that the Lions could score a touchdown on the ensuing drive if there were 5 penalties on the Packers.  Sure enough, that is exactly what happened, as the Lions drove 75 yards on 13 plays, with 5 penalties on the Packers.  Well, the Packers did manage to keep it together enough to win the game, but not until they endured a scary onside kick, that had to be reviewed to confirm that the ball was out of bounds before it was recovered by the Lions.  I tend to see this as another special teams issue.  The onside kick almost played out like the one in a Dallas game earlier this year, where the receiving team (the Falcons) just watched the ball until it had gone 10 yards and was then recovered by the Cowboys.  Apparently it may be illegal for the receiving team to intentionally bat or kick the ball out of bounds.  But as the ball gets to 8 or 9 yards downfield, the receiving team can no longer afford to just watch it spin and hope for the best.  They have to pick it up, or better yet, dive towards it and "inadvertently" push it out of bounds.

Fresh off the victory over the Lions, another ferocious feline team comes to Lambeau Field Saturday night.  The 4-9 Panthers now come to Green Bay for a game that means a lot more to the 10-3 Packers, because of their quest to retain the only NFC bye in the playoffs.  I was very concerned about this game a few weeks ago, because I assumed that Christian McCaffrey would be back and would run all over the Packers.  But now it looks like McCaffrey won't play, and besides, as I have been saying for a couple of weeks, I think the Packers defense is looking better despite their custom of taking some time off in the middle of the fourth quarter.  Mike Davis can still do some damage, but he is not the difference-maker that McCaffrey is.  The Packers just need to take care of business, come out without any injuries, and with any luck they will find themselves a full game ahead of the Saints (plus the tiebreaker) after the Chiefs get done with the Saints.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

After Grounding the Eagles, Can the Packers Tame the Lions?

Record Setters, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

The Packers improved their record to 9-3 in beating the Eagles, 30-16, on Sunday.  That is worthy of a little celebration.  It is certainly a better record than I imagined that the Packers would have at this point of the season, and it virtually assures the Packers a playoff spot, and makes another division crown and a home game in the playoffs highly likely.  

It was also a game with lots of significant milestones.  Davante Adams caught a TD for the seventh game in a row, tying the record set long ago by Don Hutson.  Aaron Rodgers threw his 400th TD pass, joining an elite group of 6 other QBs to reach that mark.  And Rodgers got to 400 in the fewest number of games, 193.  Robert Tonyan caught a TD for the third game in a row, solidifying his position as the best TE the Packers have.  Rodgers became the first QB in NFL history to throw 35 TD passes in 5 seasons.  Adams reached 1000 yards for the second time in his career.  And the Packers became the first team in NFL history to reach 800 wins (regular season + playoffs).  However . . 

However, it is hard to ignore the bad taste left in the mouth by what happened in the middle of the fourth quarter.  The Packers had just kicked a field goal to make it 23-3, and the game seemed well in hand.  Easy for me to say that, sitting on the couch with no responsibilities for blocking or tackling.  Unfortunately, apparently the Packers thought the game was in hand, too.  So the defense slow-walked their way through a 9 play, 73 yard drive to make it 23-10.  Then the offense went 3 and out, and the special teams gave up another kick return touchdown, this time on a 73 yard punt return, making it 23-16 (the extra point was missed).  Then the offense went 3 and out again, giving the ball back to the Eagles with almost 5 minutes left on the clock and plenty of time to go down and tie it up.  Fortunately, the defense finally awakened from their early evening nap and forced a punt.  The offense, or at least Aaron Jones and his blockers MVS and Bakhtiari, also woke up, and when Jones raced 77 yards for a touchdown, to make it 30-16, the game was finally really in hand.

I know that you can get away with this kind of crap (most of the time, anyway) when you are playing a dysfunctional 3-7-1 team that is falling apart before our eyes, but could you get away with that against a better team?  That remains to be seen.  I can't make any excuses for the special teams.  Maybe Tavon Austin will bring some special teams receiving spark starting this week, since Tyler Ervin has been put on IR.  And as for the kicking part of special teams, I don't know what to do other than to pray that we don't see J.K. Scott trying to make a tackle again for the rest of the year.  Or (and this is only half in jest) have Mason Crosby do the punting, since he at least knows how to tackle!

More and more, I am coming around to the view that the defense is a different story.  Yes, they had a lapse on one drive in the fourth quarter, and that should not happen.  But they held the Eagles' running backs to under 100 yards, which might be the first time the Packers have done that all season.  And they certainly applied lots of pressure to Wentz, and to Hurts after he was brought in, sacking them a total of 7 times, and forcing an interception late in the game to slam the door shut.  Obviously, it helps that Carson Wentz is both slow and somewhat indecisive now, a bad combination for a quarterback under pressure.  But the bigger point is that I think Mike Pettine is becoming a bit more aggressive in his calls on defense, especially late in the game, and it is starting to show up in turnovers and sacks.  

I would like to see them build on this approach in the remaining games, so that the Packers can go into the playoffs on a high note.  I have no worries about the offense in this second year under LaFleur.  The Packers lead the league in points scored, and that is no fluke.  I am less concerned than some about the defense, and hope that Pettine continues to be more aggressive, as I think he has at times over the last few weeks.  Special teams will continue to terrify me, but hopefully they can keep their act mostly together.  It would be helpful if the Packers just never have to punt the ball!

The Packers play the Lions this week.  On paper, the Packers should win the game.  But that was true against the Vikings a few weeks ago, too.  And the Lions showed signs of life in orchestrating a comeback win over the Bears last week.  At 5-7, the Lions are two games back in the wild card chase, and can't afford to drop further back.  So they will be motivated to pull off the upset, and much has been made this week about how the Packers have been slow starters against the Lions, at home and away.  It was just last year that the Packers never led against the Lions until the final play of both games, ending up 2-0 for the season, but they were two plays away from being 0-2.  I want to see a fast start on offense, solid and aggressive play on defense, and no more special teams mishaps.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Celebrating 100 Wins Against the Bears

Opportunistic Defense, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

On Sunday Night Football, with a relative handful of fans finally back in the stands, the Packers beat the Bears, 41-25, to get their 100th all-time win against the Bears (including their playoff win back in the 2010 Super Bowl season).  The record is now 100-95, with 6 ties.  

I can remember back in the 1980's when the Packers were looking up to see the Bears way in front of them in the all-time win-loss records.  But that was before Brett Favre and now Aaron Rodgers.  If you look at the historical records by decade, there had been only one decade in which the Packers won more of the matchups than the Bears.  You got it, it was the 1960's.  But then came the 1990's, 2000's, 2010's and now the 2020's.  Over the most recent four decades, the Packers have beaten the Bears to the tune of 43 wins against 19 losses.  This dominance won't last forever, so I am glad to see the Packers get a little cushion now, while they still can.

One thing I liked a lot in the Sunday Night game was the re-emergence of the jet sweep motion.  In the several games that Tyler Ervin has been out with injuries, it seemed to me that the Packers were making much less use of this motion, and it was having a negative effect on the offense.  Sunday night, it was back (especially in the first half as they were building their lead), even without Tyler Ervin, and the results of this misdirection could be seen in how unstoppable the offense looked at times.  The jet sweep motion creates just enough hesitation on defense to create some momentary openings.  

Speaking of the jet sweep motion, whether Ervin is ready to return this week or not, I think the Packers just got somebody new who can be an effective jet sweep motion player.  With the signing of Tavon Austin, the Packers now have another speedy wide receiver, a new jet sweeper, and a likely kick returner (since the Packers waived Darrius Shepherd in order to make room for Austin).  Once or twice a game, I would just love to see MVS and Austin line up at opposite ends, take off like bats out of hell for the end zone, and see what happens.  Maybe one of them gets open for a long TD, but maybe they just pull enough DBs with them to open up the shorter passing game.  

Back to the Bears game for one last comment - I think the much-maligned defense has looked better over the last few weeks, doing a lot of swarming to the ball.  Darnell Savage had two interceptions, and I think the last two weeks are probably the best two weeks of his career.  I know they gave up a lot of points against the Colts last week, but let's not forget that there were 4 turnovers, and a lot of those points were attributable to offensive mistakes more so than defensive ineptitude.  Against the Bears, I know the final box score shows that the Packers gave up 25 points, but the score was 41-10 going into the 4th quarter.  For better or for worse, I think Mike Pettine's style in this setting is to go into slow down mode, keeping everything in front of the defense, giving up all the short plays they want, and guarding against quick scores.  You can denigrate this by calling it the "prevent defense" if you want, but when you lead by 31 with one quarter to go, that can be an effective means of sealing the win.  

Watching the much-delayed Ravens at Steelers game on Wednesday afternoon (!), I was reminded what great defenses look like.  Going into the game, these were the only two defenses to have allowed less than 200 points so far this year.  The Packers haven't had a defense like that since the Super Bowl year of 2010.  I don't see any chance that the Packers defense will magically turn into a great defense by the time the playoffs roll around.  But can they continue to make some key stops and generate a few turnovers each game, to make life a little easier on the offense?  They have recently, and I hope they can keep it up.

Anyway, the Eagles arrive in town on Sunday for another game that the Packers, on paper, should win, and win easily.  The Eagles' offense looked pretty terrible Monday night against the Seahawks, but the defense looked like it can create problems, at times, for opposing offenses.  This will be the second week in a row in which a desperate team is coming to Lambeau Field.  The Bears needed a win, as a practical matter, to stay in contention in the division.  The Eagles, at 3-7-1, should not be in the playoff hunt at all, but somehow they are.  In the NFC LEast, 3-7-1 is half a game out of first place.  So winning the division is a real possibility, but only if the Eagles can win some more games while the other woeful NFC East teams drop a few.  So beating the Packers would be a big deal for the Eagles, and if they get the smell of an upset in their nostrils, who knows?  The Packers should not do anything to encourage them.  They should put up a bunch of points fast, just like they did against the Bears, and then keep the foot on the gas until it is too late for a comeback.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Packers-Bears Week (Finally) in Week 12

Fumbling the Game Away, photo by Michael Conroy, AP

After losing to the Colts last Sunday, 34-31, the Packers find themselves at 7-3, and in the driver's seat in the NFC North.  But they also find themselves only 3-3 in the last 6 games, after their impressive 4-0 start.  The Colts game was maybe not the most disheartening of the three losses; to me that was the loss to the clearly inferior Vikings team.  The Colts were 6-3 going into the game, and had the number one defense in the league.  The Packers were underdogs, so you can't say that a loss was shocking or even unexpected.  

But what was both shocking and unexpected to me was the way that the Packers blew a 28-14 halftime lead to lose this game, by sleepwalking through most of the second half, and then fumbling the game away in overtime.  You don't win many games when you give away three or four turnovers, but the Packers were in position to win this game until the fourth turnover, a fumble by Valdes-Scantling in overtime.

The Packers have been vulnerable to the run game all year, but in the first half, they kept Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor in check, giving up only 43 yards on the ground.  They gave up some bigger gains through the air, and those plays combined with the Packers' two first half turnovers, kept the Colts in the game at halftime, trailing by 14.  

The second half and overtime were very discouraging.  The defense started getting gashed in the running game.  The offense had way too many 3 and outs, leading to the defense getting tired out and being gashed some more.  Throw in a special teams turnover, in the form of a Shepherd fumble on a kickoff return, add in one final turnover in overtime, and you have the perfect recipe for blowing a lead and losing a game you should have nailed down in the third quarter.  I think both sides of the ball, and you can throw special teams into the mix, too, let up in the second half, thinking they were going to coast to victory.  And then at the end, they could not convert for a touchdown in their final drive, and had to settle for the field goal to send the game to overtime.

Needless to say, this business of winning and losing on alternating weeks is not going to result in a successful season.  The Packers will almost certainly make the playoffs, but they need to play 60 minutes of every game if they want to avoid being bounced out of the playoffs in their first or second game.  But that worry, which is a real one, will have to wait just a bit.  It is now finally Packers-Bears week.  Can anyone remember a season where the Packers and Bears have not met until Week 12 of the season?  I couldn't, and I could not readily find the answer as to whether this is the latest first meeting between the two teams in history.

This will be the 201st meeting between the two historic teams, with the Packers leading the series 99-95, with 6 ties, including their two playoff games.  The game is being played in prime time on Sunday night, with one of the Packers' fan favorites, Mitch Trubisky, back behind center for the Bears.  This will be an excellent shot for the Packers to win their 100th game against the Bears.   

The Bears come to town, as usual, with a very good defense, and a much more questionable offense.  Before their current four game losing streak, they were at 5-1.  I had seen enough of their games to think that the 5-1 record was a mirage, and the fact that they have dropped to 5-5 tends to confirm this.  However, you can toss out there every cliche in the book, and most of them are true in Packers-Bears games, including the fact that the records don't matter when these two ancient rivals play each other.  The Bears are a dangerous team because they are desperate.  If they are going to turn their season around, it needs to start Sunday night.  And if they can't turn their season around, then Sunday night is still a big game, because beating the Packers makes a bad season palatable for the Bears.  Given the Bears strong defense, and the Packers' vulnerabilities on defense, I expect a close game, but one that the Packers should win.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Big Test Coming up Against the Colts

Using the Ref, Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milw. Journal-Sentinel

Well, the good news is this: the Packers' win over the Jaguars 24-20 last Sunday, combined with the Seahawks' loss, leaves the Packers with the number one seed in the NFC playoffs (as they always say, if the playoffs started today).  The bad news is, the way they played on Sunday, that number one seeding might not last long, maybe not past the upcoming game at Indianapolis on Sunday.  

For the second time in three weeks, in windy and cold conditions at Lambeau Field, the Packers seemed to play without energy or emotion, especially on offense.  And for the second time in three weeks, they played down to the level of an inferior team.  At least this time the Packers were close enough in the fourth quarter to be in a position to be able to rally for the go-ahead touchdown, and then the defense shut down the final Jaguars drives to preserve the win.  I'm sure I was not the only one who was having flashbacks when the Packers had the Jaguars at 4th and 26.  But unlike the more famous 4th and 26 in January of 2004, this time the pass was incomplete and the game was over except for a couple of kneel-downs.

My favorite play on offense has to be the 78 yard TD pass to Valdes-Scantling, depicted in the photo.  He made a little cut that sent the ref flying into the path of one of the pursuing defensive backs.  I laughed at least the first 5 or 6 times I watched this play.  On defense, my favorite series was the final one, when the defense (Rashan Gary and Preston Smith) rose up on back-to-back plays and sacked QB Jake Luton to set up the 4th and 26 play.

I am not as despondent as some other Packers fans I know.  "We suck."  "We'll be one and done in the playoffs."  Yeah, they might.  I am pretty sure they will be one and done if they play like they did against the Jaguars.  I am trying to figure out which playoff-caliber team they could beat with an effort like they made on Sunday, and I am coming up blank.  But look, if the Packers lose all these poor effort games in the middle of the season, maybe they end up with a 9-7 record, playing on the road (if they make the playoffs at all).  But if they win ugly games like the Jaguars game, maybe they get a good enough record to host a home game, and maybe if things break right they end up with home field advantage.  The Packers certainly rode some ugly wins last year all the way to the NFC Championship Game.  And if (and it is a big if) the Packers can use the next seven weeks to get their act together, maybe they become the proverbial team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs.  

One of the things they ought to take a look at is creating more unpredictability in their offense.  This past week, Lamar Jackson of the Ravens complained that defenses are calling out the Ravens' plays at the line of scrimmage.  I wonder if some of that isn't happening with the Packers, too?  I understand the idea of sticking with the run, even if it is not working.  But if the Jaguars have been stopping the Packers' run game all day long, why, on 3rd and 1 with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter, do you just run Aaron Jones up the middle for no gain?  And how many times can you call a straight-up run on second and ten before the defense knows what to expect?  Four times on Sunday the Packers found themselves at 2nd and 10.  Three times they ran the ball in conventional running plays.  The only first down they gained on 2nd and 10 was the one time they passed the ball.

Anyway, I feel as if we will have a much better feel for who the Packers are after the Colts game.  The Colts lead their division at 6-3, so they are no joke.  They certainly looked good last Thursday in beating the Titans.  I think the Packers are a much better team on offense than the Colts, even if they don't look like it every single week.  I would not trade any of our starting "skill position" players to the Colts for their players at those positions.  But I think the reverse is true on defense.  I think the Colts have a better and more consistent defense than the Packers.  

Having said that, when I re-watched the Jaguars game, I realized that the Packers' defense looked better than I remembered.  While the final drive was the one that initially caught my attention, with the back-to-back sacks, actually the defense played pretty well the entire game.  They only gave up 13 points (the other 7 was on the punt return TD).  The only TD they gave up was on a short, 16 yard drive set up by Adams' fumble.  They gave up no long drives during the entire game.  They kept pretty consistent pressure on Luton, frequently without having to blitz.  Now, you can say, "well, sure, but the Jaguars aren't that good on offense."  Which is true, but in other games this year, all you had to do was hand the ball off and gain a lot of yards.  The Jaguars have a pretty good running back, in James Robinson, and yet he wasn't able to run all over the Packers.  In other words, on further review, it was the offense, with its two turnovers resulting in 10 points for the Jaguars, and the special teams, giving up another 7 points, that were the problems on Sunday, not the defense.

The Packers are actually underdogs this week, and maybe that sort of perceived slight can be used as motivation for the offense to go out and prove something.  We'll see, but if the defense can play as well as it played against the Jaguars, and again show some energy, and if the offense, in the absence of wind and cold, can play a clean game with more energy than they showed on Sunday, then I think the Packers will win this game.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Second Half of the Season Starts Now

Preston Smith Causing an Interception, Photo by Packers.com
The three best things about the Packers' 34-17 win against the 49ers last week: (1) beating the 49ers, regardless of circumstances; (2) getting a mini-bye to get healthier before their next game; and (3) moving up the playoff seeding chart to the 3rd NFC seed, (as they say) if the playoffs started today.

Let's be honest.  You can't draw any firm conclusions from the Packers' win against the 49ers.  They are simply too beat up, with players lost for the season, players temporarily on IR, and players on the Covid list.  I am sure I am missing some of them, but among the key players not available last Thursday night were Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert, Kendrick Bourne, and Brandon Aiyuk.  The 49ers had 13 players on IR, the most in the league.  Not a single player who touched the ball on offense for the 49ers in the NFC Championship game last year was in uniform Thursday night.  So as much fun as it was to watch, and as satisfying as it always is to this former Bay Area resident when the Packers beat the 49ers, I don't think we can just assume that all is now well again with the Packers.  And judging by the 14 point pointspread this Sunday when the Jaguars come to Lambeau Field, a dominant win in that game won't answer any questions about where the Packers are, either.

Still, all the players in the league are professionals, there are no easy wins in the NFL, and you don't get to pick when and where you play your opponents.  The undefeated Steelers almost lost to the reeling Cowboys on Sunday, and the not-great Patriots almost lost to the worst team in the league (the Jets) Monday night.  So you can't take any game for granted, as I think the Packers might have done before playing the Vikings two weeks ago.

On offense last Thursday, the two most encouraging developments were the successful return of Aaron Jones, and the re-emergence of Marquez Valdes-Scantling.  The Packers' medical/training staff is notoriously conservative, for example in holding out Davante Adams a week longer than he wanted to be held out.  So it was great that Aaron Jones played, despite reports earlier in the day that he would be held out.  It was a big boost for the offense, even though they were a bit on the cautious side in how much they used him.  

And just when everybody has had about enough of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and his drops, he gets single coverage, makes a great move on the DB and finds himself all by himself waiting for a 52 yard TD bomb.  I swear, if he had dropped that ball, people would have been calling for him to be cut at halftime.  But he hauled it in to make it 21-3 just before the half.  And he added another short TD later.  Maybe he can play well enough to be a second WR option (or maybe the third option after Lazard returns).  I laughed out loud when I saw this in one of the Packers Facebook groups during the game:

"Bears dropped Ted Ginn, Jr.  Gotta be better than MVS.

Update: maybe not."

On defense, I loved seeing the return of the "Smith Brothers" as impact players in the game.  Preston Smith created the first turnover of the game, and it seemed to change the momentum of the game.  Before that play, the Packers were sitting on a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter.  I wasn't worried about the outcome, but a big play here or there for the 49ers could easily have turned the game in their favor.  Instead, pressure from Smith led to a Raven Greene interception, which led to the TD pass to Marcedes Lewis.  From that point on, the game never seemed in doubt.  And then in the third quarter, Za'Darius Smith's strip sack and recovery put a bow on the win.  The score was 28-3 at the time, but for all practical purposes, it was over then, if not before.  

Anyway, next up are the 1-7 Jaguars to start the second half of the season.  They are obviously not going anywhere this year with their 1-7 record.  But last week and this week, their second year QB Gardner Minshew will be out, so they will be led on the field by rookie QB Jake Luton.  I found him impressive in his first start.  His first completion was a long bomb TD to DJ Chark.  He threw for over 300 yards, while rookie running back James Robinson chipped in with 99 yards on the ground.  The Jaguars came within a botched 2 point conversion of taking the Texans to overtime in Luton's first start.  On the other hand, the Jaguars defense gave up some big plays, especially in the passing game, yielding long bomb TDs to Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks.  It seems to me as if a year or two ago, the Jaguars had a strong defense, giving up few points and generating turnovers.  Whatever has happened to the defense, it didn't look that good last Sunday.  So Rodgers and Adams (and hopefully other receivers as well) ought to be able to do some damage on offense.  And rookie QBs make rookie mistakes, and I will be disappointed if the Packers don't come away with some more turnovers on Sunday.  

On paper, the Jaguars game is the easiest game remaining on the schedule.  After that, the Packers will have to face the Colts, the Titans, the Bears twice, the Lions, the Panthers and the Eagles.  But "on paper" means nothing if you don't go out and win the game.  "Sufficient unto the day . . . ," and all that good stuff.  So let's go get a win on Sunday, and worry about next week's game next week!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Trap Game Blues (or Worse)

Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski, USA Today
How about talking a little Packers football, as a distraction on Election Day?  Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of happy talk to lift the spirits of Packers fans.

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Is the Packers' once-promising season about to come crashing down on their heads?  When the Packers lost in embarrassing fashion to the Buccaneers, I was able to keep a little perspective by noting that (a) the Buccaneers turn out to be better than I thought they would be; and (b) maybe the Packers are only vulnerable to hard-nosed, aggressive defenses like the Buccaneers - which is obviously a problem, but maybe a problem they could work on correcting.  And then came the second Vikings game on Sunday.  Before the game, I heard comments about how Rodgers was going to slice up the inexperienced Vikings' secondary.  And on the pregame show, the question was asked, how could the Vikings win?  And the answer was "if the Packers decide not to play."  Yeah, right.  Instead the Vikings won, 28-22.

We know the Vikings aren't any good.  They were 1-5 going into this game, giving up a lot of points (over 30 points per game).  So what do we make of the Packers losing to the Vikings, in a game that really didn't feel as close as the final score?  (Bear in mind, it was 28-14 until there were less than 3 minutes left in the game.)  I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Packers aren't as good as I thought they were.  They are 5-2, but only one of those wins was against a good team (the Saints).  Meanwhile, they lost, and didn't look good in the process, to one good team (the Buccaneers) and one bad team (the Vikings).  That sounds like a mediocre team to me.  Tell me where I am wrong (please!).  Speaking of the Buccaneers, when the Giants play the Buccaneers tougher than the Packers did, as happened in the Monday night game, that can't be a good sign (the Giants lost the game by 2 points, and a 2 point conversion would have sent the game to overtime).

In the Vikings game, the defense had to do only one thing, as some caller on Sirius XM Radio said Monday, stop Dalvin Cook, and force Kirk Cousins to beat you.  And not only did they not do that, they let Cook set an all-time record for any player at Lambeau Field by gaining over 200 scrimmage yards and scoring 4 touchdowns.  The entire first half was taken up with 4 drives, resulting in 2 Adams touchdowns and 2 Cook touchdowns.  So which team would be the first one to break serve?  Alas, it was the Packers.  The Vikings scored on the first drive of the second half, and never looked back.  On the ensuing drive, Rodgers threw a couple of bad passes, and Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a couple of catchable balls, and they turned it over on downs.  The Packers brought a little excitement to the last few minutes of the game, but it was basically over when they turned it over on downs on the first Packers drive of the half.  

So they are not as good as I thought they were, and they got trapped by a trap game on the way to facing the 49ers on Thursday night.  My concern is that this is worse than just losing a trap game, which can happen, but evidence of much deeper problems with the Packers, particularly on defense.  I laughed when I heard Rodgers says that the Packers didn't overlook the Vikings.  Instead, he says, they didn't play with a lot of energy on Sunday.  If that is supposed to make me feel more confident about the Packers' future, it doesn't.  How do you play without energy in a game against a division rival, at home (to the extent that matters in this weird year)?

Normally, given the way they played Sunday, I would give the Packers little chance against the 49ers.  If there is one thing they can't do, it is to stop a strong running attack, and the 49ers have certainly had that.  But their star running back, Raheem Mostert, is on IR and not eligible to return Thursday.  Their backup Jeff Wilson is also on IR and not eligible to return.  I told my 49er fan friend on Sunday that as long as the 49ers have somebody they can line up at running back, they should be fine.  But that is before I learned that both QB Jimmy Garoppolo and TE George Kittle will miss multiple weeks. 

So might the Packers get lucky and steal a win that they didn't really deserve?  No sooner did that thought cross my mind when I saw that A.J. Dillon has tested positive for Covid, will miss the game, and who knows if the Packers will have other positive tests.  As of Tuesday morning, there have been no new positive tests, but two more players, Kamal Martin and Jamaal Williams, have been ruled out of Thursday's game as "high risk close contacts" with A.J. Dillon.  This leaves the Packers, as far as I can see, with Tyler Ervin, fullback John Lovett, and practice squad player Dexter Williams as the only available running backs.  Meanwhile, if there are more positive tests, and the league postpones the game, it is easy to imagine the game being deferred until later in the season, maybe even a hypothetical week 18, when all of the 49ers players mentioned above would be back.  Hey, it's 2020, and anything can happen.

We will see what happens Thursday night, if the game happens at all.  I have lowered my expectations for the Packers for the year, but if they can pull off what is (in my mind, at least) an upset, they will have a pretty good 6-2 record at the midway point of the season, and they will have bought a little more time to address their weaknesses.