Thursday, December 30, 2004

Reggie White, R.I.P.

Going into the Friday game, we had the Packers' pathetic historical record in the dome, pointing in one direction, and the Vikings' traditional late-season collapse, pointing in the other. Most Packer fans, including me, were probably pretty pessimistic about the chances for the Packers.

Lots of bad things happened during the game. The Packers' defense could not stop the Vikings all day long. Favre threw his traditional interception as a Christmas gift to the Vikings, although this one was caused more by a tremendous leaping grab by Claiborne than by an error by Favre. But, to make matters worse, this interception took place in the fourth quarter, with the score tied. To make matters worse still, this interception was returned for the go-ahead touchdown.

Not content to let this one slip away, Favre guided the Packers on a 5 minute, 13-play drive, which ended when Favre threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Driver on 4th down. The score was tied, with over 3 minutes left to play. Still, the way the defense had been playing all season, it would have been no shock for the defense to let the Vikings drive downfield for the winning score. But for once, the defense rose to the occasion, with the help of a couple of penalties on the Vikings, and forced a punt.

The Packers had the ball, at their own 13 yard line, with 1:35 to go and 2 timeouts. That deep in their own territory, on the road, would they play for the tie and take the game into overtime? Not without taking some carefully controlled shots at some yardage first. The Packers proceeded to mount another long drive, with 12 plays, leading to the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Ryan Longwell deserves a lot of credit. This is the fourth time in the last seven weeks he has kicked game-winning field goals in the final seconds of a game. He is certainly not perfect (longer kickoffs would be nice), but he is as dependable as any kicker in the league in this kind of situation. And Mike Sherman deserves a lot of credit, too. Quietly, almost without anyone noticing, he has built a 7-3 record against the Vikings, including a 3-2 record at the dome. When you consider that Mike Holmgren's record against the Vikings was 5-9, and 1-6 in the dome, Sherman's accomplishment in turning around that futility is significant and welcome. As a result, the Packers won the division for the third year in a row, and will have their home game in the first round of the playoffs. All was well in the world of the Green and Gold.

Until Sunday morning. That is when the shocking news came of Reggie White's death, at the age of 43. The day Reggie White signed with the Packers is probably etched in the minds of many of us. Living in the San Francisco area, I can remember very well the smug assumption in these parts that Reggie would sign with the 49ers. After all, they were the "classiest organization in all of sports" (as 49er fans and media types were fond of telling us) and they had been at or near the top since 1981. Why wouldn't someone like Reggie want to jump on board? I remember being asked by a 49er fan that day, "Did we get Reggie White?" Which allowed me to use the punch line of the old joke, "What you mean WE, kemosabe?"

None of us will soon forget the sight of Reggie White taking a victory lap around the Super Dome after Super Bowl XXXI, with the Lombardi trophy held high for all to see. My family will never forget his graciousness in posing for a picture with us, at the San Francisco hotel restaurant, the night before the NFC Championship game the following year, or the fact that he signed and send back the picture to us after it was developed.

Reggie White was on the receiving end of criticism for some of his politically incorrect remarks off the football field, to some extent deservedly so. Let us not dwell on that now. Nobody who is honest about it will dispute that this was a good man, a proud man of faith, and one who tried to do the right thing in his personal and professional life. He was also a phenomenal football player. The two games that stand out most in my mind were the game against Denver, in 1993 (Reggie's first year with the Packers) when he single-handedly preserved the victory by sacking Elway several times on the pivotal, 4th quarter drive, and of course Super Bowl XXXI, when he did the same thing to Drew Bledsoe late in the game. He left us far too soon, and there is no more fitting tribute to him than the New Testament epigraph that appears at the beginning of the book Reggie wrote with Andrew Thomas:

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Another Close Shave

So the Packers wrap up an exciting little victory over the Lions (way too exciting, in fact), giving them an 8-5 record, and sole possession of first place in the NFC North for the first time all season. They are all set to take some new momentum into the playoffs, and then who knows what will happen? It is possible to believe that, at least somewhat.

The Packers host the Jaguars next week, followed by a Christmas Eve trip to Minnesota, and then finish upon the road at Chicago. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the Packers lose the Vikings game and win the other two. The will end up at 10-6 in this scenario.

Meanwhile, the Vikings play at Detroit, then host the Packers, and then play on the road at Washington. Now everyone knows that think the Vikings could easily lose a road game outdoors at Washington in January, but again, for the sake of argument,let's say they win all remaining games to also finish at 10-6. The Packers and Vikings will have split the season series, so we look next at the Division records, where we find the Packers at 4-2, and the Vikings also at4-2 (given these assumptions). Turning to common opponents, the next tie-breaker, the Packers will have a record against common opponents of 7-5(wins against Dallas, Houston,Detroit, Jacksonville, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, and losses against Philadelphia, Chicago, Tennessee, N.Y. Giants, and Indianapolis), while theVikings will have a record of 8-4 (wins against Dallas, Chicago, Houston,Tennessee, Detroit, Jacksonville, Detroit and Washington, and losses against Philadelphia, N.Y. Giants, Indianapolis, and Chicago). So, under this set of assumptions, the Vikings would win the division. If this is incorrect,please send an email, but it appears to be correct.

If that is so, then it will take a Packer victory at Minnesota to win the division (or it will take Minnesota to stumble against one of the other teams). You could have lost a lot of money over the years counting on a Green Bay victory at Minnesota. Could have? Many of us probably actually have lost a lot of money counting on Green Bay wins at Minnesota.Now, even if the Packers lose the division, they might still be a wild card,but that means no home games, and frankly not much of a chance.

To be honest, there is no strong reason for optimism even if the Packers do win the division. Take a look back at the Packers' record this year. They have played only 3 games against teams that currently have winning records (Indianapolis,Minnesota, and Philadelphia). The Packers are 1-2 in those games, and the Colts and Eagles games were pretty tough to even watch until the end. The other 10 games have been against teams with a losing record as of now, and the Packers are 7-3 in those games, with some close shaves thrown in, which is NOT a reference to Brett Favre's new hairdo. In other words, the Packers are not exactly blowing the doors off even in games where you might say that they should win. For this reason, even though the Packers have won 7 out of their last 8 games, it is hard to develop too much excitement about their chances this year. In spite of the improbable way the Packers got into the playoffs last year, the Packers' chances last year were much better to go somewhere in the playoffs last year than they seem this year. Only the 4th and 26 disaster stopped the Packers short of a trip to the NFC Championship game, where they certainly would have had a real shot of earning another trip to the Super Bowl. This year, the Packers look distressingly like a team heading for one and out in the playoffs.

Obviously, they still have to play the games one at a time, and it is not too late to get really hot going into the playoffs. They may get lucky if they get there, and go a long way. But nobody should count on it.