Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Packers Beat Bills and Meet 2-0 Bears

If you missed the game and just saw the score the next day, you would see that the Packers beat the Bills, 34-7, and you would assume that they probably dominated from start to finish. And yet, that is not at all how it felt watching the game live. Yes, the game started off pretty well, with the Packers putting the first 13 points on the board. But nothing much good happened for the Packers in the second quarter, and at halftime the score was 13-7. Along the way, there were missed passes, a sluggish running game, and some generally mediocre play. I am sure I was not the only one wondering if this might turn out to be a "trap" game after all.

Of course, the Packers put the game away in the second half, apparently after getting some choice encouragement from Coach McCarthy at halftime (the words "flat" and "sloppy figured prominently), so there turned out to be no problem. Still, the impression I carried away from the game was that the Packers didn't play very well, that they need lots of improvement to keep up with the better teams, and that they are lucky to be sitting at 2-0, tied with the Bears (what? how did that happen?).

All of these criticisms are valid, but I felt better about where the team is on a second viewing of the game. They started off strong, scoring on the first three possessions, while blanking the Bills. On defense, the Packers were aggressive from the start, sacking Trent Edwards on the Bills' third play, using their great "Psycho Defense." (In this defense, the players come to the line with one defensive lineman, five linebackers, and five defensive backs.) The look on Trent Edwards' face was priceless in showing how effective this alignment can be, because the quarterback is sure that a big rush is coming, but nobody is sure where the rush is going to come from.

My revised opinion is that the Packers played pretty well, even dominantly in parts of the game, but had an extremely flat second quarter that left us wondering what went wrong. The defense looked great, the special teams continue to play beyond my (meager) expectations, and the passing game was good enough to contribute to a win in most games (Rodgers completed 2/3 of his passes, for 255 yards, threw two touchdowns and no interceptions). Only the running game was really troubling, but I am prepared to wait a week or two to see if they can bring that around.

So the Packers, at 2-0, get to meet the 2-0 Bears at Soldier Field, for the Packers' only appearance on Monday Night Football this year. This game is no "gimme." While the Packers did manage to sweep the Bears last year, that was the first time since Lovie Smith has coached the Bears that the Packers swept the season series. The Bears presumably are delighted with their 2-0 record, and their fans (or the fair-weather fans among them) are snapping up tickets for the Monday Night game and raising ticket prices in the process. How sweet it would be to start the process of deflating their bubble on Monday night.

I did not realize it until I saw it in the Packers Dope Sheet on the game, but the last time the Packers and Bears met when both teams were 2-0 was September 30, 1962. The Packers won that game by the score of 49-0. That was a memorable game for me because it was the first Packer game I ever attended. Somewhere, I might even have some Instamatic snapshots from that game. For some much better pictures, see the collection published by the Press-Gazette.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A LONG Time Coming

I had in mind the fact that the Packers have had trouble winning at Philadelphia. They have lost every recent game I can remember that was played in Philly. But I had forgotten that this streak goes back to 1962, until I heard that statistic in some of the post-game coverage. When you consider how long it has been, I would gladly take any win in Philadelphia, no matter how ugly.

And parts of this game were ugly. If you told me that Rodgers would throw for less than 200 yards, take three sacks and have two interceptions, I would have been pretty pessimistic about the Packers' chances. Add in a a handful of players knocked out of the game (especially Ryan Grant), and the fact that the Packers old nemesis Michael Vick was running the defense ragged for more than half the game, and I would have been positively depressed.

And yet, despite causing a lot of heartburn in the 4th quarter, the Packers won the game, 27-20. They did it, not with the smoking hot precision offense I had expected, but with good to excellent special teams (Mason Crosby hit 49 and 56 yard field goals, the latter being an all-time Packer record, and Jordy Nelson averaged 31 yards per kickoff return), and with an impressive defense. With Atari Bigby and Al Harris scheduled to miss at least the first six weeks of the season, each Eagles receiver was held to less than 50 yards receiving. With the way DeSean Jackson was tearing up the league last year, that is a significant accomplishment. Justin Harrell was knocked out of the game with what looked like a serious injury, and Cullen Jenkins played with a broken hand and a club cast. Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews did most of the damage. Woodson was always around the ball, made a handful of tackles, forced a fumble, and almost had an interception. Matthews, after missing most of the preseason, had seven tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, and was instrumental on the critical fourth down stop of Vick to preserve the victory. With Vick at quarterback, I would have given long odds that they would get a yard on fourth down to keep their drive alive.

So yes, I will gladly accept a mixed performance for a win in the opening game. This leaves the Packers tied for the lead in the division (with Chicago!), and with the Vikings and the Lions at the bottom of the division. The Packers did not show me what I wanted to see: that they are a dominating team that has a great chance to win every game. As a result, we will have to wait to see if they can start to pull things together over the next couple of weeks.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Everybody's Jumping on Their Jock"

Thanks to the Packergeeks blog, I saw last night's quote on the Packers from Visanthe Shiancoe, tight end of the Vikings: "Everybody is jumping on their jock, like they've actually gone to the Super Bowl, and won it." Sounds like somebody is in a bad mood, after losing the NFL season opener on the national stage.

To tell the truth, neither the Vikings nor the Saints looked like Super Bowl contenders last night, except for the Saints' first drive. They looked so unstoppable in that drive that I thought they would score 40-50 points in the game. But not much happened after that drive, and the Saints ended up winning it, 14-9. Obviously, a team can start out the season slowly, and get it all together later. But last year, the Saints opened the season with victories by 18 points, 26 points, and 20 points. That turned out to be a good sign of things to come for the Saints. The Vikings also started out 3-0, but two of those games were against bad teams, and the third was one of those miracle Favre finishes against the 49ers.

Could Favre's late arrival at camp have anything to do with the team looking out of sync last night? Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune certainly thinks so, in an article titled "Pin This Loss on Favre's Belated Arrival." It is hard to argue with him, although the absence of Sydney Rice was certainly also a factor. Even Favre admitted that "I thought our timing was a little bit off." The Vikings made just enough mistakes to lose a game they easily could have won, especially after Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed two field goals, which would have put the game out of reach by the middle of the 4th quarter. One of those mistakes, even though it didn't result directly in any points, was Favre's second quarter interception. This prompted SF Bay Area High School football player and Packer fan Scott Clendening to quip: "you know the NFL is back when Favre leads the league in interceptions."

So the season is off to a good start, with the Vikings at 0-1. A Packer victory against Philadelphia on Sunday would give them a one-game lead over the Vikings. When the Packers last had the kind of hype they have this year, in 1996, they started the season on a high note, beating the Buccaneers by 31, the Eagles by 26, and then the Chargers by 32, before some injuries started to kick in. They lost three games over the next eight weeks, and then never lost another game through and including the Super Bowl.

This week, we will start to see if the Packers can live up to the hype. I have not seen any of the Eagles' preseason games, and of course they have a new starting quarterback (Kevin Kolb) and a new starting running back (LeSean McCoy) since last year. The Packers have not had a good record at Philadelphia in recent years (that playoff loss at Philadelphia after the 2003 season still makes me shudder), so this will be an interesting test.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Scary Preseason Predictions

The Packers' preseason loss to the Chiefs this week was so boring that I had to write this blog post during the latter part of the game. The Packers chose to sit most of their starters for the game, which makes some sense, but must irritate anyone stuck with a full-price ticket for the game.

Meanwhile, the preseason accolades for the Packers continue to roll in. NFL.com polled its seven experts, and all seven picked the Packers to be the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. Four of them have the Packers winning the Super Bowl, while three of them have the Packers losing to the Colts, Ravens and Bengals.

The last time the Packers were the consensus Super Bowl pick was probably 1996. I remember it well, including the Sports Illustrated cover predicting the Packers and Chiefs for Super Bowl XXXI.

I love seeing this stuff, but it scares me almost as much as it pleases me. I also guess I am not yet a complete believer. In 1996, the Packers had gone to the playoffs the prior three seasons, and they were coming off an NFC Championship Game loss to the Cowboys. The Packers had led the game in the fourth quarter. To name a few players, the Packers started the season with Favre at quarterback, Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens at running back, Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman at wide receiver, and Keith Jackson at tight end. On defense, they had Reggie White and Sean Jones at defensive end, and Leroy Butler, Craig Newsome and Eugene Robinson at defensive back. On special teams, they had Desmond Howard. This was an impressive team, and it was obvious at the beginning of the season. Sure, they might not win it all, but there was no team in the NFC that you would have thought had a better shot at it.

I don't see the 2010 Packers as being at the same level. I like the 2010 Rodgers as much as I liked the 1996 Favre, and Driver/Jennings/Finley compares pretty favorably with Brooks/Freeman/Jackson. I am a Ryan Grant fan, but I don't think he stacks up well against Bennett and Levens. On defense, where are the pass rushers to match up with White and Jones? Where are the defensive backs to match up with Butler, Newsome and Robinson? Charles Woodson is probably better than the 1996 defensive backs, but with Al Harris (as well as Atari Bigby) spending the first six weeks of the season on the PUP list, I just can't make a case that the defensive backs as a whole are close to being comparable. And, of course, the special teams have been shaky for most of the preseason as well as last year.

Are the Packers better, going into the season, than the Saints, the Falcons, the Vikings, the Cowboys, or the 49ers? (The same NFL.com experts pick the Cowboys, the Saints or Falcons, and the 49ers to win their respective divisions.) Maybe. But I don't see it as being so clear cut as to make the Packers a consensus pick for the Super Bowl.