Friday, December 19, 2014

No Margin for Error Left

Most Creative Use of Mouthpiece Award Winner
Ever have a multi-stop business trip, where things go haywire on the first stop, and it threatens to throw a monkey wrench into all of the rest of your plans?  Well, the Packers had that kind of a first stop in Buffalo last Sunday, losing to the Bills 21-13.  They were in it, sort of, until Rodgers was stripped of the ball near the goal line late in the game, and whirled around but could not find the ball.  Eddie Lacy picked the ball up in the end zone and tried to advance it.  Unfortunately for Lacy and the Packers, this brought into play the "holy roller" rule, and thus was a safety, whether or not Lacy got out of the end zone.

The holy roller rule arose out of a 1978 play involving Ken Stabler and Chilton, WI high graduate Dave Casper of the Oakland Raiders.  With seconds left in the game, and the Raiders trailing, Stabler, about to be sacked, "fumbled" the ball forward, where it was bobbled and rolled into the end zone by Casper, where he recovered it for the winning touchdown.  Of course, there were calls for the league to "do something" about this.  In a football application of the old principle that hard cases make bad law, the league came up with the holy roller rule, which basically states that in the final two minutes of a half, only the player who fumbles the ball can advance it.  Thus, when Rodgers could not find the ball, as soon as Lacy picked it up, it was a dead ball in the end zone and a safety.  Ironically, the rule was probably never necessary.  If, as was admitted at the time, Stabler intentionally fumbled the ball in an effort to have a chance for someone to advance it, then it could have been ruled an incomplete forward pass, or maybe even intentional grounding, and in either case the ball could not be advanced.  So, I would argue it was just a bad call, not a cause célèbre calling for a new rule.  But anyway, rules are rules, and the way the Packers had been playing, they didn't have much of a chance anyway.

On the plus side, Cobb and Nelson become the first pair of receivers in the long history of the Packers to have 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, each in the same season.  Jordy Nelson's best play of the game, however, might have been on defense.  A pass to Nelson was nearly intercepted and might have been returned for a touchdown, but for Nelson getting a hand on the ball and knocking it out of the defensive back's hands.

But the negatives far outweighed the positive.  Jordy Nelson dropped what should have been a 95 yard TD. That is something that nobody would expect out of Nelson.  And it wasn't just him.  Receivers dropped what looked like 5 or 6 catchable balls throughout the game, and Rodgers was uncharacteristically off on a number of passes.  He had two interceptions, one of which was a tipped ball, like all his previous interceptions this season, but the other was just a bad pass.  Rodgers had the lowest QB rating of his career.  He also had the most incomplete passes in a game in his career.  Remarkably and inexplicably, McCarthy did not respond to the problems in the passing game by calling more running plays, screens, draw plays, etc.  He certainly should have.

And, as a little footnote, there were more problems in the kicking game, as Crosby's 53 yard field goal attempt was blocked, and the Packers' special teams gave up a punt return for a touchdown.

The Bills have the kind of defense that Rodgers generally has problems with.  If they can put pressure on with 4 rushers, and drop everyone else in coverage, problems ensue.  This is the sort of thing that Seattle does to Rodgers, or occasionally the Jim Schwartz-led Lions.  Not entirely coincidentally, Schwartz is now the defensive coordinator for the Bills.

This game featured the worst announcer pair I have ever heard, Justin Kutcher and David Diehl.  My working theory is that they were switched in to cover this game after Fox decided to show the Johnny Manziel game to most of the country, because they acted as if they had done no preparation whatever for the game.  Bryan Bulaga's name was repeatedly pronounced "Beluga" until they finally figured it out in the 4th quarter.  Maybe they grew up listening to the Raffi children's song, Baby Beluga.  Or maybe they love caviar.  Poor Micah Hyde had his name butchered as "Makiah Hyde."  The Old Testament Prophet must be rolling over in his grave.  One of the announcers had the verbal tic where he pronounces the "T" in Kyle Orton as if it were a glottal stop, not a letter to be pronounced.  And I can't count the number of times during the game that one of them said, "my mistake."

The Packers, of course, have to put all the negatives behind them and move on to the Tampa Bay game.  Fans have no choice but to do the same.  The Packers' loss to the Bills puts them in the position where they dropped back into a tie with the Lions, and it is a severe blow to any thought the Packers had of claiming the number 1 seed.  But if they beat the Buccaneers on the road and the Lions at home, the Packers still win the division and get at least the number 2 seed (and the resulting bye).

So the Packers have a lot to play for, and no remaining margin for error.  I was amused today by a Press-Gazette article remembering the time that Brett Favre had to wave his arms to quiet the Packer fans' "Go Pack Go" chant in the Tampa stadium.  I remember the game more for the way it set off a rant from Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer after the game.  Anyway, that was against a Buccaneers team that made the playoffs.  This year, the Buccaneers are 2-12.  While the Buccaneers usually have trouble selling out home games, this game was sold out 6 months ago, and the tickets are now reselling way over face value.  You tell me who is buying those tickets.  To put it a different way, if the Packers have trouble with the Buccaneers in their home away from home, then they are in a heap of trouble overall.  I expect a convincing win from the Packers.  It is time to play like champions again.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Road Trip Awaits the Packers

The Unstoppable Jordy Nelson (photo by Jim Biever,
Almost everything went the Packers' way in the first half, last Monday night against the Falcons.  Other than a crisp first drive by the Falcons, to tie the game at 7-7, it was all Packers, all the time.  When Rodgers hit Nelson for the last score of the first half, to make it 31-7, Jon Gruden said "the rout is on."  And if you look at the stats for the first half, you would think the same thing.  In every single offensive category, the Packers were outperforming the Falcons.

With the way that the Packers have played this year, fans could be forgiven for thinking that the days of "playing it safe" with a lead had gone away for good.  One of my complaints, for years, had been that the Packers take their collective foot off the gas with a lead, stop playing aggressively on offense and defense, and frequently let lesser teams climb back into the game.  The Packers really haven't done that this year, and they have blowout wins against the Bears, Vikings, Panthers, Bears again, and Eagles to show for it.  

So what happened in the second half?  Since when do we expect to see the Packers give up 30 points in a half, while scoring only 12, to lead to a final score of 43-37?  Well, you can't take anything away from Julio Jones, who set the all-time record for receiving yards against the Packers, with 259.  And it could have been worse if he didn't sit out part of the 4th quarter with an injury.  All game long, it looked like they needed safety help over the top to cover Jones, but they usually did not provide it.  And it wasn't just Jones.  It was the Falcons' passing offense and the Packers' passing defense in general.  Even though no receiver other than Jones put up big numbers, 8 other receivers caught passes, and Matt Ryan ended up with 375 passing yards.

Julio Jones is certainly a top-flight receiver, but the Packers have controlled better quarterbacks (for example, Tom Brady) and have done a better job of controlling other top receivers (Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson).  So I do think that the second half was a bit of an anomaly, and most likely represents a letdown or an example of taking the second half off.  If so, it is appalling that it happened.  But if it did, there is no better outcome than for the Packers to hang on and win the game anyway.  This gives them the benefit of the win, against a conference opponent to boot, and keeps them tied for the best record in the league.  But, almost as importantly, it serves as an important reminder and warning that they can't get away with this stuff, even against a team that is, objectively, not as good as other teams the Packers will have to play in the playoffs.  Better to learn that lesson now than on the first (or hopefully, the second) weekend in January.

Now the Packers head off on a two-game road trip, first against Buffalo, and then against Tampa Bay.  I will take a closer look at Tampa Bay next week, but offhand that game does not concern me.  Not only do the Buccaneers have the worst record in the league at 2-11, but the stands will be half full of Packers fans.  Any Packers fans in the area should get tickets now.  You can't have a better time in late December than sitting out in shirt sleeves, in a friendly road venue, and watching the Packers.  (I'm talking to you, Marc B. and David A.)

The Bills, on the other hand, are a bigger test.  Weather should not be an issue, with temperatures in the mid-30s and not much chance of rain or snow.  But the Bills could be an issue.  They have a pretty decent record at 7-6, they are playing at home, and they still have a shot at a wild card spot.  In fact, with a bunch of 8-5 wild card contenders in front of them, a loss to the Packers would be close to devastating.  This will not be a team with their bags packed, waiting for the off-season to start.

The Bills have not played that well on offense, but their defense is outstanding.  No team in the AFC has given up fewer points than have the Bills.  The defense is coached by old Packer nemesis Jim Schwartz, so although the team may not have played the Packers in four years, the defensive coordinator knows the Packers very well.  The offensive line of the Packers will have its work cut out for it in keeping Rodgers upright and healthy against the Bills' defense.  The Packers, in my opinion, have the best quarterback in the league and the best set of receivers.  Rodgers and the receivers will have to put some points on the board, especially if Eddie Lacy is hampered or out of the game.

On top of that, and for whatever it is worth, the Bills have scored more points on offense than the Packers' other remaining opponents, the Buccaneers and Lions.  Kyle Orton, the current starting quarterback, has a surprisingly good record as starter against the Packers, and the rookie wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, will also test the defense.  So it is important that the Packers' defense plays much better than they did last week.  I think the Packers will win the game, but probably by less than 7 points, so we may to sweat this one out, too, just like the last two weeks.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Morning Game Day Thoughts

Photo by USATSI
The photo above depicts the key defensive moment in last week's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots.  The Packers were playing one of the best teams in the league, with the league's best record at 9-2, and the Patriots were on a 7 game winning streak, with one of the best quarterbacks in the league at the helm.  The Packers had never trailed in the game, but it had been a close game since the second quarter, with the Packers never leading by more than 9 points in that span.  On offense, the Packers' main problem all day had been in the red zone, where they ended up having to settle for four field goals and one missed field goal.

So when the Packers' drive in the fourth quarter stalled, and Mason Crosby kicked his fourth field goal of the day to bring the score to 26-21 with 8:45 left in the game, Packer fans could be forgiven for contemplating the possibility of a long, clock-eating drive, ending in a go-ahead touchdown by the Patriots.  While the Packers' defense had kept Brady under control all game, they had never sacked him, until it was 3rd and 9 from the Packers' 20, after the Patriots' drive had consumed over 5 minutes of the clock and 52 yards.  It was at that moment that Mike Daniels and Mike Neal came up with the only Packers sack of the game, putting the Patriots too far out to try a fourth-down play, and forcing them to try to kick a field goal, which they missed.  Two Lacy runs, one clutch pass to Cobb, and 3 kneel-downs later, the game was over.  While this game was obviously not a Super Bowl, the Daniels-Neal sack immediately reminded me of Reggie White's two, back to back sacks of Drew Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI, to effectively finish out the game.

Back when the Packers were 1-2, none of us really contemplated the Packers being in a position to win 7 out of 8 games, or to knock off two division-leading teams like the Eagles and the Patriots within a three week span.  But they have done exactly that.  Keeping more of their players healthy has been a big factor, obviously, but so has the continuing development of young players like Eddie Lacy and David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley and Davante Adams (other than his big drop of what would have been a touchdown pass) on offense, and like Datone Jones, and Micah Hyde, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on defense.  And finally, the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit.  Over the years, many of us have been critical of Mike McCarthy and his staff, for poor clock and game management, unimaginative play calling, being slow to adjust within games, etc.  But I have to admit that the Packers, for most of this year, have been doing a better job of changing things up to keep the opposing teams off balance.  On defense, the creative use of Clay Matthews in the last four weeks has made a huge difference in the overall performance of the defense, and on offense, last Sunday's game showed how the creative use of Randall Cobb in many different alignments can create massive problems for the opposing team's defense.  Where was all this creativity hiding for the last few years?  Hard to tell, but let's enjoy it while it lasts.

Much has been made this week of Bill Belichick seeking out both McCarthy and Rodgers after the game to have a few words with them.  Neither McCarthy nor Rodgers would disclose what was said, but it is fair to assume that Belichick was acknowledging the excellent play-calling and performance of the Packers in the game.

The Packers have four winnable games left in the regular season.  Atlanta at home, Buffalo and Tampa Bay on the road, and then the huge rematch with the Lions.  The Falcons, despite their 5-7 record, should not be taken lightly.  They still have Julio Jones and Roddy White on offense, and if Matt Ryan gets hot, they can score a lot of points.  They have also won 3 of their last 4 games, including a win over Arizona, so they are getting their season back on track after a really poor start.  Plus, at 5-7 they are like the old joke about the two men being chased by a bear.  Since they currently actually lead the NFC South, they don't need to win enough games to have a good record; they just need to finish in front of the Saints and Panthers.  If they do, they will win the division and host a home playoff game.

We all remember that it was just four short years ago that the Falcons had the best record in the NFC, and the Packers knocked them off on the way to Super Bowl XLV.  They have lost a lot of players since then, but they still have plenty of talent.  And this is, for the reasons noted, a big game for the Falcons.  But I don't see them pulling off a massive upset of the Packers at Lambeau Field.  I think the Packers will win this one by at least 10 points.  Go Pack!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Statement Game, Part Deux?

Two weeks ago, the Packers made their statement by beating one of the top teams in the NFC, the Eagles.  Then they avoided, just barely, falling in their trap game against the Vikings in TCF Stadium.  On Sunday, they get their chance to make another statement by beating the Patriots, probably the top team in the AFC, in what some people are calling a possible Super Bowl preview.

About the Vikings game - sure, we all expected the Packers to dominate the game, and they really did not do that.  They never trailed in the game, but they never really took control of the game, either.  It was the classic sort of game where the better team plays down to the level of the competition, and lets the other team hang around and hang around, all game long.  There were a number of contributing factors.  First, the Packers just seemed flat.  Rodgers missed some passes, and should have been intercepted at least once, and receivers dropped some passes that they normally would catch.  The Vikings played a lot of cover-2 defense, which seems like it always frustrates Rodgers, and it does tend to decrease the efficiency of the Packers' offense.  Teddy Bridgewater looks like he might be the real deal for the Vikings, but he was wild on Sunday, especially early in the game.  If he had completed some easy passes, instead of overthrowing them, and if his receivers had not dropped a handful of catchable passes, the Vikings might well have won the game.

Still, the positive parts of the Vikings game were the effect that the Packers suffered through a subpar performance and still managed to win the game - somewhat like the Jets and Dolphins games, both of which they could easily have lost.  And there is nothing more satisfying than to see the Packers get the ball back, with over 3 minutes to go, and watch them grind it out on 5 straight Eddie Lacy runs, for two first downs, to get the game into kneel-down time.

What about the Patriots?  They have the best record in the AFC at 9-2, and they are on a 7 game winning streak, after a maddeningly slow start of 2-2.  People were beginning to question whether Brady was over the hill, but just like that, they turned it around.  In their seven game winning streak, only one win has been by less than 15 points (they beat the Jets by 2 points).  One of the things that I have always admired about the Patriots is the way that they keep their foot on the gas until the game is way out of control.  So if the Patriots get ahead of the Packers on Sunday, there is no hope that the Patriots will slow down the game and give the Packers a chance to catch up.  The Packers will have to seize the opportunity themselves, with no help from the Patriots.

I can make the case for the Patriots winning the game.  They have two top cornerbacks, so they should have a better chance to keep Nelson and Cobb in check than most teams.  Both teams have high-level passing offenses and middle of the pack rushing offenses,  They both have middle of the road passing defenses, but the Patriots have a much better rushing defense, and the Patriots have shown that they are willing and able to emphasize the run offense when that is the easier way to score points.  If the Patriots win the game, it will be likely be because of the Packers' Achilles' heel: rushing defense.

But I am predicting a Packers' win.  True, the Patriots have won 7 in a row, but the Packers have won 7 out of their last 8 games, and are 5-0 at home (thanks to the furious comeback against the Jets).  The Packers do have, on a year-to-date basis, one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, but I would suggest that the statistic is out of date.  Since the Packers started to use Matthews inside, the Packers have given up 55, 109 and 112 rushing yards in those three games.  If they did that all season long, the Packers would have a top 10 rushing defense.

It is interesting that Brady and Rodgers have never started against each other - a fact made possible by Rodgers' concussion in 2010.  Matt Flynn played instead, and came close to upsetting the heavily-favored Patriots.  But this time, we get two of the best quarterbacks in the league, both (I would argue) sure future Hall of Famers.  This will be an interesting battle, between the classic pocket passer in Tom Brady, and the newer model, more mobile quarterback in Rodgers.  According to the NFL Network, there has never been a game in which the starting quarterbacks have more career touchdown passes.  Brady and Rodgers have 603 combined passing TDs.  In second place is a Roethlisberger-Favre matchup late in Favre's career - those two had 589 passing TDs.  This should be a great matchup.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Statement Made - Now Avoid the Trap Game

Photo by Jeff Hanisch, USA Today
Last week, I made the comment that the Packers hadn't really beaten any good teams yet, with the possible exception of the Dolphins, and that they really needed a "statement" game.  Well, beating the high-flying, at the time 7-2 Eagles, by the score of 53-20, qualifies as a statement in my book.  The Packers turned in their second 50 + point game in two weeks, and dominated the Eagles on both sides of the ball, and (to some extent) on special teams as well.

The Eagles gained a lot of yards, but the Packers forced just enough mistakes to hold them to 20 points.  For the second week in a row, Clay Matthews' part-time gig as an inside linebacker paid dividends, with Matthews causing matchup problems inside, and registering a sack when lined up outside.  Julius Peppers scored his second interception return touchdown of the year, and did a MUCH better Lambeau Leap this time.  I assume he has been practicing.

On offense, in re-watching the game, I was impressed by the front line's protection of Rodgers.  He was sacked once, but otherwise generally had plenty of time.  If I am not mistaken, this is the first time in years that the same 5 offensive linemen have started every game all season, despite some of them being banged up in a number of games.  That continuity is making a lot of difference, as is more attention to quick releases by Rodgers, screen passes, and other mis-direction plays.  The highlight of the game for me, even though the game was already out of reach, was Eddie Lacy's 4th quarter "boom . .boom . . boom" style touchdown on a short dump-off pass to the left side.  Thirty-two yards and five would-be tacklers later, Lacy was in the end zone.  Most of the country missed the score, as Fox, I think, had already switched to another game, but what an impressive effort by Lacy.

One thing that I have not seen written about anywhere is whether Jordy Nelson hurt himself in the first quarter of the game.  Watching on TV, we both had the impression that he came up with a slight limp after a long incomplete pass on a free play, when the Eagles jumped offsides.  He missed a couple of plays, then returned and played the rest of the game, and did not appear on any injury reports this week, so I have to assume he will not be hampered in any way on Sunday.

Special teams was more of a mixed bag.  Micah Hyde had a great punt return for a touchdown, but there was also a botched extra point and a missed extra point.  If you are going to miss easy kicks, do it in blowout games where it doesn't make any difference.

This week, the Packers get to play the Vikings outdoors, at the University of Minnesota.  It will be the first Packers-Vikings road game played outside since 1981.  While the Metrodome was mostly a house of horrors for the Packers in the Brett Favre era, the same has not been true for the McCarthy-Rodgers era.  The Packers are 8-1-1 in their last 10, and 3-1 in the last four games at the Metrodome.  Playing outdoors in Minnesota, if anything, has to be a plus for the Packers.  The Vikings' temporary stadium only holds 52,000, and of course with an open end, and an open roof, it has to be easier on the ears than the Humptydome.  Weather shouldn't really be a factor either way, as the high will be near 40 degrees, unless it is raining.

The Vikings are playing better recently than they were earlier in the year, and Teddy Bridgewater looks like he will be a definite upgrade for the Vikings at quarterback.  All of which sets this game up as a potential "trap" game.  The Packers have had many of these games over the years.  The would-be perfect season in 2011 was spoiled by the trap game against Kansas City.  The Chiefs had their own trap game Thursday night against the previously winless Raiders.  Still, I just can't see the Vikings keeping up with the Packers on Sunday, and I expect a comfortable win.  You could argue that the Packers are "peaking" too early this season, but I don't think that it will make any difference on Sunday.  And, if the Lions lose in their visit to New England on Sunday, the Packers will find themselves in sole possession of first place in the division come Sunday evening.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How Sweet It Is!

Jarret Boykin, blocking the punt before it is kicked
"How Sweet It Is!"  This was a catch-phrase made  popular by entertainer Jackie Gleason, in the various iterations of his TV shows in the 1950's and 1960's.  It was also the first thing my mother-in-law, Carole Casper, said about Sunday night's Packers-Bears game, which the Packers won, 55-14.  And sweet it was.

At times over the years, I have almost succumbed to the delusion that the Packers-Bears rivalry is not such a big deal as it used to be.  After all, the Packers have dominated the Bears for more than 20 years now, starting with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, and continuing under Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers.  Favre's record against the Bears was 22-10, and I am almost surprised that his winning percentage wasn't higher.  I think a different figure was presented on the Sunday night broadcast, but I counted the games myself, and Rodgers' record is 12-3, including the NFC Championship game in 2010.  So the aggregate record is now 34-13 over 23 seasons.

But saying that the rivalry is no longer a big deal is lunacy.  The Packers-Bears rivalry has everything going for it.  The David and Goliath aspect - the smallest town franchise in major sports against one of the great American big cities.  The fact that the teams are only a couple of hundred miles away from each other.  The fact that they are in the same division and play each other twice a year.  The sneering "Cheesehead" slur by Bears fans that was turned into a thriving business by Foamation.  Let's not forget that it is the oldest rivalry in the NFL, and that the Packers and Bears are numbers 1 and 2 in total NFL Championships (the Packers are number 1, of course).  I can well remember the years when a Packers losing season could be salvaged by beating the Bears at least once.  And I think the shoe is now on the other foot.

Most Packers fans under their mid-50's have never witnessed a more lopsided win over the Bears than the Packers achieved Sunday night.  But I am older than that, and in fact my dad took me to my very first Packers game in 1962, when the Packers beat the Bears 49-0 at Lambeau Field.  Somewhere, buried deep in a box of stuff, I even have a black and white snapshot I took in the stands that day.  So I have a little history with the Packers and the Bears, including having lived in the Chicago area for a couple of years, and having a daughter who lives there now.

If you think the rivalry is not that important, then consider that Lovie Smith was brought to Chicago with the explicit, number one goal, of beating the Packers.  I didn't remember that the idea of trading for Jay Cutler was also about beating the Packers, but the announcers mentioned that Sunday night.  Irony alert: his record is now 1-11 against the Packers.  And wasn't Marc Trestman, the "boy genius," also brought in to upgrade the offense, in order to beat the Packers?

Still not convinced?  How about the fact that one Chicago Tribune columnist thinks that Marc Trestman should have been fired at halftime?  Or what about the Packer fan who ordered a customized Packers jersey, number 6, Cutler?

So yes, upon further review, Sunday night's destruction of the Bears was a big deal.  I am sure I am missing some of the records that were set or tied, but they included: Rodgers set an NFL record by throwing his 16th TD pass of 70 yards or more; Rodgers had his first career game with 4 TD passes in the first half; Rodgers tied Daryle Lamonica's record by throwing 6 TD passes in a half; Rodgers became the first player to throw 10 TD passes and no interceptions against a single team in a single season; the Packers set a team record for points scored against the Bears; the Packers set the record for most points scored against the Bears in one half; the 42 point halftime lead was the second largest halftime lead in history; and (this one is my favorite) the Bears became the first team to allow 50+ points in successive games since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons.

The most interesting development in the Bears game was the Packers having moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker for the majority of his snaps.  Everybody knows that the Packers' defense has had a problem with the running game all season long.  Prior to Sunday's game, the Packers had given up an average of 153 rushing yards per game, and never gave up less than 108 rushing yards.  By lining up Matthews inside, everything changed, and the Packers gave up only 55 rushing yards to the Bears.  That just cannot be a coincidence, although there are two factors in the Bears game that may not apply in any other game: the element of surprise, and the fact that the Packers got up so far so fast, thus taking the Bears out of their normal mix of running and passing plays.

But the Packers have no time to rest on their laurels.  This Sunday, the high-flying Eagles come to town, ready to match their no-huddle offense against that of the Packers.  A few weeks ago, I would have seen this game as a loss for the Packers.  Then, after QB Nick Foles was knocked out with a collarbone injury, I thought the Packers had a much better chance.  But then when I watched the Eagles lay waste to the Panthers on Monday night behind backup Mark Sanchez, I started to be concerned again.

But after re-watching both the Packers game and the Eagles game, I am cautiously optimistic about the Packers' chances.  While the Eagles ran up the score to 31-7 in the first half, they did this with the benefit of 4 turnovers by the Panthers, an additional turnover on downs, and 5 sacks against the hobbled Cam Newton.  I don't expect the Packers to be similarly generous to the Eagles, and I also have trouble believing that Mark Sanchez, even with the high-powered Eagles offense, will be able to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  I would guess that the game will be high-scoring, but that the Packers will come out on top.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pivotal Bears-Packers Game

Picture by NBC Sports
Bears-Packers Week is always special for me.  It reminds me of the very first Packers game I ever attended, against the Bears, in 1962 (the Packers won, 49-0).  I think of the intensity of the rivalry, and the iconic players and coaches who participated in it (Nitschke, Butkus, Ditka, Gregg, Halas, Lombardi, Payton and others too numerous to mention).  I think of the memorable games - the Monsoon Bowl on a Halloween night, the game after Walter Payton's death, decided on a blocked field goal, the NFC Championship game after the 2010 season, and, of course, the Instant Replay Game.

Twenty-five years ago this week, during what I call the "Majic Man Season," we were in the stands for the Instant Replay game.  Our seats were (at the time) in the end zone, the end zone on the other side of the field from the decisive play.  The Packers trailed, 13-7, in the final minutes of the game, until on 4th and goal from the 14 yard line, Don Majkowski threw what looked like the game-winning touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe.  Except there was a flag - illegal forward pass - Don Majkowski was over the line of scrimmage when he released the ball.  (The rule has since been changed, but at that time only the point where the ball was released mattered.)  Majkowski's body could have been over the line, but if the ball left his hand behind the line, the pass was a good one.  The replay official called for a review, which lasted forever.  There were no massive, crystal-clear replay boards in the stadium at the time.  But we had a portable TV with us, and we watched it over and over on the tiny screen.  Even the Bears fan next to us concluded that it was a touchdown, and after a four minute review, so did the replay official.  The Packers went 10-6 that year, and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, but it was still a pivotal and important game for the Packers and their fans.

This week's game is pivotal, too, for essentially the opposite reason.  If the Packers win this game, they will be 6-3 and in reasonable good shape, while the Bears will be 3-6, and even more in disarray than they are already.  If the Bears win, suddenly they will be back closer to the top in the division at 4-5, just a game behind the Packers at 5-4.  Under this scenario, maybe the Lions will end up running away with the division (or not, time will tell).  But in either case, this is an important game.

Both the Packers and the Bears had a bye last week, so they will be well rested.  The Packers should have both Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields back, and apparently Rodgers is just fine with his hamstring injury, but both T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton are questionable.

What can we learn from the Packers' loss to the Saints two weeks ago (44-23) and from the Bears' loss to the Patriots the same day (51-23)?  The Packers were in the Saints game, and in fact poised to take the lead in the third quarter, when disaster struck as Rodgers tweaked his hamstring.  His reduced mobility led to an uncharacteristic interception on that same drive, and another one later in the game.  While the Packers did score one more touchdown in the game, Rodgers was not himself for the rest of the game, and that, combined with the Packers' inability to stop the run or the pass against the Saints, turned the game into a blowout.  This week, the return of Burnett and Shields should help on defense, but I wonder how much the possible loss of starting guards Lang and Sitton will hurt the Packers by allowing more pressure on Rodgers and less effectiveness in the running game.  In the Saints game, the Packers made great use of Eddie Lacy in the passing game (8 catches for 123 yards), and it would be nice to see Rodgers get enough protection to allow that trend to continue.

The Bears were blown out by an even greater margin by Tom Brady and the Patriots two weeks ago.  That game was never close, despite decent efforts by Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Martellus Bennett.  But while the Bears had some success on offense, their defense was completely outmatched by the Patriots' offense.  The Bears had some injuries on defense, and they are healthier now, but it is no accident that the Bears have given up more points than anyone in the division.  Their defense just isn't as good as we traditionally expect of the Bears.  The Packers beat the Bears handily on the road 6 weeks ago, and I expect them to do the same Sunday night at home.

To help get you ready for the game, here are a few interesting/amusing things to watch and read.  More coverage of the Instant Replay Game.  A video of the decisive play in that game.  And a collection of Jay Cutler interceptions thrown to the Packers.  Go Pack Go!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Geaux Pack Geaux!

I got kind of busy and did not post anything last week,  So it is time now to reflect on how the Packers, who were once a very disappointing 1-2, are now 5-2 and in relatively good shape.  "If the playoffs started today - the Packers would be the number 6 seed."  True, but awfully premature at this stage.  The Bears and Vikings seem well on their respective ways to self-destruction.  If only somebody could drop a couple of extra losses on the Lions, the Packers might really be primed for a trip to the playoffs.  Maybe the Lions, who are playing at 6:30 am Sunday morning (California time) can give us a good, early start to the weekend.

But first, a word or two about the Dolphins and Panthers games.  The Dolphins game started out with a very crisp Packers drive for a touchdown.  It looked like it might be an easy victory despite the heat and humidity.  But of course that is not what happened.  The Packers' defense played very well, with interceptions by Hayward and Shields, but the Packers' offense sputtered for the rest of the first half, which ended with the Packers only up by the score of 10-3.  I hate 7 point halftime leads, because one big play and the game is tied.  Sure enough, in the second half, the Dolphins scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives, with the Packers' defense looking really gassed on the second and third drives.  This put the Dolphins up, 24-17, in the fourth quarter.

Watching the game a second time, it is amazing how many plays and decisions that turned out to be game-saving were made.  Crosby's TD-saving tackle on a kickoff return before the Dolphins' first possession of the game.  The Packers' defense stopping Miami cold on 4th and goal from the 1 yard line.  With 4:13 left in the game, and with the Packers having 4th and 6 from the Dolphins' 12 yard line, McCarthy took the field goal and counted on the defense to get the ball back.  That looked like the wrong call to me at the time, given how tired the Packers' defense looked in the second half, but it worked out and the Packers' got the ball back with 2:04 left.  That final drive had plenty of drama.  Micah Hyde started it with a 17 yard return to the 40 yard line.  Then Starks gained 12 yards on the only play the Packers could really afford to try a running play (because of the 2 minute warning).  Then TJ Lang fell on the ball after it was stripped from Rodgers' hands, leaving the Packers with a 4th and 10, which they converted on a pass to Nelson.  And then, of course, with Dan Marino in the stadium, Rodgers pulled off the famous fake-spike pass to Davante Adams.  The rookie played like a seasoned veteran on that play, not only figuring out or realizing what Rodgers was up to, but making an excellent move to get more yards, and then ensuring that he would get out of bounds to stop the clock.  It wasn't just that play, either, as Adams played well for the entire game.  Finally, the game-winning TD to Quarless.

If any one of those plays and decisions had gone the other way, the Dolphins would have won the game.  Indeed, The Dolphins game was the sort of game that the Packers would have lost most of the time in recent history.  The elements were against them, and after giving up the lead, it would have been easy for exhausted players to accept the defeat and fold.  Hey, you can't win them all, after all.  But instead, they got a stop on defense when they needed it most, and they pulled off a highly improbable touchdown drive to win the game.  That win counts for a lot in my book.

The Panthers game was completely different - a dominant performance on both sides of the ball,  The Packers scored 21 points in the first 13 minutes of the game, and did not allow a single first down to the Panthers in that time.  It was one of those games where both starting quarterbacks sat out significant chunks of the fourth quarter, the Packers because the game was well in hand, and the Panthers because there was no hope and no reason to risk injury to Cam Newton.

With one more game before the bye week, it would be a huge advantage to come out of the Super Dome with another win, a 6-2 record, a 5 game winning streak, and no worse than a tie for the lead in the NFC North.  On paper, you would think that the Packers should win this game.  They are definitely on a bit of a hot streak, while the Saints are a disappointing 2-4.  Prior to the season, I counted this game as a loss for the Packers, but that was at a point when I assumed the Saints would be playing better than they have been.  But the Saints are a good team, better than their record, they have won 13 home night games in a row, they have won both of their home games this season, and they are pretty desperate for a win to stay in contention.  Beyond that, 3 of their 4 losses have been close (3 points or less).  Only the Cowboys blew them out, 38-17.  For all those reasons, I have to predict a Packers' loss tomorrow night.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Refreshed Packers Head for Stormy Weather

Photo by Tom Lynn, Associated Press
Last week's Minnesota at Green Bay Thursday night game was just what the Packers needed.  In beating the Vikings, 42-10, they not only won their second game in a row, they moved (after Sunday's games) into a first place tie in the NFC North, they played their second excellent offensive game in a row, and they played their best defensive game of the year so far.  This laugher of a game, which was over by halftime, then gave them a "mini-bye week" of 10 days to get ready for their next game, at Miami on Sunday.

One interesting stat from the NFL Network pre-game show before the Packers-Vikings game really struck me.  Going into the week 4 games, there were nine teams whose record at the time was above .500 (actually the number was 10, including the Seahawks, but since the Packers have already played them, I think they were excluded by whoever created the stat).  Of those nine teams, the Packers only play one more (the Eagles, at home, in week 11).  So while the Packers got off to their maddeningly traditional slow start this year, there is lots of room to win games as the year goes on.

Linebacker Julius Peppers had a record-setting night.  He picked off a tipped pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown.  This made him the first player in NFL history to have both 100 sacks and 10 interceptions.  The most impressive part of the return was his instinct to cut almost all the way across the field, in order to have a cleaner path toward the end zone, and to pick up a pack of blockers.  He also outraced a pretty fast Minnesota running back, Jerick McKinnon, on his way to the end zone.  He had to be reminded about the Lambeau Leap in the excitement of the moment, and his leap, shown in the picture, was less than impressive.  From my observation, he needed more of a running start, and according to Jordy Nelson, he also picked the highest part of the wall.  After the game, he promised the laughing NFL Network crew that he will do a better job next time.  May that next opportunity come soon!

I don't quite know what to make of the Miami Dolphins, the Packers' next opponent.  I watched most of their last game, against the 0-4 Oakland Raiders.  They beat the Raiders soundly, but then again, it was the Raiders.  They also beat the Patriots in Week 1, which is more impressive in my mind, but it also was before the Patriots started to get their act together.

The weather on Sunday should be hot and humid, with a good chance of thundershowers, which could be a challenge for players used to practicing and playing in the fall climate in Green Bay.  The game, as of the time I am writing this, is not even sold out, which is usually a pretty good indication that there will be lots of Packers fans in the stands, and thus not much of a homefield advantage, other than the weather.

Purely based on offensive and defensive stats, you could argue that the Dolphins are a better team than the Packers in several categories, including rushing defense, overall defense, and rushing offense.I am not going to say that the Dolphins will be a pushover for the Packers.  But despite these stats, I think the Packers will win the game, and probably win it handily.  The Packers have a top flight quarterback and receivers, and our top flight running back might be coming around, finally, as well.  The Dolphins have some pretty good running backs, but I am not that impressed by their quarterback or receivers.  On defense, for better or for worse, the Packers have been a "bend but don't break" defense this year so far, so the poor stats (especially in rush defense) overstate how bad the defense has played.  Looking over the Dolphins' defensive players, I just don't see a lot of playmakers; in fact, I only recognize a few names of the Dolphins' starters.  Whereas, in the case of the Packers, there are quite a few players capable of making game-changing defensive plays.  The game is being shown to a surprisingly large part of the country, probably because of the Packers' improved performance over the last couple of weeks.  I can't wait for game time!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Back on Track - Maybe

Photo by Jim Matthews, Green Bay Press-Gazette
The Packers beat the Bears on Sunday 38-17, to get their 700th victory, all-time.  The only other team with 700 victories?  The Chicago Bears.  Just one more reason this rivalry is such a great one.  The two teams made a little more history on Sunday, by having only the second regular season game in history to be played without a single punt.  Every Packers drive ended in a score, except for the blocked field goal in the fourth quarter.  Every Bears drive ended in a score, an end of half, an interception, or a turnover on downs.

Poor Jay Cutler.  I don't like the guy - although I'm sure that he is a nice guy in person, and he is a pretty good quarterback.  I still remember that shootout he had with Brett Favre in 2007, when Cutler was still with the Broncos.  At the time, he seemed like a rising young star of a quarterback.  But his sour-puss disposition on the sidelines, ever since he has been with the Bears, and the mere fact that he is the quarterback of our historical rival, has been enough to get me to dislike him.

Having said all that, I do think that he gets a disproportionate share of the blame whenever the Bears lose.  I can't let him off the hook when he throws two interceptions and another one that could have been an interception.  The first one was tipped by Tramon Williams and intercepted by Clay Matthews.  But the main thing is that, in addition to throwing the ball into way too much traffic on the play, he threw it to a spot where Williams had a better opportunity to catch the ball than the receiver.  The second one was the result of mis-communication between Cutler and Brandon Marshall.  Marshall cut upfield, when Cutler evidently expected him to break back toward the line of scrimmage.

Normally, I would have no way of knowing who was at fault in a mistake like that.  Except that Coach Trestman went out of his way to twice mention that it was Marshall's error, at his press conference.  (Cutler himself had been more gallant, just indicating that it was a mis-communication between the two players.)  This, to me, is an interesting choice by Trestman.  I can't read it any way other than that he said this in order to protect Cutler from criticism on the play.  So he perceives Cutler's ego to be so fragile that it is preferable to put the blame squarely on the player who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  I am not sure that was a wise choice.  At this point, if Cutler is not tough enough to take criticism from the fans and the media, there is not much hope for him.

So are the Packers back on track?  I can't give a stronger answer than "maybe."  The offense played to perfection for the entire game - really the first complete performance by the offense all year.  So unlike other formerly excellent teams (I am thinking of the Patriots, given Monday night's game) where the wheels have really come off the offense, at least we now know that the Packers can put a complete offensive game together.  But the defense seems poised to give us fits all season.  The box score is deceptive.  The Packers only gave up 17 points, but better clock management would likely have put the Bears ahead at halftime, 24-21.  And if the Bears had led early in the second half, who knows if Cutler would have started throwing it up for grabs?  In fact, if the Bears had led in the second half, and if they had decided to just run the ball up the middle on most plays, with occasional passes mixed in to keep the Packers honest, they could easily have won the game.  So I have a high level of concern for the defense.  The bright spots are that they have started to generate turnovers, and they do seem to be improving somewhat as the year goes on.  But watching them get gashed by the run, play after play, is not a pretty sight.

The Vikings are next up for the Packers, at Lambeau Field on Thursday night.  The good thing about the Packers' 2-2 record is that they have only had one home game so far.  If you win all your home games and half the away games, you end up at 12-4.  The Packers are 1-0 at home and 1-2 on the road, so they are not far off the pace for a good season, if they can continue winning, especially against division rivals.  A home game on a short week, against the Vikings, is nothing like a sure win, even in more normal times.  And of course there are a couple of wild cards in the mix - the emergence of a talented but inexperienced young quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.  Bridgewater was injured on Sunday, and it is not at all a sure thing that he will play on Thursday.  The other wild card is the Vikings' running game.  Frequent nemesis Adrian Peterson is suspended, but on Sunday, the Vikings had a healthy running game without him, for the first time since Peterson's suspension.

The Packers have got to do something about their run defense, and they have to do it in a hurry.  They are currently ranked last in the league in this category.  I do think that they will win Thursday night.  But if Sunday's game against the Bears provides any lesson, it is how important it will be for the offense to build up a lead, to take the Vikings out of their running game.