Sunday, December 29, 2013

Packers win the North in a rough, gritty contest with the Bears - how much farther can they go?

The final Packer scoring drive of the game felt entirely desperate. There didn’t seem to be a coherent plan, just take whatever the Bear defense gave them. But, upon further review, I think I saw the only possible plan that would result in a win: keep the Packer defense on the bench no matter what.

The fact that this strategy proved successful is a testament to the intellect of the Packer offensive brain trust...and the truly wretchedness of the Packer defensive brain trust.

All last week I was saying, to whomever I could get to listen, that the outcome of this game was not going to hinge upon Lacy, Cobb or even Aaron Rodgers. It would be the ability of the Packer defense to rise above their mediocrity. How’d they do? 
Watching the Bears’ scoring drives was extremely disheartening. No pass rush on pass plays, no coverage on pass plays, no contain on running plays. Even the normally dense Troy Aikman noticed the fact that Forte was making his living by simply running around the Packer defenders. To sit there and watch defensive linemen get rolled up and knocked down, linebackers look like they weighed 800 pounds wave at nothing and defensive backs fall all over themselves made me feel like I was watching an NFL offense versus a grade school defense.

The pass defense was similarly terrible. The big Bear receivers had no problem making Shields and Williams look foolish and our safeties, well, it hurts my head to think about what a crappy game Burnett and Jennings had. 

I do have to give credit where credit is due: At the end, with the result still in doubt, the Packer secondary stepped up, provided the final defensive plays (defended passes! An interception!) to seal the victory. Thinking back to the magical championship 2010 season, you could almost count on the Packer defenders to end games by picking off desperate QB’s. They did it today and it was a wonderful, wonderful thing to see. 

The Packer offense, led by the resurrected Aaron Rodgers, was a puzzlement. Call it rust or call it injuries or call it just another Sunday but the Packer offense looked alternatively world-beating and weak. Both Eddie Lacy and James Starks ripped off several fantastic runs but on many occasions they were completely stoned - by the WORST run defense in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers showed us all his skills and decision making are undiminished and yet he had two picks and a fumble in the first half. If they had been operating at full power, we probably should have witnessed a 28-0 Packer first half.

I know I’m being quite negative here but I can’t help but reflect on how this team looked before Aaron Rodgers was injured and how they look now. I look at the 2010 season when the Packers got hot late and went on a roll and won it all. This team feels like they’ve stumbled and fallen and they barely were able to crawl across the finish line.

But they did finish, didn’t they? They finished on top, too. The wretched NFC North was going to be won by someone and who amongst us would turn that down, no matter how it happened. During that final, tense drive, they could have failed at any moment. They could have put their defense back on the field (result = Packer loss),  they could have fumbled or thrown a pick (result = Packer loss), they could have simply failed to move the ball ((result = Packer loss). When Aaron Rodgers scrambled away from the pressure and spotted Randall Cobb running free behind the Bear secondary, I could feel the entire Packer Nation rise up as one. As Cobb waited for the ball to come down, I could feel the collective inhalation. When he caught the ball and dove into the end zone, the cheer that went up must have been heard around the world. I myself almost slung my cell phone across the room (I can’t watch a Packer game without texting after every play with Brother Russ) in just pure joy.

Why? I don’t know. The Packers have been a severely troubled team this year. The loss of Cobb, Finely, Rodgers, Jolly, Matthews (etc., etc., etc, ad nauseum) created a feeling of “well, maybe this just isn’t our year”. The QB carousel, with uneven results, lent an air of “can this season just be over?” To fight through all of that, to beat all the odds and actually make the post-season, well, it feels sweet. Very sweet.

So, having taken care of Da Bears, we move on. With their last-second victory over the Cards, the San Francisco Forty-Niners punched their Wild Card ticket for a trip to Lambeau Field next weekend. I can sense some of you out there, upon hearing that match-up, give a little sigh and maybe a small “Oh, no. Not them again.”

I’ll say this here and I’ll say it loud - I am THRILLED we get to host the Niners in the playoffs! Why? Simple - look at any (ANY) of the potential opponents in the post season and you see in each one of them a clearly superior football team. Can your mind imagine what the aerial attacks of Carolina or New Orleans will do to our secondary? What about the fast-break offense of the Eagles? Picture the Seattle defense, at their stadium, facing our boys on offense. So why do I want the Niners, a team that has beaten the Packers three times in their last three meetings, including an epic beating in the playoffs last year? Redemption, pure and simple. If we’re going to get into the championship tournament against a roster of teams that can and should beat us, why not go out big? Nothing at all to lose, you want to play the team that each and every pundit and talking head will be picking to utterly destroy you at home. Why not play for that shot at redemption, that moment when you have the opportunity to prove the world wrong and do it against the team that made you look like pre-schoolers on tricycles, like the game of professional football had passed you by? No, I WANT the Niners. I want them at Lambeau and I want them in the snow. Win or lose, I want the opportunity to prove my team is still relevant and can still beat our newest nemesis.

There’s nothing I like more than NFL football unless it’s playoff NFL football. And my team, my wounded, flawed team, has made it into the playoffs and I will love every freakin’ minute of it, however long it lasts.

So come on, Niners. Let’s go.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Packers weekly comeback falls short in sloppy, mistake-filled game

As I’m writing this, the Bears are busy getting completely smoked by the Eagles, keeping hope alive in Titletown.

That’s right, loyal readers, even after the Packers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they still have a shot at winning the NFC North and moving on to the post-season.  That seems like a silly statement to make, given the outrageous fortune suffered over the course of last seven weeks.

Think back, way back, to the last game Aaron Rodgers played in. The Packers were 5-2, basking in the glory of a running game growing in power and effectiveness every game. Rodgers was once again running a passing offense that might have led to his best season ever. The defense was stout against the run, not-awful against the pass. New, young players were rising up. Then, in the midst of what should have been a TD drive against the Bears, a small bone cracked and a team and a season went completely off the rails. If you look at that remaining schedule and how those teams were playing, the Packers had a real shot at running the table, finishing 14-2 and sliding into the playoffs, primed for another run at the Lombardi Trophy. I’m not saying this as a Packer fan or a homer - I truly think with Rodgers under center it would have come to pass.

Alas, Rodgers did go out, the back-up QB’s were found lacking, the defense unraveled and the month of November was lost before Matt Flynn could come in and provide some hope.

The last two games, both victories  by the slimmest of margins, followed similar scripts: fall behind by playing awful on both sides of the ball and then turn things around in the second half to pull out the miracle. Down by ten in the second half, Flynn and his compatriots were able to get things back to even, thanks partially due to some questionable calls by the ref’s. Then the wheels totally fell off. I suppose if you live on the edge and count on the miracle finish every week, you’re eventually going to get burned. 

Despite several opportunities to pull out the win, sloppy penalties would ultimately close the door. The Packers were flagged nine times for 90 yards, the last one a false start on Don Barclay with the ball on the Pittsburgh 1-yard line with time running out. A ten-second run off was also assessed and the Packers were left with one rushed play, an incompletion in the end zone, and the game was over.

Matt Flynn, so sharp in the second halves of the Atlanta and Dallas victories, was erratic, putting many passes out of reach for his receivers. Between some iffy play-calling by his head coach and some questionable decisions, Flynn did not have a stellar afternoon.

Injuries also played a part in the defeat. Earlier this week Johnny Jolly was placed on the IR with a neck injury and Mike Neal then went out during the game. Clay Matthews got the one and only sack on Ben Roethlisberger and re-injured his thumb in doing it. Eddie Lacy, after setting the team record for both rushing yards and touchdowns by a rookie, limped off the field with another ding to his oft-injured ankle. The cascade of injuries through the entire season has weighed heavily on this team and it’s showing more and more every week.

One effect of so many injuries is to disrupt our special teams. By my count, special teams failures led directly to 17 of Pittsburgh’s 38 points. Eliminate those mistakes and you are probably looking at an easy Packer win. NOT a fun day for the Packer faithful in the stands at Mighty Lambeau.

So the season will come down to the game against the Bears next week. You can’t ask for a better scenario, can you? Final game of the year, division foe, winner goes on to the playoffs, loser goes home and wonders what-if. The drumbeat for Aaron Rodgers to play has already started up and will get louder and louder with every passing minute. I can only hope he’ll be ready but I’m not optimistic: The MMQB Research Center reported a tweet (citing “inside sources”) stating that Rodgers is not even close, that the risk of a catastrophic failure of his healing collarbone is real and tangible. This puts Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy in a very precarious position - clear Rodgers and you risk not only the playoffs this year but the continued fortunes of the team next year. Fail to clear him and get beat next week and face the combined wrath of thousands of fans second-guessing you.  

I do not envy their task.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

After a historically bad first half, the Packers engineer a historically great comeback

Make no mistake: the Green Bay Packers were toast. They were beaten. Stick a fork in them - they were done. After embarrassing themselves for the first thirty minutes and clawing back to within 5 in the 4th quarter, the Packers would have been totally justified in laying down on the turf of their latest Super Bowl triumph and just accepting their fate.

There they were, down by five, having almost (almost!) revived themselves from a historically awful first half. They had given up the most first-half yards ever in Cowboy history that reaches back into the Packer decade of the  1960’s. They had managed only a measly field goal against the worst defense (no matter how you measure it) in the entire NFL. But something happened at halftime, just as it did last week. On the first play from scrimmage, Eddie Lacy ran for sixty yards and three plays later Flynn hit Jordy Nelson for the TD and the comeback was on!

But the comeback would be delayed! Tramon Williams made a diving interception that the refs found to be not entirely pure and gave the ball back to the home team. On the next play, the ‘Boys right tackle would flinch and draw Neil offsides and the Packer penalty (what???) would give Dallas a first down and the ensuing drive (did some money pass from Jerry Jones’ coffers to the ref’s accounts?) would put “America’s Team” up and in position for a victory.

Sigh. The Packers had been so awful in the first half! Dom Capers’ defense was unable to stop the run, unable to cover anybody and unable to get any pressure on Romo. If the Cowboys had been a better team or had their coaches ben able to call a coherent game, they would have been up by at least 35 at the half and maybe more. Matt Flynn was doing a masterful job playing himself out of a guaranteed gig backing up Aaron Rodgers for the 2014 season. Think about what the Bears (an fairly mediocre team) had done to the Cowboys last week and you had to love the Packers chances to rack up big yards in both the running and passing games, but as has been the norm for the last six weeks, the Packer offensive line couldn’t muster enough blocking for either it’s running back or its quarterback.

Then a funny thing happened: The Packer offense started playing like a professional football team should. The Packer defense, dismayed and dishonored by the atrocious referee calls, shook it off and produced yet another interception, this time one above reproach (and beyond Jerry Jones’ ability to buy off). 

When the Packers took over with 2:46 to play, you could almost feel the inevitability of the ensuing score. A combination of Flynn passing and Lacy running, culminating in the rookie running back putting the Packers up for good felt like sweet, sweet redemption. What had started as potentially one of the most embarrassing losses in Packer history ended up as one of the greatest comebacks in Packer history. As awful as the first half had been, the second half looked suspiciously like a football game, something that has been conspicuously absent from the Packer portfolio since October.

Make no mistake, this team is still flawed, maybe fatally so. Their defense can look worse than third graders one minute, then stiffen and force punts or field goals. Clay Matthews, the supposedly best defensive player on this team, was almost completely absent (he had two assists and a half-sack) yet somehow the defense was able to clamp down. The secondary, seemingly oblivious a football game was going on during the first half, came up with two picks in the second half (should have been three) to set up the winning TD and seal the victory. The offense, horribly inept in the first half, exploded for 34 points in the second. What. The. Hell?

Pending the Lion’s result on Monday night, the Packers will either be a half game behind the Bears or a half-game behind the Bears and Lions. The Browns, those lovable losers, couldn’t hold on to a second half lead and got waxed by Chicago, a game that could have propelled the Packers to the North lead.

I’m still afraid of the horror I might witness if the Packers get into the playoffs but I’m totally intrigued by the prospect of the post-season itself. I can’t imagine the Packers will beat any playoff-worthy team, but just getting there would be a stunning achievement in itself. With the return of Aaron Rodgers looming, with the possible return of Randall Cobb, with the sudden resurgence of the will to win in Green Bay, I have to say I’m suddenly invested in the possibility of more Packer wins. A few weeks ago (the memory of the Debacle in Detroit will take a long time to fade) the Green Bay Packers looked incapable of winning another game in 2013. Now, they are feeling like they can pull off a win against anybody. I don’t think that’s true but remember: Belief is a powerful force.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Packers find it within themselves to muster a narrow victory in cold and snow Lambeau Field

Mrs. MMQB, upon being informed of the final result of the game (she quit watching at halftime) and the implications of the Detroit loss summed things up better than I ever could: “What a screwed up season!”

That’s right, Packer-backers, with the improbable victory recorded at frigid Lambeau Field and the failure of the Lions in the snow at Philly, Green Bay suddenly finds themselves only a half-game out of first place in the NFC North. Despite all the injuries, despite Aaron Rodgers being absent since October, despite the mid-season regression of the defense from top ten to bottom ten, your Green Bay Packers have a shot at the playoffs with only three games left in this season.

Do they deserve it? Are they a team that should really in contention for anything? Well, if you have paid any attention during the month of November, you’d have to say “no”. This is a severely dysfunctional football team with gaping deficiencies in just about every position except for maybe kicker and punter. And yet, here we are.

Truly, the only reason we are even mentioned in the post-season equation is due to the 5-2 record put up by Aaron Rodgers and that other Packer team, the one during the first half of the season that looked like it was going places. Fortunately, you can’t separate that team from the buffoons who took their places in week 7.

Full disclosure here: I was only able to watch the first half and small chunks of the second. I did get to watch the last three series and the eventual clinching interception (another one? Unheard of!) and the unusual sight of a Packer victory.

While watching the first half, I have to say I quickly lapsed into a “here we go again” mindset. Our team kept showing brief moments and flashes of their former selves but would quickly regress to that group that was handed their collective jock straps by Detroit on Thanksgiving. When Flynn was strip-sacked, it hurt. When that ricochet interception was returned for six, I became almost indifferent. How can a fan bring himself to care about a team that appears to have completely lost the will to win?

Make no mistake - the will of the players, their belief they can beat an opponent, is a major factor in football games. I’ve been watching the NFL since the 1960’s and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen inept, overmatched teams get the idea in their heads that they can win and darned if they don’t go ahead and do just that. Think back to the 2010 Super Bowl season. There was a point in that year, after they’d lost to the Patriots (with Rodgers on the bench after a concussion the week before) where this team had to question their worth. I think many Packer fans were doing the same. The team had been devastated by injuries all season long and their arrow was definitely pointing down. They had two games left and would need to win them both to have a shot. Something happened as they welcomed the Giants the following week: the Packers began to believe in themselves again. They destroyed New York and then went out and outplayed the Bears and the drive  for the championship was on. They were able to overcome a crisis in confidence to win it all.

I don’t bring this up to tell you I think this team is going to win the Super Bowl. I don’t even believe this team will get to the post-season. I bring this up to illustrate why the Packers won this game today. There wasn’t any one single moment that did it. They just kept working, kept pounding and did just enough, just enough, to win the game. The Falcons certainly didn’t look like a team with only three wins (the Packers of late have had a way of making poor opponents feel much better about themselves) and should have easily put this game out of reach after going up 21-10 at the half. Somehow, some way, the Packer defense found some untapped reserve of resolve and held the Falcons scoreless over the final half. Somehow, some way, the Packer offense found a hidden pocket of desire, just deep enough to squeak out two field goals and a touchdown to Quarless with 12 minutes left in the game. And I think that’s the answer - the Packers had to want it more. I’m sure they wanted to win all those other games but for some reason, that little bit of desire was just enough to carry the day today.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, the Packers can point to this game and say, “yes, we were down, we were beaten. After our worst game in ten years, we came out and could have just laid down on the cold, snowy turf and let it happen again. But we didn’t. We rose up. We didn’t play all that great, but we played well enough. It might mean exactly zero, but today, it was enough. We proved we can win a game without Aaron Rodgers.”

So now, with three games to play and the possibility of Rodgers’ eventual return, Mike McCarthy has a lot to think about. The offensive line is still leaking like a sieve. Do you trust this makeshift group to protect your franchise quarterback? If Rodgers takes the kind of pounding Flynn took today, would he survive it? If the Packers had lost today, that answer becomes a simple one - you sit Rodgers. Now, with the win and the Lion’s loss, the equation gets much more complicated. If this week’s bone scan clears him, Rodgers is going to play. He might be a little rusty, but his presence on the field is so important to this team that you just can’t keep him on the bench while still playing meaningful games.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Lions embarrass the Packers in every possible way in historic Thanksgiving ass-kicking

I am thankful for many, many things in my life. I have great co-workers, tremendous friends, a wonderful family. I live in place and time overflowing with great beer, great places to ride my bike and great entertainment opportunities. However on Thanksgiving, I was most thankful for Mrs. MMQB. Aside from the fact that she’s a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother and all-around great partner in life, I’m thankful for the fact that she ignores what I say.

Ever since the Packers schedule came out and I knew we had a Thanksgiving game against the Lions, I told her (in every forceful manner possible) that our Turkey Day meal needed to occur after the end of the game. 3-3:30 or so, due to the 11:30 AM kick-off. Such a simple thing, right? Well, as she often does, she ignored my simple request and planned our (wonderful) fest smack dab in the middle of the game. Having been married for 33 years, I know when to relax and accept the inevitable - you learn to pick your battles and I knew this was one I wasn’t going to win. So why am I so thankful she did what she did? I got to miss almost the entire second half of one of the most embarrassing losses in Packer history. For that, Mrs. MMQB, my love, I will be eternally grateful.

As soon as the after-dinner conversation wound down and the clean up began, of course I had the TV turned on, just missing the end. Having watched or listened to the first half and a bit of the third quarter, I was under no illusions as to the outcome - there was no way in hell that team I had seen was going to win a football game that day. As the FOX studio commentators discussed the game, it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t just another loss I had missed. Soon I saw the video evidence and was so despondent that I was unable to watch any more football the rest of the day, one of the true joys (for me) of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Being the sad and pathetic masochist I am, I just had to go online and check out all the stats and all the video, just to ensure that the gaping wound that was this game was open, raw and completely seasoned with salt. Not dinner table salt, I mean the big, rocky kind they spread on the roads when it snows. Yeah, that’s the ticket...GRIND it in there! You know which of the low-lights hurt the worst? The safety. Oh, that stung. Here you have a double-team on Suh, the Lions best (and worst) defensive lineman. He not only beats two supposedly professional offensive linemen, he swims through their feeble efforts like they’re not even there. He then swarms over Matt Flynn like he’s a grade-schooler and then, just as he is about to sling him forcefully to the turf, he lets up! Yes, that’s how bad the Detroit Lions beat our Packers on Thursday. It was so bad Ndamukong Suh, possibly the dirtiest player in the NFL, took pity on our quarterback. 

In the first quarter, the Packers were able to put up their entire pitiful scoring output of the day in the form of a weak drive that ended in an XL field goal by Mason Crosby and a strip sack by Perry resulting in a fumble recovery for a TD. That’s right, Cheesehead Nation, the great and powerful Packer offense, facing an entirely forgettable Lion secondary, could not generate any points or even more than one penetration into enemy territory to justify trotting the FG team back out. That’s not just bad, it’s awful.

I guess we need to be thankful that the Lions were so bad at ball security (2 interceptions, 2 fumbles, 7 points given up) on Thursday. Thankful it kept the Pack in the game? Please. The Pack was NEVER in that game. No, I’m thankful the Lions kept giving us the ball because if they hadn’t, they would have put up 70 points. Or more. I’m not sure we Packer fans could have survived that.

I know we are going to hear the drumbeat, over and over again, during the next 12 days, for the immediate dismissal of Dom Capers, Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. His troops were so inept at every phase of the game, it became almost comical. Do you think any of the Packer defensive backs had ever seen a slant pattern? Sure didn’t look like it to me. Do you think any emphasis was put on covering Calvin Johnson? You know that big guy nicknamed after a giant Transformer character? Didn’t seem like they thought it wise to cover him at all. Do you think after the awful tackling performances over the last month something might have been mentioned about squaring up, wrapping up and taking running backs down? You know, like kids have been taught since their first practice as grade-schoolers? Didn’t seem like the defense was even aware that tackling was allowed in the NFL. So I think Dom Capers certainly has to shoulder his share of the blame for that awful, awful game. But to all of you “experts” who will call for his heard, I say “shut the hell up.” This wasn’t about scheme or technique or about calls. It was completely, 100% about lack of execution by every man, up and down that defense. Will firing Dom Capers heal the injured? Will it keep Hawk from getting caught up in the wash of blockers? Will it help Matthews beat a triple team? Will hit magically transport Shields or Williams into a position where they are actually covering the receiver instead of chasing him or locking down an empty patch of turf? I’m not giving Dom a pass here (it may well be time for new blood), I’m just saying it takes all eleven guys on the field completely screwing up to absorb an ass-kicking of this proportion.

This was the game we had to have: beat the Lions and you still remain relevant in the NFL. So it was time for the Packers to step up and prove their mettle on a national stage, with every NFL fan in the world watching. Sadly, they played their worst game of the year, possibly their worst in the last decade. It proved they do not belong in the elite and will have to take a long, hard look in the collective mirror to figure out how to get back there.

One other thing we should all be thankful for: we should thank our lucky stars this truly bad Packer team is going to be sitting at home and watching games with the rest of us in January.  Sure, the return of Aaron Rodgers will improve the offense a great deal and I suppose it could magically heal the defense (as his injury seemed to magically degrade it) and the Packers could, in theory, win out and end up 9-6-1. But 9 wins won’t be good enough for a wild card in the NFC - you’d have to win the North to get in. The Lions and/or Bears could go into an absolute tailspin and the unlikely could happen. But imagine if a so-so team like the Lions (and the Vikings, Giants, Eagles and Bears) can dominate and embarrass this team, what kind of beat-down one of the truly elite teams would administer. No, Rodgers can’t fix the offensive line, one of the absolute strengths of the team over the first half of the season and now one of the absolute weaknesses. Rodgers can’t help our terrible secondary cover opposing receivers and he can’t tackle for the defense either. If I were Mike McCarthy, I would seriously be considering putting Rodgers on the IR and calling it a year, taking whatever humiliation the last month of the season dishes out. It couldn’t possibly be any worse that what they got on Thanksgiving Day.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Packers fall way behind, replace their QB, claw back in, get ahead, end up with a resounding tie

The saying goes that a tie is like kissing your sister. If that is so, the tie managed by the Packers was like full-on tongue with your sister.

Don’t get me wrong - I think the fact that Green Bay and Minnesota ended their 4-hour long contest with the scoreboard knotted up is a fantastic result. After driving his team downfield in the first quarter, Scott Tolzien capped off the drive with a twisting scramble for six that will make every highlight reel in the nation. And then he lost his mojo. After what seemed like several days of excruciatingly poor play, he was pulled in favor of Matt Flynn. I like Scott Tolzien. I think he has what it takes to play in the NFL. I believed he would play well today but I cannot fault Mike McCarthy for giving him the hook. Tolzien was not the reason the Packers had lost three games in a row but against the Vikings, it was obvious he was not going to be the reason we won one.

Matt Flynn, lately an NFL vagabond since his record-setting outing against the Lions two years ago, was signed by the Packers after Rodgers and Seneca Wallace went down and the move looks like sheer genius right now, although most Packer fans are more of the “what took you so freakin’ long???” opinion. Flynn came in and led the Packers to 16 points in the fourth quarter to get things back to even and gave his once-and-current team a shot at victory. He didn’t set the world on fire (21-for-36, 218 yards and a TD) but he did provide the spark that started the comeback.

Speaking of sparks, you’ve got to love (LOVE!) the fire in the belly of Eddie Lacy. He ended the day on the sideline with what might have been a minor injury but he chipped in 110 yards on 25 attempts and 1 TD. More importantly, many of those runs were pounding, slamming, tumbling variety, runs that keep drives alive. If our early quarterback play had been up to snuff, Lacy’s running would have demoralized and destroyed the Queens defense, likely controlling the game all by himself.

As powerful as Lacy’s running was, he was out-shone by Adrian Peterson, who re-imposed his dominance over the Packer defense again. Peterson ran for 136 yards and a score (kind of a ho-hum day for him playing the Packers) but I’m thinking maybe it wasn’t so much about the running of Peterson as it was about the total domination by the Vikes O-line over the Packer defense. When AP needed a breather after gashing the Pack, Toby Gerhardt (8 rushes for an astounding 91 yards!) came in and made our front seven look foolish. Our inability to stop the run is directly tied to the fact that Johnny Jolly was out and it has become an all too familiar refrain during our Rodgers-less interlude.

In the passing game, our severely depleted secondary continued to underperform. Christian Ponder, one of the least capable quarterbacks in the NFL, passed for 233 yards and 1 TD. It’s often painful to watch him play but today he looked like he was much improved. Of course, with the Packers conceding just about any throw he wanted to make (love the see the Packers “passes defended” stats - probably all zeroes) it wasn’t too hard. It’s always puzzling to me while watching the Packer games how our receivers are always tightly covered and have to fight and make outstanding plays on every pass and somehow our opponents always seem to have at least one guy wide open on every pass.

Did everybody miss Clay Matthews? I know I did. In his third game back after breaking his thumb, Clay Matthews finally started to play like...well, Clay Matthews. He had two sacks, three tackles and one assist but he was the main reason his fellow defenders recorded four more. Without this pressure, I think the score might have gotten out of hand and completely out of reach. It was heartening to have him back and performing at such a high level and it gave me some hope that there is the slightest glimmer of hope for this defense. Sure, they can’t stop the run and can’t cover on the pass but if they can pressure QB’s into making mistakes, maybe they can make some big plays. And no, I don’t mean interceptions - our defense seems to be allergic to them and I wouldn’t want to provoke some sort of rash. 

Now the big question of the week: who will be the Packer’s quarterback on Thanksgiving day?That’s a question that really hasn’t been relevant since 1992 but it’s one that is uppermost in Cheesehead Nation quite often of late. Will Aaron Rodgers be ready to play? Is Scott Tolzien still the starter? Will Mike McCarthy view the game film and decide Flynn is The Man? Personally, if Rodgers isn’t ready to go, he has to name Flynn the starter and do it quickly - it’s a short week and he’ll need every snap in practice to be ready.

The game in Detroit on Thursday suddenly becomes HUGE. The Packers could not take advantage of the losses by the Lions and Bears but the tie leaves them only a half-game behind both teams. Despite the absence of Aaron Rodgers and the painful three-game losing streak, the tie muddies the playoff waters and muddy water works to our advantage. Look at the standings and you have to conclude that the only way the Pack can get into the post-season is to win the North. Too many good teams surging right now so the Wild Card will not be an option. The Packers have already beaten the Lions once and won and tied over the Vikes. IF we can somehow pull out the win over the Lions on Turkey Day, our path to the playoffs will be in our own hands. If we cannot pull off the win, we won’t be mathematically eliminated but for all practical purposes, we’ll be done. 

The Minnesota Vikings posses the worst (as in #32) defense in the NFL and one of the worst offenses and it was all the Packers could do to scratch out a tie. Something has to change.

So, if Dom Capers has an ounce of coaching smarts left in him, he needs to find a way to cover wide receivers with a bunch of third-teamers because Megatron is coming. He needs to figure out how to get his team to shed blockers and tackle because Reggie Bush is licking his chops. Mike McCarthy needs to figure out how to block pass rushers with Marshall “Turnstile” Newhouse anchoring his line. He also has to hope that Matt Flynn can catch lightning in a bottle for the second time against the Lions. Because this is a playoff game for the Packers, despite what the schedule says. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Packers fall to the Giants once again: Did they ever look like they had a chance?

There were the Packers, in the fourth quarter, on the road and facing the Giants. Their third QB of the year, Scott Tolzien, hasn’t played lights-out but well enough. Despite the all-too-familiar wretched play by the defensive secondary, things are shifting in their favor. They had just driven down and pounded Lacy into the end zone for their first touchdown of the game. Inspired by this, the defense rises up and sacks Eli Manning twice, forcing a punt. Only down by seven, the Green Bay Packers had the momentum, they had the Giants on their heels and they had a chance. Then Tolzien stepped back and threw the ball right into the very large paws of Jason Pierre Paul, who casually sauntered into the end zone for a pick six. There was still a lot of time left and there would be quite a lot of back-and-forth and even another interception but for all intents and purposes, the game was over. No need for the Giants to go on a 8+ minute drive to end the game. The Pack was done.

I have to say that aside from that brief period early in the 4th quarter, the Packers never looked like they had a chance in this game. They ran six rather anemic-looking plays in the first quarter. The defense, pretty stout for a few downs, would let NY wide receivers casually stroll around the field, allowing long catches at will. There really wasn’t any time where the Giants seemed threatened. With one of the worst offenses in the NFL through the fist six weeks, New York has been getting hot, playing against mediocre teams with sketchy QB situations. They ran their winning streak to four on Sunday, exposing the Packers as one of those marginal opponents. 

This team regressed today to their 2011 and 2012 form - can’t rush the ball, can’t cover anybody and totally dependent on the pass. The difference was that Aaron Rodgers is standing on the sideline sporting a bad mustache and a clip board and not winning football games with his arm. 

It feels like the Pack is in a downward spiral right now that will not be stopped by the return of Aaron Rodgers. Yes, he will certainly score more points that Tolzien and he will pay much more attention to ball security but with this wretched defense weighing him down, Rodgers will be hard-pressed to out-score any team. Eli Manning, mired in one of the worst years of his career, could do no wrong. He made one bad mistake in throwing an interception to Tramon Williams (hey! We go a pick! Woo hoo!) but otherwise the Packers made him look like his old Super Bowl MVP self. 

If you look at the upcoming schedule, you’d have to say the Packers should be posed to make a run straight into the playoffs. Well, maybe you’d think that about the Packer’s team that took the field against the Bears three weeks ago. Since then, they’ve lost two QB’s, their defensive mojo and three straight games. They’ve gone from leading the NFC North to a full game behind both the Bears and Lions. They’ve gone from a top ten NFL team to a plummeting mess, just trying to find a way to win a game. Any game.

Will things change when Aaron Rodgers gets back in the game? If you look at the last three games, you’d have to say “no”. Of course, his exit precipitated the nosedive, so maybe his return will pull the team out of it. The only problem is that the team will likely be 5-6 and riding a 4-game losing streak if he makes is back in time for the Thanksgiving tilt against the Lions. And after watching Matt Stafford make the Steelers look foolish for one quarter (seriously: Pittsburgh gave up 24 points in the 2nd quarter!) I foresee a passing day for him versus the Packer secondary of historic proportions. If Rodgers is still on the sidelines for that game, I would seriously suggest throwing in the towel and protecting his shoulder for 2014. Will Thanksgiving be too early to “wait until next year”? I’m not saying they couldn’t pull out some wins (some pretty awful teams yet to play) but the season will be lost by then.

The Packers have not dropped three in a row since 2008 (when their streak topped five). That’s five seasons under Aaron Rodgers when Packer fans could always count on their team bouncing back. Their next opponent is the truly awful Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau. Even with home field advantage, would anyone their right mind pick the Packers (5-5) over the Vikings (2-8)?  Let’s see...Packers can no longer stop the run and they are going to be facing Adrian Peterson. Their secondary can’t cover anybody and have a total of 4 interceptions on the year. Their offensive line is no longer opening up any holes for Eddie Lacy and, oh, yeah, Scott Tolzien is playing quarterback instead of Aaron Rodgers. 

This team needs to start playing like they have a practice squad QB under center. They need to understand they are on the verge of becoming entirely irrelevant. They need to stop this slide before they slip down that deep, ugly hole that is mediocrity. We’ll all be hoping that playing a terrible Vikings team at home will be just what the doctor ordered.