Sunday, October 21, 2012

The MMQB: Packers keep the momentum rolling with decisive victory over the Rams.

The Green Bay Packers have had their share of ups and downs this year. We’ve had highs (the great win over the Texans last week) and lows (getting screwed by the replacement refs in Seattle) but the 3-3 record they took into St. Louis was indicative of an inconsistent team, one that was struggling to find its identity on both sides of the ball. The Packers have had the stink of a mediocre 8-8 season all over them. Coming off a 15-1 campaign in 2011, that was an odor no one in the land of Cheeseheads could stomach.

The NFL schedule-makers decreed that a 15-1 team (despite their painful early exit from the playoffs) would have to run a gauntlet of top ranked teams and a 3-game road trip through the first half of the season. Doesn’t sound particularly fair but those are the breaks. Coming through the first six games of that challenge at 3-3 does not sound impressive but you have to look back with hindsight and almost breathe a sigh of relief because it could have been worse: We got beat by a better team (San Francisco), got screwed by the refs (Seattle) and committed a heinous second half meltdown of historic proportions (Indianapolis) for those three losses. So please excuse me if I have sounded shrill in my yearning for a more dominant team this year because we’ve been so DAMN close to a much better record.

So here we were, having risen up and beaten the previously undefeated Texans, poised for our fist back-to-back victory of the year. While a seemingly innocuous mid-season game, this was really a major moment for the Packers. Lose the game and you sink to 3-4 and are left with a hill to climb as the Vikings and Bears look down at you. Win the game, go to 4-3 and gain some momentum moving into an easier part of the schedule.

I don’t mind telling you this: after several beverages on Saturday night (mostly in celebration of Mrs. MMQB’s birthday) several of my hard-wired football neurons kept firing with one thought: PLEASE get a win, Packers! It meant more than just a “W” on the ledger. It meant we had momentum. It meant we have escaped the most difficult part of the season with a winning record. Make no mistake, this is not the team that went 15-1 last year. This is not the team that struggled early on in 2010 but put it all together with a Super Bowl victory. We still have Aaron Rodgers with his cannon arm and Mensa football brain. We still have that cadre of stealthy ninja receivers. We still have Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson and the defense that can rise up at any moment and just take the ball away at will. But this team will have to work and struggle for everything it gets. 

The first half was not very clean for the Packers. Rodgers rarely had a clean pocket to throw from and the combination of a indifferent offensive line and a QB who held on to the ball too long resulted in three sacks. Likewise the defense seemed to have few answers for the rushing of tandem of Jackson and Richardson and the time-of-possession battle was firmly in the hands of St. Louis. But with a narrow lead, the Packers came to play in the second half!

Jordy Nelson has to be the most dependable receiver in the NFL. You need a catch to keep a drive alive? Jordy is your man. That used to be the place where Finley would shine but Aaron Rodgers has wisely stayed away from the drop-prone tight end over the last two weeks. Randall Cobb has become the multi-purpose threat we all thought he would become and opposing defenses are hard-pressed to figure out how to cover him, whether he’s in the backfield, split out wide or in the slot. James Jones, after a season where he gained a reputation for drops in critical situations, has become Mr. Consistent. 

The running game did not shine this week as the Packers became supremely predictable in their rushing attack. Is it first down? Alex Green is going to get the ball. They were so predictable, I kept  thinking it had to be on purpose. IF you are going to hand the ball off on first down so often, why would you not take advantage of that tendency by calling a play-action pass a couple of times? That should have been huge for the Packers but for whatever reason, Mike McCarthy never pulled that particular weapon out of the arsenal. Maybe he never had to. Regardless, the Packers had a pretty ordinary day on the ground, running only to keep the defense honest. I know that’s the only reason why we hand off the ball but that doesn’t mean I can’t wish for more production.

One of the most disconcerting developments in the game was the lack of a Packer pass rush. I know the defensive front seven was depleted and suffered another blow when Mike Neil went out with a knee injury but he Rams offensive line was sporting a third-string tackle across from Clay Matthews and that should have meant a big day for the Packer pass rush. The reality? Not so much. The Packers officially had three sacks but you would have never known it if you didn’t check a stat sheet. Sam Bradford had all kinds of time, all day long. It’s only a testament to the Packer secondary that Bradford didn’t have a career day. Many, many props to rookies Davon House and Casey Hayward for stepping in raising the level of play in the defensive backfield. 

I can’t help but look back on this game and think it could have been a very different kind of contest. It was close in the first half but the Packers turned on the jets in the third quarter and only a slop-time TD by the Rams made it look respectable. But getting that fourth win of the year, the second in a row, was huge. We went 2-2 through the rough opening four games and now 2-1 for the three game road trip. There are no guarantees but the next two contests before the bye are certainly winnable, especially at home. Hitting that bye with a 6-3 mark would make this uneven season seem a bit more rewarding. 

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