Sunday, December 16, 2012

Packers lockup the NFC North in victory over the Bears.

The Green Bay Packers , in their last two contests against NFC North opponents, have come out flat and found themselves down by multiple scores. Key failures by those opponents have led to the comeback victories. Do you need me to list them? OK, since you’ve obviously not been paying attention, I’ll recount them for you here:

Two weeks ago versus the Vikings, the Packers were down to start the second half. Adrian Peterson had just ripped off one of his patented HUGE bursts through the middle to set up the Queens inside the red zone. If they put up six (or even three) the Packers probably don’t win that game. Christian Ponder, who some say is the worst QB in the NFL, throws a pick into the end zone and the Packers leverage the turnover into a 4th quarter victory. 

A week ago, the Lions are DOMINATING the game in the second quarter and can win going aways when Matthew Stafford pulls a Favre move and has the ball fall off the back of his hand and the Packers convert to an immediate six points. They would take that leverage and craft another beautiful victory. If that drive continued to it’s inevitable conclusion, the Packers probably do not win that game.

So here we were, down by seven again thanks to a missed field goal (more about that later) and needing a spark or a big play to turn the game around. So what happened? What would provide that massive shift in momentum?

The answer was not what you’d expect.

It wasn’t one play, it was methodical play. The Packers took the ensuing kick off and went 89 yards in seven plays and put points up thanks to a Rodgers-to-Jones touchdown. They then forced a three-and-out but couldn’t take advantage and punted themselves. 
An interception by Hayward on the first play of the Bears next drive set the Packers up in great field position. Five plays later, Rodgers hit Jones for his second TD of the game and the Bears suffered the ignoble fate of getting booed off the field (and rightly so) by their “fans”. Following the halftime break, the Packers went on an almost seven-minute drive ending up with Jones’ third scoring catch of the day and the game was essentially over. 

Can we point to a certain moment, to a certain play in this critical Packer victory? I don’t think so. You have to admire, however, the incredible work of Aaron Rodgers in converting third downs. His coach, ever the predictable one, ran the ball on every first down in the second half. It worked one time, when Duanne Harris ripped off 22 yards on the first carry of the second half. But Rodgers was saddled with third and long on too many occasions in the second half and, more often than not, converted to keep the drives alive. Here is a guy playing behind a jerry-rigged offensive line and, in most situations, running for his life. He was keeping plays alive by escaping sacks and extending the plays and finding open guys. Is any QB more important to the ultimate success of his team? It would be a wonderful thing to point to the continued rise of the running game but the 113 yards they could manage on the ground were not what I would call impactful.

The return of Clay Matthews, however, would certainly meet that criteria. He had five tackles and two sacks and provided a needed focus for the Packer defense. It’s hard to overstate the effect when Matthews is in the lineup: he’s just that crucial. Over the last month while Matthews sat out with a hamstring injury, the Packer defense has only managed three sacks. Now, to be fair, they’ve gone 4-1 over that period. But each game has been a struggle and the fact that the defensive secondary has stepped up has mostly hidden the ineffectiveness of the pass rush. Now, with the secondary still in place, if you add the rush of Matthews (and the disruption he causes) you have a defense that has the potential to be dominating down the road.

Two other factors to mention here:

First, you have to start questioning the continued viability of Mason Crosby. I am nothing but admiring of Mike McCarthy’s continued faith in his embattled kicker but there comes to a point where you have to start thinking about the future. Crosby has missed at least one field goal in eight straight games. He has, over the course of two months, gone from one of the most consistent kickers in the game to one of the most problematical. I am convinced that things have gone from some possible mechanical issues to mental issues to completely snake-bit mode. Every time Crosby takes the field is an adventure. His first attempt went wide right before it passed the line of scrimmage. His second doinked off the left upright. All that tells me is that it’s entirely a mental problem and there is little that can be done by coaches to improve it. He may break out of it next week or he may never recover. So far, it hasn’t cost us a football game. I can guarantee you that it will at some point. If Ted Thompson isn’t scanning future free agents or possible draft picks he’s not worth his salary. I hate to say it but Crosby’s tenure, despite years of success, is over at Green Bay.

The other major gaff in this game was an ill-conceived special teams play. Up by eleven points with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Packers decided to get cute. After a Bears punt, Randall Cobb attempted a backwards pass to fourth-string wideout Jeremy Ross, who promptly fumbled the ball and the Bears recovered. Unable to move the ball (a common problem all day) the Bears kicked a field goal. I have watched a great deal of football, spanning the Lombardi era of the 1960’s to the present and I am unable to remember a call that was more idiotic or more stupidly timed. Up by two scores, midway through the fourth quarter in a game that can win you the North, what would possess Mike McCarthy and Shawn Slocum to approve such a risk? Sure, if the game is on the line, maybe you throw caution to the wind and do what you need to do. But the game was in hand and all the Packers needed to do was possess the ball, make a couple of first downs and walk out of Chicago with a win. Instead, they committed themselves to and ill-conceived course, failed to execute it and essentially handed their opponents three points. Even if the play had been executed perfectly, there was plenty of coverage on that side of the field and the gain in field position would have been inconsequential. You have to question the mind-set of the coaches that called such a play in that particular situation.

The Packers, despite the rough victory, have clawed out of a 2-3 start, climbing over the overrated corpses of the Bears and Vikings to secure the NFC North for the second year in a row. Now comes a seemingly-gimme game versus the Titans and another tough road test against the Vikings. They have a shot at the #2 seed in the NFC and a much-needed week off but I think I speak for all the Cheeseheads I know when I say we don’t need a week off, we need to stack victories: beat Tennessee, beat the Queens (and knock them out of the post-season) and go into the playoffs on a major roll. Can you say 2010, Packer fans? I know you can.

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