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.