Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Playoff Bound!

So it’s official – the Packers are back in the playoffs.  I’ve been wanting to predict this since week 13, but fear of jinxing their chances has kept me from going on record.  It really would have taken an Eric Mangini-esque meltdown for the Packers not to make the playoffs (or is it a Brett Favre-esque meltdown?).  But it’s nice that it’s now official.

Before getting on to the playoff preview (which I’ll put in my next post), let me first give my quick three observations of Sunday’s mangling of the Seahawks:

1) 4 interceptions.  The defense was back in rare form this week, bouncing back from their over 500-yard day last week to allow only 198 yards passing this week.  Hasselbeck may be the only quarterback I look forward to the Packers playing against more than Cutler.  His infamous “we want the ball, and we’re going to score” blunder in the wild card game on January 4, 2004 is one of my favorite in-your-face moments in Lambeau history.  He has to shudder every time he’s in Green Bay, as visions of this moment in NFL history haunt his thoughts.

I’m not sure Hasselbeck has ever repaired his sports ego after that play.  Clearly, late season in Lambeau is a problem for him still six years later.  His four interceptions on the day not only took points off the board for the Seahawks, but led to 21 points for Green Bay.  Atari had two (and, I have to say, should have gotten some Pro Bowl consideration), A.J. Hawk got one as he continues to show he can excel in the 3-4 scheme, and even Jarrett Bush redeemed himself after last week with an interception.

If the defense plays this way in the post-season, they are going to create problems for teams.  They’re fast.  They’re creative in their schemes.  And they’re absolute ball hawks.  Tramon Williams matured quickly after Harris went down.  Despite my berating last week, Bush may be coming up the learning curve quickly as well.  If they can just stay tough in the secondary (and teams like the Cardinals will be a good test of that), they’ll be in good shape.

2) 5 rushing touchdowns.  Call it exploiting your opponent’s weakness or learning from your mistakes, but I was glad to see the Packers get back to the running game this week after completely neglecting it against the Steelers.  Grant, Jackson and Green looked like a three-headed monster – combining for 153 yards and five touchdowns.  Grant’s latest demonstration of his break-out ability, with his 53-yard scamper to pay dirt, is bringing a new threat to the Packers offense.  As much as I love watching Rodgers spread the field with the passing game, it is a bruising, physical rushing game that will make the biggest difference in the post-season.

3) Aaron Rodgers.  I want to highlight Rodgers, in particular, on a week when he was un-spectacular.  For him, it was a modest performance – a mere 237 yards and 1 TD.  But in a game in which the opposing QB showed how to lose a game with turnovers, Rodgers had none – no interceptions, and one fumble which was recovered.

Quarterbacks can win games, and quarterbacks can lose games.  Aaron Rodgers rarely, rarely, loses a game with stupid decisions.  He never lets his ego, his insistence on being the center of attention, cost his team a victory.  He takes what the defense gives him, then he takes a little more.  He doesn’t force, but he’s not tentative.  His performance Sunday made him the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 4,000 yards in his first two seasons as a starter.  And he is certainly deserving of his first of what will, hopefully, be many Pro Bowl selections.  I’m sure Brett will be all grins and giggles with him in Miami.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I guess I can cut my hair now

It really wasn’t until the Steelers' opening offensive play for a 60-yard touchdown that it dawned on me that our defense matches up terribly against Pittsburgh.  Despite a lingering, outdated reputation as a rushing offense, the Steelers are actually a pass-first spread offense with several quality receivers and a Pro Bowl quarterback.  What struck me as Wallace took that first pass into the end zone is Green Bay simply doesn’t have the depth in the defensive backfield to match up.  Like that alert snap to attention you have when you see a highway patrol while going 85, I instantly had a pit in my stomach as I realized we were finally going to be exploited for the obvious weakness in our #2-ranked defense since Al Harris went down.  So that’s where I need to start my weekly observations.

1) 503 passing yards.  Wow.  Franchise record for Roethlisberger, and they’ve been a franchise for a long time.  The Packers came in with the 3rd-ranked pass defense in the league, but the Steelers had an answer: get Jarrett Bush on the field.  We’re now the 11th-ranked pass defense.  Most teams refer to a 5-defensive back formation as the “nickel”, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers, in keeping with his creative scheme names, refers to it as the “Oh, @#$%!  I have to put in Bush!”  Or just “@#$%!” for short.

On both his plays giving up 50+ yards, Bush displayed the confident technique of veteran corners around the league – wildly flailing your arms with your back to the ball.  “We’ve been working on ‘flail’ technique all season,” said Green Bay cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt.  Bush could have been the hero, with an interception on the Steelers’ final drive.  But, alas, it was nullified by Chillar’s illegal contact penalty – instead providing Bush with the opportunity to give up one more big play, allowing Heath Miller to convert on 3rd and 15.  One player glad to see Bush on the field more was Tramon Williams.  “At least it’s not my ass on SportsCenter this week,” said Williams after the game.

In the final series, the Packers dug even deeper into the playbook.  Most teams call their 6-DB defense the “dime”, but, again, Dom has his own unique nomenclature, referring to it instead as the “Who the hell is that dude?!?” package.  Previously reserved for pick-up games at company picnics, the scheme starts with an audible – something like, “Hey, what’s-your-name… yeah, you there… no, to the left of the Gatorade cooler…  Josh Bush?  Jarrett Bell?  Whatever.  Think you can cover that guy?”

Evidently, the answer was no in the final play.  You certainly can’t put all (or really even much) of the blame on Bell – most of the rest of the backfield was responsible for the other 485 yards given up through the air Sunday.  But the reality, if you watch that play again, is if Bell turns around he intercepts that ball.  As Roethlisberger said in the post game, “We always say, if the guys’ got his back to me there’s two shoulders I can throw at.”  [PS – that last quote is real.  As painful as it is to watch, there’s a good breakdown of that final Steelers drive on]

The rest of the defense played pretty well.  We got pretty consistent pressure; including 5 sacks (really 6 + a forced fumble – more on that later).  I probably would have been more aggressive with the blitzes in the final drive – particularly on that 4th and 7 deep in Steelers territory.  But that would be largely second-guessing.  If the Bush interception hadn’t been nullified by penalty, then I probably would have thought rushing 3 and dropping 8 was the right call.  But if you drop 8, you need to cover people, which they didn’t.

2) 9 rushing plays.  This was really surprising to me, particularly since we’d done so much to establish a balanced attack the last few weeks.  McCarthy didn’t dial up any running plays in the first two series, both of which went 3 and out  The Steelers have shown themselves to be vulnerable to the run.  The touchdown scamper by Grant confirmed that vulnerability.  And an effective running game is a great way to stifle the blitzes they were throwing at us from the first play.

I can understand the thinking that the Steelers defensive secondary is pretty weak, particularly with Polumalu out.  But 48 passes to 9 runs?  That’s really lopsided.  Particularly in a road game against a hot quarterback who you want to keep off the field.  In fact, that play calling was almost a textbook example of how not to start a game on the road:
  • First offensive series: Go 3 and out on 3 incomplete passes
  • First defensive series: Give up a 60-yard touchdown
  • Ensuing kick-off: Rack up a 10-yard holding penalty
  • Second offensive series: Go 3 and out again, aided by a 5-yard false start penalty
That’s really on McCarthy as the play caller.  I don’t know if he was particularly amped up for this game since it was a homecoming for him, but I wish he had stuck to the game plan that has been a winning formula the last few weeks for us – control the clock with a balanced attack.

3) Winning close games.  I just wrote a thoughtful and well-researched (if I may say so myself) article on this exact subject.  Games like this are heartbreakers to lose.  But every game from here on out is going to be like this – hard fought and down to the wire.  Winning or losing will boil down to one or two guys making plays.  Not to call guys out, but here are all the individual players/plays that could have given us a victory Sunday:
  • Josh Bell on the final touchdown – already documented.  Even if he’d blatantly interfered that would have been better, forcing them to take one more play from the 1-yard line.
  • Cullen Jenkins with 10 seconds left on the final drive – had Roethlisberger for a sack that would have killed the clock since the Steelers were out of time outs, but he couldn’t wrap him up.
  • Brandon Chillar with 51 seconds left – if he avoids the illegal contact 8 yards from the line of scrimmage, Bush gets an interception that ends the game.
  • Charles Woodson with 1:00 minute left – had his hands on a would-be interception.
  • Nick Barnett with 1:08 left – if he breaks up the pass on 4th and 7, the game is over.
  • Tramon Williams with 1:14 left  – also had his hands on a potential interception on an out to Santonio Holmes.
  • Mason Crosby on the missed field goal – McCarthy said publicly he has "zero interest" in bringing in another kicker.  I hope he’s singing a different tune privately, considering Crosby has missed a field goal from inside 45 yards in four straight games.  Arguably, no one on the team is more responsible for winning close games than the kicker.  (By the way, coach, the Saints cut John Carney.)
  • Donald Lee – if he holds on to the pass (admittedly tougher than it looked since it glanced off the defenders head), he likely takes that in for a touchdown.
That’s 8 players/plays that could have changed the outcome of that game – and those are just the plays I remember.  I’m not saying any of these were easy plays to make, but this is the difference between a championship team and merely a contender.  I'm not getting all fair-weather fan.  I'm still bullish about the team, but you have to make some of those plays.  Combine the small plays into series, the series into drives, the drives into possessions, and possessions into scores and you have the outcome of a game. 

Of course, there were also many players who did make big plays.  Rodgers, of course, as always was money.  Greg Jennings's long touchdown run was beautiful.  Jermichael Finley continues to step up and had a fantastic touchdown catch.  And I have to call out, yet again, Clay Matthews.  He’s nominated for Rookie of the Week again.  The outstanding sack/forced fumble/recovery that he had was as impressive an individual effort as I can remember seeing.  The fact that play was reversed in replay is a travesty.  If it had stood, that would have not only set up a score, potentially changing the outcome, but it would have been one of the main highlights of the game – likely catapulting him to the front-runner for defensive rookie of the year.  I watched that replay again and again, and they absolutely robbed him of that play.  I can’t understand what the ref was looking at to see “indisputable evidence” to overturn it.  Matthews also deserves credit for disrupting the onsides kick towards the end, forcing the Steelers to touch the ball before it went 10 yards.  He’s always near the ball.

The biggest bummer of the Packers loss?  I don’t get to grow my hair long any more.  I thought about amending my earlier pledge – something like “as long as the Packers are still in the playoff hunt and haven’t lost a game by more than 3 points.”  But that feels forced, doesn’t it.  So I guess I’ll have to get it cut at some point…

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hair Update

In case you missed my earlier post, I am officially on record as pledging to grow my hair out for as long as the Packers are winning (at least this season).  I’m not sure this commitment was taken seriously by my vast and loyal readership base.  For those of you who didn’t know me in high school, you may not fully appreciate what I’m capable of when it comes to hair, so allow me to impart some knowledge.

I got the attached grainy image sent to me from a high school buddy (who I’ll allow to remain anonymous for now) that shows just what Matthews and Hawk are up against.  I expected this photo to show up some day – perhaps on the back of a milk carton, or attached to a blackmail note cut out of words from a magazine that would arrive days before my gubernatorial run.  So rather than waiting for “Mullet-gate” to break some time in the future, I’m going to embrace it now and try to put the scandal behind me.

I preferred the description “soccer player hair” over “mullet”, though at the time that term didn’t have the disparaging connotations it does today.  Truth be told, back in the day I was known as a triple threat, sporting:
1) A glorious mane of hair
2) A fashionable wardrobe featuring a bright red Mistral jacket, aqua green Genera sweatshirt, and Girbaud acid-washed jeans
3) A black Dodge Laser

Actually, I didn’t have a black Dodge Laser, but the friend who sent this photo did and we rolled on College Avenue in it, kickin' it to a little Boston.  Plus I needed a third thing – a “double threat” doesn’t seem as impressive, and my Honda Accord hatchback definitely didn’t cut it as a cool car.  I could further regale you with stories of playing lead guitar in a rock band, providing more rationalization for the rocker ‘do, but I will let that memory rest until some other friend digs photographic evidence of it from their teenage archives.

Hopefully, now you all know that my words are not an idle threat.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Winning Close Games

Now that I got my Jay Cutler rant out of the way, let me get on with my regularly scheduled post about my three key observations from Sunday's game against the Bears.

1) Ryan Grant – It’s so satisfying to see him get going.  Here, late in the season as it has seemed to happen the last few years, the Packers are finding their running game.   The 62-yard TD on the opening offensive play obviously set the tone, but the Packers were committed to the run all day – rushing the ball 30 times for 158 yards vs. only 24 pass attempts by Rodgers.  You got the sense in the first quarter that Green Bay was almost practicing against the Bears.  Confident enough that they’d win the game that they could afford to work on things they didn’t feel were quite clicking 100%.  It got a little scary when they let them back into the game, but everything worked out.

2) Defense – What can you say about our defense.  They continue to gel as the season goes on.  Woodson now has a chorus of voices touting him as defensive player of the year, and Sunday’s performance was another argument in favor of his case – one interception (could have had three), and several spectacular tackles.  Collins and Bigby are playing great at the safety spot.  Barnett seems to be in on every play – I can even put up with the samurai stuff if he keeps playing like this.  And Matthews and Raji continue to make impressive contributions.  I’m still worried about the loss of Harris, but I don’t think we’ve missed a beat with Kampman out.  Kampman is awesome, love the guy.  But it was pretty evident that he wasn’t a fit for the 3-4, and I’ll trade one great player for a #1-ranked defense (OK, #2 overall this week) any time.

It’s also been fantastic to see Dom Capers bust out the creativity.  Loved the new “Psycho” formation, with 5 linebackers.  Capers understands his personnel, and gets them in a position to succeed.  They are becoming one of the most complex defenses to line up against, with so many different schemes and packages.  They are bottling up the run (#2 in NFL in run defense), stifling the pass (#3 in NFL in pass defense), and forcing turn-overs.  Fun to watch.

3) Winning close games – There is a glass-is-half-empty view of Sunday’s game that I felt myself tempted by as I watched it.  They were so dominant early on (just as they were against the Ravens) that I found myself *expecting* a blow-out.  I got a little frustrated as they let the Bears (and the Ravens the previous week) “back into the game.”  Why weren’t they destroying these guys!?

But after reflecting on the game, I realized that this is what good teams do: win close games.  Winning in the NFL is so hard.  Any given week, anything can happen.  Just ask the Arizona Cardinals.  Every season, there are games the Packers “should win” – the Lions, Browns and Rams of the league – and then there are games that could go either way.  How you do in those games that could go either way determines your season.

I did a little analysis of the Green Bay Packers last three seasons, and broke down the wins/losses by margin of victory.  And a pretty interesting finding came out.  As you well know, those seasons had very different outcomes – an NFC Championship appearance in ’07, a disappointing 6-10 record in ’08, and what looks to be a wildcard berth in ’09.  Over the last three years, if you just look at games decided by more than a touchdown, the Packers record was 6-2, 5-3, and 8-2 – roughly similar each year.  Extrapolate those winning percentages over the full season and all three of those teams make the playoffs at 12, 10 and 13 wins, respectively.

It is the games decided by 7 or fewer points where you see the huge discrepancy.  Green Bay went 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in ’07.  In ’08, they only managed to go 1-7  in those close games.  And so far this year, they are 3-2 in games decided by such a close margin – with the 7-point victory over the Bears putting them over .500.  In short, their record in close games made the difference in whether or not they went to the post-season the last two years.  So I’m not going to complain about a narrow but gritty win in the Windy City.  Eek out one or two more of these and they’re in the playoffs.

Jay Cutler is Cody Hanson (and a gift to Packers fans)

Let me just say this: Jay Cutler is the best thing that ever happened to Packer fans.  He’s a gift, really.  I was so pleased when the Bears traded for that guy.  Here's a question: how do you stop a team in your division with a dominating defense, a bruising running game, and outstanding special teams?  Easy – have them sign a QB who is on pace to set the Bears single-season record for interceptions.  Kyle Orton was the perfect quarterback for Chicago.  He “managed” the game.  He was smart, deliberate, took what the defense gave him.  But that wasn’t good enough for Bears fans or management.  Chicago needed a “gun slinger” who would get them to the Super Bowl again.  Unfortunately for Bears fans, they are now just beginning to realize what the rest of the world already knew: Jay Cutler stinks.

In case my literary reference to Cody Hanson is too obscure for a few of you, Cody Hanson is the antagonist in Go Long – a “based on actual events” masterpiece by Tiki and Ronde Barber (with Paul Mantell) about their junior high football team.  I’m reading it to my first-grader now, and he’s riveted.  Cody is the conceited, whiney, disruptive quarterback who is like a cancer on the Barber kids’ team.  Every incomplete pass is the receiver’s fault.  Every sack is because the line can’t protect.  Every loss is due to the terrible team around him rather than his own faults.  How insightful the Barber twins were.  The spirit of Cody Hanson is alive and well in the body of Jay Cutler.

If you’re a Packer fan, Jay Cutler is just so glorious at multiple levels:
  1. He’s awful.  He has the ability to single-handedly lose games for the Bears with senseless interceptions, like the two he had against the Packers.
  2. He’ll be there for a long time.  The Bears picked up the remaining 3 years on Cutler’s contract with the Broncos, and then just signed him to a two-year extension this October for $30 million.  When all is said and done, they will be in to the dude for over $48 million over five seasons.  His suckiness will be the gift that keeps on giving to Packer fans.
  3. The Bears gave up so much to get him.  Not only did they trade a perfectly capable (albeit unflashy, Trent Dilfer-eseque) quarterback in Kyle Orton, but they also gave up first-round picks in 2009 and 2010, as well as a third-round pick in 2009. To put that in perspective, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji were first round picks last year, and Jermichael Finley was a third-round pick in 2008.  That’s a lot to pay – even for a QB who is good.  Which Cutler isn’t.
Without Jay in our back pocket, the Packers probably lose that game Sunday.  True, Cutler led the Bears on two scoring drives to take the lead.  But he also threw two unfathomably bad interceptions, off which Green Bay scored 10 points, including the come-from-behind TD.  If I was a Bears fan, I would be apoplectic.  The TV commentators, as if rationalizing him into the elite QB the media seems to want Cutler to be, explained both picks away as “miscommunications” with his receivers.  I don’t believe in miscommunications.  Sure, Knox may have run the wrong route, but it’s the quarterback’s job in the huddle to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing.  It’s his job to run enough reps with his receivers in practice that they are on the same page.  It’s his job to read the defense and adjust to the coverage, regardless of the routes that are called.  In short, it’s his job to avoid mistakes through preparation, practice, and patience.  That’s why they pay QBs the big bucks.

They should just dress Cutler in a Bears uniform with a Green Bay Packer helmet, like at the Pro Bowl.  That’s how much he’ll mean to our franchise in the coming years.  Mark my words, as long as he’s on their team, they will be mired in mediocrity.

So with that Jay Cutler rant now behind me, I can get on to my three observations from last week’s game.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Something has to be said about the hair

I’m not sure exactly when it started.  Maybe Al Harris was the first.  But the Packers squad this year has to be leading the NFL in one of the more obscure categories: longest average hair length.  The defense really started the trend and has steadily become dominated by guys with long hair of all stripes.  Clearly dreadlocks are a look across the NFL, but our secondary looks like the back stage at a Black Eyed Peas concert.  Once Harris cracked the seal, Atari Bigby came in to successfully push the look to another level.  Tramon Williams reportedly beat out Jarrett Bush as Harris’s replacement because “his hair just fits better in our defensive scheme,” according to head coach Mike McCarthy.

General Manager Ted Thompson – always wanting to put his stamp on the team – had to get in on the act as well.  He has definitely shown a proclivity for long-hair draft choices.  It started with A.J. Hawk’s comb-back mullet in the first round of  the ’06 draft.  “I knew when I saw Hawk’s mane that he was going to make a big impact on our team,” said Thompson.  And, as usual, the Packer’s GM was prescient.  With the drafting of Clay Matthews in last year’s draft our linebacking corps looks like the front row of a Def Leppard concert.  “When Clay came available, we just couldn’t pass up a chance to book-end the best linebacking hair in the league.”

Nick Barnett, growing concerned about the threat these upstart ‘dos could have on his starting position, decided to kick it old-school, and he's playing his best ball in a long time.  Keeping with the musical theme, he looks like a back-up singer for Ludacris.

As one of the more veteran players on the team, Barnett has been coaching some of the younger linebackers on their hair development.  “Desmond [Bishop] is coming along nicely – his hair has real potential,” said Barnett.  “But Brandon Chillar is up and down.  I’m really not sure what we’re going to get from week to week with Brandon, so we’ve brought in a stylist to work with him.”

Switching to the offensive side of the ball, they started out pretty clean-cut.  But as the average hair length has increased, their play has improved.  Josh Sitton started things off with kind of an early 80’s Kenny Rogers look.  Then Allen Barbre brought in the pony tail.  “I just wasn’t comfortable with how Barbre’s hair was progressing,” admitted offensive line coach James Campen.  “I felt we needed some senior hair talent to show the younger guys how it’s done.”  With the re-signing of Mark Tauscher, the offensive line found their pocket combs and have been solid ever since.  Even center Scott Wells has reportedly let his hair grow for over 6 months.

But one has to wonder if this whole hair thing has gotten a little out-of-hand with the signing of tight end Tom Crabtree to the Packers practice squad last week.  "Thompson has really pushed this hair thing too far," criticized Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beat writer, Greg Bedard.  "This guy's only qualification to play in the NFL is his hair length."  There isn’t really a cool band that I can compare Crabtree's hairdo to.  It’s more like the line for the urinal in the parking lot of the Eagle River snowmobile championship.  “I need play makers, not flashbacks to my high school yearbook,” quipped tight end coach Ben McAdoo.

Whether this long hair thing has jumped the shark yet or not remains to be seen.  But the fact of the matter is the Packers have been winning with long hair.  Being the superstitious fan that I am, I realized that I haven’t had my hair cut since the Packers went on their four-game winning streak.  Not wanting to mess with a good thing, my proclamation for the rest of the season is this: as long as the Packer winning streak keeps going, I will not cut my hair.

As you can see, I’m scruffy, mangy and long overdue for a haircut.  But I'm a team player, so I will hereby ride this ‘do till February 7, 2010 if I need to.  As long as the Pack is winnin’, I won’t be trimmin’!!!  Go Pack!!!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Four Down, Four to Go

There’s no question that the loss in Tampa Bay was a turning point in the Packers season.  Or more of a low point, actually.  It was mid-way through the season, and they’d lost to probably the worst team in the NFL.  They had dropped two games to the Vikings, almost certainly costing them the NFC North.  Standing at 4-4 and facing a tough stretch of the season beginning with the Cowboys, their playoff prospects felt dim.
But rather than reeling, they responded.  The win tonight against the Ravens caps a 4-game winning streak with four left, and puts them in a great position for the playoff race.  Before I get to that, let me breakdown my three take-aways from the Baltimore game.

1) Defense – the Packers defense came out and showed they deserve that #1 defense ranking.  They absolutely shut down Flacco and Rice, holding the Ravens to 185 yards of total offense.  Not only are they stifling yardage (the basis of the #1 ranking), but they are also doing a better job stopping scores (where they currently rank #7 in the NFL).  The first 8 weeks of the season, the Packers’ opponents scored an average of 21.5 points – and that included a shut-out game against the Lions and a 3-point game against the Browns.  The last 4 games, they’ve only allowed an average of 14.25 points – a whole touchdown better.

All phases of the defense are clicking.  They are getting much better pressure on the quarterback – largely coming from Clay Matthews, who is just a blast to watch.  He led the defense tonight with 5 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble, but his play is bigger than on the stat sheet.  He just seems to be in on every play, and he is totally relentless.  They are really stuffing the run – showing it against a great back tonight (Raji is really coming on).  They also are continuing to excel at forcing turn-overs, with three picks and a fumble recovery tonight.  This is the style of defense we all wanted to see when Capers came in, and I think it’s safe to say that the switch to the 3-4 is delivering the results we all hoped for.  It’s also, incidentally, the kind of defense that could have beaten the Vikings if we’d played it earlier in the season – as the Cardinals showed this week.

The big question on defense is, of course, how will we hold up with Kampman and Harris both gone for the season.  Brad Jones has been a pretty pleasant surprise coming in for Kampman (he got a sack tonight), and  it seems like they’ve been able to use Matthews more as that 4th down lineman that Kampman would sometimes play.  So they seem to be holding up there.  Tramon Williams coming in for Harris is a different story.  He got pretty victimized tonight with three big pass interference penalties, two in the end zone.  I thought both the end zone penalties could have easily been no-calls, but, regardless, he exposed himself as the weak link in that secondary on national TV.  While he redeemed himself somewhat with the interception, other offenses are now going to come after him, so he better work on his technique.

2) Pass protection – in addition to our defense, the improved pass protection is the other big part of the Packers’ four-game winning streak.  We still lead the league in sacks allowed at 45, but there was only one sack tonight.  Poor pass protection was probably the biggest monkey on our backs in the first half of the season.  Green Bay gave up 37 sacks in the first 8 games, an average of 4.6/game – causing me to go on a bit of a rant about pass protection after the Bucs game.   Since then, they’ve only given up 8 sacks, averaging 2/game.

That’s a pretty remarkable turn-around, and, frankly, one I didn’t anticipate – particularly since it has come against some pretty good defenses (both the Cowboys and 49ers are top 10 teams in terms of sacks).  Clifton is still making bone-headed plays – he had at least one hold and a false start tonight – but his return to health and Tauscher’s presence have really helped shore up the line.  However, I think the real cause of the improvement has been better blocking by the backs (Green had a great blitz pick-up tonight) and faster release by Rodgers.

3) Mistakes – and then, there were the penalties.  If there is one thing that still feels like it could derail this team, it’s the yellow flags.  The Packers committed 11 penalties for 175 yards tonight.  They almost gave up as many penalty yards as they did total yards (185).  While I felt the refs were awfully chippy throughout, it was an incredibly sloppy game.

Making matters worse, we also had our share of turnovers tonight.  Without the penalties and turnovers, Baltimore wouldn’t even have been in this game.  Those weren’t the only mistakes either.  I thought McCarthy’s challenge of the first Ravens touchdown was impetuous – as he’s prone to with his red flag.  The kick-off coverage team allowed another big return.  And the receivers dropped several balls, which I’ll attribute to the cold for now.  They got the win, but they need to get these things cleaned up to be playing playoff-level football.

Playoff Picture

Which is a perfect segue to the playoff situation.  The Vikings loss this weekend to the Cardinals was great for us – not only does it keep the race for the NFC North alive, but it got the Cardinals one step closer to sealing the NFC West (which they can do against the 49ers next Monday).  That would be good for us because it means the Cardinals may have nothing to play for when we face them in week 17.

There is nothing that would make me more gleeful than a complete Vikings meltdown, allowing us to pluck the division from those horn-blowers.  But that’s obviously a long-shot, since they are two games ahead with the tie-break due to our two losses to them.  They’d have to lose 3 of their last 4, and we’d have to win out.  Not impossible, but certainly improbable.  So I’m not even going to discuss the possibility of that unless they lose again next week to the Bengals and we beat the Bears.

So, assuming we’re going for a wild card spot, we’re in pretty good shape.  Right now, we control our own destiny as the #6 seed, and there aren’t that many teams that remain in the running.  The 49ers pretty much eliminated themselves with the loss to Seattle.  The Falcons at 6-6 are still alive but in tough shape.  So it will most likely come down to a game of musical chairs with the three teams from the NFC East.

The nice thing is all those teams have tough schedules and play each other.  So we could benefit from some mutually-assured destruction.  The full list of NFL tie-break scenarios is here if you’re interested , but the ones that matter are:
1)    Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs).
2)    Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
3)    Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
4)    Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.

So, since we beat them head-to-head, we want the Cowboys to lose.  And they certainly have a tough schedule – Chargers, Saints, Redskins and Eagles.  They could lose all four of those games.  The Eagles also have a very tough remaining schedule – Giants, 49ers, Broncos and Cowboys.  The Giants are currently the odd-team out at a game behind, and also have a tough schedule – Eagles, Redskins, Panthers and Vikings.  For now, we want the Giants to stay in it so they’re fighting for their lives in that last game against the Vikings.  If the Vikings clinch the NFC North, though, we want the Giants to lose. 

As you look at the remaining schedule, we should make it if we can at least go 2-2 in these last 4 games.  It’s hard to come up with too many scenarios in which finishing 10-6 isn’t enough to get us that last spot, but we need to keep executing.  Here’s my current best-guess for how this will all play out:

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trigg vs. Turkey, Day 3

It’s Friday evening, and the post-game show is still going strong in the Trigg household. My kids insisted on watching the Packers-Lions game again today, so I obliged them as I entered day three of turkey wrangling.  My four-year-old decided, against my recommendation, to name our turkey “Lightning.”  Giving dinner a pet-like name is generally a bad idea, but he didn’t shed any tears as I ripped Lightning’s wings and legs from his body last night – though I was slightly disappointed to be denied the “animals are food” teaching moment.

Yesterday between me and Lightning ended in d├ętente , but I’ve definitely got the advantage now and I’m going on the offensive.  I brought in some new weapons.  In addition to the stock pot, I busted out my bone-cutting kitchen shears and my meat grinder.  What once looked like road kill will now become turkey-cranberry sandwiches, turkey noodle soup and a tasty turkey hash.  Yum.  Lightning didn't look so tough when he was simmering in a stock pot.

This might still be the tryptophan talking, but it occurred to me that my odyssey with this turkey is analogous to the Packers season so far.  Work with me on this.  As you can see in this chart, my confidence index in the Green Bay Packers has trended almost identically as my confidence index in preparing and dismembering this turkey.  Allow me to elaborate.

Pre-season – the start of the year was like first bringing home that Thanksgiving turkey.  You’re not really sure what you’re getting yourself into, but you’re filled with optimism.  Everyone thinks their turkey is going to emerge perfectly browned from the oven to the oohs and aahs of your guests – just as every fan thinks they have a playoff caliber team in the pre-season.  You overlook the obvious blemishes and unpleasantries – the sawed off neck, the remaining bits of feather, the organs in that little bag.  You forget what a pain in the ass last year’s turkey was, and you think ahead to the vision of that bird in its fully basted glory.

This season started the same way.  Forgotten was the 5 of 6 losing streak to close out last year, and over-running was the optimism about NFC titles and championships.  The Cardinals game marked the zenith of the pre-season confidence index.  Pundits on NFL Network were picking the Packers to go to the Super Bowl after the beat down in the desert (at least, for the first half) against the defending NFC champions.  That optimism sustained through the last pre-season loss against the Titans (after all, they don’t count).

Bears – The opener against the Bears gave some pause.  That “oh, crap – it’s going to take me a while to peel 36 cloves of garlic” moment.  Just as I looked awkward stuffing and trussing the turkey, the Packers looked out-of-sync their first game.  But they pulled it off – just as I finally got that fowl hog-tied and into the oven.

Bengals – About 20 minutes into my turkey roasting, I noticed smoke emitting from my stove.  Not a good feeling. That was the Cincinnati game.  Your confidence is suddenly shaken.  What you thought was going to be easy, you are now realizing you may have under-estimated.  Blackened garlic was my culprit.  A porous offensive line was the Packers’.  But I sprayed some stock into the pan and got things under control.

Rams – I felt steady after that, just as the Rams game brought some confidence back in Packer nation.  I knew I was a decent cook and that roasting a turkey shouldn’t be that hard.  And, as a fan, I knew that beating the Rams shouldn’t be that hard.  We did what we had to.

Vikings – Then came the Vikings game.  The confidence index plummeted.  The second-guessing proliferated.  Maybe we should have kept Favre.  Maybe the Vikings will be pretty good after all.  Maybe our offensive line is going to give up the single season record for most sacks allowed.  My kitchen confidence reached a low-point then as well.  Had I over-salted the brine?  Had I allowed for enough cooking time?  Was I going to give all my guests food poisoning with an under-cooked bird?

Bye – I coasted through the bye week and regained some perspective, just as hour 2 of my turkey roasting seemed more calm.  I periodically checked it, flipped it, basted it, and hoped things would get back on track.

Lions – Thank God the Lions are in our conference.  Two easy wins per year is a nice security blanket.  It wasn’t a great win, but it was a shut-out.  My confidence was steadily increasing, as Lightning started to take on that chestnut hue.  Unless my meat thermometer was off, I hadn’t over-cooked it yet.  Just like the Packers win – it may not be perfect, but it was going to be edible.

Browns – Dinnertime.  The turkey emerged from the oven pretty close to perfect.  It looked spectacular, and smelled even better.  I carved it up and served it with mashed potatoes and gravy – just like Aaron Rodgers carved up the Browns defense.  There was no denying that this was a tasty bird, and at 4-2 it looked like the Packers were on their way to the season we’d all envisioned.

Vikings – Losing to Brett Favre at Lambeau Field was a crash back down to earth.  Suddenly, the Browns game felt meaningless, as I stared at the undeniable reality that the Vikings would almost certainly win the NFC North.  The feeling was just like returning to my kitchen to the unfiltered reality of that turkey carcass.  I could get things back on-track though.  I’d just make some stock out of it and everything would be good.

Buccaneers – The Bucs were the low-point on the Packers confidence index, and my turkey confidence index hit a low-point here as well.  Just as the Packers defense struggled with a rookie quarterback, I struggled with the rib cage and backbone of that animal.  Things felt hopeless.  I wanted to scrap the turkey and start over, but I knew I had to fight through it and make the most of it.  Like the Packers, I could either quit or I could strengthen my resolve and show that bird who was boss.

Cowboys – Once I got all the bones into the stock pot, I felt a lot better about where things were headed.  The Dallas win was the same thing – that sigh of relief that maybe things weren’t as bad as I’d feared.  Like the Packers stopping the Dallas offense, I did things I wasn’t sure I could do.  As indistinguishable chunks of meat became beautiful cubes for soup and were ground for turkey hash, I felt more confident about the future.  Dallas returned the confidence that great things can still happen this season.

49ers – Green Bay executed one of its best halves of football this season in the first half of the 49ers game.  The confidence index continued its climb for both the team and the turkey – as I realized that my second- and third-derivative meals from this fowl were not only going to be edible but darn tasty.  I started looking ahead again.  Thinking about menu possibilities, just as I started thinking about playoff scenarios again.

Lions – With turkey soup in the freezer and a variety of turkey-centric meals planned that I’m actually looking forward to eating, I finally feel like my turkey adventure 2009 is under control.  Like the 5 remaining games on the schedule, I’m not sure that all my 5 (or more) turkey meals are going to be perfect, but I have every reason to believe they will be delicious.  The confidence index isn’t quite back to its pre-season level, but it’s trending in the right direction.

The work I’ve done getting the remains of this turkey transformed into something I (let alone my wife and kids) would actually eat has been hard work.  This is the preparation that goes on behind the scenes.  Thanksgiving dinner is like playing on Sunday, but there’s a lot of work that goes on both before and after that performance.  You need to hit the weight room, and get injury treatments.  You need to do film study.  Sometimes you even need to bring in new equipment (Tauscher = meat grinder).  But somehow you need to figure out how to get it done, and that’s what the Packers seem to be doing.

What are you thankful for, Packer fans?

It’s Thanksgiving night, and I’ve now been wrestling with a 13-lb turkey for over 24 hours.  It started last night with brining the beast in a cooler, and ended tonight with resignation about what to do with the remains.  Finishing off a turkey is like disposing of a corpse.  I gave all our guests about two pounds of turkey each, and I’m still staring at a carcass that could feed a family of four for a month.

I was tearing at the thing for about an hour tonight in a tryptophan haze.  Of course, as a San Francisco foodie, I can’t just throw away the bones.  I need to pretend I’m going to make something out of it, keep it in my fridge for a week and then throw it away.  There’s no way to delicately cut up a turkey.  The appropriate term is "dismemberment."  You need to attack it with a kind of primal enthusiasm, and a variety of sharp tools wielded assertively.  You need to torque spinal columns with your bare hands.  You need to splatter bone fragments on your shirt.  In short, you need to get medieval on it.  I contemplated burying the remains in the yard for a while, but finally got it into a stock pot and intend to get the upper hand on it tomorrow.

Between my trussing I got to enjoy a pretty good game.  (By the way, someone's got to tell Troy Aikman how to properly pronounce our city -- it's Green Bay, not Green Bay.)  Anyway, apart from the fumble on the opening kick-off and some red zone inefficiency, it was a pretty solid performance by the Packers.  Penalties continue to be a thorn – 7 of them today for 57 yards, which will allow us to continue to hold on to our #1 position in the NFL for most penalties.  Sweet.  Special teams managed to have two penalties out 9 plays – both blocks in the back.  Aren’t you taught not to do that in Pop Warner?

But rather than being a whiner, on Thanksgiving day it feels more appropriate to say what I’m thankful for as a Packers fan.  So here goes:

1) Aaron Rodgers – the guy just continues to be nails.  He went 26 of 39 for 348 yards and 3 TDs with no interceptions.  He’s just so mentally sharp, and rarely ever makes mistakes.  His passer rating on the season is 104.9 – trailing only Favre (112.1) and Brees (105.8).  He’s thrown 22 touchdown passes – tied for first in the NFL with Brees.  And his 3,136 passing yards is second only to Peyton Manning.  He has the arm (the completion he had to Driver was over 65 yards in the air), the athleticism, and the intelligence of the best QBs in the game.  And he’s developing that intangible will to win with every game.

Favre, it must be acknowledged, is having an incredible year as well.  Maybe if he’d performed like that his last few seasons in Green Bay, we should have let him come back.  But Rodgers is executing consistently at a Pro Bowl level in only his 27th start.  And, oh – by the way, he is 15 years younger than Favre.  If he stays healthy, he will be our franchise QB, and we should be thankful for him wearing a Packer uniform for many years to come.

2) Our defense – Dom has been in the house the last few weeks.  Five turnovers, two sacks, and a pick six today.  Woodson is at another level entirely.  He’s got to be making a case for defensive MVP.  It was also huge for Tramon Williams to get an interception today – should give him a little more confidence for the big shoes he needs to fill.

The defense is fast, hits hard, and is stingy.  Denying a Lions score from first and goal from the 6-yard line in the 4th quarter today was a great example.  Overall, the Packers defense has only allowed 281.5 yards/game, second best in the NFL.  They are also opportunistic and ball-hawking.  Green Bay has 18 interceptions on the season, second only to the Saints.  We're +17 on net turn-overs.  Best in the league.

And the young players are really coming on.  I’ve talked about Clay Matthews several times.  He didn’t have a great game today, but he brings incredible energy and speed to the defense.  B.J. Raji is becoming a presence as well – stuffing the run as he did in that hit on Kevin Smith for a 4-yard loss.  Again, if these guys can continue to develop and our secondary stays healthy, we should be in good shape for many Thanksgivings to come.

3) Shoring up our O-line – I can’t really say I’m thankful for our offensive line.  It’s more that I’m thankful they haven’t been a complete liability the last few weeks.  No holding penalties today, one penalty overall (false start on Colledge), and only one sack allowed.  The sack that was allowed was embarrassing.  Continue to feel like Clifton’s head just isn’t in the game at times – he seemed to be looking at the play clock while Julian Peterson blew by him.  But, overall, they seem to have gotten their shit together – against some solid defensive fronts in Dallas and San Francisco particularly.  Tauscher is making a big difference, and Wells and Sitton are quietly playing consistently.  There were several plays (particularly that bomb to Driver, who I'm also thankful for, by the way) where Rodgers had all day to pass the ball.  If they can keep up that level of protection, what seemed like a season-killing Achilles heel three weeks ago could be good enough to get us to the post-season.

So that’s what I’m thankful for.  I’m going to try to do some breakdowns of the playoff situation this weekend.  With our improved play and the Giants loss tonight, I’m getting more confident about our wild card chances.  Now, back to my bone saw.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The *Real* City by the Bay

I live in the San Francisco area, but none of my friends out here, including my in-laws, are really 49ers fans.  That’s unfortunate, because it robs me of an outlet for my gloating.  There are few teams that we’ve dominated as consistently as the 49ers – winning 12 of the last 13 match ups.  That Journey song should have been written about Green Bay.  Sunday, with the exception of that little rally in the 4th quarter, was glorious.  The first half reminded me why I was so optimistic coming into this season.

I picked the 49ers to steal this one from us a few weeks ago.  They have a solid defense, particularly against the run (3rd ranked in the NFL coming in), and Gore can be a beast as he showed in that break-away on the first possession.  But the Packers demonstrated the same style of play they showed against the Cowboys – excelling in the exact facets of the game that have plagued them in previous weeks.

1) Running game – what a statement game for Ryan Grant, 129 yards and a TD.  His 43 yards on the opening drive established the tone, and his 21 yard rush in the final drive sealed the victory.  He finished with over 6 yards/carry.  Plus, Grant and Jackson combined for another 81 receiving yards, creating a dimension to their offense that I felt had been missing.  The result of all this production was a 2:1 time-of-possession advantage.  The last few seasons, it seems we’ve had to wait until the last third of the season for the running game to emerge.  Let’s hope we can sustain this kind of production.

2) Rodgers vs. Smith – as I broke down two weeks ago, there is no other quarterback drafted since 2005 I’d rather have than Aaron Rodgers right now.  The guy is money.  He went 32 of 45 on the day, for 344 yards, 2 TDs and no interceptions.  He set a career high 274 yards passing in the first half.  Sure, I would have liked to see those first two drives culminate in touchdowns rather than field goals, but what more can you realistically ask of your quarterback?

The juxtaposition against Alex Smith couldn’t have been more stark.  The QB who was drafted ahead of him, first overall, in the 2005 draft.  Selected by the 49ers, where our very own Mike McCarthy was offensive coordinator at the time.  Same draft year, both first rounders, both have first names that start with “A”, and, maybe it’s just me, but they even look a little bit like each other!  But the results couldn’t be more different.  Rodgers hasn’t been able to get the Brett Favre monkey off his back yet, but he served the Alex Smith one with a side of rice on Sunday.  Imagine if we had Alex Smith.  Or Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Matt Leinert, JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, or anyone else who has come into the league since for that matter.  Yikers.

3) Offensive line – by far the best performance by our offensive line.  The first half was evidence of how effective we can be when we don’t have sacks and penalties on every other down.  The line gave up only two sacks on the day, but more importantly they avoided the costly holding and false start penalties.  Wells got flagged once for holding, and Rodgers got an intentional ground and delay of game penalty, but that was it on offense.

To me, this shows the benefit of establishing the run early.  I just believe that if you let your linemen get a little smash mouth mindset going early by rushing the ball, that they perform better in all aspects of the game.  Of course, getting Tauscher back probably helped too, and Clifton and Colledge both had relatively good games for a change.

So that was “the good.”  The concerning part of the day was the fact that the 49ers almost came back, despite the dominating performance.  And, once again, we have the special teams unit to thank for leaving the door open.  Josh Morgan’s 76-yard kick-off return changed the momentum of the game.  The only team sucking more than Green Bay at kick coverage is the Steelers.  Special teams also had two penalties on the day.

And then, there were the injuries.  Ugh... what a bummer.  Losing Harris and Kampman both for the season is a major blow.  Kampman, as amazing as it feels to say this, seems like the easier guy to replace.  Brad Jones held up fine when Kampman was out against the Cowboys, and Poppinga should be able to help as well.  Plus, Clay Matthews – or as my four-year-old calls him, “the Rookie Matthews” – has provided both the effective pass rush and ability to drop into coverage at that position that, frankly, Kampman hadn’t been consistently delivering.

Harris is another matter.  I see his unique abilities as a shut-down cover corner to be foundational to the kind of defense the Packers want to play.  Tramon Williams is a capable back-up, and I’m hopeful that with more playing time he can really develop into a legitimate starter.  But it seems inevitable that they will have to adjust to a slightly more conservative defense – putting Woodson on the opposition’s top receivers (reducing his ability to blitz and create chaos), and providing more safety support.  I also worry about Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood, and the newly-signed Josh Bell coming into nickel and dime formations.  I’m glad to see the Packers at least trying to get some depth at that position with the Bell deal.

This week should be winnable – particularly with Stafford likely to be inactive.  Can’t have another let-down-our-guard game though, because after this it gets rough:
  • Baltimore Ravens
  • @ Chicago Bears
  • @ Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Seattle Seahawks
  • @ Arizona Cardinals
Only two more home games, 4 of the 5 games outdoors in cold weather, and 4 of the 5 teams still in the playoff hunt.  And we need at least 4 wins out of these last 6 games to get into the post-season.  Go Pack!

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Winning Formula

It is so much more enjoyable to write this blog when the Packers win – particularly when they beat a good team, AND in relatively convincing fashion, AND with a game plan that suggests a successful winning formula for the remainder of the season. There was a lot of doom and gloom last week in Packer nation. Although that was an ugly loss, I maintain any team can lose to any other team on any given week (like the Saints nearly did against the Rams this week). The encouraging thing is Green Bay seems to have learned from the loss to the puffy shirts, and applied it on the field this week.

If they can continue to execute a similar game plan going forward, they still have a strong shot at making the playoffs. Here was the winning formula:

1) Defensive Pressure – Probably the most perplexing aspect of Green Bay’s losses so far this season, particularly in the two games against Favre, was the complete lack of pressure on the quarterback. We had not seen much of the swarming, scheming, chaos-creating style we saw in the pre-season. Last week, we hardly blitzed at all against a rookie QB and only sacked him once. I’m not sure what jogged Dom Capers memory, and I certainly didn’t expect us to get pressure with Kampman and Chillar out, but I’m glad he re-discovered that part of the playbook. Not only did the defense produce 5 sacks and 11 knockdowns, but that pressure was the catalyst for a bunch of other good stuff – particularly the forced fumble that decided the game.

This is the style of defense the Packers are built to play. And if they can play it successfully against Dallas (with two key injuries no less), they can play it against anyone. They have great corners who can hold up against anyone. They have speed at line-backer to pick up tight ends and backs. They have a solid defensive line that can both stop the run and sniff out screens. And, because of all that, they can usually figure out how to free up a player or two to come with blitz, confuse the coverage, or otherwise stunt their way into something exciting. ESPN showed a stat that Capers, in the first 8 games, rushed five or more players 40.6% of the time. Against the Cowboys, he did it 51.3%. That won Green Bay the ball game – stopping the Cowboys drives (3 of 12 on third down), forcing turnovers, and nearly pitching a shut-out against one of the best offenses in the league.

And Woodson! What can you say about Woodson? His stats – nine tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception – stand out, but they don’t tell the whole story. The strip of Williams was a phenomenal momentum swing. His strip of Romo set up a critical touchdown. And his interception at the goal line sealed the victory. Without Woodson, we lose that game. He is increasingly becoming the emotional heart and soul of this defense, if not the entire team. He wants it. And I hope the rest of the team can learn from his veteran leadership. I also hope Capers continues to find ways of letting Woodson loose.

Clay Matthews also deserves a call out. He picked up one of the sacks – giving him four on the season. He also recovered both the fumbles that Woodson forced. He has an impressive knack for the ball, and finishes plays definitively. Really impressed by his play.

2) Patience on Offense – the downfield plays are beautiful, but it seems like McCarthy finally recognized this week that they need to get rid of the ball faster and balance it with a rushing attack. There were a lot of three-step drops, a lot of slants, and a lot of screens. It took patience – I’m sure when fans were booing the Packers in the first half it was tempting to call some hail Mary. But the conservative play-calling helped keep a strong Cowboys pass rush out of Rodgers’ face – giving up only 4 sacks (still needs to improve but much better than I expected).

They were also patient with the running game – rushing the ball 28 times (41% of their offensive snaps). Grant had a decent game with 79 yards on 19 carries, averaging over 4 yards per attempt. If the Packers can manage to average 4 yards on first down, they are very good at converting that set of downs. Play action starts to work. Defenses need to respect both the run and the pass. And the line can’t pin their ears back and rip Rodgers’ head off.

The drive at the end of the 3rd quarter exemplified this patient style of play. It was a 15-play, 80-yard drive that burned 7:33 on the clock, and gave the Packers a 10-0 lead on a one-yard QB sneak by Aaron Rodgers that I’m surprised isn’t being compared more to Bart Starr’s one-yard QB sneak against these same Cowboys that won the Ice Bowl. Here was the sequence:
  • Pass to Driver for 5 yards
  • Pass to Driver for 10 yards
  • Run by Grant for 3 yards
  • Screen to Green for -4 yards
  • Pass to Jennings for 14 yards (on 3rd and 11)
  • Sack on Rodgers for -7 yards
  • Run by Grant for 4 yards
  • Pass to Lee for 17 yards (on 3rd and 13)
  • Run by Grant for 7 yards
  • Pass to Nelson for 10 yards
  • Cowboys penalty – hands to the face
  • Incomplete to Jones
  • Cowboys penalty – defensive pass interference
  • Incomplete to Jennings
  • Run by Grant for 4 yards
  • Pass to Nelson for 7 yards
  • QB sneak by Rodgers for the touchdown

Rodgers did a great job converting two long third downs, but other than that it was all short passes and runs. And NO penalties! If they can replicate it, this drive could be one we look back on as a turning point in the season.

3) Winning the Turnover Battle – Of all the stats, turnover ratio is one of the most predictive of which team will win the game. Dallas gave up three turnovers – two fumbles and an interception. Green Bay didn’t give up any. One of the things I most love about Rodgers, particularly after the Favre years, is that he’s careful with the football – both in the passes he makes, and in how he holds the ball in the pocket. A close game, like this one was and like I expect the remaining games to all be, is decided by turnovers. What was great this week is that these were “take-aways” not just turnovers. The defense got to the ball and created opportunities. Continue to do that, and they will continue to win games.

What still needs to be fixed.

So as tempting as it is to get all hyped up again after a big win, I need to note a few things that continue to be problems.

First, penalties – they’re killing us. The Packers had 12 penalties for 100 yards on Sunday. The fact the Cowboys are the second-most penalized team in the league (and had 10 penalties for 67 yards themselves) was the only thing that balanced out this otherwise disastrous part of the box score. It’s amazing how fast penalties can destroy a drive. Great example was Green Bay’s third possession of the game. Here’s how it went down:
  • 1st & 10: Grant 2-yd run
  • 2nd & 8: PENALTY – false start on Lang
  • 2nd & 13: Screen to Grant for first down, brought back on PENALTY – holding on Nelson
  • 2nd & 13: Completed to Nelson for 9 yards
  • 3rd & 4: Rodgers sacked, but drive kept alive by Cowboy penalty for illegal use of hands
  • 1st & 10: PENALTY – false start on Colledge
  • 1st & 15: Green run for 5 yards
  • 2nd & 10: Incomplete to Green
  • 3rd & 10: Complete to Jones for first down, but challenged by Dallas and overturned
  • 4th & 10: Punt

That’s three penalties in nine plays – two pre-snap penalties, and one that negated a first down. This was the point where the Lambeau crowd started booing. They need to clean this up. It’s should be solvable – most of it is just bone-headed, lack-of-concentration mistakes.

Second, of course, is still the offensive line. Lang got the start at right tackle in place of Tauscher and Barbre, and didn’t give up too much. But now Colledge might be hurt (not that he’d been playing well anyway), and Clifton continues to struggle in my opinion. He just doesn’t seem to be moving his feet well. There was a series in which he completely failed to get out and block for a screen to Green, which was immediately followed by DeMarcus Ware blowing by him for a sack like Clifton was standing still. I don’t know if the injury is still bothering him, but he remains a big vulnerability. Green Bay still leads the league by far in sacks given up with 41 and have allowed 66 hits on Rodgers.

Third, special teams is the weak link in the three phases. The Packers are the worst in the league on net punt yards (averaging 33 yards). Part of that is Kapinos, who is mediocre at best (averaging 43.1 yards, 20th in the league), but a lot of it is just poor punt coverage – they’ve given up 294 return yards, more than any team in the league. Their kickoff team isn’t doing well either – averaging 61.9 yards per kickoff (27th in the league) and allowing an average return of 24.5 yards (9th worst in the league). Our return game hasn’t been very good either – averaging only 6.7 yards per punt return (23rd in the league) and 22.6 yards per kick return (18th in the league). Many of our penalties have been committed by special teams as well. We need to improve this phase of the game.

The good news is Kampman, Chillar and Finley are all expected back next week. We need them, as I expect the 49ers to play a physical game. Hopefully, if we put together a game plan like we did against Dallas, this can be the start of a little winning streak. We control our own destiny for a wild card spot, but we are even with three good teams – the Eagles, Giants and Falcons – at 5-4. So there’s no room for error.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Well that sucked…

tuesday, june 14OK.  First off, I must acknowledge the unfortunate timing of my previous post – heralding Rodgers’ two-interception season on the very morning that he tosses three picks.  Pretty much took the wind right out of my argument.

I have to say, I’m pretty shocked the Packers lost that game.  It goes without saying that they should have beaten a winless team with a rookie quarterback getting his first NFL start.  You simply can’t lose that game.  And against a team wearing uniforms that can only be described as… flamboyant.  C’mon – the knife clenched between the teeth?  The dude is winking for Christ's sake!  I half expected their coach to come out in a puffy pirate shirt.

The entire premise of this blog was three observations, good or bad, from each week’s game.  That premise is rapidly getting tired, since the three things almost always are pass protection, pass protection and pass protection.  So I’ll start there.

1) Pass protection.  Six sacks!!!  I’ll accept the point of the Rodgers bashers that he’s holding on to the ball too long at times.  But that is, at most, costing us a sack or two – not six.  Not against the Buccaneers.  Green Bay has become the game opposing defensive linemen put circles and stars around on the schedule.  They should start tracking player's sack counts with an asterisk indicating if they’ve played the Packers or not, since it provides such a generous boost to their stats.

At this point, it’s obvious that this isn’t going to get solved this season.  We just don’t have the personnel.  Spitz is on IR.  Clifton appears to be done.  Lang and Barbre aren’t ready.  Tauscher, even if you believed he would make a difference, sprained his surgically-repaired knee.  And it’s not just the O-line.  Grant can’t pick up blitzes.  Finley is out.  Rodgers is holding on to the ball too long.  McCarthy needs to accept that the offense he wants to run just isn’t going to work with this personnel group.  They need to change the play calling to more runs, more screens, faster releases.  That was, incidentally, one glimmer of hope in that game is the establishment of some rushing and the presence of Ahman Green filling that 3rd-down back role.

I'm so damn sick of talking about the pass protection though, that it came as a bit of a relief that there were some new things to complain about this week.

2) Three interceptions.  If Rodgers ever wants to put the Favre demons to rest, he can’t crap the bed like that one week after losing to the Vikings.  Every QB will have some bad days, but you can’t have it against an 0-7 team wearing tangerine uniforms and waving pirate flags from Disney-esque fake ships.  I won’t harp on this, because it hasn’t been a problem at all this year, and I believe Rodgers will bounce back.  But the picks kept the Bucs in the game.

3) Special teams.  Coming off a week in which Percy Harvin shredded our kick coverage team, you’d think they would have worked on that in practice a bit.  Special teams is where the youth and mistake-prone nature of this team is most visible.  It’s not even guys getting physically beat.  It’s just stupid mental errors.  Like on the blocked punt.  Ya kinda gotta block the guy coming right up the middle!

The bottom line of this loss is it put us into a position in which we have a bunch of must-win games against good teams – particularly this week against Dallas and the following week against San Francisco.  I have always felt that a 9-7 or 10-6 season with a wildcard berth was a realistic expectation for this year.  My confidence in that prediction was shaken by that loss.  Let’s hope they can right the ship and get things back on track in the second half of the season.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Packers vs Vikings, Part Deux

It took me a while to write this post.  Partly, my delay was due to multiple family events this week and a business trip to New York, but mostly it was because I needed some distance from last week’s game.  Talking about the weaknesses that cost the Packers that game is beyond beating a dead horse at this point – it’s dismembering the horse, pounding it into a fleshy pulp, and grinding the remaining bone fragments in a mortar.

I can’t really keep doing my “three observations” since it’s the same things week after week.  1) Sacks – six of them last week, 31 on the season, more than any other team.  2) Inability to run – no commitment to the run whatsoever (only 14 attempts by backs), 3.0 yards per carry for Grant, and Rodgers outgaining Grant nearly 2:1 in rush yards.   3) Penalties – 6 for 45 yards against the Vikings (including the critical head butt personal foul that turned a field goal into a touchdown), and 57 penalties on the season (second only to the Bills in the NFL).

Obviously, the coaching staff and management in Green Bay knows that these things are a problem.  Anyone who even remotely follows the NFL knows they’re a problem.  What’s discouraging as a Packers fan is that the organization seems to be completely unable to do anything to fix them.  Clifton and Tauscher will be back this week, but I’m not optimistic it will solve anything.  We may not see it against Tampa, but most of the remaining teams on the schedule are too good not to exploit these weaknesses.  The Vikings certainly did.  And as much as it pains me to say it, they are simply a better team this year.

I still believe the Packers are a playoff contender, but any chance of taking the NFC North title pretty much disappeared last Sunday.  Barring a complete Vikings meltdown, it’s almost impossible to see how Green Bay gets back in the running.  A couple weeks ago, when I made my picks for the remainder of the season, it looked like the Eagles and Cardinals would be marginal.  But those teams seem to be gaining momentum, which will make the wild card race a bigger challenge.

But after last week and the likelihood the Vikings will win the division and possibly the NFC, I think the question on most Packers fans’ minds is “would we be better off with Favre?”  To that, I still say, emphatically, no.

First, Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback.  He is the number one quarterback in the NFL – both in the real league with a 110.4 QB rating, and in the fantasy league with 157 fantasy points by my league’s scoring system.  On the season, he’s thrown 14 TDs to only 2 interceptions (#6 and #3 in the league respectively in those categories).  He’s averaging 284 yards per game (#7 in the league) and has a 65.3% completion percentage (#11 in the league).  Favre, with a 106 QB rating, is having a great season too.  But Rodgers is having a better season.  The most common knocks on Rodgers are:
  1. “He can’t win the big game” – Need I dig out Favre’s stats in “big games” both early in his career (remember the Cowboys) and later in his career (costing us playoff games his last several years in Green Bay).
  2. “He holds on to the ball too long” – I’d gladly take sacks instead of interceptions.  Rodgers has only thrown two on the season.
  3. “He doesn’t start games well” – a relatively new criticism by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal’s Greg Bedard, which places all the Packer’s start-of-game and start-of-half execution woes on Rodgers.
These criticisms are crap -- particularly for a player who has only started 23 games.  Rodgers is playing at a level well beyond his game experience.  Given time, I fully expect him to prove these doubts ill-founded.

Second, who would you rather have???  There’s really only two possible answers to this question: Favre or somebody else we could have drafted.  In terms of other young QBs, there’s nobody better.  Rodgers was the 24th pick in the first round of the NFL 2005 draft.  The only QB to be drafted ahead of him (#1 overall) was Alex Smith to the 49ers – who only recently got back his starting job and is pretty widely regarded as a bust out here. Players at the QB position the Packers passed on that year include:
  • Jason Campbell, Redskins
  • Charlie Frye, Browns
  • Andrew Walter, Raiders
  • David Greene, Seahawks
  • Kyle Orton, Bears/Broncos
  • Stefan LeFors, Panthers
  • Dan Orlovsky, Detroit Lions
  • Adrian McPherson, Saints
  • Derek Anderson, Ravens
  • Matt Cassel, Patriots
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick, Rams
Pretty clear we got the best of that lot.

So what about the drafts in the intervening years?  Here are your choices:
  • 2006 -- Vince Young, Titans; Matt Leinart, Cardinals; Jay Cutler, Broncos/Bears; Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings
  • 2007 -- JaMarcus Russell, Raiders; Brady Quinn, Browns; Trent Edwards, Bills
  • 2008 -- Matt Ryan, Falcons; Joe Flacco, Ravens
  • 2009 -- Matthew Stafford, Lions; Mark Sanchez, Jets; Josh Freeman, Buccaneers; Pat White, Dolphins
Lots of complete busts in there (Russell, Quinn, Young, Jackson), a couple promising players (Ryan and Flacco), but nobody I’d even come close to taking ahead of Rodgers.  You really need to go back to the 2004 draft , which included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Schaub, to find anyone at Rodgers’ level.  But I’d still rather take Rodgers ahead of all those guys.

So what about Favre?  Would he have vanquished his own post-season demons and gotten us to the promised land the last two seasons?  Personally, I can’t see how.  With such horrible pass protection and lack of a running game, I think we would have seen the “same Favre” we lived with for most of his last four seasons in green and gold – pressing too much, making too many mistakes, throwing too many interceptions, and costing us too many games with is “gun-slinging” style.  Favre is good enough to be great with the solid offensive line, elite running back, and talented young receivers he has in Minnesota.  But with the Packers (and 90% of the other teams in the league for that matter), he’d be no better than average.

Third, we are in this for the long-run.  What Favre, his ego, and most Packers fans have never seemed to understand is it’s not about who is the better quarterback for one game, or even one season.  To be a successful organization, a team needs a quarterback that can lead them for a decade or more.  These guys are really rare, but, with stability and leadership in the front office and coaching staff, a “franchise quarterback” is the essential piece of the puzzle for winning games.  You call him that because he is the person around whom you build your franchise.

We have that with Rodgers.  A young quarterback who is improving every week.  An elite player who will form the foundation of the organization for years to come.  A difference maker, who may not win a championship in his first or second year as a starter, but who will win more games and go further in the post-season over a 10-year span than most teams in the league.  Whether it was drafting genius or pure luck is irrelevant.  The fact is, we have that guy on our roster, and there simply was no other choice for Thompson, McCarthy and the rest of the organization but to ride that horse.

Favre will retire.  He is 40.  As improbable as his current level of play is, continuing it for more than a year or two further is nothing short of impossible.  It won’t happen.  And any fan who acknowledges he is not invincible must accept that the Packers are a better organization with Rodgers.  This season looks like it will end painfully for us, but, over the next 3 to 5 to 10 years, I’ll take our situation over the Vikings’ situation any day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The most complete game yet

Granted, Cleveland stinks.  But that was the most satisfying, all-around win so far this year.  This was the Packer team I’ve been waiting to see all season.  And the timing couldn’t be better – with the Vikings dropping their first game on a Favre interception against the Steelers, Green Bay is poised to get right back into the NFC North mix with a win next week.

As an aside, how do Browns fans do it?  It’s one thing to wear a foam wedge of cheese on your head – at least you can retain some dignity.  But when you’re sporting a dog mask, and you continue to watch a beat down along with approximately 75 remaining fans in the stadium, you need to question your priorities.  The only thing this dude needs more than a life is a gastric bypass.

But I digress.  Through the first 6 weeks, I could be accused of overly high expectations, of not appreciating the wins we’ve had, of nit picking.  So I’m happy to be taking a glass-is-half-full approach this week with my three observations.

1) No sacks.  Hallelujah.  T.J. Lang gets his first start at left tackle, and it was a great one.  The way an offensive lineman gets noticed in my book, is by not getting noticed.  Lang and the rest of the O-line had a great day.  Not only did they pass protect, but they busted open some serious holes in the “Cleave”-land defense.

And Rodgers made the most of it.  I have felt all season that the only thing holding him back from a Pro-Bowl year has been pass protection.  Wow, was that ever apparent today – 246 yards, three touchdowns, and a career-high 155.4 passer rating.  If the line can continue to protect like that, Rodgers will emerge this year as a premier QB in the league.  Apart from the helmet dislodging on the failed 4th and 1 in the opening drive, Rodgers was un-stoppable today.

I need to watch the game again, but I think T.J. Lang was a difference-maker.  Compared to Clifton’s abysmal performance last week, Lang was impressive – particularly for a rookie.  Maybe that’s the spark the O-line needed.

2) Running game.  Green Bay clearly came out to establish the run against the league's worst run defense.  And that they did, with 9 runs on their first 10 plays.  The O-line was playing downhill for the first time this season, and getting a great push on every play.  Grant missed a few cuts, but had a fantastic day – 148 yards on the day, one of his best performances ever.  Brandon Jackson had some kick in his step too, appearing to be fully healthy for the first time this season.

As a team, the Packers went over the 200-yard mark for the first time this season, averaging almost 5 yards per carry.  I don’t care if the Browns are the worst run defense, that’s a solid performance.  The nit picker in me can still get a little concerned that they struggled to get yards when they needed them – for example, they needed six plays from a 1st and goal at the Browns 3, and only barely got the TD; and failed to get in from the 1-yard line in the second quarter.

But overall, it was a great rushing performance, which controlled the clock, which opened up play-action, which thwarted the blitz, and so on.  The last few seasons, there has been a game in which the O-line finally asserts itself, playing smash mouth football and opening up the holes for Grant.  I’m hopeful that this was that game.

3) 3 points.  Another stellar week for the defense -- three points in two weeks now.  The Browns put up just 139 yards of total offense, only 57 in the second half.  The Packers created turn-overs.  They created pressure.  They stiffened when they needed to – included a Cleveland 4th and goal from the 1, which was turned around into a 99-yard drive scoring drive by the offense.

The maturation of the defense has been exciting to watch this year.  They really seem to be coming together as a unit.  Woodson and Harris’s ability to play one-on-one opens up all sorts of interesting schemes.  The linebacker corps is second to none.  Matthews is showing signs of blossoming into a bona fide stud.  Barnett seems to be getting healthier, more aggressive, and less swash-buckling every week.  A.J. Hawk’s penetration down by the goal line was beautiful.  And Poppinga, Chillar and Bishop are all impact players as well.  Their linebackers have gone from a weakness to a strength of this defense – they are fast, aggressive, and gaining confidence.

The secondary is really gelling as well.  Getting Bigby back was huge.  He’s such a difference-maker in both the run game and pass protection.  Tramon Williams, though tentative on punt returns today, is legit in nickel coverage with a great nose for the ball.  The only complaint I could make all day on defense was some penalties.  There were a few key ones – including Harris’s facemask that set up the first and only Browns score; a PI and un-necessary roughness penalty that got the Browns into scoring position; and the 12-man on the field penalty that kept a Browns drive alive.  But none of those proved too costly, and most I’ll accept in exchange for an aggressive style of play that creates opportunities.

Aaron Rodgers said it best in the post-game press conference, “I felt like we got back to the kind of football we’re capable of.”  That is the kind of football that got us all so excited in the pre-season.  That is the kind of football that will beat the Vikings next weekend.  That is the kind of football that will get us to the post-season.  And you could feel the energy, the confidence.  If Rodgers rides that three-piece-suit swagger into next Sunday’s game, we could be within a half game of the NFC North.

Final note: Really hope Finley can get back next week.  It’s being described as a knee sprain that could put him out for “a couple weeks.”  He’s getting an MRI tomorrow.  Although Spencer Havner did an admirable job in replacement, going 45 yards for their first TD, Finley will be a critical asset against the Vikings.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Packer Predictions: How will we do the rest of the season?

I acknowledge, it is only week 7.  There is a lot of football left.  But, as fans, we don’t need to “take it week by week.”  We don’t risk “looking past” an opponent.  We can afford to indulge in the favorite topic of any sports fan worldwide – are we going to make the playoffs???

So with that, here’s my take on each of the remaining games.

Sun., Oct. 25 @ Cleveland Browns – Clearly a game Green Bay should win.  Cleveland is atrocious.  They lost their last talented receiver with the departure of Braylon Edwards.  Their offense ranks 30th in total points and 31st in yards/game.  Their defense has given up the 5th most points in the league and more yards/game (407) than any other team.  They are probably the worst team in the league.  Losing to them would be a colossal setback.  I don’t expect it to happen.
Prediction: Win – Record: 4-2

Sun., Nov. 1 Minnesota Vikings – The NFL moved this to a 3:15 start time “due to logistical issues in Philadelphia should the Philadelphia Phillies be in the World Series.”  Yeah, whatever – what difference to a Packers-Vikings game does a Philadelphia World Series have???  They know this will be a ratings boom. Their Monday night game was the most-watched program in cable history, with 21.8 million viewers.  Favre’s return to Lambeau will have even more drama.  This could be the Packers best/last shot at winning the NFC North.  But I think they will just fall short of pulling it off.  Vikings pass rush will be too much.
Prediction: Loss – Record: 4-3

Sun., Nov. 8 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Another awful team, that the Packers should beat.  Tampa’s defense has given up the 4th most points in the league, and the 6th most yards.  Their offense is equally inept – 26th in points and 28th in yards/game – with an inexperienced quarterback in Josh Johnson that has a propensity to turn the ball over.  Should be a win.
Prediction: Win – Record: 5-3

Sun., Nov. 15 Dallas Cowboys – This may be the second time since the Ice Bowl that Dallas has come to Lambeau.  We lost to them at home last year, but we are better and they are worse than a season ago.  Romo is struggling, and they have tough games against Atlanta and at Philadelphia in the next 3 weeks.  If they lose those, they could spiral into the customary Cowboys finger-pointing, even without TO.  I think we take advantage of that and send them packing.
Prediction: Win – Record 6-3

Sun., Nov. 22 San Francisco 49ers – I have a weird feeling that the Packers are going to go 1-1 between this game and the Cowboys game.  Since I picked them to beat Dallas, I guess I need to pick them to lose to San Francisco at home.  I went to a 49ers game out here, and they looked pretty darn good (this was before their surprising meltdown against the Falcons).  If Gore is healthy, and they play disciplined defense, I think we could have our hands full and San Fran will eek out a tough win.
Prediction: Loss – Record 6-4

Thurs., Nov. 26 @ Detroit Lions – In spite of our “ugly” 26-0 shutout last week, this game scares me a little.  If Stafford and Calvin Johnson are back, not to mention most of their defensive line, this will be a very different Lions team than the one we faced last week.  They’ve shown some fight against good teams this year, and they will surprise someone -- hopefully, not us.  We never play well in Detroit.  Plus it’s the Thanksgiving game.  I still think we pull it out, but I’m worried about this game giving me an extremely bad case of pumpkin pie indigestion.
Prediction: Win – Record 7-4

Mon., Dec. 7 Baltimore Ravens – Monday night in Lambeau in December.  Should be electric.  Baltimore is on a three-game skid, but they are a really good team.  They put up 21 points in the last 10 minutes against Minnesota last week.  All their losses have been extremely close.  They could easily be undefeated at this point.  They also match up really well against us – a bruising tandem of runners, an accurate athletic QB, and, of course, a stifling defense.  Home field and the Monday night energy will give us an edge, but I think the Ravens upset us.
Prediction: Loss – Record 7-5

Sun., Dec. 13 @ Chicago Bears
– This game is always a hard one to call.  I can’t tell yet if Chicago is good, or if Cutler with no Urlacher is going to spell disaster for them.  We’ll find out between now and then, as Chicago plays Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Minnesota before they play us.  I think Cutler’s inconsistency, Forte’s inability to get the running game going, and a defense that is good-not-great, will result in a mediocre team that we can beat. 
Prediction: Win – Record 8-5

Sun., Dec. 20 @ Pittsburgh Steelers – Tough game, on the road, against the Super Bowl champs, in December.  The Parker-Mendenhall duo scares me – so does Big Ben, and Hines Ward, and not to mention their defense.  They showed some weakness for a few weeks, but that was mostly due to Polomalu being out.  That’s the only reason Chicago was able to beat these guys.  I just can’t see us being able to run against them, or protect Rodgers.  And they will be in playoff mode by this time of the year.
Prediction: Loss – Record 8-6

Sun., Dec. 27 Seattle Seahawks – Very winnable game.  Matt Hasselbeck, who is still being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder for his epic blunder “we want the ball and we’re going to score” comment in OT of the first-round playoff game in 2004, will struggle.  Seattle isn’t very good, and they will be particularly bad at Lambeau in January, as they demonstrated last time they visited us.
Prediction: Win – Record 9-6

Sun., Jan. 3 @ Arizona Cardinals – If this game were in Green Bay, we’d win it easily.  We dominated Arizona in the pre-season game, and they appear to be no better than an 8-8 team.  This game could be a playoff game for both teams, though – a must win for the last wildcard spot.  I just think we match up very well against them.  Woodson and Harris can handle Fitzgerald and Boldin.  That will let us get pressure on Warner and shut down their running game.  Their defense is decent, but I think Rodgers can pick them apart.
Prediction: Win – Record 10-6

It is, unfortunately, difficult to see how Minnesota finishes any worse than 12-4 and most likely wins the division.  Between Pittsburgh this week and us the following week, they need to get a loss or two.  If they are 8-0 into their break (with two wins against us) it’s over – their only hard games after their bye are against New York, Arizona and Chicago (twice).  Even if they lose all of those, they’d still be 12-4.  What's depressing is that even if they lose both to both the Steelers this week and us the following week, they are still likely going to win 11+ games.

Here are my picks for the remainder of the Vikings season:
  • @ Pittsburgh – Prediction: Loss – Record 6-1
  • @ Green Bay – Prediction: Win – Record 7-1
  • Detroit – Prediction: Win – Record 8-1
  • Seattle – Prediction: Win – Record 9-1
  • Chicago – Prediction: Win – Record 10-1
  • @ Arizona – Prediction: Loss – Record 10-2
  • Cincinnati – Prediction: Win – Record 11-2
  • @ Carolina – Prediction: Win – Record 12-2
  • @ Chicago – Prediction: Loss – Record 12-3
  • New York Giants – Prediction: Loss – Record 12-4

Obviously, we’re all hoping for a Vikings meltdown, like the Jets had last year.  But I don’t see that happening – Favre isn’t being asked to do as much, his shoulder is healthy, and he can rely on his running game and defense much more.  Even if we beat them in two weeks, taking the Division title will be an uphill battle.  We need something flukey, like Peterson going out for the season, to have a chance of catching them.

So that means we’re most likely playing for a wild card.  I see the Falcons as a shoe-in for the other wild card, so that means we’re most likely competing against Dallas, Chicago, and either Arizona or San Francisco for the other spot – and we play all those teams.  Those become close to must-win games for us, if we’re going to make it to the post-season.  The NFC has a lot of bad teams this year, so the good teams will, therefore, have better records.  I’m not sure a 9-7 record would get us in.  But I like our chances of getting to 10-6 and I think that will do the trick.  Just hope we don’t have to open up with an away game at the Metrodome!

So those are my prediction.  Give me yours!  I want comments!!!