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: