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:


  1. Nice breakdown Mike. I tell ya, the penalties are driving me insane. That said,the Packers kept fighting.

    I will be at the last home game against the Seahawks, and its looking like that game will definitely have playoff implications. I can't quite taste the playoffs yet, but I can smell them.

  2. A lot of those penalty yards were the three pass interference calls on Tramon Williams. The first one in the end zone was a reasonable call, since he had the receiver's arm hooked (and it felt like a make-up call by the refs). But the second in the end zone definitely should have been a no call. That was well within the bounds of normal jostling, and in both Williams had his head turned around. Glad he was able to negate it with the interception. Hopefully he learns from it.