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.

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