Watching Drew Brees and the Saints dismantle the Falcons 45-16 while shattering Dan Marino's single-season passing record gives me pause. As does the 49ers' dominant defense and grind-it-out running game, a style well equipped for cold-weather success at Lambeau Field in January. Although the path is, statistically speaking, easier this year than it was as a #6 seed last year, the Packers need to enter the post-season with a little better execution all around.
In particular, there are three areas that really need to get shored up:
- First, the defense needs to finally get back into championship form. Despite beating the Bears in the end by a two touchdown margin, the defense allowed 21 points against a severely depleted Bears offense. It's cause for concern when Josh McCown, a guy who was a high school football coach till last week and who is seeing his first NFL action of the season, puts up 242 yards passing, and a posse of third-string running backs rack up nearly 200 yards rushing. This game should have been a shut-out. If an offense that crappy can put up 21 points, then the 49ers certainly can, and the Saints might break 100. The defense needs to stiffen. Counting on turn-overs and 5 TDs from Rodgers won't cut it in the playoffs.
- Second, the offensive line needs to get healthy. Although the Packers' patch-work line did not give up a single sack against the Bears, they will face some brutal defensive fronts in the post-season -- the 49ers, Giants and Lions all pose serious threats with their front 4. Chad Clifton will reportedly give it a try this Sunday against the Lions. And Bryan Bulaga should be back in the line-up either this week or by the playoffs. The first-round bye will help everyone get healthy again. Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang have both played well this season, but would really like to see the line back to full-strength and everyone back to their regularly scheduled positions for this playoff run.
- Third, the Packers need to regain their intensity. There is no question the Packers came into last year's playoffs with a win-or-die mind set. They had nothing to lose. They played loose but fierce. And they rode it all the way. As incredible as an undefeated season would have been in immortalizing this team among the greatest of all time, there is no question that the loss to Kansas City both took some pressure off them, but also reminded them that no team is invincible. They need to get the chip back on their shoulder and go out and play ball like their lives depended on it.
It's the concern of every team who clinches early that they will get soft. A month of ultimately inconsequential games can do that, and it will be great for both fans and players to see meaningful action again. We'll soon know if the Packers can get their blemishes corrected and deliver on goal number four.