Monday, January 31, 2011

Latest Packer Controversy: Nut Gate

Controversy again swirled around the Green Bay Packers locker room this week when several players rehabbing from injuries complained that they did not receive the complimentary dry roasted peanuts that the starting players were allegedly given on their flight to Dallas today.

“Nobody told me there were going to be free peanuts.  So typical – I didn’t get any damn nuts!  Talk about ‘union’ ha!” tweeted injured Packer linebacker Nick Barnett.

“We weren’t told ahead of time by the flight attendants that there were going to be free nuts,” said head coach Mike McCarthy defending the decision when asked about the incident during a press conference.  “It’s unfortunate that not all of our players could be there for the free nuts, but I needed to make a game-time decision and we decided to all eat the nuts.”

The Packers Minimeal - sent to injured players who missed out on nuts.
In trying to put the issue to rest, Packers president Mark Murphy pledged to ship free miniature bags of dry roasted peanuts to all the players so that they could enjoy them during their rehab.  “The Packers do right by our players, so we upgraded to the Minimeal boxes for all our guys on IR, which includes pretzels, spreadable cheese, and some Famous Amos cookies.  Hopefully now we can put this issue behind us”

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pro Bowl Moves to Two-Hand Touch Format

In a bold acknowledgement of the irrelevance of the Pro Bowl, NFL EVP of Football Operations Ray Anderson announced today that the league will be trying out a new two-hand touch format in tonight’s game from Hawaii.

“We discussed many options, including a flag football format as well as just switching the game to ultimate Frisbee,” stated Anderson from a luau.  “But the league officials felt like two-hand touch was the most authentic to the spirit of the game.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised the move.  “Everyone knows this game is a boondoggle and completely irrelevant,” said Goodell who was sporting a technicolor Hawaiian print shirt for the day’s festivities.  “Despite tinkering with the schedule and inserting the game before the Super Bowl when a large number of deserving players from the respective Super Bowl teams can’t even play, we still can’t get people to care.  So we think moving to two-hand touch would spice it up for our fans.”

Matt Ryan shows off his new Pro Bowl helmet.
With the change in format, the players are also being given new flexibility in their uniforms as well.  Michael Vick, the NFC’s starting quarterback, will reportedly be sporting a golf visor and Bermuda shorts.  While Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, another NFC quarterback selected ahead of the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, said he would probably opt for one of those large Panama Jack hats.

Goodell suggested the league might try another first next year: combining the NFL Pro Bowl with the LFL’s Lingerie Bowl.  “That’s a high-class operation they’ve got going in the LFL,” said Goodell.  “Just like when the NFL started playing the AFL to create the Super Bowl, I could see an NFL/LFL championship having a similar lasting impact on advancing the competitiveness and fan appeal our sport.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Additional Reports of Anti-Packer Discrimination

In the wake of an Illinois car salesman who was fired for wearing a Packer tie to work, TriggPack has recently uncovered a rash of additional instances of Packer fans being discriminated against.  Fueled by President Obama’s blatant favoritism for the Chicago Bears, anti-Packer incidents have been on the rise and cropping up across the country.

Donna Van Stolowitz was discriminated against for her cheese bra.
Donna Van Stolowitz, originally from Rhinelander, Wisconsin but now living in Minneapolis, reported that her boss insisted she return home after she arrived at work wearing a cheese bra.  “I was just trying to show some Packer spirit,” reported Van Stolowitz.  “Jeesh, I mean… c’mon.”  Her boss, who couldn’t be reached for comment, reportedly told her to change into something “more appropriate” in an obvious display of anti-Packer sentiment.

Russ Voeltzke's G-Force tattoo.
In another reported incident, Russ Voeltzke of Fond du Lac had the Packers’ G-Force logo tattooed on his bicep in honor of Green Bay’s trip to Super Bowl XLV.  Voeltzke, who works as a bank teller, alleges his boss, who was originally from Illinois, told him, “That’s just dorky” and insisted he stop rolling the sleeves of his sports coat over his shoulders.  “I was just trying to support the Pack, ya know?” said Voeltzke in his defense.

Bob VerBruggen "Keeping it Real" in Oconomowoc.
Bob VerBruggen also relayed an incident of anti-Wisconsinism on a recent trip through the Detroit airport.  The Oconomowoc native was in line to buy some beef jerky when a group of young men commanded him to “get out of the way, REO Speedwagon!”  It wasn’t the first time VerBruggen had suffered mullet discrimination.  “One time, my boss called me ‘Michael Bolton’ in front of the entire plant,” admitted VerBruggen.  “It was hard, but there’s no way I’m getting this mane cut – it’s just who I am.”

With the Packers heading to the Super Bowl for the first time in 13 years, Wisconsinites can expect more of this kind of callous discrimination.  Hang tough, Packer Nation.  To those who may mock your accent, hairstyle, or full-body fluorescent snowmobile suit, tell them two words: “Title Town!”

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cutler’s Toughness Debatable, but Lameness Confirmed

It kills me to be talking about Jay Cutler the day after the Packers punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLV.  But with most of the national sports media “questioning Cutler’s toughness” rather than hyping the Packers’ undeniable awesomeness, I feel compelled to give my take on the situation in the hopes of putting the story behind us.

Following in the wake of a slew of NFL commentators and players criticizing Cutler for leaving the game in the second half, reports surfaced today that Cutler likely suffered a “second degree MCL tear.”  Or maybe just a “strain.”  Regardless of the medical diagnosis, I have no doubt that Cutler was injured.  I also believe that, in spite of walking around and standing on the sideline in a cozy jacket, that he probably was in a lot of pain and probably should have sat out the rest of the game.  And I can certainly understand why you wouldn't want B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews chasing you around with a torn ligament in your knee.

What I found surprising in the aftermath was the indignant tone among those who came to Cutler’s defense.  As if, “how dare you question the toughness of Jay Cutler!?”  Let me lay it out for you why Cutler’s injury conjured up such a shit storm: people don’t like him.  By “him”, I don’t mean the “real” him.  By numerous accounts, Jay Cutler the person is a really good guy.  I’ve heard many sports personalities and fellow players who know him assert that.  And the credibility of that private persona was enhanced for me this week when none other than Aaron Rodgers attested that he was good friends with Cutler and appreciated everything Jay did for his younger brother who played with him at Vanderbilt.

But Jay Cutler the public persona comes across as a complete a-hole.  He whines.  He mopes.  He looks disinterested.  He rolls his eyes and slouches his shoulders like a petulant child.  He dismisses the throngs of reporters at his locker with “no comment.”  Overall, he just gives off an air that makes you want to smack him.  As TriggPack readers know, he is Cody Hanson.

If the difference between Cutler’s public persona and private persona is really that great, it’s unfortunate.  Many people would assert that it’s unfair to judge a person so harshly through the eyes of the media.  But that is the reality of playing football in the NFL.  It’s part of the deal.  You can’t be a prick to the people who are paid to cover you, and then complain when that coverage is unfavorable.

No more stark a contrast from Cutler could be found in the NFL than his opponent Sunday.  Aaron Rodgers, who lived through his own tornado of media scrutiny and public mis-interpretation of who he was and what he stood for as a human being, has done an amazing job cultivating his public persona.  Rodgers has clearly focused on building a rapport with the media, and, through the media, with fans.  He is generous with his time, sincere in his responses, thoughtful in his commentary, and comes across overall as a completely nice, likeable guy.  The benefit of that?  People want Rodgers to succeed.  If it had been Rodgers who had left the game, he wouldn’t have been swirling in public criticism and second-guessing.  Why?  Because he’s earned the media’s and the public’s respect, trust and admiration.

Jay Cutler clearly doesn’t value that relationship.  That’s fine – it’s his prerogative.  But don’t come back and bitch about it or claim it’s unfair when people question your toughness, or, for that matter, any other aspect of your personality.  Those of us in the “real world” live by the same rules.  We don’t get to be jackasses to some people and best buds to others – at least not without some people disliking us.  If Jay doesn’t want to get criticized, he needs to play by those rules too.

Packers Win in All 3 Phases

I have a dusty VHS tape in a shoe box in my garage that says, “Packers v. Panthers, NFC Championship Game, January 12, 1997.”  It’s been a while since I’ve watched it – I don’t even own a functioning VCR any more.  But damn if I’m getting rid of that tape.  That season, culminating in the Packers first Super Bowl win since Super Bowl II, was sheer joy for every Packer fan.

Bears fans burning a Cutler jersey.  Long live drunk meatheads!!!
Amazingly, that last Super Bowl victory was already 14 years ago.  Fourteen years is a long time.  Not as long as the 29 years a previous generation of Packers fans had to wait between Super Bowl II and Super Bowl XXXI, but it’s a long time.  Aaron Rodgers was 13 years old the last time the Packers won a Super Bowl.  My son will be 22 years old (and, no doubt, a first round NFL draft pick) 14 years from now.  The sheer glory and magnitude of this victory is still sinking in.

For Bears fans, this one has to sting a bit.  Let’s break down the pain:

  • First, they had to endure the “North Coast bias” (North Coast of Lake Michigan, that is) in the national media, who almost universally picked the Packers to beat the can’t-get-no-respect Bears – in spite of the fact they won the NFC North, were the #2 seed and were playing at Soldier Field.
  • Then they had to be subjected to stories like this one about a Packer fan and bar owner who decided to roast an entire bear.
  • Finally, the game arrives only to watch the Packers march down and easily score on the opening drive, followed by an Aaron Rodgers "mini belt" move.
  • Then, half way through the game, Jay Cutler goes down with a “no comment” injury to his knee, prompting mobs of Bears fans to burn their Cutler jerseys.  The sheer meatheadedness of that act aside, if a guy is not only walking on the sidelines but has no noticeable limp in the NFC Championship game, he probably should be playing.  And he had just been so impressive by beating the “Shittiest Team Ever to Make the Playoffs.
  • Some guy named Todd Collins, who sounds like he was named after an old-fashioned cocktail and had the jersey to match, comes in and nearly throws 3 interceptions in 3 attempts.
  • A glimmer of hope is provided by someone named Caleb Hanie, who exactly 3 Bears fans had ever heard of before today.  Against all odds, he somehow manages to lead the Bears back into the game.
  • Hanie the 15-minute hero turns goat by throwing the final interception to Sam Shields – an undrafted rookie free agent who had a spectacular day, including a forced fumble and 2 fantastic interceptions.
  • The game results in a loss to their arch rival, on their home field, costing them a Super Bowl appearance.

Ugh.  That one could leave scar tissue.  Could require therapy.  I am giving my friends who are Bears fans plenty of space this week.  No gloating.  Just quiet, respectful sympathy for an abused sports psyche.

So here are some quick grades on my 3 keys to the game:

  1. Force Cutler into mistakes – CHECK.  The defense was utterly relentless today.  The Bears could do nothing.  Cutler never got in a rhythm, threw an interception, and lost a fumble.  Forte was held to 70 yards.  Third game in the last four that the defense iced the win with an interception.
  2. Get Rodgers to play like Rodgers – CHECK.  Although Rodgers had an uncharacteristic 2 interceptions, his play and decision-making was solid, racking up 244 yards through the air and another 39 on the ground, including his touchdown to cap the opening drive.  It’s nice to see Rodgers can have “mere mortal” numbers and they still win.
  3. Don’t let Hester beat you – CHECK.  Tim Masthay had another masterful game against the Bears, placing several beautiful punts inside the 20 and blasting a long punt of 65.  Hester never even threatened to get a big return, which would have been a huge momentum swing.

Truly a victory in all three phases of the game.  And truly one of the most incredible Super Bowl runs ever.  Beating the Giants and Bears to get in, then beating the Eagles, Falcons and Bears (again) all on the road to be the first #6 seed ever from the NFC to make the Super Bowl.  It's unbelievable.  Something I hope my kids will remember and treasure as long as I have that VHS tape from 1997.  Can’t wait for the big show in two weeks!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three Keys to Beating the Bears

The journey to Sunday’s NFC Championship game was an unexpected one.  The Packers were the pre-season darlings, with many predicting them not only to go to but win the Super Bowl.  After a 3-3 start and a laundry list of key players on IR, the hype died down.  And after losing to the Lions, suddenly the Packers’ chances of even making the playoffs were in jeopardy.

But really starting with the Patriots game, even though it was a loss, the Packers seemed to have embraced a new attitude.  They are playing confident yet loose.  And it has resulted in an impressive four-game winning streak that has them at the brink of what everyone expected 5 months ago: a victory away from a trip to Dallas.  With both reigning conference champions as well as both #1 seeds eliminated from the playoffs, the path to the Super Bowl is more apparent than ever.  But the Packers cannot overlook the Bears.  No team knows them better or has played them tougher this year.

There are 3 keys to beating the Bears, and none involve a baseball bat.
The Bears appeared to be a train wreck earlier this season.  The Mike Martz-Jay Cutler combination was resulting in sacks, turnovers and losses.  But, to their credit, they got back to “Bear football” – handing the ball to Forte and leaning on their defense and special teams.  The Bears haven’t been getting much respect in the media this week (most stories seem to start out “Can the Bears Stop Aaron Rodgers?”), but they’ve earned their way to this point as much as the Packers have.

So with that prelude, here are the 3 keys I see to a Packer victory:

  1. Force Cutler into mistakes – Although Jay had a big game against Seattle (274 yards passing, two passing TDs, two rushing TDs, and a 111.3 passer rating), it was against Seattle.  The Packers need to bring un-relenting pressure, as they did in their second meeting where Green Bay racked up 6 sacks.  As in the Falcons game, it will all start with taking away Matt Forte and forcing the Bears into passing situations.  The Packers have been pretty effective against Cutler in their two meetings this season – allowing him to throw for just one touchdown while picking him off three times.  Cutler’s average passer rating in those two games: 63.0. In addition to stopping the run, getting a lead early could be a real advantage.  The Bears were 28th in the league in passing offense, with only 188 passing yards per game.  If we can force them to pass, I like our chances of returning the Bears’ offense to the sack, penalty and turnover machine it was earlier in the season.
  2. Get Rodgers to play like Rodgers – So far, Aaron has shown the ability to play big in big games, but he has also shown some tendency to struggle and get frustrated against tough defenses, as he did in both Bears games this year, as well as the Jets game.  In his press conference this week, Rodgers talked about how he feels he’s been playing more relaxed and having fun since needing to sit out with the concussion.  That has been apparent in his performances.  In his career as a starter, Rodgers is 4-2 against the Bears, with both losses by only a 3-point margin (20-17 each time).  He’s also blown them out, 37-3, in his first game against them.  Regardless of how this game unfolds, he needs to continue to play relaxed, not get anxious if the game is close, and just play the way he’s been playing.  Nobody has been hotter.  If he plays well, he can beat anyone.  
  3. Don’t let Hester beat you – Hester’s return for a touchdown killed us in the first game against the Bears this year.  Against Atlanta, the Packers were able to bounce back after a kick-off return for a touchdown, but overcoming such a mistake against the Bears will be much more difficult.  If the Bears get a lead on a turnover or special teams play, their defense is good enough to hold the line.  Tim Masthay has had some masterful moments as the season progressed, including the week 17 game against the Bears.  He will need to have a great game in terms of placement, distance and hang-time to keep Hester from having a moment.

Overall, I like our chances.  But I’m suspecting it will be a dog fight.  Chicago left everything on the field in the last two match-ups and there’s no reason to believe they won’t play with great intensity.  But there’s no team I’d rather play for a trip to the Super Bowl than the Bears.  What a spectacular culmination to an incredible season this is shaping up to be.

Favre's Version of LeBron James' "What Should I Do?" Ad

This is just too good not to post here.

George Halas’ Family Complains Namesake Trophy is “Lame”

Even the Halas Family Has to Admit: The Lombardi Trophy is Cooler.

Amidst the hype and anticipation of this Sunday’s NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, descendents of the legendary Bears’ coach are complaining to NFL officials that the Halas Trophy is “lame” – particularly compared to the Lombardi Trophy, which is awarded to the NFL’s top team and Super Bowl champion.

“Our grandfather would have rolled over in his grave if he knew Lombardi had a better trophy than him,” quipped Halas’ grandson, Patrick McCaskey.  “What the hell is it, anyway?  Who wants a bronze relief of a bunch of offensive linemen that looks like a cave drawing?”

In the last and only postseason meeting between the Packers and Bears on December 14, 1941, Halas led the Bears to a 33-14 victory over Curly Lambeau's Packers.  The game was necessitated after the Packers fluffed up their record by clobbering the Kenosha Cardinals, who weren’t even technically in the NFL, 65-2 in the final game of the season.  George Halas complained it wasn't fair, but the inequity of the respective coaches' trophies is an even greater stain on his legacy.

“I’m tired of Halas Trophies getting shoved behind Lombardi Trophies,” complained McCaskey.  “Nobody wants to be the second place prize.”

Although it might feel like a runner’s up prize for teams that win the Halas Trophy without sealing the deal with the Lombardi Trophy, one thing is undeniable – and that is the recent dominance of the NFC North division in contending for the NFC Championship.  Perhaps it’s the oft-complained about “East Coast Bias,” but it seems most seasons the NFC East is pointed to as the toughest division.  In fact, NFC North teams have had 5 appearances in the last 5 years – more than any other NFC division (the Packers twice, the Bears twice, and the Vikings once).  NFC South teams have made it twice (both Saints), NFC East twice (Giants and Eagles) and NFC West once (Cardinals) in the last five seasons.

It’s only fitting that the toughest division and the NFL’s longest rivalry would be the final match up to decide who represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.  And we’ll be glad to take “George” home – even if his family doesn’t think he’s cool.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Favre Retires: Let the Healing Begin

Fresh off Brett Favre's official filing of his retirement paperwork with the NFL (not the first time that's happened, by the way), he is quoted by ESPN as telling Ed Werder two things he probably never would have admitted if he had any intentions of returning for a 21st season:

1) "Aaron [Rodgers] is the best QB."


2) "I think [the Packers] will win it all! I hope they do, if you are wondering."

Can you feel the love?  Let the healing begin.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood

Welcome to Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood, Matt.
Matt Ryan will be going to the Pro Bowl this year, ahead of Aaron Rodgers.  Saturday’s performances by the respective QBs show just what an injustice that is.  Rodgers, the quarterback who “couldn’t win a playoff game” (despite only playing in one prior to this year, in which he passed for 423 yards and 4 TDs), put on an outright clinic against the Falcons – 31/36 for 366 yards, 3 passing TDs, 1 rushing TD, no interceptions and a QB rating of 158.3.  His game was among the best ever for any quarterback in playoff history.  In his three playoff appearances, Rodgers has thrown 10 TDs, an NFL record for a quarterback’s first 3 playoff games, had a QB rating over 120 in each game, and scored 114 points, or 38/game on average.

On the other side of the ball, “Matty Ice” had a brutal night.  He only managed 186 yards through the air, was sacked 5 times, threw two critical interceptions and lost a fumble.  Tramon Williams appears hell-bent on showing everyone why his lack of Pro Bowl votes was a snub as well.  I just can’t say enough about this guy.  Three picks in two games.  Incredible.  And at such crucial times too – one to seal the Eagles win, one in the end zone to shut down a Falcons drive in which he displayed a closing speed and vertical leap as good as any DB in the league, and the third returned for a touchdown as time expired in the first half.  Absolutely amazing.

Going back to my keys to a Packer victory, they executed very well on all three of them:
  1. Stop  Michael Turner – CHECK.  Turner had 10 carries for just 39 yards.  Early on, when he broke that 12-yard run for a touchdown, it looked like Turner was going to have another big day – and he might have, if the Packers hadn’t jumped out to a lead with 4 TDs in the second quarter.  After that, the Falcons never got back to Turner, and his 10 carries shows that.  Total rushing for the Falcons: 45 yards.
  2. Rush the ball effectively – CHECK.  Starks got the bulk of the work, with 25 carries for 66 yards.  Not huge production, but it was enough to force the Falcons to respect the run.  On their second possession, Green Bay ran 5 times in their first 6 plays of the drive.  Starks had several runs, including a long of 13 yards, that were almost broken for the distance.  He also did a great job picking up blitzes.  The run game didn’t need to be huge, just effective.  And it was.
  3. Play mistake-free football – CHECK…ish.  "Mistake-free" is not how I would describe the first quarter.  Between Jennings’ fumble and the kick-off return for a touchdown, I was concerned early that these would be mistakes that would come back to haunt us.  They didn’t.  Thanks in large part to something I didn’t expect – a bunch of mistakes from the Falcons, including four turnovers that cost a point swing of at least 13, probably more like 20.
One stat that really jumped off the box score for me was Green Bay’s nearly 2:1 favor in time of possession – 38:19 for the Packers to 21:41 for the Falcons.  Not many teams have been able to do this to Atlanta this year, and it was must-do #2 above, the 25 carries by Starks, that helped enormously in controlling the clock and keeping the Falcons off the field.

The Packers didn’t punt once during the night.  The most impressive stretch of the game in terms of time of possession came after the Falcons first touchdown at 5:00 left in the first quarter to 2:41 left in the 3rd – a span of 32:19 in game time.  During that stretch, the Falcons only had the ball for 5:31.  Their only score during that span was the kick-off return.  Meanwhile, the Packers put up the following drives:
  • Second possession (after first Atlanta TD): 81 yards in 13 plays burning 7:56.
  • Third possession (after Atlanta kick-off return TD): 92 yards in 10 plays burning 5:44.
  • Fourth possession (with 2:20 left in the half): 80 yards in 7 plays consuming only 1:38.
  • Fifth possession (2nd half kick-off): 80 yards in 12 plays burning 6:32.
  • Sixth possession (after 3 and out by Falcons): 50 yards in 8 plays burning 4:48.
Five possessions, five touchdowns (including a spectacular catch by James Jones making amends for his drop last week), while controlling the ball for 26:38.  That kind of production will beat anyone in the NFL.  The Falcons walked into a buzz saw.  The main difference between General Sherman’s march and Saturday’s game was that the Confederate Army at least put up some resistance.  This one really wasn’t even close.  The Packers sliced them up like a hot knife going through butter.  General McCarthy led his troops through Atlanta, and the playoff redemption trifecta is complete.  But like Sherman's march, this journey has only been a means to an end.  Now they must go on to win the war.  Bring on the Bears.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Traveling Tips for the Packers' Visit to Atlanta

Leading up to the Packers NFC Divisional playoff game against the Falcons this Saturday, I’ve noticed several promotions for Packer fan tours down to Atlanta.  I’m sure that for some Wisconsinites currently buried in 3 feet of snow that traveling to Atlanta, particularly for a Packer game, sounds appealing.  But I’m here to warn you that despite catchy nicknames like “the Cleveland of the South” Atlanta has little to offer beyond over-sized cockroaches and heat rash.

A picture from the Atlanta visitors' guide.
I used to travel to Atlanta regularly for work, and my wife was actually born there – though she escaped at an early age.  So I know the city reasonably well.  Packer fans always travel well, and God’s speed to those of you who will be making the trip and representing with you Rodgers jerseys and cheese heads.  I just have three tips to anyone visiting Atlanta:

  1. Wear breathable clothing – this is obviously less of a concern in January, particularly since the Southeast just got hit with a winter storm themselves.  But there is no place on earth hotter than Atlanta.  The National Weather Service named Atlanta #1 on their list of the nation’s “Most Miserably Hot Places to Live.”  I once sweat through a suit jacket in Atlanta.  By that, I mean sweat circles that penetrated a t-shirt, dress shirt and full suit coat.  At the end of the day, I had to ask the hotel staff to peel my clothing off with kitchen tongs and spray me down with a garden hose.  It wasn’t pretty.  Heat shouldn’t be a concern this time of year, but you never know.  Best to be prepared.
  2. Bring something to read – approximately two-thirds of the total time I’ve spent in Atlanta have been in the back seat of a taxi cab stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  What’s different about Atlanta’s urban gridlock is that nobody seems to be going anywhere.  What is there to do, after all.  The Atlanta Bureau of City Planning actually received an award from Exxon Mobil for their contributions to global fuel consumption.
  3. Don’t mention the Civil War – still a touchy subject down there.  Georgia was the first state to secede and the last to come back.  I suppose if General Lee had done a “March to the Lake” and burned down everything from Madison to Milwaukee, we’d probably not think it was very funny either.  So let’s just keep my General McCarthy analogy to ourselves.  I don't want some Confederate nut job mailing me a pipe bomb.

Follow those tips and you should be good.  I also have three tips for the Packers as they visit Atlanta this Saturday:

  1. Stop Michael Turner – everything the Falcons do stems from Turner.  They are 7-0 when he rushes for over 100 yards this season, including the 110 yards he racked up against the Packers in week 12.  Just as the Packers focused on taking away Vick’s scrambling ability against the Eagles, Dom Capers needs a game plan that takes away Turner.  Having Jenkins back to full-speed will definitely help.  But I would supplement the run defense by using Woodson, a great run stuffer, in some rush blitzes, and leverage Matthews for back-side pursuit, which he excels at.  The Falcons obviously have other weapons – Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez particularly.  But I think you force them to beat you with their passing game.  I’m pretty comfortable with Tramon matching up against White one-on-one, and Collins or Peprah picking up Gonzalez.  Plus, I think Matt Ryan’s ability as a passer is a little over-rated.  He’s benefitted enormously from manageable down-and-distance situations, and when asked to put things on his shoulders in close games he’s struggled – including an interception in the final minutes of their loss to Pittsburgh and an inability to orchestrate a game winning drive with 3:24 left against a weak New Orleans defense at home.  Even if Ryan lights it up, I think a passing shoot out favors the Packers because we have more receiving weapons and it would shorten Atlanta’s possessions.
  2. Rush the ball effectively – I’m not saying James Starks needs to put up 123 yards rushing again (though that would certainly be nice).  The Packers just need to have a credible rushing game so that the Atlanta secondary honors it and that, in turn, opens up the passing game.  As we witnessed, the Packers couldn’t run the ball at all against Atlanta last time.  If we can at least get 3-4 yards per carry that will create many great side effects – in particular, longer time of possession, shorter third-down conversions, and more effective play action.  I’d love to see the kind of balance the Packers had against the Eagles, although it will be harder against Atlanta’s front seven.  Of course, the tempting alternative attack plan for the Packers’ offense would be to just give up on the run and air it out against the league’s 27th ranked pass defense.  But I think that would be a mistake – even crappy defensive secondaries are decent when they know you have to pass.  Keep it balanced, control the clock, and finish long drives.
  3. Play mistake-free football – two mistakes in the Packers’ previous meeting against Atlanta cost them the game – Rodgers’ fumble at the goal line and Matt Wilhelm’s flagrant facemask on the final Falcons kick return.  Take either of those plays away and the Packer likely win that game.  One thing Atlanta is extremely good at is error avoidance.  Any big mistake by the Packers – a big turn-over, another James Jones dropped ball, a costly penalty, etc. – could be a huge momentum change in the game, particularly playing on the road in the Georgia Dome.  It was mistakes against the Eagles – Rodgers’ fumble, Jones’ drop, Underwood’s foot fault – that made that game closer than it probably should have been.  I don’t think we’ll be so lucky if we make the same type of mistakes against Atlanta, because they won’t make many.

If the Packers can do those things, I feel optimistic about their chances.  A victory would be the third leg of a sweet playoff redemption trifecta, and send the Packers to their second NFC Championship game in four years.  Can’t wait for Saturday night.

By the way, one more tip for visitors to Atlanta, they don’t do the “Dirty Bird” down there any more.  Team owner Arthur Blank banned the signature dance move after rupturing a disk shooting the NFL Play60 commercial.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"How to Beat Michael Vick" by Dom Capers

The Michael Vick hype parade was getting a little old.  It started, ironically, when the Packers knocked Kevin Kolb out of the game in week one and Vick re-established himself as an elite quarterback.  But as dynamic and fun to watch as Vick can be, he still has many Achilles heels and the Packers exploited them Sunday.

I expected Dom Capers to have a good game plan against Vick, and he certainly did.  Enough to write a book.  But it was really a full team effort.  For future reference, since the Packers will likely face these guys again next year, here is the game plan that proved decisive:

  1. Bring pressure – starting with Birshop’s sack on the first play of the game, the Packers were in Vick’s face.  But they did it with less blitzing than most people, including Vick, expected.  The Packers finished with 3 sacks and 3 hits, but Vick never looked comfortable the whole game.  And the creativity in the blitzes – particularly the delayed “twist” blitz where Matthews got home – were perfectly timed and highly effective.
  2. Spy on him – whether it was Woodson mirroring Vick or linebackers coming on delayed blitzes, the Packers never over-pursued.  They frequently kept a player or two in position just behind the line of scrimmage to contain Vick should he break out of the pocket.  At the end of the day, Vick only gained 33 yards in his eight attempts – a great performance by the Packers defense.
  3. Play great man coverage – if you’re going to blitz and spy, you are going to be in a lot of one-on-one against the receivers.  And Green Bay’s defensive backs came up big.  Of course, Tramon’s pick was the highlight, but Sam Shields had an incredible break up as well.
  4. Sustain long drives – part of containing any great quarterback is to keep him off the field.  The Packers did that with a 5:38 touchdown drive on their second possession of the game, followed by a 7:00 minute drive for a TD on their very next possession.  Then, after turning the ball over for the Eagles first touchdown, Green Bay was able to put together a crucial 11-play 6:17 drive for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
  5. Run the ball effectively – long, clock-burning drives really only happen if you’re running the ball effectively and James Starks was the difference today.  His 123 yards rushing was a huge factor in the game.  Maybe he will turn out to be our Marshawn Lynch after all.
  6. Avoid giving up the big play – Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah were so deep all night I felt like I barely saw them.  DeSean Jackson popped one play for 28 yards, but it was one of only two catches he had in the game.  LeSean McCoy had only 46 yards rushing.  The Eagles' longest play of the game was to Jeremy Maclin for 44 yards. 

The only rules for how to beat Michael Vick that the Packers violated were “Don’t turn the ball over” – Rodgers’ fumble was obviously costly, handing the Eagles their first touchdown and getting them back into the game.  The Packers were fortunate that two other fumbles were recovered and that Underwood’s foot fault on the game’s first punt ended in a shanked Akers field goal.

The other big rule is “Don’t give him the chance.”  The Packers could have iced the game by converting a 3rd and 10 with about 2 minutes left.  Instead, Rodgers took a sack and they had to punt to Jackson.  In the end, Tramon had to make a big play to save us.

Lastly, I don’t even know what to say about James Jones’s dropped pass right before the half.  The guy is super talented, but he’s killing me.  I don’t believe Rodgers went back to him again the entire game.

Pam Oliver asked Rodgers an odd question in the post-game interview, whether this win got the “monkey off your back?”  Rodgers appropriately responded that he didn’t feel there was a monkey on his back, given he’s only played one other playoff game and threw for like 6,000 yards and 18 touchdowns in that game.  But there was a monkey on the Packers' back – one that pre-dates Rodgers and McCarthy and Thompson and most of the rest of this team.  Two monkeys actually – the 4th and 26 monkey and the 22-year-old Michael Vick monkey.  And both were vanquished today.  McCarthy’s march continues to Atlanta.  May there be much pillaging.

Marshawn Lynch Would Have Been Nice as a Packer

Let me start by saying that the Marshawn Lynch topic has been beaten to death by Packers fans, certainly including myself.  In fairness to Ted Thompson, it’s not as if Lynch has exactly torn it up since arriving in Seattle – prior to yesterday that is.

I was finally ready to let the beaten horse expire when Lynch busted this run to seal the victory against the Saints yesterday.  If you haven’t seen this highlight yet, it is obligatory viewing for any football fan.  As the announcer Mike Mayock says after the play, “That’s as good an effort as I’ve ever seen in my life from a running back.”  The part where he tosses Tracy Porter 5 yards like a ragdoll is particularly awesome.

There’s really no one on the Packers who can run like this, with speed, elusiveness, and, mostly, pure power.  Ryan Grant wasn't that guy even when he was healthy.  We all hope Starks will become that guy, but he isn’t yet despite the occasional glimmers.  And having that kind of back on your team is a monster benefit come playoff time.  It was enough to get a 7-9 team past the reigning Super Bowl champions.

Friday, January 7, 2011

McCarthy’s March through the Playoffs

General McCarthy preparing for his march to Atlanta.

I found myself this week wishing that Mike Sherman was still the coach of the Packers.  Not because I thought he was very good, but because his name would have worked perfectly for my headline: “Sherman’s March through the Playoffs.”  But the name McCarthy sounds pretty general-like as well – close enough to MacArthur.  So I’m going to run with this analogy anyway.

By way of two muffed games, the early-season loss to the Bears and late-season loss to the Lions, the Packers have a difficult road to Super Bowl glory in front of them.  Getting to the Super Bowl, let alone winning it, would be an unprecedented feat performed by no other NFC team (though the Steelers did it in the AFC, but lots of crazy shit happens in the AFC like phone sexting and foot-fetish videos so I'm just going to ignore what goes on over there).

The first step of this thousand-mile journey will be a tough one.  Beating Vick and company in Philadelphia won’t be easy – even if B.J. Raji fuels up on 8 cheesesteaks before the game.  But thinking ahead for a second at the full playoff path, we know, mostly, what lies in front of us.  And if McCarthy and the Packers do manage to get to the big show, it will not only be unprecedented in the NFC but an unprecedented vanquishing of past Packer playoff demons.

Like most Packer fans of the modern era, there are really three playoff losses that stand out in my mind like they were yesterday:

  1. The Michael Vick-led Atlanta Falcons dealing the Packers their first ever home playoff loss in the NFC Wild Card game on January 4, 2003.  The Packers were 12-5 that year and had gone undefeated at home, only to have the 22-year old Vick dismember them in a shocking 27-7 upset.  It broke the seal on the Lambeau Field intimidation factor.
  2. The infamous “4th and 26” game against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Divisional playoff game on January 11, 2004.  Leading 17-14, the Packers had the Eagles pinned on their own 25-yard line after a 16-yard sack facing 4th and 26 with 1:12 left in the 4th quarter.  Donovan McNabb fired a bullet caught by Freddie Mitchell to convert the first down.  The Eagles went on the tie the game with a last-second field goal and then win it in overtime following a Brett Favre interception.  That one was painful.
  3. The aforementioned January 20, 2008 loss in the NFC Championship game at Lambeau Field against the New York Giants – losing in overtime on another Brett Favre interception.

Freddie Mitchell dashing the hopes of Packer fans in 2004.
Besides an honorable mention to Randy Moss for his goal post ass wipe move in the NFC Wild Card loss to the Minnesota Vikings on January 9, 2005, those three playoff losses still pain me to this day.  What’s interesting about this year’s path through the playoffs is it could also be a road to redemption for these playoff ghosts.

We’ve already sent the Giants packing.  Still not sufficient pay-back for 2008, but it felt good nonetheless.  If we can get the win at Lincoln Financial Field this Sunday it will be a “two-fer” – paying back the Eagles for 2004 and Vick for 2003.  And if the Packers win that game, they will be headed to Atlanta, just like General Sherman, to sully the Falcons’ home field mystique just as they did to the Packers.

It’s a long, hard road.  But if they can do it, it would be one of the sweetest, most satisfying playoff runs ever.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Familiar Feeling, Different Outcome

Talk about tense.  Sunday’s game against the Bears had a terrible familiar feeling to the other losses we’ve suffered this season.  As the game wore on, I started keeping a list of the things that were going wrong – most of which have been problems all season:

  • Early turnovers – Driver’s fumble seemed to really take the air out of the offense, just like in the Redskins game.
  • Costly penalties – Bulaga had a rough day.  His holding penalty in the second quarter negated a 33-yard completion to Jennings, and he finished the day with three other penalties.
  • No big plays – until the long completion to Jennings, the Packers had only one play over 12 yards (a 25-yard completion to Jordy Nelson).
  • Pour third-down conversion – only 2-11 on third down for the day.
  • Inability to run in short-yardage situations – the first and goal from the 1 was reminiscent of the Atlanta game.  They just don’t seem to have a reliable way to get a yard when they need to -- the "Kuuuuuhn" chants notwithstanding.
  • Crucial drops – with less than 2 minutes left in the first half, Jennings dropped a would-be touchdown (flashback to Lions game) and Jones dropped a pass in his hands that would have converted a key third down.

After Rodgers’ interception, I really started to panic.  They were playing tight.  They couldn’t do anything offensively.  It just felt like the kind of game the Packers have been losing all season – the type of big, close game that McCarthy and Rodgers are so often criticized for not winning.  I, like most Packers fans I suspect, felt our entire season slipping through our fingers.

But despite those persistent blemishes, other year-long trends ended up saving the game and the season.

First, un-heralded back-ups stepped up big time.  Fifth-string outside linebacker Erik Walden had a monster game – leading the team with 11 tackles and 2 sacks.  Back-up safety Charlie Peprah had a huge interception in the end zone to stymie the Bears who had just returned an interception to the Packers 15-yard line.  Third-string defensive end Howard Green stepped up and helped, for the most part, contain Matt Forte and logged a key sack himself.  The Packers lost one third of their opening-day starters to season-ending injuries this year, and many of the second-string guys behind them are gone as well.  The fact the Packers have been able to plug in guys who have played so well has been the key to keeping their season alive.

Second, the defense came up huge.  Our defense has been carrying the mail all season, allowing an NFC-best 15 points per game.  It was only fitting that the defense won that game for us.  Capers’ creativity and schemes had Cutler and the Bears out-of-sync all night – logging 6 sacks, multiple pass deflections and two critical interceptions.  Our secondary, with two Pro-bowlers and one should-be Pro-bowler (in Tramon Williams), is one of the best in the league.

Third, the surprise addition to the “keys to victory” list was the Packers’ special teams.  Tim Masthay had a huge game.  Granted, he needed to with 8 punts.  But his situational kicking was superb – putting two inside the 5-yard line and preventing the league’s best returner from even sniffing a run back.  On the other side, Tramon Williams’ 41-yard punt return was a critical turning point in the game – setting up the Packers first score to tie the game.  Many Packers-Bears games seem to be decided by special teams, and ours proved pivotal in the victory.

Overall, this isn’t how we expected to get here.  Many picked the Packers to go to the Super Bowl at the start of the season.  The reality is, after all the set-backs, all the injuries, all the close losses, we were still only one game – the loss to the Lions, specifically – away from winning the NFC North and securing the #2 seed and a playoff bye.  Now we will have to follow a much tougher path.  No #6 seed in the NFC has ever gone to the Super Bowl.  But if they have finally cracked the code for eeking out tough wins in close, defensive games, then maybe they can live up to the pre-season hype after all.