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.

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