Monday, December 26, 2011

The Part of the Season We've All Been Waiting For

The Christmas day victory over the Bears secured the third of McCarthy's big four goals for the season, which were (repeated multiple times and typically in this order): 1) win the division, 2) get a first-round bye, 3) secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and 4) win the Super Bowl.  An unstated "nice-to-have" 5th goal may have been to go undefeated, but we'll never know now.  I would have loved to see the Packers make a run at undefeated, but the loss to the Chiefs probably took some pressure off.

However, all these goals will mean nothing unless the 4th is ultimately met.  The Packers didn't achieve any of those first 3 goals last year, but no one gave a crap in the end.  Getting the championship was all that mattered.  And that is all that will matter this year.  From early in the season, it was fairly apparent that the Packers would be in this position.  And after a meaningless game next week against Detroit (one in which I now hope the Packers will rest most of their starters -- particularly if Suh is playing), the Packers are now about to embark on the second part of the season.  It's the mile 0 mark, and anything less than a journey that ends in Indianapolis holding up another Lombardi trophy will be a disappointment.

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.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Packers + All Cylinders = Wood Chipper

The Raiders Team Bus
The Packers demonstrated just how dangerous they can be when all three phases are firing on all cylinders at the same time.  The Raiders didn't stand a chance Sunday.  The 46-16 drubbing could have been much worse.  But for a rare Rodgers end zone interception and a few drives that ended in field goals instead of touch downs, the Pack easily could have knocked on the door of 60 points.  It was like watching the Badgers play Ball State.  It was an absolute beat down.  In short, it was a Wisconsin wood chipper.

The defense has been much maligned this year, including by me.  If anything will prevent the Packers from realizing their ultimate goal, it seems like it will be the defense.  They are ranked 31st in the league by yards allowed, after all.  But Sunday was an excellent case study in just what the defensive philosophy of the Packers really is.  Sure they allowed over 350 yards of offense, but they got 5 take-aways and a defensive touchdown.

The emphasis of the Packers defense is taking the ball away.  If they can give Rodgers and the offense just one or two additional possessions in the game, it translates into wide margins of victory.  And on that front, the Packers have one of the best defenses in the league.  They are far-and-away #1 in the NFL in interceptions, logging 27 so far this year, well ahead of #2 in that category (Detroit with 18).  And with the offense's excellent ball security, the result is a +20 turn-over margin, second only to the 49ers.

I still worry that if there comes a time this season when the defense needs to get that final stand that they may not be able to get it done, as we witnessed in the game last week against the Giants.  But if they can put up performances like they did Sunday, it won't matter.  The opponents will be a pile of bark chips while the Packers starters are in sweat pants by the start of the 4th quarter.