Packers XLV

Don't Flip Out: Pack Stood Tall in Defeat

Posted January 17th, 2016 @ 02:01pm

 I’m beginning to wonder what would happen if Aaron Rodgers ever gets the chance to touch the ball in overtime.

As far as punches to the gut go, this one doesn’t hurt as much as last year, but it still leaves you feeling empty when the Pack engineer a game-tying drive for the ages, but a coin flip and one blown coverage by the defense combine to end the season.

The game unfolded as we hoped, with the defense playing with a vengeance, bent on containing running back David Johnson and the Cardinals’ big play passing attack. The pass rush was on fire early, forcing Carson Palmer into quick decisions and mistakes. Johnson was never able to get untracked—they held the high powered offense to ten points over the game’s first 56 minutes.

Arians and the Cards made adjustments in the second half that allowed them to engineer two long scoring drives, but it was two flukey plays late that we’ll be thinking about during the long offseason. First, the dropped interception by Sam Shields and then the touchdown that bounced off Damarius Randall’s arms, bounced in the air and landed in the hands of Michael Floyd.

I find it hard to rip Shields, who had two possible picks fall through his hands in the game. His return to the field changed everything for the defense, giving Dom Capers the confidence to blitz freely and harass Palmer from all angles.

As strong a game as it was for the defense, it was that bad for special teams. Nothing alarmingly bad, but too many penalties on returns that set the offense back and forced longer fields. Tim Masthay had a bad night—he may have sealed his fate as he becomes a free agent.

As for the offense, they struggled all night on first down, unable to get in favorable down and distance and forced Rodgers to deal with second and third and long all night. Outside of Eddie Lacy’s 61 yard “burst,” the running game was pretty much stuck in neutral.

You can’t overstate what the loss of Randall Cobb meant in this game. After an early drop, he made one of the catches of the season on a play that was called back—little did we know that would be his last play of the season. We saw  him spitting up blood and then we saw him carted off. Next thing we know: he’s out for the game with a chest injury.

For a passing attack that was already without Davante Adams, they were forced to play the final three quarters with just three healthy receivers. With Patrick Peterson shadowing James Jones all night, it was up to Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis. If everyone returns from injury next year, these two will start out fifth and sixth on the depth chart. Yet they combined for 11 catches for 200 yards.

Which brings us to the Pack’s final drive. I can’t ever remember a more unlikely scoring drive in all my years of watching Packer football. Fourth and 20 from the four, 55 seconds left and no timeouts. But Rodgers found Janis for 61 yards and the Pack still had a faint pulse. Some strange clock management and a penalty game the Pack two chances to score. Once again, a Hail Mary on the final play found pay dirt as Janis demonstrated that he is up to the challenge. We’re left to wonder what goes on behind closed doors. Why was he not given more opportunities this season for an offense that was desperate for speedy downfield threats.

A caller on my show bemoaned the fact that the Pack didn’t try a two point conversion to win the game at that point. Gotta be honest: I didn’t give it a second thought. You execute a drive for the ages to tie the game and take your chances in overtime. If the Pack had Nelson, Cobb and Adams, maybe you take a shot. But with a bunch of backups who likely haven’t practiced two pointers much, I would’ve hated to put the pressure on them to make that play. Same goes for the previous TD, when the Pack took a 12-7 lead and kicked, rather than go for two to go up by seven. Too much time left in the game to give up a point, in my opinion, even though it might have made the difference, as things worked out.

The Packers have now lost five playoff games in overtime, most in league history, including the last two seasons. Rodgers is now 0-7 in overtime games—of course he hasn’t touched the ball in the last two. He wasn’t happy that he didn’t get a chance to change his call when the ref decided to re-flip the coin. When the ref showed him the coin the second time, it was tails side up, so Rodgers wanted to change his call to heads. Sorry, Aaron, we were fortunate up the official decided to re-flip. You don’t get a do over on the call. I know he was frustrated, but that’s the way the coin flips.

It was a season marred by big injuries and unspeakable home losses, but on the biggest stage the Pack showed they were up to the challenge against the Super Bowl favorites. If not for a couple of crazy bounces, dropped interceptions and one big blown coverage, we might be preparing for another title game.

This roster will turn over quite a bit, but the main pieces remain in place. The offense should be considerably more potent next season, and the defense is young, more athletic than it’s been in years and will be led by Matthews, Daniels, Shields, Randall, Burnett and Clinton-Dix. It will remain a strength of this team as Ted Thompson fills in the blanks to replace a number of free agents who will move on.

The Packers won’t be Super Bowl favorites when next season kicks off, but they will be contenders. And they will be on a mission to get back to the Big Game for the first time in six seasons. Let’s just hope we can avoid overtime games along the way.

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As Bruce Preaches, "People Find Some Reason to Believe."

Posted January 15th, 2016 @ 03:01pm

Of course, the Boss has also been known to preach, 'I'm Goin' Down, Down, Down," so it all depends on what you want to grab on to. So let's consider how the Packers can turn the tables on a team that destroyed them just three weeks ago and move on to the NFC title game for a second straight season.

I'm going to begin with the premise that the Pack will get back both Sam Shields and David Bakhtiari. They've both been on the practice field all week in a limited capacity, but as I write this on Friday morning, we have no idea whether either will play. I'll update this paragraph once we get news. Ask me to pick one and I'd take Shields against this opponent. With their dangerous corps of receivers, and a gimpy Quentin Rollins, it would be great to have #37 on the field, even if he is a little rusty and not in ideal condition.

The revelatory play of JC Tretter at left tackle last weekend is what swings the decision for me. At least we know now that the Packers have a suitable backup, one who can keep the likes of Calais Campbell, Dwight Freeney and Markus Golden at bay. That said, it would be great to get Bakhtiari back for the divisional playoff matchup. The Pack will enter this meeting much healthier up front: both Bryan Bulaga and TJ Lang have dropped off the injury report and Sitton and Linsley appear to be on the mend as well. This alone should ensure the game is much tighter than the laugher in December.

Naturally, the Packers are even thinner at the skills positions this time around, though. As much as we've derided Davante Adams' sophomore slump all year, he was a difference maker in Washington, and his absence will make the Pack easier to defend. And with Andrew Quarless reportedly placed on IR, there will be no quick fixes at tight end either. Look for the team to elevate practice squad receiver Ed Williams, who can help on special teams. Back in August, Bob McGinn wrote an interesting profile on him (http://www.jsonline.com/sports/packers/packers-free-agent-receiver-shows-potential-b99560832z1-322477541.html).

With a lack of playmakers, the Packers will need to be creative offensively, pushing the tempo and doing what worked last weekend: moving Randall Cobb all over the field to keep the defense guessing. Jared Abbrederis will get an opportunity to make his NFL arrival to the masses. Rodgers seems to think he's up to the task. Of course, the running game needs to flourish. It's clear that Eddie Lacy's rib injury is limiting him, but he'll give all he has. We have to hope James Starks can continue to make plays and hang on to the football.

On the other side of the ball, the Packers' defense continues to impress. They were solid in the first meeting, but will need to do a better job of containing emerging star David Johnson (123 total yards, 1TD in first match up), who is dangerous as a runner and a receiver. The Packers are talented enough to do a decent job covering their fine receivers, but it will be all about the pass rush once again.

They did a great job on Kirk Cousins last weekend, with six sacks and 13 hurries. They will need to be similarly effective against Carson Palmer, who showed he can be shaken when the heat comes, as Seattle demonstrated in the season finale. When he has time, Palmer can kill you--he'll likely wind up the MVP runner-up to Cam Newton. Look for Dom Capers to throw the kitchen sink at him. The Pack will blitz early and often and try to knock him on the ground early and often.

That's how you shake the oft-injured 36 year old QB. As great as he's been in Arizona, the fact remains: the next playoff game Carson Palmer wins will be his first. And the Pack is healthier than they've been all season in the front seven. Last week, Neal, Perry, Peppers and Matthews were all difference makers. If the Packers are to move on, they will need to duplicate that effort.

Of course the usual suspects will likely determine the winner: turnovers and special teams. It was punt returner Tyler Lockett who singlehandedly torched them the last time they took the field. Which is another factor in the Pack's favor: Green Bay is coming off a strong double digit road win, after seeing their defense dominate for three quarters and their offense awaken from a deep slumber. Meanwhile, the Cardinals got punched in the gut in the first half of their last game and then laid down in the second half. Then they stewed about it d during the bye week. How often have we seen season-long dominant teams lose their mojo after sitting through wildcard weekend? A couple of recent Packer teams come to mind.

For sure, the Cardinals are the Super Bowl favorites for a good reason. They are the best team left in the field on both sides of the ball (some Seahawks supporters may disagree, of course), even without their emotional defensive leader Tyrann Mathieu (they're also without solid run defender Alex Okafor, who will miss the game with a toe injury).

Their coach is one of the best in the business and they have solid veteran leadership in guys like Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Campbell, Freeney and Rashad Johnson (the safety who missed the first meeting).

Going into the season, the notion that the Packers would be touchdown underdogs in the divisional round seemed preposterous, but here we are. The Cardinals have been the stronger team by far all season and they proved it emphatically when the teams faced off. But the NFL playoffs are a strange breed, and when a proven, MVP quarterback has a big game, he can get on a roll. He can carry the team on his back and bring a dominant defense to his knees.

There is every 'reason to believe' Rodgers and the Pack can spring the upset. I think they'll fall just short.

Cardinals 27  Packers 24

 

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Packers Don't Panic; Pass Playoff Test

Posted January 11th, 2016 @ 03:01am

Admit it. After the first quarter, you were thinking about the Packers' season in the past tense. It couldn't possibly have started any uglier. One first down in four possessions. The Pack gave up scores in every way possible: first a safety, then a field goal and finally a touchdown. It was 11-0 after one and the Pack looked lost.

The one glimmer of hope was the goal line stand by the defense that held them to that field goal and kept the game within reach. It foreshadowed the strong performance by that unit over 60 minutes. Yes, they got torched by tight end Jordan Reed. But they put constant pressure on Kirk Cousins, did not let DeSean Jackson beat them deep and contained the running game. It was the kind of performance we've come to expect from a unit that has played well all season.

But the story of this game was how Aaron Rodgers took over in the second quarter and began to look like the Aaron Rodgers we've come to love. Yes, he missed some passes that we're accustomed to seeing him hit. But he found his rhythm by speeding up the tempo and keeping the Skins off balance--twice catching them with 12 men on the field and getting Adams, Jones and Cobb involved.

In that 17-point second quarter, we also saw JC Tretter settle down at left tackle--he got his feet under him and provided solid protection from that point forward. Defensively, the Pack pitched a shutout, despite losing corner Quentin Rollins to a quad injury.

After Washington briefly regained the lead to start the third quarter, the Pack ramped up the rushing attack, alternating Lacy and Starks and controlling the line of scrimmage. The Pack scored on five straight possessions to put the game away--when is the last time this season they scored on five straight drives. Can't remember it happening.

Meanwhile, the Pack's defense dominated from that point on. Mike Neal and Clay Matthews were constantly in Cousins' face and the secondary held up its end. Even rookie Ladarius Gunter made a play or two, as he was forced into action with the Rollins injury. I'll take him on the field over Demetri Goodson any day of the week.

We went into this game knowing that Washington was not as good as its 9-7 record. They were a team that rode the arm of its hot quarterback, but had beaten up on a lot of mediocre teams and had not proven they could beat a quality team. Their defense needs a makeover and their running attack is the definition of average. The competition gets infinitely tougher next weekend.

But we'll savor this one for a few days. All we heard leading up to this one was that it was a bust of a season. That Rodgers and McCarthy were on the outs. That the Pack had no playmakers. That the running attack could be called 'the fat guy and the fumbler.' That none of the receivers could make a big catch in a big spot. That Rodgers was off and was no longer a guy who could carry the team.

For one week, they got their mojo back and now will be considered a dangerous opponent for the Cardinals, despite the fact that the Birds handed them their most embarrassing loss of the McCarthy era just a couple of weeks ago. That means nothing now, but the Pack will have to get ready on a short week and there's no guarantee Shields or Bakhtiari will be ready. We'll also await the severity of the injuries to Adams and Rollins.

But they do have a healthy Rodgers, whose offense will head to the desert brimming with confidence and primed for a little vengeance. The next playoff game Carson Palmer wins will be his first ever. They're coming off an embarrassing loss of their own and will have had two weeks to stew about it. Will they be able to put that loss behind them and take the Pack seriously?

The Packers will have to play even better to spring the upset next Saturday night, but for now, let's revel in a dominating road playoff win and dream about the fact that we're just two results away from the Pack hosting the Seahawks in an NFC title game rematch.

A long shot? Of course. But this is the NFL, where crazy penalties and missed chip shots change teams' destinies. Bring on the divisional weekend.

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