Who you got this Sunday?
Posted January 20th, 2017 @ 02:01pm
Those who watch the Packers like to rib us fans, constantly telling us that our team consists of Aaron Rodgers and 50 anonymous, interchangeable parts. On Sunday, we may find out whether that is actually true.
With the wide receiver corps thinner than Matt Ryan's postseason resume, the Packers may have to turn to rookie Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis to try to keep up on the scoreboard with the Falcons in Sunday's NFC title game.
Mike McCarthy admitted on Thursday that if this were a regular season game, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison would be ruled out. But we all know the Pack is 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl and the team and players will do everything they possibly can to play. My guess is that Adams and Allison will be active, though I doubt Allison plays. At best, Adams will likely be limited and serve as a decoy, rather than a threat.
Obviously, in a perfect world the team lines up Nelson and Adams in a game where you might need 35 points to win. But the way Aaron Rodgers is dialed in, he'll likely be productive no matter who joins him in the huddle. Randall Cobb and Jared Cook will probably get the most attention, but Ty Montgomery will probably be called on to split out wide a bunch, and Richard Rodgers reminded us last week that he can be counted on for a big play when called upon.
And let's not forget, in the first meeting the Pack was without Cobb, Cook and Montgomery (ironically the three healthiest guys right now) and still put of 32 points on the Falcons' average defense (more on that unit in a bit).
I'm focusing on the offense here because let's not kid ourselves. The Packers are not going to stop the Falcons on Sunday. Ryan and company finished the season as one of the league's most prolific offenses of all time. Their two headed running game with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is the best 1-2 punch in the league. Julio Jones is the NFL's most athletically gifted wide receiver (though he's bothered by a toe injury) and Ryan has role players like Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel who are capable of big plays at any given moment.
The key for the Packers is to disrupt Ryan; force him into mistakes. But the Falcons' rise this season has coincided with much better offensive line play, led by center Alex Mack. They're protecting the presumptive MVP and as a result, he's been comfortable in the pocket and has made less bonehead plays. Atlanta is +11 in the give take this season, better than the Pack's +8.
Getting Morgan Burnett back would be monumental, more important than the injured wide receivers, in my book. The Georgia Tech alum and Atlanta native wants desperately to play in this one and the feeling is mutual. The defense desperately needs him to try to contain the prolific Falcons offense. My guess is he plays through the quad injury.
Atlanta supporters will point to their team's rise defensively, particularly in the last six weeks. But the QBs they played in the final six games are in a different galaxy, except Drew Brees in the finale--and he put up 32 points. They've lost their second best pass rusher, Adrian Clayborn, to a torn triceps last week. Their best guy, Vic Beasley, is a beast. But in the first matchup he didn't get close to Rodgers, thanks to great play by Bryan Bulaga. Dwight Freeney can still make a play or two, but isn't as productive as fellow old-timer Julius Peppers.
Their secondary lost its leader CB Desmond Trufant earlier in the season. The Packers passing game has the decisive edge in this matchup, no matter who is lined up at wide receiver.
Special teams are always magnified at this point in the season and the Pack should have the edge. Their kickoff and punt coverage units have struggled all season. Devin Hester broke a long one last week and when Trevor Davis was asked to return punts in the first matchup, pretty much by default, he broke a 55 yard return. If the Pack can tilt field position it will help on a day where they're short-handed.
As for the other intangibles, the Packers obviously come in with a QB and coach who have won title games, the Falcons cannot say the same. The Birds have home field, but they did in 2011 as well when Rodgers came in and delivered a virtuoso performance in a 48-20 Packers upset.
After what we witnessed last Sunday and what we've seen over the past eight weeks, how can you not believe that these Packers are destined to reach the Super Bowl. It will likely come down to which team gets the ball last.
20 years after Brett Favre, Reggie White and Desmond Howard led the Pack over the Patriots, it feels like we're going to get an encore. Trailing 34-31 late, Rodgers delivers one more time to win it.
Packers 38 Falcons 34
Posted January 16th, 2017 @ 04:01am
So, I had a decision to make. Son Jackson's eighth grade basketball team had a championship game at 7pm in Shakopee--about a 30-minute drive away. Do I watch the end of the game or listen to Wayne? I decided to head to Shakopee after Mason Crosby nailed the 56 yarder that put the Pack up 31-28 with a minute and a half to play.
I figured we might be looking at overtime and I really didn't want to miss the whole basketball game. I have to say, there's something very satisfying about listening to Wayne and Larry, rather than the network crew. When the Cowboys tied it, I figured I'd be dialing up the game on my phone as I made my way to the gym at East Junior High.
The last thing I expected was that the Pack would win the game while I was still rolling down Highway 169. 35 seconds and two timeouts? No problem for mighty Aaron, who added another amazing chapter to this storybook season, this time with an amazing sideline throw on third and 20, caught brilliantly by Jared Cook, who has earned a multiyear extension with his playoff heroics.
And what can you say about Mason Crosby, who became the first kicker to hit two 50+ yard field goals in the final two minutes of a playoff game? His 23 straight postseason field goals is as clutch as it gets and these last two will go down as the biggest of his career, in light of the circumstances. When I got home, I watched the final two possessions. I'm really glad I wasn't watching live, that game winner was a little too close for comfort.
The game couldn't have started any better for the Pack. They got off to the quick start we had hoped for. The 21-3 lead was bigger than we could have imagined and they needed every point, as the defense wore down and started to collapse in the fourth quarter. The quad injury suffered by Morgan Burnett on that first quarter collision with LaDarius Gunter could have been fatal, but rookie Kentrell Brice stepped up and made just enough plays in his place.
As expected, the Cowboys got their yards. Zeke, Dez and Dak all had big days, but as it turned out the team stats were almost identical: total yards, total plays, yards per play, third down conversions (both were 6-11), turnovers--all were almost identical. it came down to the closing seconds and Rodgers and Cook made the play of the game.
It was just the second time since 1990 that the #4 beat the #1 in the NFC (the Giants' win over the Pack six years ago was the other). And I have to say, it feels extra special to knock out the Cowboys. There's obviously some great playoff history between these teams, from the Ice Bowl to the frustrating losses in the 90s to the Dez non-catch a couple of years ago. This year's edition marks the start of a fun, new era in Big D, but their magical 13-3 season ends with a one and done in the playoffs and they haven't won beyond wildcard weekend since 1995.
Meanwhile, a moment of appreciation for Mike McCarthy, who two months ago felt the need to remind everyone that he's a highly successful football coach. Now he can add that he's won more playoff games in Green Bay than Vince Lombardi.
And now he finds himself two wins away from tying Vince with a second Super Bowl title. Vince had Bart, Mike has Aaron. And Aaron is proving that he will not be denied as he looks to lead his team back to the mountaintop.
Oh, and for the record, the night was golden all the way around. Jackson's basketball team knocked off Prior Lake for the championship.
Posted January 13th, 2017 @ 02:01pm
As the number one seed in the NFC, the Cowboys are favored to cool off the red hot Packers and advance to the NFC title game next weekend. The 'Boys have a lot of things working in their favor: they're healthy, rested and have been the best team in football all season, this side of Boston.
Meanwhile, the Pack enters the game without their top wide receiver and with four defensive starters listed on the injury report.
But there is a recipe for a Packers upset. If they can get all of the ingredients together and follow instructions they could come out of this game with a ticket to the NFC Championship.
1. Start fast. If the Packers come out like they did last Sunday, they're finished. 29 yards after their first 2o plays? That won't cut it against the Cowboys. Let's face it: Dallas is going to score points. If the Pack can jump out to a lead, it will put pressure on their rookie quarterback--more on Dak in a bit.
2. Hang on to the football. In the first matchup in October, the Packers turned the ball over four times, three via fumbles. That's a Lambeau rarity and has fluke written all over it. The Pack finished the season at +8, while the Cowboys were at +5. In fact, Green Bay only punted once in the first meeting--they were too busy handing the ball over to the Cowboys. During this seven game winning streak, the Pack has been outstanding at hanging on to the football. That trend must continue.
3. Slow Zeke. OK, this is one of those hard ingredients to find, where you have to go to that specialty store and search high and low. Elliot has had a historic rookie season, and the Packers did a poor job containing him the first time around. He is the focal point of the offense, making things exponentially easier for Prescott and the Pack must do all it can to avoid giving up big plays in the running game. Over 60 minutes, Zeke will get his yards but the defense must do its job by wrapping him up and not missing tackles. You have to think Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan are different players than they were in October and the rest of the unit understands they can't let him loose in the open field.
4. Receivers need to win their matchups. Losing Nelson will hurt in this game, because the secret to the turnaround for Dallas' defense has been its secondary, which is the league's top rated unit according to Pro Football Focus (incidentally, the Giants are ranked #2, which should provide some hope). In the October meeting, the Cowboys won this matchup--the receivers were having a hard time getting open and Rodgers couldn't make anything happen. There's no one stud on this defense--no one made the Pro Bowl. Safety Barry Church has been the most consistent. There is also no weak spot, so it's going to need to be a group effort. Obviously, the Pack's passing game is red hot: Adams, Cobb, Allison and Cook will all be counted on to keep things rolling against a defense that bends, but does not break--which brings us to:
5. Red Zone must mean end zone. The Cowboys give up a lot of yards, but stiffen in the red zone. Rodgers needs to continue his electrifying play and get the team in the end zone whenever the team is knocking on the door. If they fumble on the one yard line like they did in October, this one won't be close.
6. Packers D needs to force Prescott into mistakes. One of the headline storylines leading into this game is Rodgers vs. a rookie quarterback. Now Dak has looked nothing like a rookie since he took the field this season, but the playoffs are a different story. He'll have butterflies and if he starts off shaky, there could be murmurs for Romo emanating from the stands. We know the 'Boys' offensive line is the best in football, but somehow, some way, Dom Capers needs to get pressure in his face and force him into quick decisions.
7. Don't let Dak's legs beat you. Making things even more difficult for the defense is the fact that Elliot isn't the only dangerous ball carrier. Dak will take off if he sees open field, so someone will need to be assigned to keep that from happening. Dallas has offensive weapons all over the field. They need to make Dak try to find open receivers and not let him extend drives by running it himself.
8. Win on special teams. A key element in last week's win over the Giants was the play of special teams. Jason Schum's punting, that unit's coverage, led by Jeff Janis and the Pack's returners all need to come up big in this one.
9. Balance on offense. If the Packers are to pull this one out, it will be by riding the arm of Rodgers. But they need a semblance of a running game and we'll hope that Ty Montgomery is fully healthy. We know he's amped to return to his hometown and put on a show. Christine Michael injected some much needed life into the run game last week when he took the field in the third quarter. They need to be a solid 1-2 punch, to keep the Cowboys' defense honest.
10. Rodgers. All of the above elements are needed for this recipe to come out right, but Aaron Rodgers trumps all. There are some eerie elements to this season that remind us of 2010: dealing with major injuries throughout the season, earning a playoff spot on the final day of the season, beating and NFC East team in the wildcard round and then going on to face the top seed on the road. We all remember what happened next. Rodgers put on maybe the best performance of his remarkable career, shedding the Falcons. He is always capable of a game like that and his performance over the past eight weeks leads us to believe he can do it again.
Dallas has the stats. Green Bay has the star. And if the stars align just right, and the ingredients above are all in place, the Packers could turn the Cowboys' magical season into a one and done in the playoffs. It took me a while, but I'm a believer.
Packers 31 Cowboys 30