Defense Delivers Golden Ticket to Playoffs

Posted December 22nd, 2014 @ 02:12am

Just five plays into the game, Aaron Rodgers was wincing. We had learned he was under the weather heading into the game, but when he headed to the sidelines for treatment and Matt Flynn started to loosen up, well, I began to see the Packers' playoff chances slipping away.

But as Rodgers worked through what we later learned was a strained calf, the defense stepped right up and took charge, dominating an overmatched Josh McCown and his offensive line. The Bucs were held to 109 yards of total offense, gaining just 16 yards on the ground on 14 carries. While they didn't completely shut down the Bucs' large, gifted wide receivers, they made them basically irrelevant, since McCown was running for his life most of the day.

Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers combined for 4 1/2 of the Pack's seven sacks, and the hard charging Packers frustrated McCown into a passer rating of 48. The unit was strong from front to back--Morgan Burnett was all over the field, on his way to a team high 10 tackles.

As dominant as the Pack's defense was, it was an uncomfortable game well into the second half. The 10-3 half time lead held till late in the third quarter, thanks to a strong goal line stand where Green Bay came up empty after three tries from the one yard line. I have no issues with McCarthy eschewing the field goal there. The Pack settled for a field goal on its next drive early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 10 and at that point we could finally exhale. A nice 79 yard drive, punctuated by a one yard strike to Jordy Nelson provided the final margin. Nelson and Randall Cobb were their usual brilliant selves, combining for 20 catches and nearly 250 yards between them.

Eddie Lacy ran hard as usual and appeared unaffected by his contact lens issues. Some late game cramping was the only thing that kept him from a 100 yard game but he did cross the 1,000 yard mark and will be a huge factor against the Lions and beyond, especially if Rodgers is slowed at all by the calf injury.

The Pack heads home for the finale that will determine the NFC North champ. The added bonus is a first round bye to the winner, while the loser will likely get the sixth seed and a road game wildcard weekend in Dallas. We all know the Lions haven't won a game in Wisconsin since 1991, but let's not get too fat and happy. Their defensive blueprint has given the Pack problems all season: a strong front four and good corners. They looked less than impressive in Chicago and their offense can't seem to find a groove.

The Pack's defense will feed off the energy of the Lambeau crowd and we all know how well the team has played there this season since the fluky home opener. The Pack will be heavy favorites to win their fourth straight division title--but we'll all feel a lot better if Rodgers' calf settles down, loosens up and allows all of us to r-e-l-a-x.

 

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Which Chant Will Carry the Day in Tampa?

Posted December 19th, 2014 @ 04:12pm

Will it be "Go Pack Go" or "Suck for the Duck?"

The crowd at Raymond James will likely be evenly split between Bucs fans and Packer fans. So by the time the second half rolls around, I envision a fun back and forth chant-a-thon between the two factions. Hopefully  the game will no longer be in doubt at that point.

We hope to see an angry, determined Packer team take the field, one that no longer controls its home playoff fate, and one that knows there is no margin for error in the top heavy NFC. Win out and you get a bye, lose even one and you may be out of the playoffs.

So the Pack takes on 2-12 Tampa Bay, a team that does control its own destiny. Lose its last two at home to the Pack and Saints and they will own the #1 pick and get to be the talk of talk radio/TV for four months: Mariota or Winston? The suits in the suite will be secretly rooting for the green and gold as will most of the Bucs fans in the stands. Only the players (and probably most of the coaches) will be trying to send the Pack home with a loss.

By now you know Rodgers and McCarthy are 0-2 in Tampa and Green Bay hasn't won there since 2003. But you also know the Pack is 3-0 coming off a loss this season, have been excellent historically in the month of December and are ultimately the much more talented team.

I think we'll all be disappointed if the Packers don't demolish this team. They're winless at home and winless in the wretched NFC South. Like the Bears, they have QB buyer's remorse (though a much less costly one). Josh McCown has been lousy, with 10 TDs and 12 picks and a passer rating in the low 70s. He does have a fantastic, shiny new weapon: rookie receiver Mike Evans is the real deal and will be a handful for the Pack--we'll see if the defense has learned anything from the Julio Jones fiasco.

The Bucs would like to rely heavily on the Muscle Hamster on Sunday. Doug Martin averaged 6.6 yards per carry in a 19-17 loss in Carolina last week and has shown glimpses of the guy we saw his rookie year. The strength of the offensive line is up the middle, with former Packer "stompee" Evan Dietrich-Smith under center and former Patriot Logan Mankins at left guard. They made a change at tackle, benching left tackle Anthony Collins and moving Demar Dotson over from the right side. Look for the Packers to attack McCown all day--getting him in unfavorable down and distance will be key. That means slowing the Hamster.

Defensively, Lovie Smith has a pretty decent unit, but one missing its best player, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Unlike the Bills, Tampa Bay is strongest from the back of the defense in. Corners Alterraun Verner and Jonathan Banks are excellent and former Niner Dashon Goldson is tough at safety. They also have one of the best 'backers in the league in Lavonte David. But they don't apply much of a pass rush and the Packers should be able to run all day (provided Eddie Lacy has figured out his contact lens issues) and Rodgers should have time to find open receivers.

This is not the same Buccaneers team that beat the Steelers in week 4. This is a team that is 2-12 because they are very weak on offense and lacking playmakers on the defensive front. A lot of wise guys are predicting the Packers are in for a dogfight. If they make this a fourth quarter game, it will be hard to take them seriously as Super Bowl contenders, unless they can be assured of playing only at home.

McCarthy went the unusual route of naming six playoff captains this week, even though the team has not earned a playoff berth (though they have a 94% chance of securing one). That tells me he and his coaches have told the team the playoff run starts on Sunday. I expect the team will get the hint.

Packers 34  Bucs 17

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Pack's Bills Come Due in Buffalo

Posted December 15th, 2014 @ 02:12am

Wow, where do we start? Should we lead with the punt return the Pack allowed to give the Bills their first lead? Or would you rather talk about all the drops, most importantly that drop? We could start with the penalties, the blocked field goal or the interceptions...plural.

But maybe the most astounding takeaway was the Pack's anemic passing attack. 30 yards in the first half; a paltry 185 for the game and 25, count them 25 incomplete passes in 42 attempts by Rodgers. He was out of sync from the start and then his receivers did him no favors with drop after drop after drop. He could easily have thrown more than two picks, too. The Bills dropped a couple sure things.

You'd like to think that when your defense keeps the opposing offense out of the end zone on the road, you have a pretty good chance of winning. Not so on this day for the Green and Gold, a day which got off to an ominous start with the sad news that former Packer all-time great Fuzzy Thurston had passed away earlier in the day.

It was strange, because the Packers' running attack was clicking at the start, with Eddie Lacy finding big holes on his way to a 70 yard first half. But the Pack shot itself in the foot time and time again on third downs, converting just 4 of 14 for the game--much credit goes to the Bills' secondary, which was up to the challenge from the opening kickoff.

As expected, the Bills were sharp and played like the more desperate team. While their playoff hopes are still flickering, the Packers saw themselves fall from the #1 seed to #6. They will win their fourth straight North title if they win their final two games. But thanks to the flat effort in Buffalo, it looks like we're going to need the Cardinals to upset the Seahawks next week, if we want to avoid a potential return trip to Qwest Field in January.

I'm going to go ahead and chalk this one up to 'just one of those days' where nothing went right and a team with a strong defense got enough assistance from its special teams units to come out on top. Rodgers was not sharp; Jordy Nelson was not sharp. The defense committed a number of inexcusable penalties. Yet if Nelson doesn't drop a pass he would catch 99 times out of 100, we might have had a different outcome.

The Packers remain winless in Buffalo and will head to another historically dangerous locale next week, Tampa, with no more margin for error. Win these last two, finish at 12-4 and the Pack will likely be a top two seed. Lose even one more and they face the prospect of missing the post-season. That's how quickly you can go from favorites to also rans in today's NFL.

 

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