Packers XLV

Brady May Be the GOAT, but Pack's Coaches Wear the Goat Horns After This One.

Posted January 25th, 2021 @ 12:01am

I don't even know where to start. All I know is, this will not be a long post. So many infuriating aspects to this game. So many boneheaded plays and decisions.

I'll start where it pretty much ended: Matt LaFleur's decision to trot out Mason Crosby on fourth and goal with a shade over two minutes to play. Really Matt? You're going to give the ball back to Tom Brady and trust your defense to get a stop? You're going to take the MVP off the field, after a season where he directed the best red zone offense in the league? Not to mention, your defense was being forced to use Ty Summers at inside linebacker. That is less than optimal when you need to make a season-saving stop.

Even if you turn the ball over on downs, you still pin Brady back deep with a chance to get the ball back one last time. There was no way Brady wasn't going to run out the clock. Granted, the late pass interference call on Kevin King was a tough way for the game to end. Yeah, he grabbed his shirt, but they were letting defensive holding go all afternoon. Both Davante Adams and Allen Lazard were mugged at key moments, but they were letting them play. The inconsistency is what's so maddening.

The end of the first half was just as destructive. Why didn't Mike Pettine have his defense in zone, making sure the Bucs couldn't throw over the top, with eight seconds left and no timeouts? It may cost him his job. It was that big a mistake. I also think he should have had Jaire shadowing Mike Evans from the start. He's the only true outside threat in that offense. That touchdown to put the Bucs up 11 was a clear signal that this was not going to be the Pack's day.

And after Aaron Jones fumbled coming out of half-time to up the lead to 18, it looked like curtains. But lo and behold; Brady, who had gone 392 straight passes without a pick started throwing them up for grabs. Three interceptions and the Pack scored a grand total of zero points. They followed up two of them with three and outs. Just didn't capitalize on the opportunities.

The Pack won the turnover battle, won the time of possession and outgained them. The Bucs pass rush made just enough big plays, with five sacks. This talented group of pass rushers was too much for the Pack's makeshift offensive line, a unit that really missed David Bakhtiari on this day.

Also, I'm pretty sure the Kevin King era in Green Bay ends after this one. If they only sign one free agent between King, Aaron Jones and Corey Linsley, King comes in a distant third. Gonna need to find another corner. Again.

It really just came down to this: Bruce Arians trusted his GOAT to make a big play at the end of the half. And LaFleur didn't let his GOAT try to make a game tying play at the end of the game. Like I said, infuriating.

Four title game appearances in the last seven years and zero wins. No other NFC team has been in more than one of these since '14, so it points to an organization that has consistently been in contention. But the bottom line is they fell once game short of the Super Bowl. Again. And this time the stars were pretty much aligned. But the Pack didn't rise to the challenge.

This one stings, no two ways around it.

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For Two All Time Greats, This Game Is About Legacy.

Posted January 22nd, 2021 @ 03:01pm

I haven't been able to get the 'L' word out of my head all week. And then Marcedes Lewis used it on Thursday. This is a legacy moment for both quarterbacks on Sunday. For Brady, to show that he can lead a team to a Super Bowl without Bill Belichick and more importantly, for Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers will always be in the conversation when it comes to the all time greats. But taking this team to a Super Bowl and winning it will elevate him historically in many peoples' eyes. And beating Brady to get there would make it all the sweeter. You know it's important to Rodgers and it's important to Packer fans. Ten years ago Rodgers and the Pack reached the mountaintop. This team is his best chance to return there.

Standing in the way is the team that handed the Pack its worst loss of the season. But that was a long time ago and both teams look a lot different these days. All right, let's start with the weather. The Bucs are getting off easy, with temps in the 20s and maybe some snow. That shouldn't affect Brady and the Bucs too much, in my opinion. A frigid day in single digits would go a lot further in providing the Pack with an edge.

This is probably the most talented set of skill players Brady has ever played with. The only guy who's questionable to play is Antonio Brown, who's knee injury has kept him off the practice field through Thursday. Mike Pettine's defense will have its hands full. It has to start with stopping the run. Ronald Jones (who's not 100%) ran wild on the Pack in the first meeting and Leonard Fournette provides a nice complement. Pettine will likely be in nickel for most of the game, so the Bucs will test that light box to move the ball on the ground and give Brady shorter third down situations.

I figure Mike Evans will be sent to Jaire Island, but I expect Brady to look for him in the red zone, where he's been lethal this season. The game could turn on this matchup late in the fourth quarter. Brady will look for Chris Godwin in the middle of the field and both tight ends are dangerous on third downs. If Brown can't go, it opens the door for rookie and Minneapolis native Tyler Johnson, who won't flinch at the sight of snow and his own breath. On any other team, he would have made a bigger splash in his rookie season.

Brady has been playing at a very high level the last five or six weeks, thanks in part to all those weapons, but also because he's been very comfy in the pocket. The best way to mess with his timing is to get pressure up the middle and force him out of the pocket. The Packers are equipped to do that, with Kenny Clark and Za'Darius Smith leading the way. Look for Smith to spend a lot of time next to Clark, with Preston and Gary taking over on the outside.

The Pack's defense has steadily improved and is much more prepared to deal with Brady and his prolific partners. Kevin King missed the first game and Krys Barnes was not manning the middle of the defense. Plus both Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage have ramped up their games and are much more comfortable and productive now. Throw in the potential snaps from Damon Harrison and Tramon Williams and you have a unit that is up to the challenge.

Ah, Tramon Williams. How poignant it was to hear that the Packers were bringing him back and almost simultaneously learning that former GM Ted Thompson had passed away. Williams was Ted's greatest undrafted find ever. That was one of Thompson's strengths: uncovering hidden gems like Williams, Sam Shields, John Kuhn and Ryan Grant. Now Williams returns, fresh off a season with the Ravens, to provide depth and probably a spot in the dime defense, replacing the ineffective Will Redmond.

Despite Brady's strong finish, the Bucs' offense has been struggling to covert third downs lately, particularly short third downs and they've been bad in the red zone, converting touchdowns at just a 38% clip. The Bucs will move the ball between the 20s. The Pack's red zone defense has the edge right now.

Now for the Pack's offense against the Bucs' young, talented defense. The first matchup was the one game where the Pack failed to score at least 22 points and Rodgers' uncharacteristic picks on back to back series seemed to completely deflate the team. Todd Bowles' defense was the only one that found a way to blitz Rodgers to a point where he could do nothing.

They were helped by the Pack's inability to run the ball. Once the game got away in the second quarter when Tampa Bay put 28 points on the board, the Pack's offense pretty much abandoned it. Aaron Jones managed just 15 yards on 10 carries and he had no luck trying to run wide on their speedy linebackers. Look for Matt LaFleur to test that run defense like he did against the Rams last week, up the middle. Those linebackers, Devin White and Lavonte David are difference makers and those are the kind of players that have given the Pack's offense problems--speed guys in the middle of the defense. The best way to neutralize them is to negate their sideline to sideline speed. Of course the Pack may have to deal with the return of the massive NT Vita Vea, who's back from injured reserve. Maybe he'll be rusty.

Rodgers will need to identify where those guys are and stay on time and in rhythm. Everything we've seen from him and from this offensive line tells us that they are dictating things when they are on the field and will have answers for what Bowles throws at them. Corner Carlton Davis will do his best to play Davante Adams physically on the line but Adams can beat him deep. MVS and Lazard will have favorable matchups, but that back end has playmakers like rookie Antoine Winfield (another Minnesotan who will enjoy the weather) and Sean Murphy-Bunting. There can be no drops. There can be no putting the ball on the ground.

The Bucs have a very talented defense, but it's one that is not playing its best football right now. They're allowing more than 50% of third downs to be converted in the playoffs, worst of the four remaining playoff teams. They're allowing 64% of red zone visits to result in touchdowns in the playoffs--that would be the fifth worst mark in the regular season. And the Pack is pretty productive in the red zone, in case you haven't been paying attention.

After all of that, this game will likely come down to turnovers. Both teams are unbeaten this season when they don't commit a turnover and when they win the turnover battle. It's what turned the first meeting and it's what got the Bucs to this game. The Pack has been very good about taking care of the football at home. If they can do it one more time, they'll find themselves in the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady is looking to lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl in its home stadium, something no team has ever accomplished. Aaron Rodgers is playing at home in the NFC title game for the first time in his career. He's longed for this. It's his fourth title game since winning the Lombardi. The first one was snatched away on an onside kick. The last two were blowouts. This is Rodgers' moment.  This is his time.

Packers 30  Bucs 20

 

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An Offensive Masterpiece.

Posted January 17th, 2021 @ 05:01pm

You know what they always say, "offense wins championships." At least, that's what they say in the new age NFL, where dynamic offenses led by elite quarterbacks can take down even the best defenses.

But never has an offense taken down the league's best defense in more dominant fashion than the Pack did against the Rams at Lambeau. They're the first team to post 475 yards of offense, with more than 175 yards rushing and give up zero sacks and not turn the ball over  against a #1 defense in the playoffs. That is offensive perfection.

Yes, I know Aaron Donald was not completely healthy. You don't tear rib cartilage and not feel it one week later. Yet he was out there and entered the game with no injury designation and Elgton Jenkins handled him with no issues. The whole offensive line did, wherever he lined up. That line allowed pressure on only 9 of 37 dropbacks, while Jared Goff faced pressure on nearly half of his.

Rick Wagner continues to handle his business.  He rendered Leonard Floyd a non-factor. As I said on "Packer Review," the only time I noticed Floyd was when Rodgers broke his ankles on his way to his rushing touchdown in the second quarter. And perhaps most importantly, the line dominated the Rams' #3 rush defense from the opening snap, allowing the Pack's three-headed rushing attack to pile up 191 yards on six yards per carry.

A line playing that level would be any QB's best friend, but when that QB is Rodgers, you're not going to lose too often. It was the 13th time the Pack has put up at least 30 points. And I thought the biggest play of the game may have been the third and three catch that MVS made midway through the fourth quarter when it was a one score game. When he caught it, it looked like MVS had no chance to get the first down, but his deft footwork along the sidelines and tough effort moved the chains. Two plays later, Rodgers used play action, where he is deadly, and found Allen Lazard for the 58 yard touchdown that delivered the dagger to the Rams.

There were other huge moments: Jones' 60 yard gallop that opened the third quarter and put the Pack in the red zone where he punched it in five plays later; the 29-second scoring drive at the end of the half that pushed the lead to nine; the AJ Dillon fumble that Rodgers pounced on and advanced a few yards to keep a drive going late. Each of those were moments that stood out on a night where the Pack were otherwise solid play in and play out.

We know the defense will be tested a lot more next weekend against the Saints or Bucs, but  they handled the limited Rams offense as we hoped they would. There were three scoring drives, but there were also five drives where the Rams averaged four plays per drive. When Cooper Kupp was ruled out, it took Goff's best receiver and security blanket out of the picture. I thought Goff looked much better than he did last week in Seattle, but he was never able to make a play over the top. Robert Woods' longest reception was ten yards. Once again Jaire Alexander led a talented secondary and dominated a receiver group that they should dominate. It will get tougher next Sunday.

Rashan Gary was the Pack's highest graded defender and is developing so quickly that he will allow the team to move on from Preston Smith and use those dollars to lock up one or two of their other free agents after this playoff run ends. Smith has been solid, but Gary is ready for the full time job--he was all over the field on Saturday.

Special teams continues to be a problem. The muffed snap on the first PAT caused the Pack a point and maybe a healthy Mason Crosby, who suffered either an arm or neck injury as he tried to pounce on the ball after the bad snap. He finished the game, but looked a little compromised, so we'll keep our eyes on that. JK Scott didn't have much of a chance to make a mistake since the Pack scored on its first five drives.

But the return game is still a concern and I find myself holding my breath every time a team kicks off or punts to Green Bay. Tavon Austin doesn't seem real comfortable, since fumbling in Chicago and made a bad decision not to field a punt on Saturday. And Malik Taylor has no business being a kick returner. If all the pass catchers raced, I think he'd finish just ahead of Marcedes Lewis, who's as old as Rodgers. At least he's been dependable catching it. I'd just as soon he fair catch every time he fields a kick.

So now we await the opponent: Brady or Brees. An epic matchup between first ballot Hall of Famers. Rodgers finally gets a championship game at Lambeau. And there will be fans on hand. The small crowd made a difference. We could hear it on TV and the players all talked about it after the game. Rodgers got emotional talking about what it meant to hear the fans as he ran out of the tunnel, and then the M-V-P chants late. And he got emotional talking about how special this team is and how close-knit they are.

It feels like something Super is brewing with this group. And now they get one extra day to heal and prepare for Brees or Brady next Sunday afternoon. Whichever legend gets there, he knows he'll have to be at the top of his game to outduel Rodgers in his house.

He's been waiting a long time for  this.

 

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