PD Saturday Sampler 12/31/11: #1 Underdog?
(Editor’s Note: Since everyone figures to be too hungover tomorrow morning to read, we’re posting this a day early this week.)
Has there ever been a number one playoff seed more lightly regarded than the 2011 Green Bay Packers?
For the first 14 weeks of the 2011 season, the Packers were the darlings of the National Football League. The defending champions refused to fall prey to the dreaded ‘Super Bowl hangover’ starting with a thrilling win over the New Orleans Saints in the season opener and rolling to a perfect 13-0 record. They led the league in point differential and had set a number of franchise records along the way, no small accomplishment when you consider the long and storied history of this organization. They were even considered by some as having the potential to be recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.
And then came their game at Kansas City……….
The Chiefs had struggled all year through injuries and backup quarterbacks ultimately leading to the firing of head coach Todd Haley in the week prior to the matchup with Green Bay. Going into this contest, it looked like an easy win. Green Bay might possibly struggle against division rivals Chicago and Detroit, the reasoning went, but lowly Kansas City should be no threat. (Never mind that the Packers lifetime record against the Chiefs in the regular season is 2-7-1. I know that such statistics can often be explained by when and where you play an opponent. On the other hand, ask the San Diego Chargers why they can’t beat Green Bay.) With the way the Packers had been playing, most everyone (including myself) just assumed this to be the next stop on their way to joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins in the NFL history books as the only teams to conclude an entire season undefeated.
Of course, we now know that’s not how things went down. Judging from their play and the post-game comments from many of the Packers’ players, fans like myself weren’t the only ones to automatically assume a victory over the Chiefs. Green Bay looked uninspired and lethargic through most of the game. Kansas City took advantage of the Packers patchwork offensive line to disrupt an offense that was previously thought to be unstoppable and veteran KC quarterback Kyle Orton directed a ball control attack that bent the Packers defense until it finally broke.
It’s funny how perceptions can change so drastically in such a short time. It’s almost as if those first 13 consecutive wins happened in a dream and the only game that matters is that single loss at Kansas City. While Green Bay has already clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs, suddenly the Packers are ripe for the picking. Even though the Packers offense returned to form in last week’s rout of the Bears, many are now saying that Green Bay’s porous defense will inevitably be their demise. If, in an effort to rest players, they end up losing to the Detroit Lions tomorrow, those cries will be amplified.
Whereas once the Packers couldn’t be defeated, now it seems that they can’t win. The truth, as usual, resides somewhere in the middle.
It’s no secret that the defense has been hemorrhaging yards at an alarming rate and the Kansas City game demonstrated the likely result when they fail to generate turnovers. Conventional wisdom dictates that the Packers won’t simply be able to outscore teams once they get into the playoffs. But this is an atypical year in the NFL. The Packers are far from the only title contender to rely on their offense. ESPN’s Merrill Hoge and others have opined that the San Francisco 49ers are a defensive-minded team that could come into Titletown and defeat the Packers. But that ignores the fact that they’ll probably have to get by the New Orleans Saints before even entertaining thoughts of coming to Green Bay. The Saints may be the team that is best equipped to dethrone the Packers but they have defensive question marks of their own, plus they’re a less effective team when playing outside away from home. It’s fair to say that playing in Green Bay is a much different experience in January than it is in September. And if the Packers should make it to the Super Bowl, AFC favorite New England is a team that very much mirrors them in their emphasis on offense. Fellow contenders Baltimore and Pittsburgh do sport stouter defenses but nonetheless have been scored upon at times this season. Baltimore, as New Orleans, has sometimes struggled away from home and the Packers already have a history of dealing with Pittsburgh.
None of the above is meant to suggest that the Packers will have an easy road to their 14th NFL championship. They once again have key injuries to overcome and they’ll have to find a way to somehow manufacture a pass rush to keep opponents from controlling the ball against them. But is it really that much tougher than last year when they had to run the table at the end of the season just to make the playoffs and then win 3 postseason games on the road? It’s hardly a recent development that the Packers rely upon turnovers to get defensive stops and create scoring opportunities. That’s been their modus operandi at least as long as Charles Woodson has been in town. Green Bay created 13 turnovers in last year’s playoff run through Super Bowl XLV. The likelihood that they’ll need to do that again belies the justification for all the gloom and doom. After winning last year’s title, it was widely acknowledged that the Packers could be even better the next year. For most of this season, it looked like they were. Ironically, if Green Bay actually can repeat, we might be able to say that again.
Speaking of the Packers, the minor late season resurgence of Ryan Grant has recently had me considering the state of the ground attack. Last year at this time, many were proclaiming running back James Starks the savior of the running game, if not the entire offense. It seemed to me to be an awful lot of responsibility to put on a 6th round draft choice and it still does. Starks was clearly a great find by General Manager Ted Thompson and probably possesses more natural ability and running instincts than Grant. But I’m not sure that means he’s that much better than Grant. To this point in his career, Starks has been in and out of the lineup due to various “minor” injuries and neither he nor Grant has been consistent enough to be considered a ‘feature back’.
Of course, that’s of little concern to the Packers who have no real need for such a designation. This is not your father’s NFL. The Packers are set up to take advantage of current rules that promote the passing game and are well positioned to do so with one of the most accurate quarterbacks and deep receiving corps in NFL history. All they require from their running backs is to keep defenses from overplaying the pass and running the clock when necessary. Toward that end, they’ll need both Starks and Grant to be productive down the stretch.
If you read the post the other day about the PD Staff’s New Year’s resolutions ( http://pocketdoppler.com/2011/12/30/pocketdoppler-com-group-2012-resolutions/ ), you’ll notice that one of mine was to avoid watching college football bowl games until there’s a playoff system in place. In reality, it wasn’t that much of a deprivation. For every compelling matchup, there are at least 10 that are interesting only to the players’ families and gamblers. Actually, my objection with the bowl system isn’t even based on the inconsequentiality of the games as it is on the sheer volume of them. When the NCAA has to consider relaxing it’s own qualification rules just to fill all the bids, it’s a pretty good indication that there are way too many bowl games. It’s ridiculous that college football can play 30-some bowl games over the course of 6 weeks following the end of the regular season but can’t configure a way to incorporate an actual playoff format.
The only exception I’ll make to my personal bowl boycott is the Rose Bowl. The history and tradition of that bowl transcend the college game. As a Wisconsin and Big(12)Ten football fan, I’ve always had a vested interest in that game and it’s even more special when the Badgers are participants, as they were last year and are again this Monday. Last year, Wisconsin came up just a little short against a very good Texas Christian team, led by current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. This year they get to see how they stack up against the University of Oregon in what promises to be a shootout. Badgers fans may want to savor this one. With offensive coordinator Paul Chryst leaving the program, it may be awhile before Wisconsin returns to Pasadena.
RANDOM SAMPLINGS: Now that the NFL season is nearing the end, raise your hand if you thought that Carolina’s Cam Newton was ever going to be a viable pro quarterback, much less this year. Yeah, me neither. If coach Ron Rivera can strengthen the Panthers defense, which is a strong possibility given his track record as a defensive coordinator, they will be a force to be reckoned with………..The University of Nebraska basketball team began their conference season the same way their football team did-getting thumped by Wisconsin. Welcome to the Big(12)Ten, Big Red………..Packers tight end Jermichael Finley incurred the ire of coach Mike McCarthy this week by missing practice on short notice. Finley has made noises that if the Packers put the ‘franchise tag’ on him, he should be considered a wide receiver. For once I agree with him; he’s too much of a ‘diva’ to be a real tight end………..This year’s Alamo Bowl (insert your own sponsor here) set a scoring record for a regulation college bowl game when Baylor defeated Washington 67-56. Interestingly, Bears’ Heisman-winning QB Robert Griffin III directly accounted for only two of his team’s touchdowns; one running and one passing………..The Milwaukee Bucks have always had good luck with 2nd round draft picks, including but not limited to former star Michael Redd and current forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The latest find appears to be former Badger Jon Leuer. Leuer isn’t the most talented player but he clearly learned well how to play the game from his time under Bo Ryan………..I thought it was curious that the Badgers were ranked ahead of Marquette, who defeated them earlier in the season. Then the Golden Eagles got blown out at the Bradley Center by Vanderbilt. For the record, the Badgers have never lost a game at the Kohl Center by more than 15 points under Bo Ryan.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year! GO PACK AND BADGERS!!!