The first of our two Minnesota-Wisconsin border battles is upon us. On Sunday night at Lambeau Field, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers will square off mano a mano. Ali vs. Frazier. Ricky vs. Cal. Balboa vs. Drago...
It's a primitive clash
Venting years of frustrations.
Bravely we hope against all hope.
There is so much at stake,
Seems our freedom's up against the ropes.
Does the crowd understand?
Is it East versus West, or man against man?
Can any nation stand alone?
In the burning heart
Just about to burst.
There's a quest for answers, an unquenchable thirst.
In the darkest night, rising like a spire,
In the burning heart, the unmistakable fire.
In the warrior's code, there's no surrender.
Though his body says stop, his spirit cries -- never!
Deep in our soul, a quiet ember
Knows it's you against you,
It's the paradox that drives us on.
It's a battle of wills.
In the heat of attack,
It's the passion that kills.
The victory is yours alone.
(By the way, have you ever read the lyrics to what is usually an adrenaline-producing song and feel somewhat less, uh, adrenalized? I'm sorry. I'm not sure what the Survivor boys were trying to say.)
Martin of Appleton, Wis., read Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris' thoughts on the NFL's decision to enforce its unnecessary roughness rules and wonders if players believe they have a right to illegal helmet-to helmet-hits if they "buy" them with a moderate fine after the game.
Kevin Seifert: Martin, your question had several other points, but I thought this was the most interesting.
Let me first say I have never seen such unified and visceral public complaining from NFL players on any issue. Perhaps Twitter emboldened some of them to speak out, but I think it's pretty clear that many, many players were opposed to the NFL's actions this week. It ran the gamut from the most high-profile, such as Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, to special-teams players such as Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe.
Kluwe spent much of the week mocking the NFL's plans and its explanatory video. He even posted a hysterical photograph -- sorry, it's not safe for family viewing -- depicting punters left unprotected by the same rules.
I realize what you're saying, Martin, but I think the players in this case are justified in their outrage. For the NFL, this was a knee-jerk and arbitrary reaction to a systemic issue that goes to the core of the game itself. I like the way Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer put it in a column published by USA Today: "It's too easy to slap a fine on a player and ignore the fact that every other incentive in his football universe rewards that same aggression. The onus is not just on the players. The whole culture of football has to change to really make the game safer."
I'm in total agreement. Football isn't just a violent game. It's nasty hand-to-hand combat. Some helmet-to-helmet plays are dirty, and all of them are potentially dangerous. But there are other dirty parts of this game, and every play has the potential for danger. Why focus only on helmet-to-helmet hits at a time when punters are getting blindsided on returns, running backs are getting their ankles twisted at the bottom of piles and defensive linemen are getting their knees chopped?
How can you ask players to curb one element of an entire way of life?
That's why I think this whole episode feels like a public-relations ploy akin to the new concussion "policy" the league produced during the offseason. As it turns out, that policy is nothing more than a set of guidelines that ultimately leaves individual decisions on treatment of head injuries to the individual teams. In this most recent case, the NFL reacted after a weekend that included more helmet-to-helmet hits than usual, but certainly nothing we've never seen before. I'm all for protecting players, but this week addressed a small portion of the issue.
Don of Tucson, Ariz., writes: You pointed out that Detroit Lions receivers have dropped a lot of passes this year. Could you at least break down the numbers for those of us who don't have access to them?
Kevin Seifert: Fair enough, Don. The chart shows the teams with the 10-most drops in the NFL. The numbers, compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, are of course somewhat subjective. But the same standards were applied to each team. The Lions are atop the list with 19 in six games.
As far as individuals go, receiver Calvin Johnson and fullback Jerome Felton have three drops apiece. The rest are spread out among the rest of the Lions' offense.
Jay of Madison, Wis., -- who read our post on Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and close games -- writes: Game-saving drives? Could you clarify? I get that Rodgers is getting flak for losing close games and deservedly so. But can he really take full blame for all of those? No way.
In at least six of those close 11 losses, he has brought his team back to take the lead or tie the game late (under six minutes remaining). Jacksonville, Houston, Carolina, and Tennessee in 2008. Pittsburgh (and you may as well throw in Arizona) in 2009. Miami in 2010. The 2008 Packers defense was just horrific and we saw what happened in 2009 against great quarterbacks. In a few of those cases he still had a chance to lead his team to victory.
Kevin Seifert: First off, a game-saving/winning drive is defined as a victorious drive that wins a game when Favre's team was either trailing or tied at any point in the fourth quarter. Favre has 42 in his regular-season career and three more in the playoffs.
On the other hand, Rodgers' teams have lost 11 of 12 games decided by four points or less since the start of 2008.
To repeat what I noted in the original post: These statistics aren't an apples-to-apples comparison. But I do think they paint a general picture that we all would accept on an observational level. No matter who is at fault, the Rodgers-led Packers haven't had much success in winning the kids of games that Favre has made a career of.
You're right, Jay. Rodgers has had some amazing fourth quarters in his short career. But under his guidance, the team hasn't finished many of those jobs. Obviously, if Mason Crosby hits that 53-yard field goal against the Washington Redskins instead of nipping the left upright, we're telling a different story. But Rodgers' point during the conference call was that games don't always come down to what happens in the final frenetic minutes. Sometimes your best opportunity to win comes much earlier, and Rodgers pointed to a failed fourth-down pass on the goal line in the second quarter.
The quarterback gets more blame than any other individual player because he has the ball on every play and thus can impact the outcome of games to a greater extent. I don't think Rodgers necessarily did anything to lose those games, but the numbers say he hasn't done enough to win them, either.
Danius of Seattle writes: You endorsed the Bears' hiring of Mike Martz. I had my doubts. Here's why: Martz is brilliant -- when he has the personnel to execute his schemes. But when he doesn't -- like during his stint with the Lions -- he shows that he is not capable of adapting his offense to the players and situation. Isn't this the problem with Martz and the Bears in a nutshell? You may disagree, but this would make a good discussion point for your blog.
Kevin Seifert: Fair points all around, although I do think it should be noted that Martz has bent his "rules" in at least one instance. Tight end Greg Olsen is the Bears' second-most targeted receiver (28 passes) in a scheme that historically has ignored the position in the passing game.
Otherwise, I think we're all waiting to see if Martz will really keep throwing the ball at his current rate and style, or whether he'll adjust based on the Bears' sack totals. He has two good running backs in Matt Forte and Chester Taylor, and a quarterback in Jay Cutler who in the past has been at his best when allowed to leave the pocket.
None of that is happening with any regularity to this point. It's difficult to watch the same thing happen over and over again.
Travis of Hartley, Iowa, writes: With the Vikings playing the Packers this weekend and being thin at cornerback, do you think it would be wise for them to keep Antoine Winfield on the outside on third downs instead of inside? The Packers' run game isn't very effective this year and if Chris Cook can start that would make it a lot tougher for the Pack to convert on third down. I know Asher Allen isn't close to the type of player Antoine is but I know he's a physical guy and could still be effective as the nickel back.
Kevin Seifert: It's an interesting point. Winfield plays inside in the nickel because the Vikings think he is best-suited to cover slot receivers and/or tight ends, but the loss of Jermichael Finley makes the Packers less explosive in that area. I don't think Cook is going to be healthy enough to start, but the Packers run enough three-receiver sets that both he and Allen will be on the field for much of the game.
Ultimately, you want to see Winfield on an opponent's best receiver -- in this case, Greg Jennings -- no matter where he is lined up.