Sunday, January 2, 2011
Relief and then concern at Lambeau Field
By Kevin Seifert
Brandon Jackson had 19 yards on seven carries as the Packers' offense sputtered against Chicago.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They're a tough out.
You don't want to see them in the playoffs.
Don't sleep on them.
Those clichés are among the populist hogwash you'll read and hear about the Green Bay Packers this week as they prepare for Sunday's wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Maybe it's natural to propagate those ideas for any sixth seed, which by definition is an underdog but has played well enough to earn a wild-card berth. But what we saw Sunday at Lambeau Field was enough to give any objective observer pause about hyping the Packers as the next incarnation of a wild-card Super Bowl team.
The Packers eked out a 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears, a game they didn't seal until safety Nick Collins intercepted a pass at the Packers' 11-yard line with 10 seconds remaining. In what turned out to be a must-win game, the Packers' offense fell into one of the disturbing ruts that has defined its season. They were scoreless until 2 minutes, 39 seconds remained in the third quarter and failed to close out the game during a key fourth-quarter possession.
As the Packers learned in last season's postseason debacle at Arizona, it takes only the temporary collapse of one phase to end a postseason run. And as well as the Packers' defense and special teams performed Sunday, their offensive showing was weak enough to lose a playoff game on the road.
So went my initial thoughts as the final gun sounded Sunday. Part of me wondered if it reflected a harsh and too-literal reading of Sunday's game, but I found more than a few similar thoughts in the Packers' locker room. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, for one, noted that "everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief" but was the first to point out that Sunday's production probably won't cut it from this point forward.
"The thing you realize when you play in the playoffs is that it's the best of the best," Rodgers said. "You can't expect [the Packers' defense] to hold every team to three points. We're playing against a guy that had an MVP-type season in Michael Vick. They have a lot of weapons. Good special teams. Very solid defense. We need to carry our burden a little bit better next week and hopefully put some more points up and take some of the pressure off our defense."
Nick Collins' interception sealed the game in the fourth quarter.
Indeed, the Packers' defense suffocated a Bears offense that had scored 78 points in its previous two games. Using another of coordinator Dom Capers' creative blitz packages, the Packers sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler six times and intercepted him twice. (Sunday, Capers blitzed a defensive back 19 times, including 16 in the second half, according to ESPN Stats & Information.)
Capers' group limited six opponents to single-digit point totals during the regular season and finished the season as the NFL's second-best scoring defense (15 points per game). Defense is said to win championships, and it certainly is possible that Capers could shut down a playoff opponent on the road. But you can hardly expect a victory in such a manner, and Rodgers isn't the only Packers player who chimed in with that opinion.
"It will come down to us holding down our end of it," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Our offense ... we don't expect them to score 10 points. We expect them to score 20 or more. Hopefully they do that next week. For us, we just feel like if they do, that we'll hold up our end of the bargain and we'll win."
In many ways, the Packers' offense has been an all-or-nothing outfit this season. They've scored at least 27 points in nine games this season, winning eight of them. On the other hand, their six losses this season have included these point totals: 3, 13, 17, 17, 20 and 27.
You don't have to look any further than the past two weeks. Last Sunday, the Packers scored 45 points and totaled 515 yards in a rout of the New York Giants. Playing against an admittedly high-caliber defense this Sunday, the Packers were stymied for almost the entire game.
Tramon Williams' 41-yard punt return set up their first score, a 23-yard field goal from Mason Crosby after the offense failed to score on three goal-line plays. Their touchdown, a 1-yard pass from Rodgers to tight end Donald Lee, came after their best play of the afternoon -- a 46-yard pass from Rodgers to Greg Jennings down the right sideline.
In what I thought was an honest analysis, Rodgers made little attempt to gloss over what he called the offense's season-long "inconsistency."
He added: "It's been a more frustrating year [than 2009] because we haven't played as well as maybe we did at times last year. ... We played a good Giants team and played excellent on offense and defense. Tonight was a struggle. It's nice to keep that momentum coming, but we can't have the kind of inconsistent performances that we've had this year that have forced us to be a No. 6 seed."
Rodgers expressed particular concern about the Packers' running game, which fell dormant Sunday despite the return of rookie James Starks. Three Packers running backs -- Starks, Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn -- combined for 39 yards on 16 carries -- and Rodgers was the leading individual rusher with 21 yards. It was the fourth game of the season in which Rodgers had earned that distinction.
Rodgers, who suffered calf cramps Sunday, laughed and said: "Unless I'm able to be calf-cramp free and have some sort of 40- or 50-yard run next week, I don't believe that me being the leading rusher for us is going to equate to a win."
Coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged that Sunday was not the offense's "best day" but fairly noted how well the Packers' defense and special teams performed. (In addition to Williams' punt return, they also downed four punts from Tim Masthay inside the Bears' 20-yard line.) And when I asked Williams what opponents should fear most about the Packers, he said "everything" before laughing and qualifying his answer.
"We feel we're one of the teams that can win it and probably one of the teams that's feared in this whole thing," he said. "Hopefully we can go out and perform the way we can or we should. If our offense performs the way that they can, it's going to be a great playoffs."
I wouldn't disagree. But we've seen enough this season, and were reminded on Sunday, why it's wrong to promote the Packers as a lock for that development.