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Thursday, January 7, 2010
Weighing the Packers' pros and cons

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

I’ll admit it. I’m having a hard time getting my arms around Green Bay’s wild-card matchup at Arizona. Everything about the way the Packers are playing, and the way they are structured, suggests they have an excellent chance to win. But there is a matchup issue that would cause me some concern if I were a Packers fan.

(Which would be hard for me, of course.)

I felt pretty confident in the Packers’ chances at Pittsburgh last month, only to watch them give up 503 passing yards and lose on the final play of the game. So to me, the pregame analysis for Sunday’s playoff game should center around the Packers’ strengths versus the lessons of that Steelers game.

First, the positive side. If you believe in momentum, the Packers have more than any team in the NFC after winning seven of their final eight games. If you think karma is important, you note the Packers have trounced the Cardinals twice in Arizona's building in the past five months.

And if you look at the Packers’ trends this season and beyond, you see a team well-equipped to win a playoff game on the road. Among them:

Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers has thrown at least one TD pass in all but one of the Packers' games this season.
The Packers were 5-3 away from Lambeau Field this season, and over time the franchise has played well on the road late in the year. Dating back to 2000, the Packers are 14-9 on the road during regular-season games in December and January, the fourth-best mark in the NFL. There’s no evidence to suggest they can easily be overcome by noise, unfamiliar environment or unpredictable weather. (And none of those three issues would be a factor in Arizona, anyway.)

Turnovers are usually the quickest way to a defeat on the road, playoffs or otherwise. The Packers had the fewest number of turnovers in the NFL this season (16). The two players who most often touch the ball rarely make mistakes. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had seven interceptions in 541 attempts, and tailback Ryan Grant didn’t lose a fumble as a runner this season.

On the other hand, the Packers created more turnovers (40) than any NFL team. Winning the turnover battle should be one of the most direct paths to a playoff victory.

You might point out the Packers were the NFL’s most-penalized team this season (118), and I don’t doubt there are instances where a penalty can cost you a game. But the people who track and study statistics over an extended period usually insist that penalties at best have a limited correlation to wins and losses.

This season, for example, seven of the NFL’s nine most-penalized teams made the playoffs. In 1998, the authors of “The Hidden Game of Football” asserted they could find no connection between the number of penalties a team had in relation to its winning percentage. Regular readers of this blog know I trust Football Outsiders’ work, and FO suggests that offensive penalties tend to impact the outcome of games over time -- but not those on defense or special teams.

That discussion aside, the Packers tripped up on two counts in Pittsburgh last month. It was the only game of their season in which they didn’t force a turnover, and their pass defense had no answers to the Steelers’ multi-receiver sets. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger picked apart the Packers’ nickel and dime defenses.

Mike Wallace
Arizona will test the Green Bay secondary on Sunday, much like Mike Wallace and the Steelers did in Week 15.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Steelers used a three-receiver set more than any other NFL team in 2009. The Cardinals ranked No. 8 on that list with 303 instances, or about 31 percent of their total plays. They have also used four-receiver sets on about 20 percent of their plays.

So, roughly speaking, the Cardinals used three- or four-receiver sets on more than half of their plays. The Cardinals could be without receiver Anquan Boldin, who is dealing with an ankle injury. But assuming Boldin plays, you wonder how the Packers will defend those sets.

Cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams would get two of the assignments, but that would still leave nickelback Jarrett Bush to defend a third receiver. The Steelers frequently targeted Bush and then-dime back Josh Bell last month with great success.

Asked this week about Bush, Packers coach Mike McCarthy blamed himself for spreading Bush “a little too thin” between defense and special teams in the Steelers game. He said Bush was getting “worn down” during special-teams segments of practice and that coaches have since pulled back on his practice repetitions there.

“I think that has helped him and it has helped him really concentrate more on defense,” McCarthy said. “Because he has been such a special player for us on special teams and he does a lot for us on special teams. Just watching his reps I think has really helped his productivity on defense.”

I give McCarthy credit for recognizing and admitting that Bush struggled against the Steelers, but I can’t say for sure the adjustment will make a difference against the Cardinals. The Packers will need a creative game plan to win the matchup with Arizona’s offense. As we saw in Pittsburgh, it could be the difference between extending their season and heading home for the winter.

So goes my mixed feelings on this game. Feel free to rebut, retort or agree in the comments section below.