NFC North: Hakeem Nicks
The Giants have no playoff hopes. The Lions need to win their final two games and then hope for help (i.e., losses) from Green Bay and Chicago.
Taking you through Sunday’s matchup are ESPN.com NFL reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Dan Graziano (Giants).
Rothstein: The Giants have struggled all season, and Eli Manning has been at the forefront of that. What has changed there?
Graziano: It's basically just a complete bottoming-out on all fronts, starting with the protection. A line that wasn't great to begin with is down two starters and has been playing a rookie at right tackle all season. The blocking help the line used to get from running backs and tight ends disappeared when the Giants let Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett leave in the offseason. Hakeem Nicks has had a terrible year at receiver, playing like he is more worried about staying healthy in advance of free agency than trying his best to win. There has been no run game at all for long stretches. And Manning has failed to elevate above his miserable circumstances, missing too many throws and too often looking as though it has all been too much for him. It's been a total whitewash of a season for the Giants' offense. They are the only team in the league that has been shut out even once this season, and they've been shut out twice.
What is the deal out there in Detroit? To my eyes, the Lions should have put this division away by now with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having been out for so long. What is the main reason they seem to have squandered such a great opportunity?
Rothstein: I don't know whether there are enough words to describe all that has gone on, although the simplest way to put it would be consistent end-game meltdowns, either from turnovers, coaching decisions or a defense that suddenly faltered.
A lot of it has to do with Matthew Stafford, who has had accuracy issues in the second half of the season. Really, there have been issues everywhere but the lines, from turnovers to coverage breakdowns on defense.
This is a team that should be safely in the playoffs right now instead of needing to win out and get help.
That obviously leads to job-security questions for Jim Schwartz. Although that doesn't seem to be the case for Tom Coughlin, has this season given any indication as to how much longer he plans to be on the sideline?
Graziano: No, Coughlin is really a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy. He's completely believable when he insists he's focused on only this week's game and doesn't want to address anything beyond this season. People close to Coughlin insist he won't quit as long as he feels he can still do the job, and there is no indication he feels otherwise. He has as much passion and energy as anyone else in the building (and right now, more than most!). I don't think Giants ownership would fire him, and I'd be stunned if he got into the offseason and decided he was done. As one person close to him told me, "He has no hobbies. There's nothing for him to retire TO." At 67 years old, he understands why the questions get asked, but he doesn't view himself as near the end of a career, I don't think. As of now, he plans to be part of the solution here, and it would be a major upset if he wasn't back in 2014.
One of Coughlin's biggest immediate problems is keeping his quarterback from getting killed. How is that Detroit pass rush looking these days?
Rothstein: Eli, meet Ndamukong. He will be the guy tossing you to the ground today. In all seriousness, though, the Lions' pass rush has been interesting. The Lions have been great at applying pressure (other than against Pittsburgh) but don't have the actual numbers to show for it, which can be confusing.
What teams have done is bottle the middle on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and have either a tight end or running back help on either Willie Young or Ziggy Ansah on the ends.
So to answer your question, it has been OK, but not the consistently dominant force some were expecting.
That leads into my last question. The Lions' run defense, headed by that front, has been one of the best in the league this season. Have the Giants figured any way to solve their run woes?
Graziano: Andre Brown was hot for a while when he came back from his injury, and the offensive line was starting to block better for the run. But the past two weeks have seen a step backward, and the way the line is configured now, with starting left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backups rotating in and out at left guard, has left it very vulnerable and one-dimensional. The Giants were able to take advantage of some good matchups with Brown running well, but against tougher fronts like the one they saw against Seattle last week, they struggle. I imagine they will struggle against the Lions' front in the run game as well.
Two straight disappointing games for Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Do you expect Megatron to blow up this week and victimize the Giants' secondary?
Rothstein: Kind of. As cornerback Rashean Mathis told me this week, if the Lions don’t find their urgency now, they’ll never find it this season. So I’d imagine you would see Johnson -- who is Detroit's best player -- at the forefront of that if the Lions have any shot over the next two weeks. Plus, those two drops he had against Baltimore will gnaw at him all week long. I expect he’ll have a big game.
Stafford, on the other hand, I’m not as sure about because he seems genuinely rattled this second half of the season. Detroit needs to find what was working for him at the start of the season and bring that back, otherwise its season is over.
The New York Giants will be looking for their fourth win in a row following an 0-6 start. The Green Bay Packers will be trying to snap their first two-game losing streak since 2010. The two teams square off Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson (filling in for Packers reporter Rob Demovsky) break down the matchup for you.
Dan Graziano: Hey, Matt. Thanks for filling in while Rob’s on the inactive list this week. The big question the Giants have this week is: Who is Scott Tolzien and what can we expect to see from him? So let’s start with that one.
Matt Williamson: Well, Dan, that's a good question! I don’t think we really know the answer, but he did move the team well and was generally a smart distributor of the football. And we know Green Bay has weapons to get the ball to. We obviously don’t have a lot of tape to evaluate, but I think the Packers are better off with Tolzien over Seneca Wallace.
While we are talking quarterbacks, what on Earth is going on with Eli Manning? Despite this winning streak, he really has not played well at all.
Graziano: Matt, my theory on Eli is that the protection issues at the beginning of the season were so egregious that he just fell into this zone of discomfort from which he's been unable to extricate himself. He just doesn't look right back there, and while the protection issues have improved some, they're still present. They've had no blocking help from the tight-end position at all. They're very vulnerable in the middle of the line, and I'm not sold on either tackle, to be honest. They haven't had reliable blitz pickup help from the running backs. Downfield, Hakeem Nicks isn't playing wide receiver the way he used to play it. A lot has gone on around Manning to make him far less comfortable with his surroundings, and I'm not sure what it's going to take before he starts playing with that old Eli confidence again. Great quarterbacks make the best of bad situations, and Manning has not done that this year. As the Giants' situation improves, they will need him to play much better if they're really going to make this miracle run they still believe they can make.
Now, they get another break this week with Aaron Rodgers out and Tolzien in, but they are already talking about that improved Packers running game. What do you see from Eddie Lacy & Co. and how do you think they'll attack the Giants, who have generally been pretty good against opposing running backs this season?
Williamson: This Packers’ running game is terrific and should continue to excel even with less of a passing threat with Rodgers sidelined. The left side of the Packers’ offensive line is playing great, but -- as with the rest of the team -- isn’t healthy on the right side and has had to do a lot of shuffling of personnel there. Still, Green Bay’s rushing attack isn’t easy to prepare for as they can run a wide variety of plays out of a wide variety of personnel groupings and formations. Lacy is quick to get downhill and is a punishing runner who can wear a defense down, and he also excels at reading his blocks and showing patience with the ball in his hands -- rare traits for a rookie running back. The Packers’ ability to run the ball will probably be the most crucial component of this football game.
Along those lines, I feel like the Giants might actually have a respectable rushing attack of their own now with Andre Brown carrying the rock. Do you agree?
Graziano: Yeah, the 30 carries and 115 yards for Brown on Sunday in his first game back off a twice-broken leg were eye-opening. I think the workload they gave him showed that the Giants knew just how much they were missing this season at running back. David Wilson never got going and then got hurt, and they patched it together with Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis. But watching Brown run with vision and power and gain yards after contact Sunday, it was obvious that he's the Giants' best option going forward and the best they've had all season. The injury risk has to be considered, given Brown's history, but at this point the Giants need to win pretty much every game, and they're going to have to lean hard on Brown to do it. Even if he can't be as productive every week as he was against the Raiders, the legitimate threat he poses on film should open up the play-action passing game as a way for Manning to combat those protection issues.
So the Giants feel they can offer a balanced offensive attack against a Packers defense that couldn't get the ball back from the Eagles in the final 9:32 of Sunday's game. Was that a LeSean McCoy issue, or are the Packers really struggling on defense right now?
Williamson: The Packers are struggling on defense and allowing too many big plays. I expected last week’s return from injury by Clay Matthews to pay off much more than it did. However, we know that Matthews is a truly great player, and maybe he just needed a week to get back into the swing of things. I still expect Matthews to torment the Giants’ tackles this week. On the inside of their defensive line, the Packers have a lot of sheer mass and power with guys like B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett. I also expect the Giants' interior offensive line to have a difficult time moving this group in the running game. This could be a bounce-back week for Green Bay on this side of the ball.
The Packers’ run defense had a very difficult time when the Eagles stacked both of their offensive tackles on the same side of the formation. While I expect the Giants could use some personnel groupings with six offensive linemen, I don’t see them duplicating what Philadelphia did to make room for McCoy.
Watching the Giants game from last week, I noticed they had a difficult time getting the Raiders’ Pat Sims blocked. Sims is a big-bodied and powerful defensive tackle in much the same mold as the Packers’ group. I think that bodes well for Green Bay this week.
And expect the Giants to have a difficult time blocking little-known Mike Daniels in the passing game. Daniels has taken over the Cullen Jenkins role in this defense -- a spot Green Bay drafted Datone Jones for in the first round -- as an interior pass-rusher, and he has excelled in that role.
The Giants' defense is based entirely on great defensive line play. This is a deep group with a ton of important resources tied up in it, but it hasn’t been an elite group. It is improving, however. Where do you see this unit right now and this week against the Packers?
Graziano: Well, the sack numbers have come up. The Giants had only six sacks in their first seven games, but then got eight in their past two games. So they’ve moved from last in the league in sacks, where they spent most of the season, to a tie for 30th in that category. Odd thing is, of the eight sacks in their past two games, only four have come from defensive linemen. Safety Antrel Rolle has as many sacks (two) in the Giants’ past two games as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has in their past 16. Pierre-Paul did get one against the Raiders, and he says he’s on the verge of a breakout. And the line has been very good, as I mentioned, against the run this year. But over the first seven games of the season, opposing quarterbacks did a good job of unloading the ball before the Giants’ pass-rushers could stop them from doing so. Not sure they get the full test this week against Tolzien, but at some point we’re going to find out whether the front four really has improved, or whether it’s just been feasting on lesser competition.
Thanks again, Matt. Catch you online in one of our game chats soon, I’m sure.
Recoil47 rejected a comparison with the New York Giants, who have won two Super Bowls in recent years in large part because of their dominating defensive lines. But in 2011, at least, the Giants were also stacked at receiver.
Wrote recoil47: "The comparison with the Giants hoarding defensive ends is a bad one. The Giants also have three wide Receivers who are better than the Bear's best wide receiver. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are far better than anything the Bears have, and Mario Manningham would sadly be a #1 on this team. So it's easy to try to make that comparison, but try to remember that the Giants were also stacked in areas the Bears ALSO need to fill."
Point taken. But the allure of creating an elite segment of a team seemed overwhelming for many of you. Family_man1 wrote that "it's always temping to fix weaknesses so you can feel more "comfortable" but added: "Far more likely to succeed in the NFL is to be dominant at a few phases of the game then above be average in everything. The Packers, Patriots, Saints, 49ers all did this with great success this season. The champion Giants have a terrible secondary, but a stellar line and it paid off. Therefore, I say seek greatness in the pass rush and find cheap solutions in the other phases. "
In that vein, many of you suggested that Williams could team with Peppers for a few years of double-barreled pass rush before providing a relatively seamless transition when Peppers' career with the Bears ends. Williams just turned 27 in January, and is five years younger than Peppers.
"The one advantage of signing Williams is you are set at DE for the next 8-10 years," wrote adambballn. Added Family_man1: "He's a building block no matter what you do."
My take: I've been squarely on the side that believes receiver/tight end should be the Bears' top priority in free agency. As my colleague Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com notes, the Bears have spent more than twice as many draft choices in rounds 1-3 on defensive linemen than receivers since coach Lovie Smith's arrival in 2004. You get what you pay for. But I also acknowledge it's rare when a pass-rusher of Williams' abilities becomes available in free agency, and we've seen how Peppers has impacted the Bears.
So I won't hammer the Bears for signing a player of Williams' stature. I'll just take a rain check, because signing Williams doesn't mean the Bears can't address receiver through the draft and later during free agency. They might not get the prize of the receiver market, Vincent Jackson, but Jackson won't be the only receiver available. Stay tuned.
Manningham, of course, made one of the best catches in Super Bowl history Sunday night, a 38-yard grab down the left sideline that got the New York Giants moving toward their game-winning touchdown. It was a bright ending to a disappointing fourth season in New York for Manningham, who just so happens to be a pending free agent.
Overshadowed by teammates Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, Manningham managed 39 receptions in 12 games for the Giants in 2011. But we all saw what he is capable of Sunday night, and I don't think you would find many objections to Dickerson's assertion that Manningham would improve the Bears' receiving corps.
Here's how Dickerson put it: "While it's unlikely he would solve all the Bears' issues at receiver, Manningham would certainly upgrade a group that failed to have a single member crack 40 catches or 750 yards last year."
I'm guessing we'll circle back on this discussion once or twice before March 13, when the free agent market opens.
Former NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp piled on Tuesday to the season-long criticism of Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh during a media session at the site of Super Bowl XLVI, wondering "what universe" Suh is living in after minimizing his culpability in various interviews. (Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com has more.)
But what I found far more interesting was Sapp's analysis of Suh's performance on the field, which dipped significantly in 2011 from a statistical standpoint. As Chris McCosky of the Detroit News points out, Sapp wonders if the offseason surgery Suh had last season on his shoulder sapped some strength and exposed his lack of technique in the pass rush.
"He plays such a power game," Sapp said, "just grabbing people and slinging them out of the way. He had rotator cuff surgery. I had one on each shoulder and I know what that's like."
Sapp added: "From his first year to his second year, he hasn't worked on anything. We're looking at the same guy rushing in the same fashion as he did when he first got into the league. You can get away with that at first because they haven't seen you. But that second year, you've got to come show me something, son. He came with that same bull rush."
As we've said many times, the best way for Suh to overcome criticism of his style is to be an elite producer on the field. Sapp's insight on that issue is not to be ignored.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Lions defensive end Cliff Avril during a radio interview, via the Detroit Free Press: "[I] would love to be a Lion, I'd love to be in Detroit. I've been here four years, I see how good the team can be, and I'd like to be a part of it. But it's also a business. Like I said, I think it will play itself out and hopefully I'm here."
- Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reiterated on his ESPN 540 radio show that he hopes quarterbacks coach Tom Clements stays with the team in some capacity in 2012. Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com explains.
- Kareem Copeland of the Green Bay Press-Gazette checks in with former Packers offensive lineman Nick McDonald, who caught on this season with the New England Patriots.
- New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks remains "baffled" by how the Packers defended him on a Hail Mary touchdown pass two weeks ago at Lambeau Field, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com grades the Minnesota Vikings' offense.
- Minnesota leaders are confident that the legalization of electronic pulltabs in bars could generate $72 million annually, more than enough to fund the state's share of a new Vikings stadium, according to the Star Tribune.
- The Vikings signed linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who was named the hardest hitter of last season in the CFL, notes Mark Craig of the Star Tribune.
- Former Chicago Bears defensive end Mark Anderson has thrived in the Patriots' 3-4 defense, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
- New Bears general manager Phil Emery will bring a different philosophy of scouting to the franchise, notes Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
- Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell on why he turned down a similar job with the Bears in 2010, via Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times: "I love Lovie Smith and enjoyed my time in Chicago. [but] I knew that was Coach Smith's defense. He is an excellent defensive coach and I just thought that at the time, I probably needed to step out on my own and run my own defense. It was always going to be coach Smith's defense and if I was going to make my mark in coaching I had to do it Perry Fewell's way, and that was one of the main reasons I came to New York."
Ever since the Green Bay Packers temporarily shifted him to safety in 2008, the question has followed cornerback Charles Woodson: When would the move become permanent? After all, you don't often see players in their mid-30s locking down one of the most difficult positions in the NFL.
The Packers will at least consider that question as they await word on the status of Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, who is two months away from finding out if doctors will clear him to play or recommend retirement because of a serious neck injury suffered in September. If Collins returns, he could team with strong safety Morgan Burnett in 2012. If not, Woodson might be the Packers' best option if they want to improve their tackling at the position.
Coach Mike McCarthy termed the discussion "very premature" during a news conference Wednesday but did not rule it out. "We're not making any position changes today," he said.
Collins' replacement, Charlie Peprah, didn't play well in Sunday's divisional playoff game to the New York Giants, missing a tackle on Hakeem Nicks' 66-yard touchdown catch and, like Woodson, failing to break up a Hail Mary pass to Nicks at the end of the first half. The sure-tackling Woodson would presumably be an upgrade over Peprah, but as we've discussed many times, the move doesn't make sense unless the Packers have a credible cornerback to take his place.
A few months ago, it would have been reasonable to think Tramon Williams and Sam Shields could hold down the two primary cornerback positions moving forward. The Packers also invested a 2011 fourth-round draft pick in cornerback Davon House, a potential nickelback with a year of development. But while they each intercepted four passes, neither Williams nor Shields played as well in 2011 as they did in 2010. House, meanwhile, was deactivated for 14 of 16 games.
That makes the Woodson issue complicated. If you're going to have a hole on defense, it makes more sense for it to be at safety than cornerback. But would the Packers be better off with a foursome of Williams, Shields, Woodson and Burnett than Woodson, Williams, Burnett and Peprah?
I think you could make that argument. But in the end, Woodson's status probably will be contingent on a number of outside factors: Collins' health, whether the Packers can find instant reinforcements at safety or cornerback in the draft and whether Williams or Shields can use the offseason to restore themselves to 2010 levels.
How did we get here? How did the Packers become the first 15-win team in NFL history to lose their opening playoff game? Why won't the best team of the 2011 regular season get a sniff of defending its Super Bowl title?
We came down pretty hard on a series of mistakes by the Packers offense Sunday. With a few days to reflect, let's acknowledge some additional factors that sparked a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers scoffed at the notion last week. "Not worried about it," he said. "Still not worried about it. Don't believe in it."
But here are the facts: Rodgers hadn't played in a game in 21 days, which was also the last time the Packers had a game with future implications. Receiver Greg Jennings hadn't played in five weeks. Overall, the Packers dropped six passes, tied for the most by any team in any game this season, and committed a season-high four turnovers.
To be sure, Rodgers was not at his sharpest Sunday. Through three quarters, he had barely completed 50 percent of his passes. Obviously the drops hurt his percentage, but he also missed two throws -- a first-quarter pass to a wide-open Jennings, and a fourth-quarter pass to tight end Jermichael Finley on third down -- that he routinely makes.
As the chart shows, five No. 1 seeds have rested their quarterbacks in Week 17 since the current postseason structure was implemented in 2002. Only one of them, the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, won the Super Bowl.
With that said, I think it would be too convenient to say simply that Rodgers should have played in the Packers' Week 17 game against the Detroit Lions. I wonder if the missing element is not the act of playing but the weekly urgency of a playoff chase. Rodgers and the rest of the Packers offense wouldn't have benefited from that vibe even if he had been in the lineup.
Rodgers had an exceptional game as a scrambler, converting five of his six runs into first downs. But as a passer, it was his lowest-rated game of the season (78.5).
Conclusion: Reasonable people can disagree on this issue. But whether you attribute it to inactivity or unfortunate coincidence, the Packers were sloppy with the ball, less precise and in many cases a step slower than the Giants on Sunday. If they weren't rusty, they sure weren't sharp.
Theory: Ineffective pass rush
The Packers finished the season with more interceptions (31) than sacks (29), a sign of year-long pass rushing issues. So in one sense, it's difficult to blame an aspect the Packers had overcome for 15 victories this season.
On closer inspection, however, we see that the Giants made most of their big plays when the Packers either played back in coverage or were otherwise unable to pressure quarterback Eli Manning.
All three of Manning's touchdown passes came on plays the Packers sent four or fewer pass rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. All told, Manning was under duress -- defined as a play where the quarterback has to move or alter his throw because of pressure -- on only 10 of his 33 passes.
On two of the three touchdowns, the Packers compounded their lack of pass rush by poor play in the secondary. Safety Charlie Peprah missed a tackle on Hakeem Nicks' 66-yard touchdown, and neither Peprah nor cornerback Charles Woodson were able to knock down the Hail Mary pass Nicks pulled in just before halftime.
The Packers had hoped to beat Manning with coverage, but he picked them apart every time they gave him an opportunity.
"When you're only rushing three [or four], and you have eight guys in coverage, you'd like to think you're pretty good on that," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. "That wasn't the case."
Conclusion: This was a rare game when the Packers offense couldn't compensate for the defense's shortcomings. That places a portion of the blame with the defense.
Theory: The Packers are a different team in winter weather
As we discussed during the 2010 playoffs, the Packers excel and in many ways favor the fast track afforded by indoor stadiums at this time of year. They managed to grind out a victory at Philadelphia in the wild-card round (21 points) and another over the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game (21), but by far their best offensive performances came in the Georgia Dome (48) and at Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV (31 points).
During the 2011 regular season, the Packers played three games indoors. Rodgers averaged 10.1 yards per attempt in those games and 9.0 yards per attempt in the 13 outdoor games. That's not exactly a smoking gun, and the it's only fair to point out the Packers scored 80 points in their final two regular season home games.
The temperature Sunday at kickoff was 31 degrees and there hadn't been precipitation for more than 24 hours.
Conclusion: It's tough to blame the weather for the Packers' offensive problems. That said, history tells us they would have been better off playing indoors.
And a few more quick hitters:
Theory: Finding motivation as a defending champion is tough
Via Twitter, @unwantedopinion wrote: "I think a major problem was recreating the motivation they had last season. When you're SB Champs & 15-1, what drives you?"
Conclusion: You would think motivation is more likely to be an issue during the regular season. But there is no doubt the Giants had a bounce in their step the Packers never demonstrated. Does it take a year or two of disappointment to build the fire necessary to mount a playoff run? I might buy that.
Theory: The Packers were distracted and/or sapped by the impact of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's family tragedy.
Conclusion: There is little doubt the Packers struggled mid-week with the death of Philbin's son. Did it take some of their edge away? Too convenient, in my opinion. Even if it did, shouldn't they also have received a bounce from Joe Philbin's return to the team?
Theory: The Packers, their fans and much of the media came to expect a level of precision that isn’t sustainable.
Conclusion: We all shook our heads at some of the passes Rodgers completed this season to receivers who appeared blanketed. It stands to reason that a playoff opponent might be better equipped to defend such passes. Perhaps everyone, including the Packers, came to assume they could keep making plays that no one else could.
Theory: The Giants presented a unique matchup.
Conclusion: The most sustainable defensive model in 2011 is to field four strong pass rushers up front and devote everyone else to coverage. The Giants did that Sunday better than any Packers opponent this season. The Packers were forced to work underneath, eliminating their chances for an easy touchdown and increasing the opportunities for mistakes.
Your thoughts? I'm sure they're coming….
What it means: The Packers saved their worst outing of the season for the playoffs, and it led to an unexpected and deeply disappointing end to a 15-1 season. The Giants outplayed them in every way imaginable, and the Packers didn't look much like a team that had won 21 of its previous 22. The result detracted again from the postseason mystique of Lambeau Field, where the Packers have now lost four of their past six playoff games. Two of those losses have been to the Giants, who also ended the Packers' 2007 season in the NFC Championship Game.
Rare mistakes: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said during the week that he didn't believe in the concept of "rust" for a team coming off a playoff bye. Call it whatever you want. The Packers made mistakes that simply didn't happen during the regular season. Fullback John Kuhn lost the first fumble of his career. Rodgers missed receiver Greg Jennings for what would have been an easy touchdown in the first quarter. Rodgers also lost a fumble, on a second-quarter sack by Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, for the first time this season. The normally sure-handed Ryan Grant fumbled for only the second time this season in the fourth quarter. And depending on how tough of a grader you are, the Packers dropped anywhere from four to eight passes. One was a third-quarter pass to Jennings, who had a step on safety Antrel Rolle in single coverage in the end zone.
Defense tightens up: The big fear surrounding the Packers this season was that a hot quarterback would knock them and their porous pass defense out of the playoffs. Things seemed to be headed in that direction after Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw for 274 yards in the first half, capped by a 37-yard pass to receiver Hakeem Nicks on a Hail Mary. But it's going to be tough to affix too much responsibility to the defense for this game. The Packers tightened significantly in the second half, and the Giants didn't have a single first down in the third quarter. Manning threw for 56 yards in the second half. That should have given the Packers' offense enough of an opportunity to even up the game if it was up to it. It wasn't. They couldn't get the ball downfield at all against the Giants defense, and their longest play of the game was a 29-yard run by James Starks in the third quarter.
Key play: Backed by a bit of momentum and hoping to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, the Packers faced a third-and-five at the Giants' 39-yard line. Tight end Jermichael Finley was wide open at about the 25-yard line, but Rodgers' throw was just off his outstretched fingertips. It wasn't immediately clear whether Rodgers overthrew Finley or if Finley stopped his route early. But it was one of the Packers' biggest missed opportunities in this game. Rodgers was sacked on fourth down, and the Giants converted the ensuing possession into a 35-yard field goal to make it a two-score game midway through the fourth quarter.
Injury report: Kuhn didn't return after injuring his right knee in the third quarter.
What's next: The Packers have a young and deep team set up for long-term success. They'll need to address the contract situation of Finley, who is a pending free agent. It will take some time to get over Sunday's disappointment, but the Packers' future should be bright.
Fear is a strong word. I don't think the Green Bay Packers fear the consequences of their historically porous pass defense. They won 15 games with it during the regular season, after all. I'm not even sure they're worried about it. They discovered and have implemented the antidote throughout the past four months.
But if you're someone who likes to conceive the worst-case scenario, you don't have to think too hard.
The Packers tripped only once this season, despite giving up an NFL-record 4,796 passing yards, mostly because they intercepted a league-leading 31 passes. In the playoffs, of course, the quarterbacks are better and less prone to mistakes. The Packers could face a Pro Bowl quarterback at every step between now and Super Bowl XLVI.
The bottom line: If an elite quarterback gashes them for yards but avoids the interceptions, he could knock the Packers out of the playoffs.
To be sure, there have been all kinds of attempts to poke holes in the Packers' near-perfect season. To me, this is the one instance with merit. The Packers' only loss this season came when Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton threw for 299 yards with no interceptions -- the only game this season the Packers didn't create at least one turnover.
First up this postseason will be the New York Giants' Eli Manning, who fell 67 yards shy of a 5,000-yard season and threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 13 loss to the Packers. The final score was 38-35, and the Packers' scoring included linebacker Clay Matthews' interception return for a touchdown.
With the exception of a few pointed statements from cornerback Charles Woodson, the issue has mostly bubbled below the surface. But speaking late in the regular season, Woodson reiterated his concerns about the defense's aptitude for postseason football.
"Defensively we still have some problems," Woodson said after the Packers allowed 441 total yards in Week 16 against the Chicago Bears. "We just give up way too many things on a consistent basis, so we have a long way to go. … Just not playing good football at times. We've been consistently inconsistent throughout the season. It's on each man to get it done. Moving forward we have a great opportunity. … Everybody on this team, to the man, has to look within himself and just get the job done."
As the chart shows, the Packers allowed a 300-yard passer in nearly half their games this season. They intercepted the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton three times to spoil a 432-yard day, for example, and held off the San Diego Chargers mostly because they intercepted Philip Rivers a career-high three times and returned two for touchdowns.
Manning, meanwhile, compiled eight 300-yard games during the regular season; the Giants were 4-4 in those games. He threw the seventh-most interceptions in the NFL, 16, but has thrown only one interception in the Giants' past three games.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has addressed the issue on almost a weekly basis this season. Speaking to Wisconsin reporters last week, Capers admitted that "we don't like" the yardage totals but added: "We've been able to win 15 games, and the reason for that, with our defensive stats the way they are, is the fact that we ended up No. 1 in the league in takeaways and No. 1 in the league in interceptions. That's something we obviously place a high priority on."
What has been the issue? As the second chart shows, the Packers' standard pass rush -- four or less rushers -- hasn't been nearly as effective as it was last season. They have given up an NFL-high 8.5 yards per attempt on those plays and managed only 11 sacks.
As a result, Capers has dramatically increased his blitz totals from last season. He elevated from a blitz on 32.8 percent of opponents' drop-backs in 2010 to 45.7 percent in 2011, the fourth-most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only NFL team that affected a bigger blitz uptick this season was the Houston Texans, who changed defensive coordinators in the offseason.
I included the blitz percentages for each of the 300-yard games in the first chart; they blitzed 51.6 percent of the time on Orton's 299-yard day.
The blitz is the ultimate risk-reward proposition, and it brought the Packers 18 of their 29 sacks on the season and limited opponents to eight touchdown passes. (The Packers actually had more interceptions out of their standard rush, possibly a reflection of non-elite quarterbacks forcing the ball into coverage.)
Given his druthers, I doubt Capers wants to blitz as much as he has. In his session with reporters, he pointed to the Packers' Week 12 game against the Detroit Lions as "far more like [the way] we want to play." In that 27-15 victory, the Packers blitzed a season-low 22.4 percent of the time and limited Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to 276 yards. None of Stafford's 32 completions went for longer than 23 yards.
Is the answer to pull back on the blitz Sunday against the Giants? In that Lions game, I'm guessing Capers considered it a higher priority to cover Detroit's slew of pass-catchers than to pressure Stafford. The Giants have a similar situation, especially now that receiver Mario Manningham is healthy and available to complement Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Perhaps, perhaps.
To be clear, this is not meant to ring alarm bells. I haven't been impressed with most of the attempts to poke holes in the Packers' success this season. 15-1 is 15-1, and it's clear the Packers know how to win. They are nine-point favorites in this game for good reason. All I want to do is note that a season-long issue was never resolved. The Packers have to hope it won't bite them now.
Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: history in that spot.
The Bears' top pick is No. 29 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Cornerback Kyle Wilson (New York Jets)
2009: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants)
2008: Defensive end Kentwan Balmer (San Francisco 49ers)
2007: Offensive guard Ben Grubbs (Baltimore Ravens)
2006: Center Nick Mangold (New York Jets)
2005: Defensive back Marlin Jackson (Indianapolis Colts)
2004: Wide receiver Michael Jenkins (Atlanta Falcons)
ANALYSIS: The bottom of the first round is a great place to find starting-caliber guards and centers. The top tackles are usually off the board. Fortunately for the Bears, they could use a guard or center just as much as a tackle. While coach Lovie Smith wants to bring back veteran center Olin Kreutz, a free agent, he will have to be replaced someday. And more depth at guard could allow the Bears to move 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams back to left tackle.
The Lions' top pick is No. 13 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Defensive end Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles)
2009: Defensive end Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins)
2008: Running back Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers)
2007: Defensive lineman Adam Carriker (St. Louis Rams)
2006: Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (Cleveland Browns)
2005: Offensive lineman Jammal Brown (New Orleans Saints)
2004: Receiver Lee Evans (Buffalo Bills)
ANALYSIS: Unfortunately for the Lions, this isn't a great spot to get an elite cornerback. Those types of players are usually drafted in the top seven or eight picks. (The Lions are hoping that Nebraska's Prince Amukamara somehow slips through the cracks.) This is a nice area to draft a second-tier defensive lineman, and this year, the Lions will probably have their pick of offensive tackles as well.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers' top pick is No. 32 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Cornerback Patrick Robinson (New Orleans Saints)
2009: Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh Steelers)
2008: Defensive end Phillip Merling (Miami Dolphins)*
2007: Receiver Anthony Gonzalez (Indianapolis Colts)
2006: Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (New York Giants)
2005: Offensive guard Logan Mankins (New England Patriots)
2004: Tight end Benjamin Watson (New England Patriots)
*First pick of second round.
ANALYSIS: There are some awfully productive players on this list. Part of the reason is that the previous year's most successful organization was in that spot and thus was more likely to make a good scouting decision. But it also tells us the Packers should have an opportunity to select a player who can make an immediate impact as long as they don't limit themselves to certain positions.
The Vikings' top pick is No. 12 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Running back Ryan Mathews (San Diego Chargers)
2009: Running back Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos)
2008: Offensive tackle Ryan Clady (Denver Broncos)
2007: Running back Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills)
2006: Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens)
2005: Linebacker Shawne Merriman (San Diego Chargers)
2004: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (New York Jets)
ANALYSIS: This list tells us what we knew already: You can get a blue-chip, impact player here if you exercise good judgment. The Vikings' decision, of course, will be complicated by their need for a quarterback. What will they do if they have, say, a potentially elite pass-rusher like North Carolina's Robert Quinn available to them? Take Quinn and look for a quarterback later? Or prioritize the quarterback?
What it means: The Packers took the first step in a two-move dance to make the playoffs. Sunday's win was convincing, but it won't mean much if they don't beat the Chicago Bears next Sunday at Lambeau Field. The Packers are guaranteed a postseason berth if they beat the Bears. Overall, given the ups and downs of this season, the Packers couldn't ask for a better opportunity.
RodgersWatch: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers appeared to have no lasting effects from a concussion that cost him a start last Sunday, tying a career high with four touchdown passes and setting a regular-season high of 404 yards. It was Rodgers' 10th career game with at least three touchdown passes and no interceptions, the most in NFL history for quarterbacks within three years of their first start.
RodgersSlide: Rodgers took a fair amount of criticism for not sliding at the end of a run that caused the concussion two weeks ago, so it was noteworthy that he launched into an exaggerated baseball-style slide at the end of a 15-yard run in the first quarter. Showing some humor, Rodgers jumped up and gave a "safe" sign.
Don't call it a comeback: The Giants stormed back from a 14-0 deficit in the first quarter largely because two Packers defensive backs fell down while covering deep passes. Charles Woodson slipped while defending Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks, leading to a 36-yard touchdown play. And Tramon Williams fell as Mario Manningham collected what would be an 85-yard score. Absent those two slips, however, the Packers never seemed close to giving up the lead thereafter. They intercepted Giants quarterback Eli Manning four times and forced a total of six turnovers.
Woodson's revenge: Woodson made up for his slip by forcing Ahmad Bradshaw to fumble on a run-blitz early in the third quarter. The play put the Packers in position for a 31-yard field goal from Mason Crosby and extend the lead to 10 points.
Kuuuuuuhn: Fans at Lambeau Field are now trained to chant for backup tailback John Kuhn as soon as he enters the game. Sunday, Kuhn touched the ball eight times and had three touchdowns -- two via ground, one by air.
What's next: As we noted, the victory sets up a meaningful rivalry game against the Bears to close out the regular season. The game is currently scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, but that could change.
We here at the ESPN Blog Network decided to have some fun and conduct our own mock draft. Its intrinsic value rates somewhere below the efforts of actual experts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, but it was fun nonetheless.
I'll expand my explanations for the NFC North picks below, including one highly controversial choice for which I'm certain to absorb an unmerciful flogging. Onward...
No. 1 overall
Detroit Lions: Quarterback Matthew Stafford
Why: I think it's pretty clear the Lions have targeted Stafford over Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. Otherwise, Curry probably would be signed by now. Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith is also a candidate, but in the end it seems the Lions want to open their new era with a blue-chip building block at the game's most important position.
No. 9 overall
Green Bay Packers: Andre Smith
Why: AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky made this choice a bit easier by taking Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji off the board one pick earlier. Some of the defensive names previously connected to the Packers were still available, including Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin and LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson. But in this scenario I think Packers general manager Ted Thompson would select the best player available. It just so happens Green Bay has a need at the position as well.
No. 20 overall
Lions: Running back Knowshon Moreno
Why: Ah, yes. I will accept virtual pummeling via the mailbag. I know the Lions have more pressing needs than at running back. And I'm well aware they have a good young tailback in Kevin Smith and signed veteran Maurice Morris in free agency. I guess I'm just taking coach Jim Schwartz at his word that the Lions won't allow need to trump talent in this draft. When I looked at the players left on the board at this spot, I thought Moreno was clearly the best value. The Lions aren't necessarily targeting Moreno, but I think they will seek out the best value -- regardless of position -- at every spot in this draft.
No. 22 overall
Minnesota Vikings: Offensive tackle Eben Britton
Why: I went with the best offensive tackle available even with all of the draft's second-tier receivers still available (Darrius Heyward-Bey, Percy Harvin, Kenny Britt and Hakeem Nicks among them). This might be a few spots too high to take Britton, but in the end I'm not totally convinced the Vikings are targeting a first-round receiver. And that was before news surfaced that they worked out West Virginia quarterback/receiver Pat White.
We brought you the first-round highlights of Mel Kiper's latest mock draft last week. Of course, the exercise left out a Chicago team that gave up its first-round pick in the Jay Cutler trade. But Mel's mock extended four rounds, giving us the opportunity to discuss the receiver he selected for the Bears in the second round with the No. 49 overall pick.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Mel Kiper Jr. has the Bears selecting Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.|
Like every other NFL team, the Bears plan to draft the best available athletes. But it is the assumption of many people that they -- Surprise! -- will just so happen to have a receiver at the top of their draft board when the No. 49 pick rolls around.
When you look at it, receiver is the Bears' last remaining area of need on offense after revamping the offensive line and upgrading at quarterback. (We'll save their defensive personnel for another day.)
Kiper has the Bears selecting Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, a reliable and big-framed pass catcher who would complement Devin Hester nicely. Massaquoi figures to develop into a strong possession receiver and received stellar grades from Scouts Inc. for his toughness, durability and character.
You need an Insider subscription to see the entire mock draft. But for those of you who are interested in draft strategy, I can tell you Massaquoi was the eighth receiver taken in this mock. The following were already off the board at No. 49:
Massaquoi is one of numerous receivers the Bears have worked out privately in recent weeks, although his came after the Cutler trade altered the Bears' draft status. Massaquoi was a team captain at Georgia, graduated in December and has excellent size at 6-foot-1 1/2 and 210 pounds. Here's how Scouts Inc. evaluated his competitiveness and toughness:
Willing to go across the middle and has shown ability to hold onto ball after taking a big hit. A physical blocker that works hard to sustain. Does a good job of throwing blocks for other receivers and flashes ability to deliver a knockout blow on crack-back blocks.
I always caution people against "shopping" for draft picks. The way a player performed in college is not always an indication of his pro potential. Sometimes "possession receiver" translates into "slow" in the NFL. (Massaquoi ran a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.)
But no player available at No. 49 overall is a perfect prospect. Massaquoi, who caught 58 passes last year for the Bulldogs, likely will be the type of player -- if not the player -- the Bears wind up targeting.
Team needs: Receiver, safety, right tackle
Dream scenario: Chicago's personnel deficiencies at receiver all but mandate a significant commitment in the draft, starting with the No. 18 overall pick.
|Jeremy Maclin could provide an immediate upgrade to Chicago's receiving corps if he were available at No. 18.|
Plan B: I don't see a scenario in which the Bears won't have their choice of at least two of the receivers noted above. But some teams avoid drafting receivers in the first round because they are not always ready to contribute right away. If the Bears follow that thinking, they might look toward the offensive line or possibly trade down to explore the safety market in the second round. If they decide to go the route of an offensive lineman, the Bears might hope for Mississippi tackle Michael Oher or Arizona tackle Eben Britton to be available.
Scouts Inc. take: I think they need a receiver and I like the idea of a bigger guy like Hakeem Nicks. Harvin doesn't make as much sense for the Bears because what he does is a lot like what Devin Hester tries to do. To have a bigger guy like Hicks makes more sense on the opposite side. The receiver position is the toughest position to draft and develop. But I don't think they'll draft a receiver. That's the history of their general manager, Jerry Angelo. If I were them, I would be hoping that a tackle like Michael Oher from Mississippi would fall to them. That would be more of a Jerry Angelo type of pick. -- Jeremy Green
Who has final say: Jerry Angelo enters his eighth draft as the Bears' general manager.
Now On the Clock: New York Jets, March 30.
That's the impression I got Wednesday morning after speaking with coach Lovie Smith on the last day of the NFL owners' meeting. Smith's eyes lit up when I asked about Bennett, and he downplayed any concern about relying on rookie receivers for immediate production.
Bennett didn't catch a pass last season after the Bears selected him in the third round of the 2008 draft. Nevertheless, Smith said he has Bennett penciled in as the starter opposite Devin Hester. The only way that status changes, I'm guessing, is if the Bears bypass their current philosophy and sign a veteran free agent (Torry Holt?) or draft a player who blows him away from the first day of training camp.
On Bennett, Smith said:
"We liked what he did in the preseason. He didn't get a chance to do a lot as a wide receiver last year. But in practice, we saw a change in him last year. He'll get an opportunity. We list him as our starter right now at wide receiver, so he'll get a chance to prove what he can do. He had a lot of success at Vanderbilt. He'll do everything possible to become a good football player in the league."
When asked about the strengths of the 2009 draft, the first position Smith named was receiver. And the Bears have been actively scouting that group, setting up private workouts for North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks and Rutgers' Kenny Britt, among others.
Rookie receivers don't typically contribute right away, however. In 2008, for instance, a total of 35 receivers were drafted. Only four, however, averaged more than two catches per game: Denver's Eddie Royal, Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, Miami's Davone Bess and St. Louis' Donnie Avery.
Smith, however, said the Bears won't be afraid to play young receivers in 2009:
"I'm not one that thinks you have to have four or five years to be [ready] in this league. We've had success playing guys. [Tailback] Matt Forte was our starter from Day 1. Especially some of the skill positions, especially if they have a veteran group around them. You realize that there's going to be some growing pains you go through, but eventually they get it. So I don't really see that being much of a problem at the receiver position."
Smith has been nothing if not consistent on this issue. He said Wednesday he would like to have at least three playmaking receivers when the season begins. If that's going to happen, it almost certainly will have to be Hester, Bennett and a highly-drafted rookie.