Sunday, February 22, 2015

Catching up with the Packers

The title of this post has a dual meaning. One, of course, is that other members of the NFC North have been trying to catch up with the Green Bay Packers for a while now. On that front, as the saying goes, no cigar. Good luck with that this coming season, too, by the way.

Another meaning of this post's title is that PackerFansUnited.com needs to catch up with the Packers. It's been a while since our last post...before the Super Bowl! But, as every green'n'gold-blooded Packer fan knows, not being in that game is still something that it's taking time to get past. Even head coach Mike McCarthy, at this week's NFL Combine in Indianapolis, said that the thought this last season's Packers team was the best team in the league. He is likely right. But the best team doesn't melt down with a lead in the NFC Championship Game with about 5 minutes remaining. That's the sad reality. Lucky teams only go so far. Dallas found that out playing the Packers. The Packers found that out playing Seattle. And Seattle found that out playing the Patriots...a team which, as we recall from the regular season, the Packers beat...and likely would have beaten again in a Super Bowl match up. But...not.

Soooooo....let's move on, shall we?

Speaking of moving on...
Among the changes for the Packers since the end of the season are some departures of note. Brandon Bostick, the tight end whose lack of playing his assignment on the now infamous onside kick coupled with his stone hands, resulted in the scoring opportunity Seattle needed to eventually win the NFC Championship, was released. Where did he wind up shortly thereafter? In the elephant graveyard of Packers' castoffs, of course: Minnesota.

Linebacker Brad Jones -- the designated target of abuse on Seattle's fake field goal turned touchdown -- was also released this last week. Jones was also the target of much fan ire over the past couple seasons especially. Every fan probably has his or her own memories of shouting "Jones!" at the TV screen whenever he was out of position, failed to make a play or caused a stupid penalty.

To be fair to both Bostick and Jones, that Championship Game should not have come down to either of those two plays. The Pack should have had the game salted away long before. Generating 6 points off 5 Seahawks turnovers isn't going to cut it. Neither is not going for it on 4th-and-1 from the 1-yard line. (OK, OK...moving on...moving on...)

The common denominator between both the above players, of course, was special teams...which, under the leadership of coach Shawn Slocum, has been among the worst performing special teams units in the league for years. The failures this season, however, were apparently even too much for friend Mike McCarthy to stand behind any longer. In fact, McCarthy has made it clear since announcing various coaching changes that he personally intends to spend more time working with special teams. Amen. About time someone actually pays attention to this unit. When its poor performance essentially costs you a trip to the Super Bowl, yeah, time to take notice.

Other coaching changes
Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the Packers coaching staff for this coming season has to do with head coach McCarthy giving up play calling responsibilities. He's turned that over to new associate head coach/offense, Tom Clements, who has served the last five years as the Pack's offensive coordinator. In addition, the Packers named Edgar Bennett offensive coordinator, Alex Van Pelt quarterbacks/wide receivers coach, Mike Solari assistant offensive line coach, Jerry Montgomery defensive front assistant, Ron Zook special teams coordinator and Jason Simmons assistant special teams coach. If you're sorting that out, two coaches were added to the staff and five get new titles. Solari and Montgomery are the two new kids on the block as far being part of the Packers organization goes. Note that Dom Capers remains as defensive coordinator. For a story with videos about the new coaching moves, go here. For the complete list of Packers coaches, see this page.

Free agency and the NFL Combine
The two biggest names on the Packers roster that will require immediate attention are WR Randall Cobb and RT Bryan Bulaga. There will be a push to get both of them signed, although Cobb would be considered the more critical of the two given his importance in the offensive scheme on multiple fronts. Bulaga, while certainly important to the overall cohesion and performance of the offensive line, has had a couple big injuries and the Packers could determine that his asking price is just too much given some of their re-signing needs, such as CB Tramon Williams, for example.

Packers General Manager Ted Thompson
Photo by Green Bay Packers

As Packers fans well know, it is not GM Ted Thompson's modus operandi to take wild shots in free agency. He prefers to keep players he knows, build from the draft, and only occasionally add a tested veteran, such as Julius Peppers, to shore up the mix. He will also let free agency play itself out a bit so that the market prices for players are set and he knows what he will and won't spend to get a player that doesn't immediately get picked up by another team.

Thompson and McCarthy also tend to view those players who were on the practice squad or injured reserve as a bit of an extra pool of resources to choose from. Cases in point for this season: WR Jeff Janis and QB Scott Tolzein. McCarthy said he expects Janis to make a big jump in his performance after what McCarthy refers to as Janis' "redshirt" season. Tolzein was active the last few playoff games because of the injury to QB Aaron Rodgers and McCarthy has said he views Tolzein as an ascending player. If you read anything into that, it might be that QB Matt Flynn will not have his services retained, and Tolzein will be the primary backup to Rodgers this next season. But we can and should also expect Thompson to draft a quarterback this Spring, something he hasn't done in the last few seasons. This would probably be a mid- to late-round pick. You can get a good player there. Case in point: Tom Brady was a 6th-rounder.

Also, let's not forget that NT B.J. Raji will also be coming off IR and if the price is right could once again prove to be a valuable anchor in the middle of the defensive line, particularly if Letroy Guion's days as a player are over following his bust earlier this month for marijuana.

What else will Thompson and McCarthy want to consider while attending this week's NFL Combine? Of prime importance -- at least to outside observors -- is an inside linebacker to replace A.J. Hawk who is also likely done in Green Bay. This has been a concern for the last two seasons, at least, and again it was a spot that became a glaring issue for the Packers until they moved Clay Matthews inside in the latter part of the season. Moving Matthews back to his normal outside role and getting an impact player on the inside will help the team considerably.

Another big need for the Packers is a tight end. Some project that if Maxx Williams, from the University of Minnesota, is available when the Pack drafts near the end of the first round, he could be the Packers pick. He is arguably the best tight end in the draft. Whether he lasts that far is anyone's guess.

2016 Super Bowl here we come!
So, Packer fans, this last season did not end with the Super Bowl trip, let alone victory, many of us thought was inevitable. But the good news is that a new season is just around the corner. The Packers are well positioned to once again remain the team to beat in the NFC North. In fact, the oddsmakers have already installed the Packers as 8 to 1 favorites to win the 2016 Super Bowl. The only team with better odds? Those birds from Seattle at 6 to 1. Think that game at Lambeau Field against the Seahawks this season won't be big? It will be huge, folks...epic!

It's great to be a Packers fan!

Go Pack Go!!!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Super Bowl without the Packers? Still fun in the sun!

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Well, Packers fans...it's been a long week, hasn't it? While we felt the Packers were the better team -- at least for about 56 minutes of last Sunday's game -- and had a great chance against the eventual AFC opponent (which we now know to be the New England Patriots...a team the Green Bay Packers beat earlier in the regular season), the Seattle Seahawks wound up making one of the greater comebacks in NFC Championship history. Sad, but true. Super Bowl XLIX will have the Pats vs. the 'hawks instead of the Pack vs. the Pats.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Packers Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory in NFC Championship

Fans of the Green Bay Packers witnessed a game yesterday that will go down in Packers' lore...for all the wrong reasons. The team played 56 minutes of good, not great, football against a Seattle Seahawks team they had on the ropes, waiting for a knockout punch that never came. In the end, the beaten and bruised champ rose from the canvas (or turf, in this case) and wound up delivering the sucker punch that ended the game and the Packers' season. The Packers lost in overtime to the Seahawks, 28-22.

The post-mortem on this game will go on and on. For Packers fans, it will live forever. There is no way of setting this monumental collapse aside. It was (insert hashtag here) an epic fail. The Pack all but had their ticket punched to the Super Bowl in Arizona. But unlike in recent weeks where they could close out a game in the waning minutes, the Packers let Seattle hang around, let them back into the game, and then could not hold on for the win. As a result, Seattle is going to its second straight Super Bowl and the Packers are going home for the off-season to ponder what could have been.

What went wrong?
Where do you start to list the series of apparently little things that all added up to the loss? Here's just one writer's list:
  • Mike Daniels' 15-yard taunting penalty after Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix's first interception. Instead of first and goal from the 4-yard line, it was first and goal from the 19.
  • Failure to punch the ball in on two runs from the 1-yard line.
  • Head coach Mike McCarthy settling -- twice -- for field goals on fourth-and-goal rather than going for the touchdowns.
  • Getting only six points off five Seattle turnovers.
  • Giving up a touchdown off a fake field goal to reignite the Seahawks' hopes.
  • Giving up a third-and-nineteen pass completion for a first down.
  • Morgan Burnett's interception with about five minutes remaining when he went to the ground rather than pick up, possibly, another 15 yards of open field and field goal range.
  • TE Brandon Bostick's decision to not follow his assigned blocking role on an onside kick but rather to attempt to make a play on the ball instead, leading to a recovery -- and quick go-ahead touchdown -- by Seattle with about 2 minutes left in the game. Oh, the designated "hands" on that side of the field and position was Jordy Nelson. Bostick was supposed to block so Nelson could get the ball.
  • Giving up 15 points in 44 seconds to let Seattle take the lead late in the game.
  • Allowing Seattle to drive 87 yards in six plays for the winning touchdown in overtime.
These are just a few of the miscues that came back to haunt the Packers.

Lost in all this was the exceptional performance of kicker Mason Crosby who went 5 for 5 on the day, keeping the Packers in the game, including a tying 48-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining to take the game to overtime. Had the Packers won, Crosby should have been the game's MVP.

Epilogue
A great season for a very good Packers team came to a crashing -- and crushing -- end. The Packers were the better team for most of the game. Or so it seemed. But all those little things that they did or didn't do added up in the end to a loss to a team that was ripe for the picking. Hats off to the Seahawks for never giving up, despite dismal play most of the day. Their coach played to win, the Packers coach played not to lose. We know the rest of the story.

As Wayne Larrivee, radio voice of the Packers noted on radio this morning, anywhere from 25 to 33 percent of this Packers team will be changed for the coming season. That's how it works on average, he said. Some of those players we've come to know and like -- or not -- will be gone. New players will take their place. Whether that new combination will have the makings to be as good a team as this one came to be over the course of the season, only time will tell.

But as Larrivee also noted, the windows of opportunity in the NFL for a Super Bowl run aren't based upon careers, they are based upon seasons. This was a season in which the Packers could have made it to Arizona for the Super Bowl. They would have had a rematch against the New England Patriots, a team they handled in the regular season. A Super Bowl win was perhaps in the cards. But...not.

The Packers, in the end, handed that opportunity to the Seahawks, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Packers vs. Seahawks NFC Championship: Preview and Prediction

This is it, Packers fans: the NFC Championship game and a ticket to the Super Bowl. Only problem is that road goes through Seattle and last season's Super Bowl winner, the Seahawks. While looking fairly average for about half the season, the 'hawks turned it up in the second half and now look as dominating as they did this time last year.

Not many are giving the Green Bay Packers much of a chance this afternoon, especially with a one-legged quarterback and a still maligned defense, despite the former's second-half game performance in last week's comeback division win at Lambeau Field vs. the Cowboys and the latter's second-half-of-the-season performance overall. The Seahawks are favored by 7-1/2 points at the time of this writing.

Why are the Seahawks favored?
Really? You have to ask that?

Take Seattle's home record over the last two seasons especially, their quarterback, their running back, their defensive front, and their secondary. Offense, defense, home field advantage...check, check, check. That all adds up to a win in many people's books.

Packers WR Jordy Nelson needs a big game against Seattle.
Photo by Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

What do the Packers have going for them?
Aaron Rodgers, the presumptive league MVP at quarterback (albeit hobbled with his imfamous left calf injury), outstanding receivers, a great offensive line, a powerful running back, a defense that can dominate if the players choose to play up to their abilities. What they don't have is the home field advantage they would have had had they just won that game in Buffalo. Yeah, that could wind up being the difference between a trip to the Super Bowl or not this season. Well, OK, right now it might have more to do with how well the O-line can protect Rodgers in the pocket and how well his receivers can get open.

It also will have to do with the Packers defense containing Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and tackling RB Marshawn Lynch before he gets up a head of steam. It will also mean no turnovers and getting a takeaway or two today. Getting touchdowns when in the redzone rather than settling for field goals will also be key, something the Pack has had problems with a lot this season. Playing a near-perfect game is the order of the day. And there can be no special teams failures. Period.

The Prediction
Seems as if the only ones giving the Packers much of a chance in this game are the coaches (head coach Mike McCarthy bristles at the term "underdog" for his team), the players and the fans...or probably, most of the fans.

This particular fan senses enough grit -- and talent, of course -- in this team to pull off the so-called upset today. There are a lot of "ifs" involved in that scenario. But they are all possibilities not impossibilities.

Given all this, we're calling it 27-24 Packers over Seahawks.

Go Pack Go!!!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Packers win over Cowboys takes team to NFC Championship, adds to team lore

Exhale, Packers fans.

Sunday's game at Lambeau Field between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys was one for the ages. The Packers' 26-21 win over the Cowboys had a bit of everything: gutsy performances by many players, a breakout receiving performance by a rookie, turnovers, made and missed field goal attempts, missed two-point conversion, a near-brawl, and what some will say was a controversial call on a coach's challenge.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers scrambles leading to the go-ahead TD throw to TE Richard Rodgers in the 4th quarter vs. the Cowboys.
Photo by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The focal point for the storyline leading up to the game, throughout the game, and after the game was less Wisconsin native son QB Tony Romo's return with Dallas and far more about QB Aaron Rodger's left calf. Truth be told, it hindered him significantly in the first half of the game particularly. Other than the first scoring drive, the first half was one where many felt the momentum swinging irreversibly the Cowboys' way. Rodgers was hit and miss on his throws. The Packers' running game behind Eddie Lacy and James Starks did seem to have traction early on, but as the game evolved and the Packers were playing from behind at home for only the second time this season, the Pack moved more into the passing game in the second half. Fortunately, Rodgers seemed to shut out whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling and, while still remaining or moving within the pocket, made some truly remarkable throws to help resurrect the team's chances for a win. It also emerged after the game that Lacy had to sit out more than perhaps originally thought not because of injury but because he was experiencing difficulty with his asthma.

There were many plays that made a difference for the Packers yesterday. Andrew Quarless -- who typically is not on special teams -- recovering a fumbled return by Randall Cobb; if that hadn't been recovered, the Cowboys would have been set up in or near the Packers' redzone. Let's also not forget the strip by Julius Peppers of running back DeMarco Murray; without that strip and recovery -- leading to a field goal by the Pack -- Murray had clear sailing for 60 yards to the endzone. Huge.

Rookie WR Davante Adams came up big for the Packers vs. the Cowboys.
Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Also huge was the breakout performance by rookie receiver Davante Adams who had seven catches for 117 yards, none bigger than the 46-yard TD catch he made on third and 15 in the third quarter to draw the Pack within one point of Dallas at 21-20. Roughly 29 yards of that catch and run came after contact. Adams had his full athletic ability on display, breaking an initial tackle attempt and then juking a defender so well that no one touched him the rest of the way into the endzone. With Jordy Nelson held in check with just two catches on the day, the bulk of the pass targeting went to Cobb and Adams. Tight ends Quarless and Rodgers also did their parts in picking up the offense, especially in the second half.

The play -- and call -- that will probably be discussed by many (especially Cowboys fans) for some time is the supposed 32-yard catch on fourth and two by Dez Bryant down to the Packers' one-yard line. That would have set up Dallas with a little more than four minutes remaining with a go-ahead touchdown opportunity. Head coach Mike McCarthy challenged the call of a reception. It was a wise challenge. Since it was not a touchdown, there would have been no automatic booth review of the catch. McCarthy had no choice but to challenge. The result was that the call was overturned; Bryant, according to the league rules, didn't make a "football move" nor did he maintain possession throughout the catch...the ball visibly moved as he came to the ground. Packers' ball back at their own 33-yard line. It was the only challenge by McCarthy that he won all season. A good time for it. From there, the Packers never gave the ball back to Dallas.

A key play was another big reception by Adams. While Rodgers will rightfully be hailed for his gutsy performance on essentially one leg, Adams should also be the recipient of a game ball for his clutch performance.

Next up: the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC Championship. We'll get to that game preview in upcoming days. For now, Packers fans, let's savor this win. For as much as the Cowboys owned the Pack during the 1990s, on Sunday the Packers took a little bit of sweet revenge.

Go Pack Go!!!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Packers vs. Cowboys Divisional Playoff 2015: Preview and Prediction

Given the two weeks since the Green Bay Packers' defeat of the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, and last weekend's wildcard victory by the Dallas Cowboys at home in Dallas, there have already been many previews of today's game. Most, naturally, refer to the last time the Pack and 'Boys met at Lambeau for a playoff game: the now infamous Ice Bowl of 1967. In fact, the Packers themselves have played up this history, holding a pep rally outside the stadium last evening at which such Ice Blow luminaries as Hall-of-Famer Dave Robinson and should-be-Hall-of-Famer Jerry Kramer spoke to the gathered masses.

Today's game will not be Ice Bowl 2, at least not in the sense of subzero temperatures. The weather at kickoff is forecast to be cloudy and 18 degrees. Balmy for the Packers, especially after the subzero temps and windchills of the last week.

But the game has all the potential to become part of Packers, Cowboys and NFL lore for some of the same reasons as the first. Primarily, of course, due to the players involved. Likely NFL MVP QB Aaron Rodgers vs. local boy (well, from southeastern Wisconsin anyway) made good, QB Tony Romo. You've got two great young running backs in the Packers Eddie Lacy and the Cowboys DeMarco Murray. Excellent wide receivers in the Packers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and the Cowboys Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten.

You've got the Packers very good entire offensive line against a very good defensive front seven on the Cowboys. And as the good folks at the Packer Report note in their comprehensive subscriber-only preview: "Cowboys had 4 players with 70-plus tackles: S Barry Church (93), LB Rolando McClain (81), rookie LB Anthony Hitchens (73) and S J.J. Wilcox (70). CBs Sterling Moore (13) and Orlando Scandrick (9) had most PD on club. LB Bruce Carter had career-high 5 INTs and led NFL LBs. DE Jeremy Mincey led team with 6 sacks. Also had sack in WC and has 6 sacks in past 8, including playoffs. Rookie DE Demarcus Lawrence had sack, FF and 2 FR last week." Although, as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Packers beat writer Tom Silverstein notes in his preview, Dallas is "A little banged up on defense, the Cowboys could suffer from attrition, especially following a very physical game against Detroit."

The Packers defense has been coming on strong since moving Clay Matthews to the middle. Look for him to be moving about a lot today to keep the 'Boys from keying on him. If the Packers defensive front can handle a very good Dallas offensive interior, and keep Murray from running loose all day, the Packers secondary should be able to handle the Dallas receivers.


Packers QB Aaron Rodgers on the run, which may be rare in today's game.(Photo by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The areas of real concern for Packers fans have to be, first, the status Aaron Rodgers and his torn calf muscle. How long he is able to play and at what level will determine a good deal of this game. He will be limited no matter what to working primarily within the pocket. After returning from his injury after halftime against Detroit, he got the protection he needed and was able to work effectively. He's smart enough to do what he needs to do to help his team.

The second area of concern has to be special teams, primarily protection on field goals. The Packers have had seven field goal attempts blocked this season which is really an astoundingly bad performance. Conditions will make it difficult enough to take advantage of field goal opportunities today. Having yet another poor performance in protection could spell the difference between the Packers moving on to Seattle next weekend for the NFC Championship or clearing out their lockers for the end of this season.

The Prediction
We think this will be a tight game, tighter than it would otherwise be if Rodgers was 100 percent healthy. Still, the Packers are favored by 6 points in this game.

We're calling it 30-27 Packers.

Go Pack Go!!!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

NFL Week 17: Packers vs. Lions Preview and Predictiion

First, Packer fans, apologies for not posting a post-game review of last week's win in Tampa; holiday commitments during this last week left no time...that's my story and I'm sticking to it. But for purpose of closure on that game...the Packers won. Now, let's move on.

This weekend's game sees the Detroit Lions coming to Lambeau Field to battle the Green Bay Packes for the NFC North Division Championship. Sunday is winner take all. Well, sort of. Regardless of the game results, both teams are in the playoffs. It's now just a matter of how good it will get in that regard for the winner of the game and how bad it will get for the loser. It's about winning it to secure a higher seed in the playoffs, including a possible first-round bye and perhaps -- if things fall a certain way -- even home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Packers made that latter option much more difficult for themselves with that loss in Buffalo. Win there and win out in the regular season...ah, to dream of things as they might have been.

As it is, the Packers will have their hands full against arguably (or not) the best Lions team to visit Lambeau in the last 20-some years. This Lions team has weapons on offense and defense; we won't enumerate them here...you know who they are by now. The Lions have finally proven to themselves that they can come from behind to win. In fact, this season they've overcome second-half deficits five times before winning. They won't come apart if they get down.

On the Packers part, they have special teams issues that are a real concern, untimely penalties and missed tackles that hurt them on occasion. Well, so do most teams. It's football. But the Packers also have Aaron Rodgers, albeit likely a somewhat less mobile version than we have seen recently due to his calf injury from last week. The Pack has a battering ram running back in Eddie Lacey, an offensive line that is opening holes for the running backs and protecting Rodgers in the pocket, an ability that will be much needed against the Lions defensive line and pass rush schemes. The Pack's receivers are among the best in the league. The Packers defense -- so much criticized especially in the early part of the season -- has come around pretty well: it hasn't given up a touchdown in the last two games (remember that the only TD given up in the Buffalo game was on a kickoff return).

The Prediction
We could spend a lot of time here reviewing all sorts of stats to see which team may come out on top. Here's just one: the Pack is currently favored by 7-1/2 points at the time of this writing. The Packers will have to play a nearly flawless game to cover that kind of spread; they haven't played a flawless game in at least a month or more, leading some pundits to suggest that the team has peaked early. I don't think so. I think they just need to assert themselves once again as the best team in the NFC. They have the talent. The question is whether or not they will put it all together at the same time.

I'm not sure I can answer that last question. We'll just have to wait to see how things unfold on Sunday. Many are looking at the first meeting between these two teams to suggest that the Lions defense will control the game at the line of scrimmage versus the Packers offense. A reminder to all who go that route that the line was missing Bryan Bulaga at right tackle and was just a work in progress overall, including a rookie center just starting to figure things out. The line is settled in and performing at high level, barring injury during the game.

Anyway, as for us at PackerFansUnited.com, we're calling it 27-24 Packers.

Go Pack Go!!!