Monday, January 24, 2011

Packers need to do more to end Steelers' "luck"

I’ve been listening with increasing frustration to national and local sports media commentary that seems to regard the Green Bay Packer’s victory over the Chicago Bears to advance to the Super Bowl as some kind of fluke. People like Freddie Coleman on ESPN was floored by the performance of Bears’ third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie, and “Softy” over at KJR was mightily impressed by the Bears “stout” defense after the Packers put 48 points on Atlanta the previous week—forgetting, of course, that both regular season games between the two teams were low-scoring affairs; the final regular season game was a 10-3 score, and the earlier 20-17 win by Chicago was due mainly to the fact that Green Bay had to overcome an inexplicable 18 penalties.

I don’t know what game the pundits were watching; for three quarters the Packers astonished by completely dominating the Bears on both sides of the ball. The problem was that this was not indicated on the scoreboard; in the first half the Packers passed-up two 52-yard field goal tries and punted, and in the third quarter, Aaron Rodgers threw a terrible interception on third-and-goal. Much has been made about Jake Cutler (of course he’s “aloof”—he attended Vanderbilt) sitting out in the second half, but the Packers smothered both Cutler and the Bears’ offense while he was in, and keeping him in with an injury would not have been much use to the Bears’ cause. Mike McCarthy seemed content to let his defense finish the job, which may explain his head-scratching play-calling in the fourth quarter, not helped by Rodgers’ by then strange ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, the defense became complacent facing a third-string quarterback, but reawakened at opportune moments to intercept two passes, one to the house that proved to be the winning margin. As one may recall, New England was supposed to beat the Packers in a rout with Matt Flynn filling-in for Rodgers; like the Patriots, the Packers underestimated the play-making ability of an unknown quantity. Although it was a close-run thing at the end, the real question following the game is whether the Packers can put together four quarters in a tight contest against a formidable team like Pittsburgh. What they’ve shown to this point is that they win by starting fast and hanging-on—unlike the New York Jets, who start slow and force the other team to hang-on. That won't be enough against the Steelers--and their "helpers."

Despite being a long-time Packer fan, it has taken me awhile to warm-up to Rodgers, but now that Brett Favre is definitely finished (I think), I can take a more even-headed approach to judging Favre’s replacement. Rodgers, when he’s on, looks like an “elite” quarterback—especially with one of the best crop of receivers in the league. But all too often he just looks “off,” and not necessarily against good defenses, such as in the game against Detroit. Some other impressions have not changed; Rodger’s goofy demeanor and apparent lack of seriousness suggests to me that he really doesn’t have that “killer” instinct when the game is on the line. Criticize Favre all you like, but you knew that every time he got the ball, anything was bound to happen; like last year against San Francisco and this year against Arizona (and nearly against the Packers in Lambeau), he might look pedestrian for 3 ½ quarters, but when the game was on the line, he would take control with a single-minded purpose and put the naysayers to shame. We can’t say that of Rodgers with the evidence he’s provided so far in his career, and he is no less prone to making head-scratching plays like throwing that pass to Brian Urlacher that surprised even him. But the undeniable fact is that the Packers are in the Super Bowl, despite their offense and defense taking an untimely snooze in the fourth quarter that nearly cost them the game. They did enough right to get them this far, but their next challenge will require certain "intangibles" that their opponent seems to possess at inopportune moments.

So what of their opponent, the Steelers? I must confess that I feel a great deal of antipathy toward them, although not as much as toward the Manning-led Colts. My bad feeling dates from the 2006 Super Bowl, when it seemed the officials were conspiring to hand them the game against the Seattle Seahawks. The second-quarter TD pass nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty was referred to as “ticky-tack” by a half-time commentator, and it certainly was compared to the non-calls we have seen recently. In the second half, John Madden strained to find the hold that nullified a pass play to the 2-yard line with the Seahawks down 14-10; a few plays later after an interception, Matt Hasselbeck was called for an “illegal block” even though it was obvious to everyone else that he was going for a tackle, giving the Steelers an even shorter field to score their final points. In the 2009 Super Bowl, the Steelers again benefited from questionable officiating; James Harrison—whose dirty hits this year became the subject of some controversy—should have been ejected from the game after a “play” so egregious and unwarranted that Madden was left wondering what the officials were thinking in allowing him to remain on the field. Harrison, still in the game, would later intercept a pass and take it in for a touchdown. The go-ahead touchdown in the waning moments should have been ruled incomplete; the toe of Santonio’s Holmes’ trailing foot was sitting on the ball of his lead foot as he went out-of-bounds: it never touched the ground. And then then there was the illegal celebration penalty that wasn’t called; had it been enforced, it might have been a manageable 30 yards that Kurt Warner would have needed to cover on the final play.

The Packers are currently 2-point favorites, which is highly debatable, but I desperately want them to end the Steeler’s phony “luck.”

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