Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hardly time to "relax" in Green Bay after porous defensive performance

I have been a Green Bay Packer fan since I can remember, and unlike people born, say, after 1980 I have long memories of more than two decades of football irrelevancy that resided in the “frozen tundra” that few top players wanted to be, unless they had the misfortune of being drafted by the Packers. Sure, it had a “storied” past, had won more NFL championships than any other team, and there was Lombardi, probably the most fabled coach of any sport in history. But to those born after 1980, all they know is that the Packers have been one of the top franchises in the NFL, thanks in large part to having one Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback replaced by another—something that is actually rare in the NFL, despite occurring in recent times in Montana/Young for the 49ers and Manning/Luck for the Colts. 

This season, the Packers are 8-1 since Aaron Rodgers advised fans to “relax” after a 2-2 start, a reaction to some poor offensive showings. After piling-up 43 points in Monday night’s win against Atlanta, the Packers lead the NFL in points scored, and are now tied with Arizona for the best record in the NFC at 10-3, and with the Cardinals playing the rest of their season with a backup quarterback, the Packers would seem to be at least the better of the two teams.

But after last night’s game, there can hardly be sufficient cause to “relax” if one expects the Packers to win a playoff game, let alone go to the Super Bowl. Green Bay hasn’t had what one would call a “good” defense since the 2010 Super Bowl team. Like a lot of teams whose offense is dominated by the passing game with either quick scoring drives or quick three-and-outs, the defense rarely “rests.” If it is not “opportunistic”—meaning forcing turnovers, then unhappy things are likely to happen.

This tendency was demonstrated last night. The Packers were expected to handle the “best” of the least division in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons, with relative ease at home. It certainly appeared that way in a dominant first half, leading 31-7. But something happened after halftime. Maybe the Packers just became “complacent” with their big lead. This has happened before, with Rodgers having huge numbers in the first half and then just “taking it easy” the rest of the game. But this time the opponent wasn’t quitting; after all, the Falcons were still looking at taking sole possession of first place in their division. 

And the Packers defense obliged. Matt Ryan threw for almost 300 yards in the second half as every Atlanta offensive possession became an exercise in defensive futility. Even the few defensive successes, such as two third-and-goal stops, were wasted when the Falcons scored touchdowns on fourth down. The bleeding was briefly plugged when Rodgers threw 60 yards to Jordy Nelson for a score, but even that seemed more like good fortune. Leading just 43-37 with Atlanta still having three time outs and the two-minute warning left on the clock, one had this impending sense of doom before the Packers recovered an on-side kick that was more like a short kickoff and reel-off a couple of long runs. 

The burning question now is if this game tells us anything about the Packers chances in the playoffs. I still have my doubts about Seattle’s offense, but their defense is playing as good as it ever has. However, looking at the NFC, Dallas, Philadelphia, and anyone from the NFC South are beatable teams for the Packers, since they have little better defense. It is those with solid defenses, like Seattle, Arizona and Detroit, which gives one pause to consider the fact that Packers are 1-3 in playoffs since 2010.

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