By Tom Silverstein, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – At 14-1, the Green Bay Packers are imperfect both in record and in form, not quite the team that roars into the postseason with a string of dominant performances to back up its status as owner of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
A year ago, after the Packers squeaked into the playoffs with a victory against the same division rivals they knocked off Sunday night, they were considered “dangerous,” a team you did not want coming into your house in the postseason.
This year, the Packers are respected for their impressive record, but some people are having a very easy time picking apart the flaws that reared their ugly heads Sunday in a 35-21 victory over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
In an imperfect season, the Packers are close to finding out the truth about themselves.
“I think every team has flaws, it’s just a matter of managing them,” linebacker Clay Matthews said after the Packers pulled away with 21 second-half points.
“Last year we came on strong after the Detroit game and played two great games to finish the season.
“There’s always room for critics to kind of bring you down and let everybody know you are beatable. The good thing is it’s not the attitude of the players in this locker room. We know what we can do, and it’s led to a 14-1 record. I think that speaks for itself.”
Some other numbers that speak for themselves are 199 and 441, which are the yards the defense allowed on the ground and overall, respectively, against a Bears team starting third-stringers at quarterback and running back. Another is zero sacks.
Offensively, the Packers started the game looking more like the team that was stuck in neutral in Kansas City last week than the one that bombarded the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants to the tune of 84 points and 840 yards.
The Packers started out with a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive and then went three-and-out three straight times before finishing with a seven-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that gave them some breathing room at 14-3.
“Every game we’ve played in there have been some areas where we have to improve,” center Scott Wells said. “Tonight was no different. We didn’t extend some drives that we wish we would have early. There’s a lot of areas of emphasis that we’re improving in.
“The key is to make those improvements week to week.”
The Packers clinched home-field advantage because they have a two-game lead over San Francisco and New Orleans with one game to go. That means they will not only have a bye in the wild-card round, they also will not have to play on the road as long as they’re still in the playoffs.
There have been targets on the Packers’ backs all season and until the Chiefs game they had responded perfectly to the pressure. But that loss also created a dent in an aura of invincibility and showed the rest of the NFL that they’re not always good enough to overcome their weaknesses.
There’s undoubtedly a faction of football followers who think the Packers are ripe for the taking.
“I think we’re a team that has 14 wins out of 15 games, and that says a lot in itself,” fullback John Kuhn said. “You can look at stats and say whatever you want, but right now we’re a team that won more games than they lost.
“We’ve got home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and all our goals are still ahead of us. If we reach all our goals, I’m sure everybody will have nice things to say about us.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy wasn’t holding back his celebratory mood after his team set a franchise record for most victories in a regular season, but he also seemed unwilling to brush over a defensive performance pretty much on par with those throughout the season.
If the Bears can roll up 441 yards with Josh McCown, a quarterback who was coaching high school football a little more than a month ago, imagine what the Detroit Lions or New Orleans Saints can do if they come into Lambeau Field in a few weeks.
“We won big,” McCarthy said. “That’s the bottom line. Just like I told the team at halftime, the scoreboard looked the way it needed to look, 14-3, but the time of possession and the number of attempts, and the ability to produce yardage against our defense, we needed to get that flipped.
“That’s definitely something that will be graded and fixed.”
McCarthy wasn’t specific on how he would handle the regular-season finale against Detroit next week at Lambeau Field, but one thing he can’t risk is more injuries.
The Packers’ uneven performance Sunday can be blamed on defensive end Ryan Pickett sitting out with a concussion or left guard T.J. Lang having to play for injured right tackle Bryan Bulaga or backup Evan Dietrich-Smith having to play left guard for Lang or wide receiver Greg Jennings on the sideline with a sprained knee.
This is probably the most the team has been banged up all season.
But that wasn’t an excuse last year when the Packers had almost enough players on injured reserve to play an 11-on-11 game in the training room. They will have time they didn’t have a year ago to get healthy, but they probably won’t go into the playoffs with the momentum they had a year ago.
“You think about it, last year we had to go on the road and play every game, and we played in domes,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “We went into some tough environments. Now you have dome teams that might have to come out to Lambeau.
“That’s a totally different environment. Hopefully, the Lambeau advantage speaks as it does and we come out and play like we’re capable of playing.”
Full story here
By Gary D’Amato, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – The Green Bay Packers dusted off an old weapon in their arsenal Sunday night:
After catching four passes for 46 yards in the last three games combined, the fifth-year receiver caught four for 50 and two touchdowns in the Packers’ 35-21 victory over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
Jones made clutch plays in the 2-minute drill before halftime, beat Bears cornerback Zack Bowman for both of his touchdowns and set up a third score when he drew a holding penalty on Bowman in the end zone.
Jones already had left the locker room by the time the media was allowed in after the game, but his play spoke volumes.
“James is a great player,” said receiver Jordy Nelson, whose locker is next to Jones’ and who also had a big day with six catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns. “We know he can do it. He got the opportunities, and he made plays.
“He made a huge play in the 2-minute to get us down the field. He made plays down at the goal line to get in the end zone. He stepped up big tonight.”
Even with the injured Greg Jennings (knee) sitting out, Green Bay got a ton of production from its passing game, with Aaron Rodgers throwing five touchdown passes and the receivers – Nelson, Jones, Donald Driver and rookie Randall Cobb – combining for 14 catches for 216 yards and four touchdowns.
“We hold everyone accountable, and everyone’s got to make plays for us,” Nelson said.
Rodgers threw a fifth touchdown pass to tight end Jermichael Finley.
The first two times he was targeted by Rodgers, Jones couldn’t come up with the catch. He slipped and fell on a back-shoulder throw and then Rodgers, under pressure, short-hopped a pass to him.
After that, Jones was spectacular.
On second and 10, with the Packers ahead, 7-3, and 1 minute 45 seconds left in the first half, Jones ran a crossing route from right to left, Rodgers hit him in stride and it ruptured into a 32-yard gain.
Five plays later, Jones beat Bowman on a slant for a 2-yard touchdown to pad the Packers’ lead to 14-3 with 16 seconds left in the half.
Late in the third quarter, Jones caught a 7-yard touchdown pass, this time on a fade, with Bowman in coverage.
Then, on the Packers’ next possession, he ran another slant from the Bears’ 5-yard line and drew the holding penalty on Bowman, giving the Packers a first and goal at the 2. On the next play, Rodgers hit Nelson on a slant for the touchdown to give Green Bay an insurmountable 35-10 lead.
Nelson said the Packers had been running a lot of fades near the goal line and teams started shading receivers to the outside. That opened up the slant.
“That’s something we kind of adjusted to with the fact that we run so many fade balls down there,” he said. “They started playing outside a little bit more and that leaves the inside open.
“So now they have to decide what they want to do. Again, it’s taking what they give you. They have to make a decision how they’re going to play us. We’re going to go off what they’re doing.”
Jones last had four receptions Oct. 23 at Minnesota. He had been shut out in two of the previous five games. His two touchdowns, a career high, gave him seven for the season.
Nelson said he expected the Packers’ quartet of receivers to play against the Detroit Lions in the regular-season finale, even though the team has clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
“We want to play,” he said. “I mean, I do. We’re not going to have much of a choice over here because Greg is down. We’re here to play football, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Original story here
By Tyler Dunne, Journal-Sentinel
Green Bay – He’s usually the 340-pound source of optimism. Ryan Pickett can light up a room. But on the sidelines, teammates saw a different Pickett Sunday.
This one wasn’t easy for the Green Bay Packers defensive end to stomach.
“I can just see it in his face,” defensive end C.J. Wilson said. “He wants it so bad.”
Easy to see why. In Green Bay’s breezy 35-21 win over Chicago on Sunday, Pickett was out again. He missed his second straight game with a concussion suffered Dec. 11 against Oakland. His void was felt in a big way.
Part of the problem is missing Pickett. Teammates acknowledge that much. But they also realize this isn’t a quick fix.
“You definitely have to address the issue,” nose tackle Howard Green said. “For me, that’s not what you want. . . . It’s something we have to stand up as men on a defense and get that stuff corrected.”
On three of their first four offensive possessions, the Bears strung together drives of 11, 10 and nine plays. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was on the sideline, powerless. And the Bears’ offense – a hodge-podge collection of backups – ran the ball 73% of the time in the first half. The plan worked. A week ago, the Kansas City Chiefs rushed for 139 yards. This week, Chicago nearly eclipsed that total in the first half.
Of course, the Bears’ three long drives netted only a field goal. Robbie Gould missed one 49-yarder wide right, and Clay Matthews’ interception halted another other drive.
Afterward, players didn’t use the bottom line as a cop-out excuse.
“We didn’t play as good as we wanted to,” said inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, who played for the first time since Thanksgiving. “I know it’s been the same old song, but there’s nothing we can do but look at the film and see what we can do better and try to execute next week.”
In Pickett’s place, Wilson was not a complete liability. He finished with six tackles, including one for loss. Pickett, though, can make life much easier on linebackers. While the Packers have had trouble against some plus-sized backs this season, they’ve also shut down Matt Forte (2 yards on nine carries) and Michael Turner (56 yards on 16 carries).
“He means a lot,” Bishop said. “As you can see with some of those plays, his experience could have helped. But the guys that filled in did well. C.J. Wilson had a good day.”
Added Wilson, “I feel like I held my own. My goal was to not have a drop-off in production that Ryan Pickett gives us. He does a great job.”
Maybe just as big of a factor was Chicago’s strategy. Green said the Bears pulled their center and guard out of formations the Packers were not expecting. Or in football-speak, “unscouted looks.” Bell gashed the Packers repeatedly on cutback runs.
Chicago’s line effectively washed linemen downhill, swinging open tollbooth-sized running lanes.
“They changed it up a lot, and it was working for them,” Green said. “There was a lot of gap blocking. They pulled the center and the guard a lot up front. We knew they pulled a lot, but we haven’t gotten those looks during the week when we were watching film.
“The back was seeing the holes and making the right cuts and getting where he needed to get. And he ran hard. He ran hard.”
By Wisconsin standards, Christmas night was tropical at Lambeau Field. Green realizes the weather can turn in a hurry here, and opposing teams are bound to tote their running game. On national television, a potential flaw in the Packers’ defense was exposed. If the Bears could’ve finished drives, maybe this would have been a slugfest instead of a circus.
Pickett or no Pickett, the defensive linemen know teams are going to test them again.
“Overall on defense, we didn’t play our best game,” Wilson said. “We all know that, and all know we have some work to do. We have to take coaching and believe in the system to come together and do our job. We have some work to do.”
Original story here
By Brian E Murphy, Packers Insider senior analyst
~It was another game in which the Packers were outgained by the other team. Another game in which the opposing QB and RB had their best games of the season, even career.
But it also was another game in which the defense came up with a few interceptions, and oh by the way, the Packer quarterback racked up a masterpiece with no interceptions. This time, Aaron Rodgers threw for his career-high of five touchdowns as the Packers eliminated the Chicago Bears fading playoff dreams with a 35-21 victory at Lambeau Field on Christmas night.
“Yeah, this one’s pretty special,” Rodgers said.
With the win, the Packers (14-1) claimed another round of bragging rights in the NFL’s most storied rivalry by knocking the Bears out of the playoff chase.
“We wanted the path to go through Lambeau,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Thirty-five points on that defense, that’s a good night,” McCarthy said.
Rodgers threw touchdown passes to tight end Jermichael Finley first, and then he threw a pair each to Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Rodgers didn’t seem to miss Jennings this time as he went 21-29 for 283 yards, to go along with his five touchdowns. It was another superb passer rating of 142.7, his highest ever against the Bears defense, who usually slow down Rodgers. As it stands now, Rodgers season passer rating is 122 and would break the all-time single-season record.
That was the good news, again.
Then there’s Dom Capers’ defense.
Other than Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, the defense seems to lose their individual battles and it allowed the Bears backup RB’s to carve up the Packers for 199 yards rushing.
The Bears, led by third string quarterback Josh McCown, who was sitting on his couch just weeks ago retired, to rack up 441 yards, and covert on 6 of 12 third down conversions. The Bears averaged a fine 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, and 8.6 yards per pass. Overall, the Packers were outgained 441 to 363 yards, and the Bears controlled the clock with a 36 to 24 edge in time of possession.
Granted, the Packers were missing their key cog in the line in Ryan Pickett, and Howard Green was playing banged up as he was questionable on the injury report.
You will be hearing a lot about the Packers defense over the next 20 or so days entering their divisional playoff game. It will most likely be against a quarterback such as Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, or Matt Ryan.
All of those quarterbacks are much better than Orton, Freeman, and McCown.
Despite the poor effort on defense, the victory over the Bears gives the Packers a 14-1 record and clinches the number one seed in the NFC playoffs and means the Packers road to Indianapolis only goes through Lambeau Field and not Philly, Atlanta, and Chicago as last year.
That might or might not be a good thing, depending on the weather and opponent. But it’s definitely better than having to go to New Orleans to face Drew Brees in that place.
The Packers will now have an opportunity to rest banged up, or critical players next week as Detroit comes to town.
Anyone who’s been questionable or worse should sit and rest next week against the Lions
Combined with the bye week after it, that should allow most of them to be able to recharge their batteries and freshen up for the playoff divisional game on either January 14th or 15th, at Lambeau Field.
By Brian E Murphy, Packers Insider senior editor
~Packer Nation; pack your bags and head South in mid-January for two weeks. Let’s move Lambeau Field to Miami.
This Aaron Rodgers-led Packers locomotive is not a ground-led juggernaut. It’s a precision passing game, with four and five receiver sets based on precision, timing, matchups. January Green Bay weather is not conducive for the passing game as much as 75 and sunny is.
The average high temperature in Miami in January is 75.6 degrees. The average high in Green Bay in January is 24 degrees, and we all remember the January, 2008 playoff game against the Giants in Green Bay where the actual temperature got down to -6 with the wind chills close to -30.
Although that was the old quarterback being iced up for the Packers, that cold weather clearly had an impact on the whole Packers offense.
I know, I know, the Packers could meet up with a similar passing team, the New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees, and the nice warm weather would help him too.
But the Saints also boost a better running game with the 3-headed monsters of Heisman winner Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and the little lightning bug Darren Sproles. Thomas, you’ll remember, helped them win a Super Bowl two seasons ago. This is a team who can run the ball, and they’d clearly have an edge in the ground game department over the Packers.
But as great as Drew Brees is, and as suspect as the Packers defense has been, you’d still like to have a game decided by the quarterbacks, since the Packers have the best in the sport in Rodgers. Why not provide him, and Jordy, Jennings, Driver, Jones, Jermichael, and Cobb the optimal climate and conditions to succeed and get to Super Bowl XLVI?
“We’re a pass-first team,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think that’s going to change, but you have to run the football in the winter months here.
That game will be in a dome, where you’d have to like Rodgers chances against anyone, from the Steelers again, to the Patriots, Ravens, Texans, or Tebows even.
What about losing the Lambeau home-field advantage, you say?
Anyone who’s gone to a Packer game in Miami, Tampa, Arizona, or San Diego knows that Cheeseheads travel as well as anyone and regularly get 20,000, 30,000, even 40,000 Packer fans into the opposing team’s seats.
In this occasion, all the home fans would still be Packer nation as we’d control the tickets.
Dolphin Stadium, currently known as Sun Life Stadium, has a seating capacity of close to 80,000, and has hosted five Super Bowls, including 2007 and 2010. I suspect we’d be able to fill 60-70,000 Packer fans in each game in Miami.
The Packers could have the name temporarily changed to Lambeau Field South Beach.
And one final benefit of this path to perfection for the Packers: Going through Miami, home of the only other undefeated Super Bowl champions, the 1972 Dolphins, would be extra sweet.
We’d get the remaining members of those ’72 Dolphins, from Don Shula on down, to have a front row seat of the Packers chase at bettering their record as they chase the history books.
So who’s with me here? The Packers playoff games will probably be on Sunday, January 15th and January 22nd.
So Packer Nation, Let’s Occupy South Beach for eight or nine days: How about an eight-nine day vacation to Miami in mid-January? Who’s going to argue against that?
By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
~Kansas City, Mo. – Charles Woodson cuts the cliché short. It’d be easy for the Green Bay Packers cornerback to spin this stunning loss into perspective. But he won’t. Not a chance.
A heap of gym bags stacked in the middle of the locker room at Arrowhead Stadium, teammates exited one at a time. Some dejected, some upbeat. Woodson was the realist.
“There are no benefits to losing,” Woodson said. “None.”
Everyone wanted to go 19-0. Who wouldn’t? They’d receive a lifetime membership to football immortality, to history. And Sunday, that dream died. Moments after losing 19-14 to the Kansas City Chiefs, a sting lingered. But it wasn’t necessarily the end of a perfect season that irritated them.
A five-win team bruised, bloodied and battered the Packers. The Chiefs – dead to rights – knocked the Super Bowl champions to the canvas. That’s what is alarming. If any team realizes the importance of peaking in December, it’s the Packers. A wave of momentum carried them to North Texas last season.
Now, players are left wondering what happened.
“Everybody has to take it upon themselves and look in the mirror,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “I don’t think anybody thinks it’s OK for us to have a loss like that.
“You don’t want to sit here and say, ‘Oh that’s fine. We’ll be alright.’ Bottom line is you have to look in the mirror and make sure you’re taking care of your own business.”
Make no mistake, this was a Chiefs team spiraling into disarray.
Their coach was fired. Arguably their three best players – Jamaal Charles, Matt Cassel and Eric Berry – were on injured reserve. They’ve lost games by 34, 45, 28, 31 and 27 points this season.
And the offense? Quarterback Kyle Orton should have signed a waiver. Kansas City had scored three touchdowns in six games.
And here were the mighty Packers, getting bullied around.
The Chiefs didn’t consult a genie. Nothing innovative here. No witchcraft. They carefully avoided a shootout – 39 runs, 31 passes – and were relentless on defense.
Aaron Rodgers was sacked four times, hit five times and always on the move. With less than 5 minutes to go, running back Jackie Battle plunged into the end zone on third down to give Kansas City a 19-7 lead and streamers sifted onto the field.
Not too long later, interim coach Romeo Crennel received a Gatorade bath. What remains in Green Bay are questions – questions seemingly solved a long time ago.
Is Rodgers still invincible? Have the receivers’ drops reached plague status? How many injuries can the offensive line overcome? And is this really a championship defense?
Green Bay has two games left to sort it all out.
“We certainly don’t want to have another loss like this,” Lang said. “It’s tough to swallow. . . . After a game like that where we just played like (expletive) on offense, you have to take personal responsibility. You have to make yourself better before you try to make your teammates better.”
Defensively, as Lang notes, the Packers probably did enough to win. True, a unit that entered Sunday with nine more picks than any other team laid an egg. Sunday marked the first time since the season opener, Green Bay failed to have an interception.
Any concern, however, should probably be directed at an offense that’s been a juggernaut all season. The temporary absence of Greg Jennings (knee) probably hurts more than the team realized. At halftime, Rodgers was 6 of 17 for 59 yards. His receivers had six drops. The Chiefs had life.
After his fourth drop of the half – a difficult hanger deep right – tight end Jermichael Finley threw his helmet across the bench in disgust.
Compare this to last season. The Packers were just tapping into their Texas oil-rich offense. Fresh off an inspiring performance in Foxborough, the Packers’ offense blindsided the New York Giants, 45-17. One week later, the defense mashed the Chicago Bears, 10-3.
Forget the made-for-TV, “to rest or not to rest” drama. That’s irrelevant, old news. To the Packers, what’s most important is recalibrating into the team they’ve been all year.
The offense – Jennings or no Jennings – hopes to rediscover its rhythm. And the defense wants to get back to forcing turnovers. For one day, Kansas City lured Green Bay into a different game.
“Maybe more than the loss itself, we didn’t match their intensity and they beat us,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “You want to be playing your best football at the end. That’s more disappointing than losing the chance to go 19-0. It’s how we lost – not playing our best football in December.”
This feeling – this losing feeling – has been non-existent for 364 days. The Packers were one day shy of a perfect calendar year. How does it feel? Peprah paused for five seconds and shook his head.
“It sucks. That’s all you can say,” he said. “Disappointing, very disappointing.”
Added Woodson, “Losing is no fun. We have to put this one behind us.”
They can. Next up, two NFC North rivals.
OK, so the 16-0 and 19-0 talk is officially over. Perfectly fine, players say. Their Super Bowl plans remain on schedule.
“You get knocked down, you have to get back up and get stronger,” Peprah said. “We’re going to respond very positively to this. We’re not going to pack it in just because we can’t go undefeated. Feel sorry for yourself a little bit and get over it.”
Original story here
Packers lose two offensive tackles in ugly all-around loss
~KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Mike McCarthy never put a whole lot of stock in a perfect season, except as a means of gaining home-field advantage and setting the Green Bay Packers up for another Super Bowl run.
Well, they still have a chance to earn home-field advantage.
The perfect season? That’s history.
Kyle Orton threw for 299 yards to outduel Aaron Rodgers , and the Kansas City Chiefs rallied behind interim coach Romeo Crennel for a shocking 19-14 victory on Sunday that ended the Packers’ 19-game winning streak. It was their first loss since Dec. 19, 2010, at New England.
“I personally always viewed the undefeated season as, really, just gravy,” McCarthy said. “The goal was to get home-field advantage and win the Super Bowl. That’s what we discussed.
“We were fortunate enough to be in the position to possibly achieve the undefeated season,” he added, “but we still have the primary goal in front of us, and that’s to get home-field advantage.”
Green Bay, playing without leading receiver Greg Jennings and top rusher James Starks because of injuries, can wrap up the No. 1 seed in their final two games against Chicago and Detroit. But the Packers no longer have the pressure of becoming the second team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl with a perfect record, or extending the second-longest winning streak in league history.
“I think our goal ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl. The next step is getting that number one seed in the playoffs,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got a home playoff game – we’ve got a bye secured.”
Rodgers was 17 of 35 for 235 yards and a touchdown, and he also scampered 8 yards for another touchdown with 2:12 left in the game. But the Packers (13-1) were unable to recover the onside kick, and Kansas City picked up a couple of first downs to secure the victory.
“They had a good game plan,” Rodgers said. “You have to give them credit.”
Ryan Succop kicked four field goals for Kansas City (6-8), which had lost five of its last six games and fired coach Todd Haley last Monday. Jackie Battle added a short touchdown plunge with 4:53 left in the game, points that came in handy when Rodgers led one last scoring drive.
“Everybody had marked it off as a win for the Packers, but those guys in the locker room, they’re football players,” Crennel said. “They decided they were not going to lay down, they were not going to give up, so they went out and played a tremendous game.”
Neither team looked all that tremendous in the first half.
Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson was hit twice with offensive pass interference, Rodgers was harassed by the Chiefs’ weak pass rush, and Green Bay wound up making five first downs.
One of them came when Kansas City’s Jeremy Horne ran into Packers punter Tim Masthay , giving them 15 free yards. The Chiefs tried to give Green Bay another gift later on the drive when Mason Crosby missed a 59-yard field goal attempt but Kansas City had 12 men on the field.
With another chance from 54 yards, the normally reliable Crosby still pushed the kick right.
Rodgers finished the half 6 of 17 for 59 yards, with a handful of drops between wide receiver Donald Driver and tight end Jermichael Finley. In fact, things were going so badly for Green Bay that at one point it ran out of the wildcat despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
The Chiefs were still clinging to a 6-0 lead when Rodgers finally hit down field, finding Finley over top the coverage for a 41-yard gain. Three plays later, the Packers’ star quarterback hit Driver in the corner of the end zone for a 7-6 lead with 8:04 left in the third quarter.
Kansas City answered when Orton hit his own tight end, Leonard Pope , for a career-long 38-yard catch. Jon Baldwin added a 17-yard grab to set up Succop’s 46-yard, go-ahead field goal.
The Packers moved into field-goal range on their ensuing drive, but rather than have Crosby attempt a 56-yard kick in the same direction he had already missed, McCarthy elected to go for it on fourth-and-9. Rodgers’ pass fell incomplete and the Chiefs took over.
They needed seven plays to cover 59 yards, but had to settle for another field goal and a 12-7 lead. It was the third time the Chiefs drove inside the 5 and had six total points to show for it.
They got seven on their next trip, though.
With first-and-goal at the 5, Thomas Jones managed to gain a yard and Le’Ron McClain bulled ahead for three more, setting up third down from just outside the goal line. Battle took the carry over the right side and powered into the end zone, giving the woeful Kansas City offense its highest-scoring game since the Chiefs beat San Diego in overtime in late October.
The Packers marched down field in the closing minutes, and Rodgers showed his moxie by scampering around the end for a touchdown that made it 19-14, but that was as close as they got.
Green Bay came into the game averaging nearly 36 points, but was held to its lowest total since beating the Chicago Bears 10-3 in Week 17 last year. The Packers needed to win that game to make the playoffs, and wound up riding the momentum to a Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers .
All that momentum finally came to an end against the most unlikely of scenarios.
“We set the tone on both sides of the ball,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “This is the great thing about football. You can’t always look at the records, because you’ve got grown men out there who are all getting paid. You don’t have to be better on paper.
“If you’re better on that given Sunday, you’ll get the win.”
Original story here
By Ashley Fox, ESPN
~The Green Bay defensive players know how the numbers look, and that the presumption is if the Packers lose a game this season, it will be because the defense, not the offense, lets the team down.
Defense, after all, wins championships in the NFL, and Green Bay’s D ranks 31st in total yards allowed and 31st in passing yards allowed, better only than the similarly flawed New England Patriots. The Packers have allowed a grotesque 394.7 yards per game, including 288.7 passing yards per game. Seven times the defense has allowed more total yards than the offense, which ranks third in the league overall, has put up.
It is all there, and the Packers players see it, but they see this, too: Green Bay leads the league in interceptions, and it is not even close. They have 27 this season. Three teams are tied for second with 18.
This year could be the exception to the NFL rule because, although struggling to stop teams from churning out yards, the Packers are effective creating turnovers and then turning those turnovers into points. Give Aaron Rodgers the ball, and he is going to make something good happen. The Packers’ defensive players know that too.
“Huge,” Packers safety Charlie Peprah said when I asked him to put a value on creating turnovers. The Packers stress it, and it will be especially true when the calendar flips to January and every possession matters.
“You know, most teams, especially moving forward, they’re going to try to steal possessions from our offense in some type of way,” Peprah said. “So our mindset on defense is to give a possession back to Aaron and them. If we can get a chance to catch a ball or cause a fumble, we’re trying to give it back to our offense as many times as we can. Let’s get up top and get ahead, and we can play our game. That’s kind of the mindset, man, just get the ball back to ARod and those guys as often and as much as possible.”
In Mike McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay, the Packers are 46-6 (an .885 winning percentage) in the regular season when they win the turnover battle, and 6-20 (.231) when they don’t. In every game this season, they have either created more turnovers or finished even with the opponent. Their plus-20 turnover differential is second in the league, and their 104 points scored off turnovers is third.
Also, they are the only team this season with three players — Charles Woodson (seven), Tramon Williams (four) and Peprah (four) — who have at least four interceptions each.
“Turnovers are emphasized on this defense, and whether that comes in the form of interceptions, fumbles, fumble recoveries, it really doesn’t matter,” said Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who picked off Eli Manning in Week 13 and returned the interception 38 yards for a touchdown.
“But it seems to me that we’ve got a lot of ballhawks on this defense who are making plays. Fortunately we’re able to come up with the majority of them. When we get our hands on them, that’s really key, especially when our offense is playing the way in which they are. To stop the opponent on offense and give it to ours, it usually turns out to be seven points for us.”
That was the case against Oakland on Sunday, when the Packers intercepted Carson Palmer four times. The first came on the Raiders’ opening possession when Brad Jones picked off a pass intended for Darrius Heyward-Bey, giving the offense the ball on the Packers’ 48-yard line. After a defensive holding penalty against Oakland, Ryan Grant busted a 47-yard run to give Green Bay a 7-0 lead.
In the second quarter, Woodson made his seventh interception of the season, stepping in front of a pass again intended for Heyward-Bey. Four plays later, Grant found the end zone again for a 31-0 lead.
The Packers did not score on the other two interceptions — by Rob Francois and Sam Shields — but Francois intercepted Palmer in the end zone at the end of the first half and Shields intercepted Palmer on the Raiders’ last possession, when the game was long over.
“You know, the thing is, we expect [the offense] to score,” Woodson said. “So for us to come up with turnovers and get the ball back in their hands, we feel real good about what they’re going to do once they have an opportunity. … Those things work hand in hand. If you’ve got an offense and a quarterback that’s playing the way he’s playing, you give those guys opportunities and good things are going to happen for you.”
That will be the formula for the playoffs. An extra possession could be the difference between winning and losing, although the way the Packers are putting points on the board, at a rate of 35.8 per game, it might not matter.
The defensive players said they hoped to use the Raiders game as a building block. They would like to erase the perception that they aren’t very effective slowing teams down. The No. 31 ranking doesn’t tell the whole story of the Packers’ defense, but it is still there, a black mark on an otherwise stellar season.
“Well, I wouldn’t say [turnovers are] more important, because statistically you want to be tops in the league, but at the end of the day it’s all about winning,” Peprah said. “If that’s the formula and that’s what it’s going to take, then hey, that’s what we’re going to do.
“But at the same time, we want to make it look a certain way. It all matters, but right now we just need to keep turning the ball over and giving the ball back to Aaron, and that seems to be the right formula.”
Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.
By Ashley Fox, ESPN
Original story here
By Matt Crossman, The Sporting News
~This is how close games become not close games: Aaron Rodgers gets on a roll. On Thanksgiving Day, the Packers entered halftime with a 7-0 lead over the Lions but had been (arguably) outplayed and (decisively) outgained. On the opening series of the second half, Rodgers engineered an easy touchdown drive.
The next score would be crucial. The Lions moved the ball, but the Packers picked off a Matthew Stafford pass. With the Packers taking over at their 35, the Lions needed a stop to stay in the game. The Packers needed a touchdown to put it away.
It took one whip of Rodgers’ arm to see which team would win that battle.
Rodgers faked a handoff, saw the safety bite, noticed wide receiver James Jones wide-open and fired the ball on a line to him. Jones caught it and sprinted into the end zone. Game—and threat to the Packers’ pursuit of perfection—over. It was the most important pass of the game, the highlight of the day for the Packers, yet afterward, Rodgers seemed, well, a little disappointed in it. “I underthrew it a little bit, but I didn’t want to overthrow it. He made a nice catch.”
Jones caught the ball in stride and ran for more than 30 more yards virtually untouched; how those two things could be true and the ball could still be called underthrown is a mystery to everyone except Rodgers. Maybe he didn’t like the throw because Jones had to move his hands to catch it. Whatever. The idea that Rodgers would dump on his own pass should scare the bejabbers out of the rest of the NFL. Rodgers is playing at such a high level that he critiques his game-changing touchdown passes.
It’s because of that pass, and hundreds more like it, that Rodgers is Sporting News’ 2011 athlete of the year. Nobody in any sport played at a higher level than Rodgers has the past year. He threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the Packers’ Super Bowl victory in February, and he has led Green Bay to a 13-0 start this season. He is a lock to win the MVP award and has led some analysts to say he is playing the quarterback position as well as anybody ever has.
In three-plus years as a starter, Rodgers has gone from good to unreal without stopping at great. Sporting News asked players and coaches on teams the Packers have beaten this year how he does it. A sampling of their answers:
“He’s got it all,” says Rams cornerback Justin King.
“Everything that you ask for out of your quarterback, he has,” says Falcons corner Dunta Robinson.
“He has the total package,” says Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
“He’s got everything you want in a quarterback,” says Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.
These answers are as mind-numbingly consistent as the man who provokes them. Probe a little deeper, though, and the answers start to vary. It’s his legs that make him stand out. No, it’s his arm. Nah, it’s how accurate his arm is when he’s using his legs. Forget that—dude is so smart, that’s what makes him special. Wait! You’ve got to hear about this guy’s vision. And on and on. Barely a body part goes unmentioned. Before long his pancreas will have an exhibit in Canton. This solidifies the idea that he’s the total package: From head to toe, he uses his whole body to carve up defenses.
FEET AND LEGS
“He’s very, very mobile,” says Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. “When he breaks that pocket, boy, he is tough. He’s accurate. He’ll run, but he is extremely accurate outside that pocket.”
But he’s almost sneaky about it. Nobody would call him a dual-threat quarterback. But he can beat defenders with his legs if they force him to run, and he can beat them with his arm if they force him to pass. It’s a lose-lose situation for the defense. Consider this example against the Rams. The Packers had a second-and-goal at the Rams’ 7 late in the second quarter. Safety Craig Dahl and King had wide receiver Donald Driver double-covered right at the goal line; Driver was sandwiched between them.
Rodgers broke the pocket, and he was heading toward the goal line, though he was still behind the line of scrimmage. Dahl and King had a decision to make: stay with Driver or pursue Rodgers before he ran in for a TD. They both broke for Rodgers, who in an instant pulled up and whipped the ball to Driver for a touchdown.
Jones says he’ll sometimes make a bad break on a route, and when he gets to the huddle, Rodgers will point it out, leaving Jones wondering how in the world Rodgers even saw it.
Rodgers sees lots of things others don’t. For example, he sees an open player where there isn’t one; there’s no other way to explain the number of passes that get caught by blanketed receivers. It happens so often and in so many different ways it has become normal. What’s remarkable about this is that usually, a quarterback who tries to fit the ball into such small holes often has a high number of interceptions or at least a poor completion percentage. But through 13 games, Rodgers has thrown only six interceptions (and has 39 touchdown passes) and has completed 69.6 percent of his passes—not far off Drew Brees’ all-time single season NFL record of 70.6. “He’s like an under-control gunslinger,” King says.
But vision is only part of the story with Rodgers’ eyes. It’s not just what he sees but where he’s looking, a lesson Robinson learned this season. “He started on his right and was coming back over to our left. He wasn’t even looking at the receiver. He just turned and threw it to a spot, and the receiver ended up catching the ball,” he says. “I thought I definitely had a chance to intercept the ball, but it got there so fast that I didn’t get a chance to get a hand on it. I just had to make a tackle at the end of the play.”
The tackle left Robinson one up on Panthers safety Jordan Pugh, who was beaten on a similar ploy by Rodgers that turned into a key 49-yard touchdown by Greg Jennings. “Aaron came out of the play-action, threw his eyes opposite of where he was going,” says Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. “Then he brought them right back. So he cleared everybody out to this side, and because he looked over to this side, Jordan was still hung out there by himself.”
A defensive back who is alone against a Packers wide receiver might as well not be there at all.
SHOULDERS AND HIPS
Rodgers’ shoulders and hips work in tandem to create fakes that give his receivers space. “He uses (his shoulders) to manipulate the DBs into thinking he’s going in one direction with the ball before swiveling elsewhere or using them for hard pump fakes on double-move routes,” says Charles Davis, an analyst on Fox and the NFL Network.
A good example of an effective pump fake came against the Rams. Angled toward the left sideline, he faked once—not just with his arm but with his shoulders and hips, too—then threw to a wide-open Jordy Nelson. This pass actually was underthrown; had it been on target, Nelson would have sprinted uncontested into the end zone. He scored anyway but had to beat the two defenders who caught up to him as he waited for the pass. Which, again, should scare the bejabbers out of the rest of the NFL: Even Rodgers’ “bad” passes turn into 93-yard touchdowns.
Davis adds this: “He’s carrying his team on his (shoulders), easily, and happily, and he always kept those same shoulders up while waiting for his shot behind you know who.”
“The guy went to Cal,” says Rivera, who also went there. “So he’s a smart guy.”
Let’s hear from someone who doesn’t have an institutional bias: “He’s extremely intelligent, so it’s hard to fool him,” Allen says.
Rodgers doesn’t get rattled when teams try to rough him up, either; in fact, he seems to almost like it. After Lions end Kyle Vanden Bosch pummeled him a few times in the Thanksgiving Day game, Rodgers, wearing a sly grin, characterized Vanden Bosch’s trash talk as mild, almost as if he were disappointed Vanden Bosch wasn’t more abusive (vocally, that is).
Rodgers has unnatural patience, both in the pocket and in life. As Davis noted, he waited on the bench for three years behind Brett Favre before getting a chance to start, then weathered the preposterous controversy surrounding Favre’s departure with impressive grace. On and off the field, he is steady, and he rarely makes a bad decision. “For a guy who hasn’t started that many years for the Packers, he has a crazy amount of poise in the pocket,” says Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
The best for last. None of these body parts would matter if Rodgers didn’t have an incredible arm, of course. His arm makes all the other parts work together.
Opponents, teammates and analysts marvel at the speed of his release, the velocity he gets on the ball and his ability to fit the ball into tight holes. There is no official stat for this, but he completes more passes to covered receivers than anybody in football. This is suggested to Nelson, and he breaks into a grin: “Are you saying we can’t get open?”
Well, no, that’s not exactly the point. The point is this: When a quarterback constantly completes passes to covered receivers, there’s not much a defense can do. Says Vikings coach Leslie Frazier: “There are a number of times we look at tape and you say, ‘What do you tell that defensive back in that situation?’ The ball is thrown where only the receiver can make that play.”
Here’s a suggestion: Grin and bear it, buddy, you just got beat by Sporting News’ athlete of the year.
Original story here
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
~Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the league-wide obsession with all things Tebow, and the remarkable story that just keeps raging on in Denver, consuming more and more oxygen every week. Maybe it’s a bit of perfect-season fatigue, with the 2007 Patriots and the 2009 Colts having trod this same parcel of ground so recently. And without a doubt, some of it can be attributed to the Packers themselves, a small-market team almost devoid of drama, with no prima donnas or screaming need to draw attention to itself.
But somehow, and I’m not even sure how it’s possible in an NFL that receives year-round saturation coverage, it feels as if we’ve overlooked and underplayed the 13-0 saga that has unfolded in Green Bay this season. The defending Super Bowl champion Packers, like a well-oiled machine that hums along almost unnoticed in the background, just keep winning every week, but rarely take top billing in the NFL news cycle.
Which means it’s high time we took notice of the high-water marks Green Bay is starting to post in this nearly unprecedented run of success. For starters, it was Week 15 of last season when Green Bay last tasted defeat, that strangely hopeful 31-27 Aaron Rodgers-less loss on a Sunday night in New England. It simultaneously pushed the Packers to the brink of playoff elimination at 8-6 and seemed to jump-start their memorable six-game sweep to the postseason and a Super Bowl title.
Let that one sink in a little. With one more win this Sunday at Kansas City, the Packers will have gone an entire 12 months without losing, logging a perfect year of a different kind. It would be Green Bay’s 20th consecutive victory, just one shy of New England’s NFL record 21, achieved during its back-to-back Super Bowl-winning seasons of 2003-04. A win at the struggling Chiefs (5-8) would also wrap up another piece of history for the Packers, their first No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff field since their Super Bowl season of 1996.
At that point, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, and holiday home games still to play against NFC North rivals Chicago (on Christmas night) and Detroit (New Year’s Day), the Packers could firmly set their sights on the record books. It is no secret in Green Bay. The Packers intend to fully embrace and chase the perfect season. The first 19-0 record in league history and consecutive Super Bowl titles would put them squarely in the discussion for the greatest team of all time.
“I mean, it’s out there,” Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said. “We’ve assured ourselves a spot in the playoffs, and really that’s all you can do at this point. Then once the regular season’s over and the playoffs start, all your focus is on that one prize and that’s to win the Super Bowl. Our goal is to finish this season the way we want to, playing Green Bay Packers football and trying to get the rest of these wins, and going into those playoffs on fire.”
See, there’s no rest-your-starters talk in Green Bay. Just a mentality of going out to “get the rest of these wins.”
“There’s no other team that can say it’s 13-0 right now and on the precipice of doing something great,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “But there’s still a lot left that we need to accomplish.”
Or as Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji succinctly put it, when asked about Green Bay’s quest for a perfect season: “It hasn’t been done in a few decades (the ’72 Dolphins of 17-0 fame), so we’re trying to add to history.”
The Packers have indeed added a little history to their long and storied franchise legacy in the past year. Let’s take a little closer look at their still-unfolding dominance from as many angles as possible. Because you get the feeling their days flying under the radar are almost at an end:
• Turns out there’s a very good reason you’re not hearing much about Rodgers and his ability to mount fourth-quarter comebacks like quarterbacks Tim Tebow of Denver or Eli Manning of the Giants. During Green Bay’s 19-game winning streak, the Packers have never trailed in the fourth quarter.
You got that? Nineteen games, never a fourth-quarter deficit. It’s the longest such streak in NFL history, and it’s not even close, with the Sammy Baugh-led 1942-43 Washington Redskins putting together a 13-game run. Green Bay was tied in the fourth quarter with the Giants in Week 13, and again last year in Week 17 at home against the Bears, but that’s it.
• Despite going just 10-6 in the regular season in 2010, the Packers notably went the entire year (four postseason games included) without trailing by more than seven points at any time. That impressive streak of competitiveness died rather early this year, when Green Bay fell behind 13-0 at Carolina in Week 2, a game the Packers rallied to win 30-23.
But Green Bay has still been dominant to a ridiculous degree. The Packers have played 52 quarters so far this season, and led at the end of 44 of them, or 85 percent of the time. During the 19-game winning streak, Green Bay has had a lead at the end of 64 of its 76 quarters of play, or 84 percent.
• If you made the Packers a two-touchdown favorite to win every game this season, you’re looking pretty smart so far. Green Bay has outscored its 13 opponents 466-278 in 2011, a league-best 188-point differential. That’s 14.5 points per game better than the other guys.
During the 19-game winning streak, the Packers have been almost as good. Green Bay holds a 642-374 scoring margin in that span, a 268-point bulge that translates to 14.1 points per game. No wonder there hasn’t been a need for many fourth-quarter comebacks.
• Green Bay’s total of 466 points this season is already a franchise record, besting the 2009 team’s 461 points. But these Packers have bigger fish to fry than that. Green Bay’s total is tied for the second most ever through 13 games since the 1970 merger, trailing only the record-setting 2007 Patriots (503 points).
New England scored a league record 589 points in going 16-0 that season, or 36.8 per game. Green Bay is averaging 35.8 points per game this season, a pace that would see it finish with 574, second-most ever. The Packers need to average 41.3 points in their last three games to score 590 this season, breaking the Patriots’ mark.
Improbable? Not really. The Packers have already had five games of 42-plus points this season, tying the 1971 Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys for the most such games in a season since the merger. During the 19-game winning streak, Green Bay has scored at least 42 seven times, or in 37 percent of its games.
• The Packers have 57 touchdowns this season, a team record, and 19 players have scored them, just two shy of the league record in that department. Green Bay has five times scored at least 28 points in the first half of games, and the other 31 NFL teams have combined for just nine 28-point-plus first halves this year.
“It’s a lot of fun to be a part of a team with a bunch of playmakers, who all know how to get into the end zone,” Woodson said. “This is a treat for me.”
The Packers have scored at least 30 points in 12 of the 19 games in the winning streak, and given up 30 or more just three times in that span (but twice in the past five games). They are the first defending Super Bowl champ to score at least 24 points in each of its first 13 games of the season, beating out the 2000 St. Louis Rams’ streak of 10 games to start the year.
• The Packers have plenty of Super Bowl-era success to draw upon, having made the game five times under three head coaches in three different decades. But their current 19-game winning streak blows away the Lombardi and Holmgren eras on that front. The longest winning streak for Lombardi’s Packers was 12 games, in 1961-62. And Mike Holmgren’s teams never won more than the nine in a row, accomplished by his twin Super Bowl clubs of 1996-97.
• One more win and Green Bay becomes just the fourth team in league history to open a season with a 14-0 mark, tying those ’72 Dolphins (in the era of 14-game regular seasons), as well as the 2007 Patriots and 2009 Colts (who finished 14-2, choosing in the final two weeks of the season to give many key starters rest for the playoffs).
The Packers’ road dominance is also starting to build some historical significance. Green Bay, with a win at Kansas City, would be just the sixth NFL team to go 8-0 on the road in a season, and it would give the Packers an 11-game road winning streak, counting their three away wins in last year’s playoffs (the Super Bowl is considered a neutral site game). Green Bay’s home winning streak stands at 11, and it has won 17 of its past 18 games at Lambeau Field, dating to 2009.
“I think we’re a good team anywhere,” Woodson said. “We’re one of the teams that travels well, and we’re a good team at home, too. For us, it really doesn’t matter where we play.”
The Packers are certain to be playing at home in the playoffs this year. But Lambeau hasn’t been the overwhelming advantage in the postseason that it once was. The Packers are just 3-3 in their six playoff home games since the close of the Holmgren era in 1998.
• Rodgers is headed for his first NFL MVP award this season, and his 39 touchdown passes has already tied Brett Favre’s 1996 team record. But his most astounding statistic may be his league-record-tying 13 straight games with two or more scoring passes, a feat only he and Peyton Manning (2004) have accomplished in the first 13 games of a season (Tom Brady in 2010-11, and Don Meredith in 1965-66 also had 13 games in a row with two touchdown passes).
If Rodgers throws at least two more touchdowns against the Chiefs, his streak will stand alone in the NFL record book.
• While Green Bay’s defense takes a backseat to its high-powered offense, it remains one of the best units in the league in terms of takeaways. The Packers’ 27 interceptions this season are nine more than their closest competitor in that department. Just like last season, Green Bay consistently wins the turnover ratio statistic.
The Packers, during the course of their 19-game winning streak, are a plus-31 in the turnover category (51 takeaways, 20 giveaways) and they’ve either won or tied the turnover battle in 18 of those games, with only a minus-1 turnover ratio in Green Bay’s first-round playoff win at Philadelphia marring that trend.
• Unlike the Colts’ stance of two years ago, when Indy seemingly shied away from its shot at perfection, the Packers seem eager to carry the weight and expectation that comes with their historical accomplishments. They might rest some key starters, but only after they first secure another victory, or six.
“Players want to play, and we’re all competitors here,” Matthews said this week. “We play each and every Sunday to win ballgames. Obviously we’ve got to be smart, but we like winning. I like winning. I think we’re going to try to win some ballgames around here.
“It’s something only one other team in the history of the NFL has done. It’s something pretty special.”
Indeed. Something pretty special is unfolding in Green Bay, and I think it’s about time we all started paying a little closer attention. Even if it means tearing ourselves away from Tebow Time.
Original article found here