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Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011

The Gift of the Raji

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Sure looked easy for a while. Twenty minutes into the NFC Championship Game the Packers led 14-0 and Super Bowl XLV was a certainty. But that's not the way it goes against the Bears. Aaron Rodgers became human, Chicago's defense started roaring and the Bears found the unlikeliest of heroes on offense. But the Packers got the deciding score from their own unlikeliest source and hung on, 21-14, for their shot at the Lombardi Trophy.

The Observers agreed that Artie would initiate their postgame discussion. Frank was waiting by the phone for a while.


Frank:
So, you're breathing again?

Artie:
I am, and enjoying my favorite amber beverage. It's been 13 years since the Pack was headed for the Big One, and before the Holmgren-Favre pair it was a XXIX-year wait. So it doesn't matter what the score was.

Frank:
But a little worry at the end?

Artie:
In the first half I thought, "Hey, this'll be as big as the Bears' 73-0 blowout of Washington 70 years ago." I was sure that UW's 32-point hoops win at Northwestern was an omen—especially because freshman Josh Gasser got the first triple-double in Badger history.

Frank:
Huh? Not the first under Bo Ryan or the first of this century, but the first EVER?

Artie:
Yeah, 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Not even Alando Tucker or Michael Finley ever did it.

Frank:
I guess the Badgers used up a lot of the available victory margin over Illinois teams for the day.

Artie:
Yeah, what a weird game it turned out to be. At halftime I was saying, "How the hell are we only two touchdowns ahead?"

Frank:
Everything was great for a quarter and a quarter, and they were driving toward at least 17-0 at the end of the half.

Artie:
Then the Bears got ridiculous luck when Rodgers threw low, it hit Donald Driver's shoe and went right into a linebacker's hands. And in the third quarter the Bears had even better luck when Jay Cutler decided his bad knee would keep him on the sideline.

Frank:
Meanwhile, Brian Urlacher and Friends started asserting themselves. Urlacher's interception near the goal line led to Rodgers' biggest play of the game—as a defender. Tripping Urlacher up may not have saved a touchdown—he was lumbering and might have been chased down—but it kept the Bears on their side of the field. If they'd quickly made it 14-7, who knows how things go?

Artie:
They came up empty with Todd Collins, but one series later they made their best move by bringing in this quarterback I never heard of, Caleb Hanie.

Frank:
Who was terrific, except when defensive coordinator Dom Capers made the Packers' best move, dropping B.J. Raji into pass coverage on a crucial third down.

Artie:
Imagine a guy “listed” at 337 pounds making the big interception and taking it in!

Frank:
And now Raji is also the fullest of blocking fullbacks on some goal-line plays. He's the 21st-century version of the Bears’ "Refrigerator" Perry.

Artie:
And enjoying it so much he's dubbed himself "The Freezer."

Frank:
So the most important tackle was by the quarterback and the most important play with the ball was by a defensive lineman.

Artie:
Don't forget the two interceptions—including the game-clincher—by Sam Shields, the undrafted rookie Ted Thompson brought in. And the punting of free-agent pickup Tim Masthay, who neutralized Devin Hester. Take that, Thompson-haters!

Frank:
Hey, haven't you been one of those in the past?

Artie:
No way. I may have said, "Fire them all!" after a loss, but that's just being a fan. Hell, I may do it again next fall when they're a lock for a second straight Super Bowl and lose a couple.

Frank:
Not having a rooting interest, I was glad the Bears kept that final drive going, just to keep it exciting.

Artie:
A little too exciting. Well, that's the way Packer-Bear games go. Rodgers was less than super in both of the regular-season games too. It just made the second half grating.

Frank:
But a win's a win, and now you have two weeks to savor it all.

Artie:
On the negative side, I get so sick of all the back-stories in the paper and on TV.

Frank:
Nothing against my former colleagues at the Journal Sentinel, but the paper will be a lot quicker read. I'll skip all the "what might happen in the big game" stories. Just alert me when they tee it up!

Artie:
The player profiles are OK; I like to know where these guys have come from. But as for the local TV coverage...

Frank:
I'll also skip all the anchors and weathermen swapping "Go Pack" comments and the breathless reports that fans are excited.

Artie:
I reckon we are.

Frank:
So here come the Steelers, who also built a comfortable first-half lead and had to fight off the Jets, 24-19. Last season they beat the Pack, 37-36, on a last-chance TD pass.

Artie:
I know Pittsburgh has a makeshift offensive line because of injuries, but they're tremendous on defense. And Ben Roethlisberger is a hell of a quarterback, regardless of his inclination toward sexual misconduct.

Frank:
We'll have more to say next week. But we promise to be succinct!

Artie:
One last thing. The Packers did a great service for the country. Mr. Obama said that if the Bears won, he'd go to the Super Bowl. The last thing we need is for another Democratic president to visit the Dallas area.

Halfway to What?

Frank: The Bucks, who stirred such high expectations, reached the halfway point of the NBA season at 16-25—one game worse than they were a year ago. How did this happen?

Artie:
Being dead last in the NBA in scoring and shooting percentage is a good clue.

Frank:
Through 41 games they were averaging 91.2 points, down 6 1/2 from last season, and shooting 42.2%, down about 1 1/2 percentage points.

Artie:
Case closed.

Frank:
Except that the Bucks are better defensively. Last season their opponents averaged 96.0 points and now it's 92.8, which is fourth-best in the league. Opponents were shooting 44.6% at the halfway point, eighth-lowest.

Artie:
Still, they've gone from a scoring differential of plus-1.7 per game to minus-1.6. A couple of misses at crucial times can wreck a game. How about turnovers? Maybe these Bucks are a lot sloppier, ain’a?

Frank:
Virtually no difference. They're averaging 13.8 turnovers per game, 10th-best in the league, compared to 13.2 last season. And the opponents are averaging 15.0, down just a smidge.

Artie:
Smidges can add up, though.

Frank:
The Bucks missed a great opportunity last week, playing four games against sub-.500 teams but going only 2-2.

Artie:
I say the key is all the injuries. John Salmons missed the whole preseason with a bad knee and now he has a bum hip. Carlos Delfino missed two months with concussion after-effects. Brandon Jennings has been out more than a month with a broken foot. Chris Douglas-Roberts missed 15 games because of a torn retina. Andrew Bogut is ailing from time to time.

Frank:
Any team, especially one with a lot of new faces, has to play together for a while to mesh.

Artie:
The talent is there, but Scott Skiles has to constantly juggle his rotations because key guys are out.

Frank:
There's certainly a chance for a strong second half. Last season the Bucks were 24-28 when they traded for Salmons and then went 22-8.

Artie:
Also the rest of the schedule looks easier.

Frank:
By my reckoning, only 15 of the last 41 games are against teams with winning records. Being in the Eastern Conference helps; even at 16-25 they were just a half-game from the eighth and last playoff spot.

Artie:
But they better start taking care of business at home, where they hit the halfway point at 9-10. "Fear the Deer"? Looks like The Deer has that wasting disease, and it looks chronic.

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