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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012

Scoping Out the Packers' Conference Call

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Let the NFL playoffs begin! Not, of course, for the 15-1 Packers, who earned a week off and home-field advantage against any conference rival. Now the question is which NFC team stands the best chance of ruining the Packers' quest to win a second straight Super Bowl.

Frank
: Wild Card Weekend will have New Orleans hosting Detroit and the Giants hosting Atlanta, with a bye for San Francisco. The Packers beat all four of the first-round teams in the regular season; does that foretell a cakewalk? 

Artie
: Not with their defense! There won't be any cakewalking.

Frank
: Home field is good, but the Packers only have to look back a year to see a sixth-seeded success story—themselves.

Artie
: And four years ago a No. 5, the Giants, came to Lambeau Field and beat them for the NFC title.

Frank
: So nothing can be taken for granted, but let's start by envisioning an NFC Championship Game that pits the Packers against one of the 13-3 teams, the 49ers or Saints. On opening night the Packers beat New Orleans, 42-34, but had to make a stop on the 1-yard line on the final play.

Artie
: A rematch would be a whole lot chillier, but that wouldn't necessarily stop Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees from repeating their shootout. The Saints' defense certainly isn't top-tier—especially against the pass.

Frank
: Then again, the Packers gave up tons of yards on opening night and haven't stopped giving all season.

Artie
: So that would be a very interesting game. Now the 49ers are just the opposite of the Saints. They'd go with the Kansas City "blueprint" that produced the Pack's only loss—control the ball with strong rushing and mistake-free passing to keep Rodgers off the field as much as possible, and on defense put enough pressure on Rodgers to force a few "three and outs.

The 49ers can rush the ball with Frank Gore, and their defense is one of the top units in the league. They could give the Pack trouble.

Frank
: Speaking of defense, the Giants rediscovered their pass rush in must-win games against the Jets and Dallas. Jason Pierre-Paul can be a real beast; he reminded me of Clay Matthews the last couple of weeks.

Artie
: The Giants are so unpredictable; you don't know when they'll bring their A game. But they sure gave the Pack all it could handle a few weeks ago in Jersey.

Frank
: Eli Manning had a terrific second half that day, rallying the Giants to a 35-35 tie that Rodgers' last-minute magic erased.

Artie
: And Manning was the guy who outplayed Brett Favre in that '08 showdown at Lambeau.

Frank
: The Giants also are capable of a strong rushing game with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, although the stats haven't been there this year. As for Atlanta, people remember the Packers' strong second half in a 25-14 win, but the Falcons led 14-0 in the second quarter.

Artie
: Atlanta can run the ball with Michael Turner, and Matt Ryan has moments of excellence as a passer. But the defense isn't all that great, ranked 12th in yards allowed and 18th in points allowed at 21.9 a game. The Pack, of course, is 32nd in yards allowed, but virtually the same as Atlanta in average points allowed at 22.4. And that's the stat that matters most, ain'a?

Frank
: That's what they show on the scoreboard. As for the Lions, the Packers had a 24-0 lead and coasted in Detroit, but Sunday they were pressed to the limit in a 45-41 win.

Artie
: But their top two defensive stars, Matthews and Charles Woodson, didn't play Sunday. And to get another rematch the Lions have to outscore the Saints, which ain't easy.

Frank
: There are still a lot of factors that could come into play—not just weather, but also injuries in the first-round games and whether the Packers' walking wounded get healed up. New Orleans probably presents the biggest threat offensively; in terms of defensive strength, the 49ers and Giants look like bigger challenges.

Duck and Cover


Frank
: The holiday weekend pushed the Rose Bowl back a day and past our deadline, so we're talking before Wisconsin's battle with Oregon.

Artie
: All I know ahead of time is that Oregon should be penalized 15 yards before the kickoff for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Frank
: How come?

Artie
: Have you seen all the wacky uniforms those guys have worn the last few years? About 10 variations, and every one more horrific than the last.

Frank
: The massive wardrobe is thanks to Nike, which uses the Ducks as bulked-up versions of runway models. The school's official colors are green and yellow, but sometimes they're barely in evidence.

Artie
: Lots of badass black is on display, and in the national championship game last year against Auburn, they were mostly in white and gray. There's no rhyme or reason to the colors, or to whether the helmet is shiny or has that dull finish, like it's a black primer and they forgot the second coat of paint.

Frank
: One constant is the feather designs on the shoulders.

Artie
: Like I said, just wacky.

Frank
: For the Rose Bowl, Nike has been blathering on the Web about how "science will meet performance" as the Ducks wear "the latest Nike Pro Combat system of dress technology."

Artie
: Jeez, are they gonna wear spacesuits with those visors like Darth Vader?

Frank
: It's the dark green and black combo they've worn before, but Nike says this version features "advanced thermoregulation using new Nike Chain Maille Mesh material" and "unique mirrored helmet design and fabrication." In the Web photos the helmets are indeed super-reflective, including wing patterns in place of the "O" logos.

Artie
: Here's my reflection on all this: All that super-duper material will get mighty dirty as the Badgers kick some duck dupa.

Frank
: I'd like to see Oregon go retro. Back when they wore just green and yellow, those garish shades were unlike any others.

Artie
: For that look I'd cut the opening penalty to 10 yards.

Cracks in the Bowls


Frank
: It's time for our annual scorecard on how many teams, based on their records, were totally unworthy to participate in such hallowed gridiron classics as the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston and the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.

Artie
: Some classics.

Frank
: There are 35 bowls, not counting all-star games. Out of the 70 teams, 15 had five regular-season losses, 13 were 6-6, and UCLA entered something called the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with a losing record, 6-7.

Artie
: And lost to Illinois, which came in with a six-game losing streak.

Frank
: So 29 of the 70 teams, about 40%, had at least five losses. And remember, those teams probably played three or four "cupcake" games in September to pad their records.

Artie
: My favorite "dream" matchup was the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, with Western Michigan at 7-5 against mighty 6-6 Purdue. That matchup's as tasty as a Little Caesars pie; you don't know if it's better to eat the cardboard box or what's inside. I was not home for the delivery of that game!

Frank
: Purdue won 37-32, so I guess it was exciting. But everybody knows the reason for most of these bowls is twofold: ESPN needs to fill the airwaves and cities will do anything to get hordes of free-spending, free-drinking fans into their hotels and bars.

Artie
: Hordes for which UW is famous!

Gotta Have a Dream


Artie
: I'd like to announce my fondest wish for 2012. I want a law calling for the death penalty if any national sports-talk gasbag mentions any of these names: Kobe Bryant, Tim Tebow, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys or LeBron James.

Frank
: Isn't that a bit harsh?

Artie
: OK. Violators will be forced to actually listen to themselves.