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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012

Packers 2012: Redeem Team?

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Seldom does an NFL team need to make amends for a season with only two losses. But when the second comes in the opening round of the playoffs, and it's a no-excuses drubbing... Welcome to the Packers' motivation for 2012.

Since the Giants crushed the hopes for a second straight Super Bowl championship, the Packers have aimed to fix the porous defense that Aaron Rodgers' exceptional passing couldn't bail out forever. The changes are up for judgment starting Sunday at Lambeau Field against the 49ers.

How do the Observers foresee the season? We are certain of two things: 1. No one should base monetary decisions on what we predict, and 2. If our guesses prove wrong, we will deny all knowledge of them.

Frank: Rodgers isn't likely to duplicate his 2011 stats—45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. But there's no sign the passing attack will falter.

Artie:
Unless someone knocks Rodgers out of commission. I heard last week that over the last 20 years the Packers' starting quarterback has missed exactly one start. Does that mean there's some kind of law of averages just waiting to blast Rodgers?

Frank:
At least his backup, Graham Harrell, looked good in the final exhibition.

Artie:
He was 13 for 15 with no INTs. I'd been waiting to see some throws downfield, and they went fine.

Frank:
So fans can come off the ledge of despair over Harrell?

Artie:
It was silly. People apparently think the backup has to be a Johnny Unitas. A backup is a backup because he's not that skilled or not that experienced.

Frank:
Or outplayed by a rookie, like Matt Flynn in Seattle.

Artie:
Anyway, whoever the backup is, Rodgers' health is the key. Avoiding big injuries is always the most important factor—or having them early enough that they can be overcome, like the Packers did in '10.

Frank:
It wouldn't hurt to upgrade the rushing attack to help Rodgers.

Artie:
Cedric Benson looked awfully good in the third exhibition. Yeah, he fumbled in the last one, but he really got nailed, and in those scrums between the tackles I don't know how anyone holds onto it.

Frank:
We like to think that when we were kids in the '60s it was the golden age of football. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that back then guys weren't all swinging their arms wildly trying to poke the ball away.

Artie:
They were busy trying to do what they were supposed to do—namely, tackle a guy, ain'a?

Frank:
It's part of the instruction now to "go for the ball." And with all the concerns about concussions, less and less practice time involves tackling. Which brings up one of the Packers' major flaws last season—lousy tackling.

Artie:
In the regular season they masked it by getting a lot of turnovers, but against the Giants the law of averages in that department hit them.

Frank:
So how did the defense look in the exhibitions?

Artie:
The first-stringers looked great in the last two games, but Dom Capers also was trying to hide some of the things he has planned for the real games.

Frank:
One need is some kind of pass rush from the interior linemen.

Artie:
There was none last year, which is the main reason they were 32nd in passing yards allowed. The quarterbacks had all the time in the world; how long could the D-backs cover people?

Frank:
A year ago we were talking about the need for pressure from the other wing to balance Clay Matthews. That didn't happen either, and as a result teams were able to double-team Matthews a lot.

Artie:
Like constantly!

Frank:
Last year we were talking about Vic So'oto to help Matthews, but he was hurt for most of the season.

Artie:
And is again right now. This year the best candidates are rookie Nick Perry and Erik Walden, who has looked very good but will miss the opener because of a "personal conduct" suspension. However it happens, they've got to do better than their 29 sacks last year, 27th in the league.

The Division

Frank: The Bears seem to be one of the hot picks for success this year.

Artie:
But there are doubters, and I'm one of them.

Frank:
As near as I can tell it's mainly because they got a guy who can actually catch passes downfield...

Artie:
Brandon Marshall, supremely talented but a proverbial head case.

Frank:
...and Jay Cutler knows him from Denver. But is that pretty much it?

Artie:
I'd say so. The Bears' weakness last year was the offensive line, and they really did nothing to improve it.

Frank:
Sports Illustrated's preview says, "The Bears have to take for granted that the left tackle position is going to be messed up this year, regardless of whether J'Marcus Webb or Chris Williams ends up there." A pretty important spot to be "messed up."

Artie:
Last year they were 7-3 when Cutler got hurt and finished 8-8. If they can't keep him protected, why all this love for the Bears?

Frank:
There's residual love for the Lions, who got to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years but then got buried in New Orleans.

Artie:
They were 10-6 and could do it again, but it also doesn't take much to go from 10-6 to 6-10, especially if there are key injuries.

Frank:
That ol' law of averages. So you've got the Packers winning the NFC North, as I do?

Artie:
You betcha. I'm saying 12-4, but where those losses will be, who knows?

Frank:
Which leads us to...

The Schedule

Artie: When they unveiled the 16 games I said, "Thank God they don't have to play that damn Thanksgiving game again." But right away they have a short week—the Bears come in four nights after the opener!

Frank:
At least both are at home. They have another short week in September—at Seattle on Monday night the 24th and hosting the Saints on the 30th.

Artie:
That's the only Monday night game the NFL and ESPN gave the Pack. Did Rodgers go from MVP to chopped liver?

Frank:
They do have three Sunday prime-time games on NBC. And the last two months carry the asterisk that means, "Start time may shift due to NFL flexible scheduling."

Artie:
In other words, anyone with a ticket for what should be a reasonable noon start at Lambeau in December better be ready to get pushed back to 3:15 or even nighttime.

Frank:
The last people on Earth that the league or TV cares about are the folks in the stands.

Artie:
I heard some analysts say the Packers have one of the easiest schedules, even though they were 15-1. That's based on the opponents' 2011 records, but going by that is hogwash.

Frank:
There are only two games that are "discretionary." You play your own division six times, plus eight games against predetermined divisions in each conference.

Artie:
So this year the Pack plays the NFC West—Seattle, Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco—and the AFC South, which is Houston, Jacksonville, Tennessee and Indianapolis.

Frank:
Those weren't exactly powerhouse divisions last year, with only three winning records among the eight teams and 2-14 records in St. Louis and Indy.

Artie:
Right, but the 49ers won 13 games, Houston made the playoffs for the first time and Tennessee rebounded to 9-7.

Frank:
Plus the two discretionary foes are the Giants and Saints, who'll be on a mission to overcome the "Bountygate" sanctions.

Artie:
And the Lions and Bears twice each. Easy? I don't see it.

The League

Frank: Peter King of Sports Illustrated has the Packers winning the Super Bowl over Peyton Manning and the Broncos. But he also has Green Bay and Denver as wild cards.

Artie:
As the Packers and Giants have proved the last two years, getting hot in December is what really matters.

Frank:
Our picks for playoff teams are all charted and ready for us to disavow if they go wrong. How about some of the individual teams?

Artie:
The 49ers can hardly avoid winning their crummy division, but I think they're due for a letdown. I'm not sold on Alex Smith as a top QB, and adding 35-year-old Randy Moss won't help much.

Frank:
I see a letdown for the Giants; by November the tabloids will be screaming for Tom Coughlin's head again. And with the mess the Jets seem to be, the media zoo will be hilarious during my visits back to New York.

Artie:
I'm sticking with the Giants in the NFC East. Eli Manning is so durable, his receivers are great and there's that awesome defensive line.

Frank:
Just for the hell of it, I'm saying the Cowboys will finally live up to Jerry Jones' blathering.

Artie:
No way. Perhaps you've heard me say this: "Tony Romo is NOT a good quarterback!"

Frank:
But he has his moments. Maybe this year the law of averages smiles on him.

Artie:
In the AFC, Houston seems to be a hot pick. But beware; remember how last year the Eagles were supposed to be the "Dream Team"? They wound up 8-8. Still, I'm taking the Texans to fall to the Green and Gold in the Super Bowl.

Frank:
Neither of us thinks Peyton Manning will hold up for the season. So back to the law of averages. I've picked San Diego to go to the Super Bowl the last two years, and sooner or later it's got to happen, right?

Artie:
Um, sure, if you say so. But the coach is still Norv Turner, a king of underachievement like his predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer.

Frank:
As you say, every season has surprises.

Artie:
San Diego in the Super Bowl would qualify.