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Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

March to Playoffs on Rugged Terrain

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 If anyone thought in September that the Packers would simply stroll into the post-season, they don't think it now. Green Bay has won five straight games to stand at 7-3, but it's had to cope with injuries that rival the epidemic of 2010. It's not clear when stars like Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson and Cedric Benson will return. And the remaining six games include a clash with the defending Super Bowl champions and four crucial NFC North matchups.

The come-from-behind 24-20 win in Detroit was hugely satisfying, but the difficulties that filled the day showed the Packers have a lot of hard work ahead.

 

Frank: Are you breathing again?

Artie: Man, after the agony of watching the Badgers and Ohio State, I was resigned that the Pack was going to lose when it was 17-14, the Lions were driving and time was getting low.

Frank: Fortunately for the Packers, a combination of good defense, questionable play-calling by Detroit and a no-call on possible interference at the goal line forced the Lions to settle for a 20-14 lead instead of 24-14.

Artie: But even when Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb put the Pack ahead, I was sure there'd be enough time for the Lions to find Calvin Johnson, the human pogo stick, on a Hail Mary or at least deep enough that they'd win on a field goal by a kicker who makes kicks.

Frank: And there was time, but again a combo of good defense and lousy Detroit execution sealed the deal. You know what you always say about Tony Romo? Right now I'm ready to say that Matthew Stafford is NOT a good quarterback.

Artie: And right now I'm one of many who'll say that Mason Crosby is NOT a good kicker.

Frank: A guy who was 79% on field goals in his first five seasons (131 for 165) finds himself at 61% this year (11 for 18), and having made only six of his last 13 tries.

Artie: Make that 14, considering he missed twice at the end of the first half when the Lions gave him a second chance with a timeout.

Frank: It's kind of like what we say about relief pitchers in baseball. You never know when someone is going to “lose his command,” or whatever cliché you choose. With Crosby, we even heard Troy Aikman speculating that he might be kicking for his job, testing the patience of Mike McCarthy.

Artie: My first question to you was going to be, “Do you know whether Don Chandler is still available?”

Frank: Alas, he left us in August of 2011. Chester Marcol is still around, and in a state of sobriety. But I really wonder whether McCarthy would make a change this late in the season, especially with the bad winter weather approaching. Crosby has the Lambeau Field experience.

Artie: But who knows if his success on that last-minute kick will get him “right”?

Frank: At least the latest misses were gradual fades to the right or left. A couple of the earlier ones—especially that disaster at the end against the Colts—were really weird kicks in which the ball seemed to veer off at 45 degrees in an instant.

Artie: Doesn't matter how you miss if you miss. This is trouble; you've got to figure that somewhere down the road—hopefully not in the playoffs—there'll be a game the Pack loses by four points because Crosby missed a couple of times. Not necessarily last-minute desperation jobs, but sometime. It doesn't matter when you miss either, if you miss.

Frank: The whole Detroit game just involved a lot of missteps by both teams. Joe Buck had the best comment when he said, “It's been an odd day.” Rodgers' interception came on a bad decision; Stafford had a bad fumble—one of those fluky "poke-outs" by Dezman Moses—and his two INTs were crummy throws. Each team had a touchdown pass that could have easily been knocked away. Both teams had penalties at really bad times.

Artie: But Crosby's misses really put the Pack in a hole. You could call his problem psychological, but it leads to physical problems with his mechanics. And coming off the bye he had two weeks to work on whatever was wrong. As far as I'm concerned, he's yet another injury problem for the Pack.

Frank: Ah, those injuries. The big one affecting this game was Bryan Bulaga's season-ending hip problem, which caused McCarthy to make two shifts in the offensive line.

Artie: T.J. Lang went from left guard to Bulaga's spot at right tackle—now that's a relocation!—and Evan Dietrich-Smith came in at Lang's spot. I think the makeshift line affected McCarthy's game plan in Detroit.

Frank: The Packers ran 29 times and threw only 27 passes.

Artie: Going into the game the notion was that the Detroit secondary was questionable. But I think McCarthy wanted to get these guys comfortable in their new roles, and also to reduce the pass blocking, which is more chancy and where holding penalties are easier to spot.

Frank: The pass protection wasn't terrific but it held up, especially on the winning drive.

Artie: But Rodgers hardly tried any deep throws, which I think was because they didn't want the pass-blocking to last too long against that tough Detroit rush. I'm worried; I think the rest of the season depends on avoiding another injury in the O-line. 

Frank: Even though Bob McGinn wrote in the Journal Sentinel that “offensive lines aren't as important as they used to be”?

Artie: I got a sense that McGinn was whistling past the graveyard there.

Frank: On defense, even without Matthews the Packers got five sacks, all by linebackers or defensive backs. And the youngsters in the secondary did a nice job compensating for the absence of Woodson and Sam Shields.

Artie: Casey Hayward had one of the interceptions and M.D. Jennings wrote himself a prescription for a “pick six.” The young DBs have really stepped up!

Frank: At 7-3 the Packers are in good shape for the playoffs but the wild-card race could still get tough. Tampa Bay rallied to get to 6-4, New Orleans is 5-5 but surging and Seattle is 6-4.

Artie: With an asterisk! My worst fear is that the Pack and Seattle both wind up 11-5 or 10-6, and with that tainted head-to-head “win,” the Seahawks advance.

Frank: Of course the surest way to the playoffs is to win the division. Now the Packers are 2-0 there, and with Chicago in another state of limbo with the multi-concussed Jake Cutler.

Artie: But those NFC North games—two against Minnesota and one each against Chicago and Detroit—won't be cakewalks. Well, maybe the Lions rematch at Lambeau, I hope.

Frank: This weekend's game in New Jersey will be huge. The Giants are in their usual November funk, but coming off a bye and two straight ugly losses you've got to figure they'll be ready for a big effort. And they certainly have a big pass rush to test that revamped O-line.

Artie: Getting some revenge for last January would be terrific. And it would make this season look even more like 2010, when all those injuries didn't keep the Pack from getting hot in December, finishing 10-6 and going all the way in the playoffs.

Frank: Same with the 9-7 Giants last season.

Artie: That's the key to winning it all: a solid team that stays hot and healthy in December and January.