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Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009

Packers Right on Course to Go Wild in January

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Feasting on the Lions for Thanksgiving kept the Green Bay Packers in strong contention for the NFL playoffs. The NFC North title will go to Minnesota and that familiar guy wearing No. 4, but if the season ended now the 7-4 Packers would own one of the conference's two wild-card berths. The Eagles kept pace by barely beating Washington, after which the Observers conferred.

Artie: First of all, to hell with the Eagles! And second, the Vikings-Bears game was next and I don't care what the schedule says, Favre and his buddies get to play every stinkin' game at home! Nobody's keeping tabs on that.

Frank: You do recall Brett stopping by Lambeau Field in November, don't you?

Artie: OK, the Vikes have had one road game. I still want a league investigation.

Frank: Back to reality. The Eagles almost gave the Packers' wild-card hopes a big boost. Until they woke up against the Redskins, they were heading to join the Giants and Falcons at 6-5.

Artie: The Eagles didn't look very good. That's no big surprise; a lot of highly touted teams haven't lived up to it. The Giants, Falcons, Cardinals—the Cowboys even though they're 8-3. It's inconsistency, not parity.

Frank: Two words, same meaning. But since the fiasco at Tampa Bay, the Packers have been quite consistent in beating Dallas, San Francisco and Detroit.

Artie: Let's say the Cowboys hang on to win the NFC East, although they still have to play the Eagles and Giants in their last five games. All the Pack has to do is stay ahead of either Philly or New York, and also Atlanta, and voila! Playoff time.

Frank: If Philly or the Giants took the division, the Packers would only have to match Dallas' record. They own the first tie-breaker for a wild card, which is head-to-head record.

Artie: The Pack doesn't play Philly, the Giants or Atlanta, so what's the second tie-breaker?

Frank: Record within the conference. The Packers are 6-3 in NFC games with three to go against Chicago, Seattle and Arizona. Dallas and Philly are both 6-2 with four NFC games to go, the Falcons are 5-4 and the Giants are 4-3. The chart on this page shows who the wild-card contenders have left to play, and the cumulative records of those opponents.

Artie: As a Packer fan, I don't see why they can't win out and coast into the playoffs at 12-4. But realistically, there might be one or two losses ahead.

Frank: You never know what'll happen at Soldier Field a week from Sunday. Playing at Pittsburgh will be tough, even with Ben Roethlisberger battered as usual. And Arizona will be looking for revenge after the Packers dumped them in the preseason.

Artie: Anyway, I don't see anyone getting a wild card at less than 10-6, and the Pack looks primed to get there.

Frank: Right now Minnesota and New Orleans would get first-round byes. The wild cards would get Arizona and the NFC East winner, and of course the wild cards would have to travel.

Artie: I'm not sure who I'd prefer to win the East. There are bad playoff vibes from the past with all those teams.

Frank: I know, as you've said many times...

Artie: Fourth and 26?

Frank: Well, there's that, when the Eagles converted in the final minutes, tied the game and won in overtime in January 2004. But I was referring to your lament about the ’90s.

Artie: When the Packers always had to go to Dallas in the playoffs, and couldn't win.

Frank: Actually, it was just three straight Januarys, 1994 through ’96. And of course there's the game two seasons ago when the Giants won at Lambeau and went to the Super Bowl.

Artie: And opened the door for Favre's departure. Now that I think about it, if I'm looking at a January playoff game I'd rather have Mason Crosby trying field goals in Dallas instead of Philly or New York. He hasn't had to kick in any bad conditions this year but he's had, what, six misses?

Frank: Let's see... Crosby is 20 for 26 in field goals, with all of the misses from 40-plus yards and four from 50-plus.

Artie: Still, by current standards that ain't so hot. He missed on Thanksgiving from 43 yards indoors at Ford Field.

Frank: And a January game in Philly or the Meadowlands certainly won't be climate-controlled.

Artie: Plus the Eagles have David Akers, who made the kicks in Philly that tied and won the game in ’04. So I've decided: Let the Cowboys have the NFC East and let the Pack play ’em in the first round.

Frank: Which makes your original "to hell with the Eagles" downright prophetic.

Artie: It's what we do, ain'a?

Frank: Of course the Packers might wind up facing Arizona in the first round.

Artie: Which would make the regular-season finale very interesting—the start of a two-game series at Arizona. By that time the Cardinals should have the division locked up and be resting people, especially Kurt Warner with his concussion problems.

Frank: But they wouldn't want to let the Packers get into a habit of winning at their place. After all, in the preseason game the Packers' first-stringers absolutely drilled the Cardinals in the first half, to the tune of 38-10.

Artie: The Cards are a different team with Matt Leinart quarterbacking instead of Warner. If Kurt gets another concussion, they're mighty beatable.

Frank: Like the Steelers without Roethlisberger, another of the multi-concussion QBs the league is finally noticing. It's still three games away, but the Packers' visit to Pittsburgh could be a lot easier if Big Ben is still out.

Artie: And that would sure help in grabbing a wild card with three of the last five games on the road.

Frank: Let's say the Pack wins in the first round at Dallas or Arizona. That could set up a second-round visit to... the good ol' Metrodome. Wouldn't that be delicious for Packer Backers?

Artie: To say nothing of FOX Sports. The hype they could give that game! And it would be even better if it was one week later, in the NFC Championship Game. Which do you think FOX would rather show with the Super Bowl on the line, Packers-Vikings Round 3 or, say, Cardinals-Eagles?

Frank: Are you saying there might be some, er, pressure on the NFL to produce such a showdown?

Artie: Nah, this is not the NBA, don’t forget. There are too many collisions that can't be refereed away.

Frank: Speaking of those collisions, it's nice the NFL is getting more serious about caring for concussion victims, but the league sure took its time. I can't believe that anyone who's played tackle football at any level hasn't suffered a concussion, and probably several.

Artie: Even a year ago, it seemed like the standard policy for a concussion was, "Miss a game and you'll be fine." Or even worse, during a game it was, "Oh, he just got his bell rung," and he's back on the field in the next quarter.

Frank: Warner and Roethlisberger are helping prove your doctrine that in the NFL everything depends on injuries, or the lack of ’em.

Artie: It's not just who's playing well, but who has the most guys physically able to play well. That's one reason that in the last four years we've had two wild-card teams winning three straight playoff games on the road and then taking the Super Bowl—the Steelers of the 2005 season and the Giants of ’07.

Frank: Precedents for Packer fans to embrace. Even the fan whom I recall saying, after the consecutive losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay, "Fire them all!"

Artie: And if they blow a wild-card spot in these last five games, I'll stick to that. If they make the playoffs and win at least one game, I might back off. Just a bit. For now.

2009-12-02