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13-1: Some Perspective

December 19, 2011 1 comment

The last time I watched the Packers lose, I watched a team on the ropes lose. It was a Green Bay Packer team that was 8-6 and outside of the playoffs looking in. (To compare that 8-6 record to this season, take a look at the Cincinnati Bengals or Jets, both fighting for the 6th seed this year.) The Packers needed desperately not only to win out against the Giants and the then-formidable Bears, but they needed help in the form of the NFC East beating up on each other. Remarkably, everything fell into place for the Packers that December. They blew up the Giants, survived a match up against the I-refuse-to-rest-my-starters Bears, and rode to the playoffs on a punt return for the ages. Those Packers, with no less than This was a good afternoon.15 starters on I.R., won four road playoff games and brought home the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since the 1996 season.

The situation surrounding this year’s first loss couldn’t be any different. The Packers had absolutely cruised to 13-0 for the first time in franchise history, locked up the NFC North for the first time since 2007, outscoring opponents by 188 points along the way. Everything in Green Bay was magical. With a few exceptions, Green Bay hadn’t lost any key players to injury. Aaron Rodgers showed he was the best quarterback in the league. Jordy Nelson and James Starks both emerged as key figures in the offense. The defense (and defensive backups) proved their “bend, don’t break” strategy was an effective, albeit slightly terrifying one. After a Week 14 laugher over the Raiders, 16-0 seemed all but assured. 19-0 seemed feasible. The Patriots’ 21-game winning streak record seemed like it would fall.

Then, the Packers went to Arrowhead Stadium to play the Chiefs. By all accounts, the class-of-the-NFL Packers should have pounded the Chiefs. All the experts predicted a Packers victory. But that’s not what happened. Why? A few possibilities.

Orton -- the invincible QB

  • The pressure of a perfect season was too much. Media attention to the Packers’ undefeated season had, of course, increased exponentially for the last few weeks. Players in the locker room, for the first time all season, started mentioning the undefeated season. And eventually, no matter the record of your opponent, that starts to weigh on a team. I think that is a huge contributing factor to the many drops we saw on Sunday. It’s why we saw Aaron Rodgers struggle for the first time in a long time. And it’s why the Packers notched their first loss of the season.
  • Injuries were building up. Premiere Wide Receiver Greg Jennings missed his first game since Week 17 of the 2007 season. This had a huge impact on how the Chiefs planned their defense. Without more attention on Jennings, Jordy Nelson was faced with tougher match ups and more coverage. In the past, he’s excelled at breaking out of single coverage. Unfortunately that’s not what he was facing on Sunday. Defensive end Ryan Pickett also missed the game. That could be why the Chiefs were so effectively able to carve up our defense with the ground game, which so perfectly set up Kyle Orton’s dink and dunk pass game. Add to all that the state of Green Bay’s offensive line, which, by the end of the game, featured mostly backups. The Packers also lost OT Derek Sherrod for the season to a broken leg. The pressure on Rodgers was too much. Last year the Packers excelled at adapting to injury. That may be the case again this year, but it wasn’t in Week 15.
  • The Chiefs were ready to pounce. The Monday before the game, the Chiefs made the bold choice of firing Head Coach Todd Haley. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Kansas City also signed QB Kyle Orton, since Tyler Palko, well, was Tyler Palko. Both of these key elements came together for the Chiefs on Sunday. Interim head coach Romeo Crennel brought the heat, and he brought it well. Kyle Orton showed once again that in the right system, he can be a very effective quarterback. Simply put, the Packers weren’t ready for these Chiefs. They planned for the Chiefs that got blown out by the Jets.
  • No turnovers. The last game the Packers lost was also a Week 15, just last year against the Patriots. In that game, the Packers D hadn’t forced a single turnover. In the next stretch of 19 games (and 19 wins), the Packers forced at least a single turnover in every one. This loss against the Chiefs was the first time since that Patriots game without a turnover. And thus, the loss.

So. Here we are today. The day after, with a 13-1 record. What perspective has a good night’s sleep created? Well, let me say without hesitation that the Packers are still the best team in the National Football League That may come with some debate in the form of Saints or Patriots, but I contest (with bias) that Green Bay still has the most complete team in football. We (yes I use “we“. Get over it.) are still the #1 seed in the NFC. More than likely, with a win over the Bears or Lions, the Packers will lock down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The road to Super Bowl XLVI goes through Lambeau Field. Think about that. Aaron Rodgers has NEVER played a playoff game at Lambeau. The last playoff game at Lambeau…I’d rather not talk about. But now Rodgers gets a crack at it.

That being said, no action comes without consequence. Some of these are good, some of them bad. But here’s what I think results from the Packers going 13-1:

  • Less Starters in Weeks 16-17. If the San Francisco 49ers lose tonight, the Packers have locked in home-field advantage. And there’s officially no reason to start Aaron Rodgers against the Bears or Lions. If the 49ers win, the Packers can still get home-field with a win over the Bears on Christmas, in which case we might see Rodgers. But expect Mike McCarthy to liberally rest his starters in the next couple of weeks.
  • No Pressure for Perfection. The proverbial monkey is off the Packers’ back. No longer do they have to worry about chasing history. Just about winning their first playoff match, then the NFC Championship Game, then the Super Bowl. Believe me when I say losing yesterday is infinitely preferable to losing in the playoffs.
  • Rodgers MVP? All season long, QB Aaron Rodgers has been getting the majority of the buzz for the NFL’s MVP award. I’d like to hope that one off game won’t result in him losing that award. But there is tough competition. QBs Drew Brees and Tom Brady have also been having stellar seasons. But both of those athletes have had off games, too. Let’s not forget Brees and the Saints getting pounded by the Rams, or the Patriots losing early in the season to the Bills. As long as Rodgers bounces back in Weeks 16 and 17 (or doesn’t get any worse, assuming he even plays), I think this award is still his.
  • About that Offensive Line… The Packers are seriously in a tough spot right now with their offensive line. Nobody on it is playing very well in the first place, and now both Bulaga and Sherrod are injured. Is Mark Tauscher still in football shape? This is going to be Mike McCarthy’s #1 concern over the next week. He absolutely has to come up with a way to protect Aaron Rodgers.

As I watched the Chiefs slowly eek out a win yesterday, I won’t pretend I wasn’t both sad and disappointed. I had hoped, along with millions of other Packer fans, that this team could make a bit of history this year. But there’s still lots to be happy about — Packer fans have the best quarterback in the league, and the first real shot at back-to-back Super Bowl wins in nearly a decade. Whether or not this Packer team makes it that far remains to be seen. Tough games and tough opponents await. But let’s not lose anymore sleep over 13-1. It is, after all, one loss away from perfection. As Vince Lombardi so aptly put it:

“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

That guy knew what he was talking about.

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