Since the Green Bay Packers’ 34-16 win over the San Francisco 49ers ended, oh, roughly 30 hours ago, this recap won’t be about the particulars of that one.
Instead, I’ll be focusing on where the Packers stand, as a team, as they begin the final assault on the 2010 NFL season. Some things from the Niners game will be included in there, of course.
(Note: In case you weren’t sure, I was at the game Sunday and was just too busy to write anything until I returned home from Titletown.)
The Packers, three-quarters of the way through the season, stand as a team with twice as many wins as losses. But there certainly aren’t twice as many things to like about this team as there are concerns.
Since you already think I’m taking a trip to Negativeville with that last graph, I’ll just continue on (but, dont’ worry – we’ll head back to Postivetown soon enough).
First, I do not like the way this team has been starting games recently. Against both Minnesota and San Francisco, the Packers basically air-mailed in the first 15-plus minutes of the contest. Things weren’t as bad against Atlanta, but still, the team had a shot to grab the momentum early and failed. With a tough final four games, against some elite competition, the Packers must correct this. Wait too long to get going against Mr. Brady and, well, don’t even bother trying to kick it up a notch.
Consider the circumstances Sunday. At home. Against a bad team. Coming off a crucial loss. Throwback Sunday. Should have been more than enough for the team to come out firing. It wasn’t. Even when the Packers got going in the second quarter, they continued to let the Niners back in the contest. Green Bay’s superior talent level ultimately overwhelmed San Francisco, as you’d expect, but what happens when the talent levels are equal?
Secondly, I’m starting to have some real concerns about certain aspects of this defense. The pass rush is really vanishing for stretches. Clay Matthews has been a fairly hefty non-factor over the past three weeks, perhaps being affected by his shin injury that’s caused him to sit out Wednesday and Thursday practices recently. Cullen Jenkins is out a couple of weeks now (calf), which only furthers my worry.
And, as I saw firsthand at Lambeau Field on Sunday, this secondary isn’t nearly as good without that pressure. I know, what secondary isn’t, right? Still, the Niners receivers got behind the secondary on numerous occasions, only being done in by quarterback Troy Smith’s complete lack of accuracy. A better quarterback – say, a Brady, Eli Manning or Jay Cutler – hits a lot of those throws. Dom Capers has done wonderful things with such a depleted group. He needs to dig into his bag of tricks one more time, though. Can he do it?
Lastly, I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but again, being at the game up-close, I saw just how horrendous this special teams group really is. Good God almighty are they bad.
The lanes allowed on returns are not only vast and wide, but also quickly developing. I began to worry about every kickoff coverage within about two seconds of the returner getting the ball. Tim Masthay was terrible yet again, also. Yeah, the bad weather played a part, but…um…three of the last four games are in bad weather. So, there’s that. And it was nice to see Mason Crosby revert back to his unreliable ways, missing a short field goal. This unit could very well cost the Packers another big game, I’m sad to say.
Now, let’s turn this train back to Positivetown, shall we?
First, you’ve got to love the way Aaron Rodgers is playing. Five games in a row without a pick is nothing short of astounding, especially in today’s NFL. His confidence is higher than I’ve ever seen it before and he continues to hit almost every big throw he has to hit. After a rough start – okay, a really rough start – to the 2010 season, Rodgers has emerged as a viable MVP candidate 12 games in. As the old saying goes, when you’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got a chance.
Then there’s that Jennings guy he’s got at his disposal. Ever since Greg Jennings blew up on the sidelines at Washington, he’s been unstoppable. Granted, I don’t watch every NFL game every week, but I don’t need to – no receiver in football has been better than No. 85 over the past seven weeks. He’s simply beating every corner that lines up against him. His route-running, always top-notch, seems to have hit another level.
The rest of the receiving group has improved, as well. The drops still happen more than they should, but overall, this group is rounding into form nicely. The passing attack will give this team a chance in any game it plays.
Okay, I know some might kill me for this because it was only one game, but James Starks has me excited. He’s the perfect runner for this scheme – a straight-line runner who hits the hole, looks for his cut and goes. That’s what Ryan Grant was and Brandon Jackson – as much as I like him – will never be. Starks’ presence, as we saw Sunday, allowed Jackson to move back to the role he plays best: pass-catcher, blitz buster and occasional rusher.
And while you might think I’m completely down on the defense, I’m not. The group is still doing well on third downs, for the most part, and continues to take away the run for long stretches (outside of the Atlanta game, of course). Players like Tramon Williams (another outstanding showing Sunday) and B.J. Raji are still going strong.
But, mostly, it’s the offense that has me feeling good going into the final stretch. And that’s okay, because when I wrote the season preview for this site, I said it would be the offense leading the way. The defense carried this team through the first half, which was great but never really part of the plan. This team was always designed to be powered by the offense. That’s happening now, so it’s okay if the defense declines slightly (which it likely will, because now is the time when all those injuries start to hurt).
So, as this team heads into the final month of games at 8-4, I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic. I see things that can bring this team down and things that are good enough to guide the Packers through some really tough games. With Green Bay currently a half-game out of the final playoff spot in the NFC, the margin for error here is thin. Really thin. The Packers have to win at least two of their final four games. Anything less won’t be enough, but in the end, I think they get it done.
Bring on the mountain. I’m ready to climb.