An (untold) tale of two teams

favre

Favre got his two wins against the Packers.

No good deed goes unpunished.  That’s the first phrase that came to mind when Percy Harvin caught a ridiculous 51 yard touchdown pass on the fifth play from scrimmage in the second half, allowing the Vikings to take a commanding 24-3 lead—a lead that proved insurmountable and made the rest of the game, despite what appeared to be the beginning of a comeback, painful to watch.  Brett Favre got his two wins against the Packers.  As others will say, he finally “stuck it” to Ted Thompson.

So now what?

Well, a week away from the midpoint of this 2009 NFL season, there’s two storylines set to unfold.  The first involves the 7-1 NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings.  The Vikings have a bye this week, which really could not have come at a more opportune time:  most likely drained from his return to Lambeau, Favre can recharge emotionally and physically, as he is purportedly dealing with a few nagging injuries, the latest of which is a groin.  Perhaps more important, the Vikings team can rest after coming off a grueling and physical three game stretch against the Ravens, Steelers, and Packers.  Coming off the bye, they embark on a three-game home stand against the Lions, Seahawks, and Bears.  Although there is never a guarantee in the NFL, the first two games look like sure-fire wins for the Vikings, leaving them at an impressive 9-1.

After those two games, however, things could get very interesting.  At that point, the Vikings will play five of their last six games against teams with a current winning record:  the Bears twice, and then the Cardinals, Bengals, and Giants.  My point, here, is not to suggest that the Vikings will choke away the division (despite their proclivity over the past decade to do just that).  In fact, as far as I’m concerned, for all intents and purposes, the Vikings have already won the division.  But that’s not really what’s at stake here, is it?  Many, including myself, expected the Vikings to make the playoffs this year.  What’s at stake is a run at the Super Bowl.  And as we all know, what’s really important is how a team plays in December and January.  Getting off to a quick start is usually a plus, but as the Eagles and Cardinals proved last year, as the Giants proved two years ago, as the Colts proved three years ago, and as the Steelers proved four years ago, the playoffs are about getting hot at the right time.

With this in mind, I’m intrigued to see how the Vikings perform in the second half of the season.  Are they going to get complacent?  Perhaps more intriguing is the play of Favre, who has developed a penchant for collapsing as the season progresses.  While this trend dates back further than 2005, here are some numbers to corroborate this claim:

Favre’s aggregated stats from 2005 to 2008

Month

TD / INT

QB Rating

September

31 / 26

92.9

October

20 / 19

81.1

November

24 / 18

85.8

December

12 / 30

60.5

fave loss

Will Favre repeat his recent trend and play poorly down the stretch?

There’s also the fact that no quarterback 40 years of age or older has ever won a playoff game.  In saying all of this, I’m not trying to “hate” on Favre.  Rather, I’m simply intrigued as to how the Vikings handle the second half of the season, and a big part of how they handle it will be placed squarely on Favre’s shoulders.  The argument before the season began was that Favre wouldn’t have to carry the team, that he could defer to Adrian Peterson.  Well, halfway through the season, it’s obvious that this is Favre’s team, and because Brad Childress might be one of the more incompetent coaches in the league, he’s moving away from the run and more toward the pass.  This year, Adrian Peterson has only had 25 carries three times:  the opening game against the Browns and both games against the Packers.  His second highest total is 22 carries against the Ravens.  The other totals includes 15 carries against the Lions (Favre had 27 pass attempts), 19 carries against the 49ers (Favre had 46 pass attempts), 14 carries against the Rams (Favre had 25 pass attempts), and 18 carries against the Steelers (Favre had 50 pass attempts).  The pendulum is definitely swinging more toward the pass.  Some may consider this a smart long-term strategy:  the Vikings are able to keep Peterson relatively healthy for the second stretch of the season, where they’ll need him most.  Considering Childress’ track record, however, I happen to think that line of reasoning is more akin to wishful thinking.

Those who paint Favre as solipsistic and vindictive will argue that his two wins over the Packers were his personal Super Bowl; in other words, now Favre doesn’t have anything left to play for.  I’m not sure this is entirely true, but I’ll be one of the first to admit that I haven’t seen him that focused in a long time.  He surely didn’t display that focus in any playoff game after the 1996 season.  If Favre did come back just to beat the Packers, then he’s accomplished his goal mid-season.  At 40 years old, is he going to be able to maintain his focus mentally and hold up physically for the second half of the season and into the playoffs?  My guess is no, but I’m nonetheless interested to find out.

**

The second story to watch, the one I’ll obviously pay more attention to, is that of the Green Bay Packers.  Right now, they’re 4-3, a mark that screams underachievement.  There are even rumblings that McCarthy could now be inching closer to the proverbial “hot seat.”  The Packers’ talent coupled with their outstanding pre-season performance had many people predicting this team would be no worse than 6-2 at the midway mark.  Now, heading to Tampa Bay to play the winless Buccaneers, the Packers have a chance to be 5-3.

If the Packers beat Tampa Bay, which they most certainly should, then they’ll have eight remaining games to prove if they are a team on the rise, a team many people thought could compete for the NFC championship, or if they are simply a mirage, a young, undisciplined, and mediocre team whose impressive pre-season resulted in unwarranted hype.  The “cupcake” part of the schedule is over:  rather than play bottom barrel teams such as the Rams, Browns, and Lions, the Packers will play the likes of the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, Bears, and Cardinals.  Are the Packers capable of beating these teams?  Of course.  But not if they continue to make the costly mistakes that’s left them an underwhelming one game above .500.

How well the Packers do down the stretch will be contingent on three factors:

(1)  The play of the offensive line: As has been well documented, the offensive line has been, simply put, abominable.  The only bright spots have been the play of Josh Sitton and

offensive line

The return of both Clifton and Tauscher could bolster the offensive line, which had played terribly all season.

the flashes of potential displayed by TJ Lang.  At center, Jason Spitz’s back injury seems worse than initially diagnosed, and while Scott Wells is serviceable, that’s about all he is.  Daryn Colledge has struggled all season, partly because he was moved temporarily to left tackle to fill in for the injured Chad Clifton.  On a positive note, Colledge did have perhaps his best performance of the year against the Vikings last Sunday.  At right tackle, Allen Barbre has shown that he’s an above average run-blocker, but he continues to struggle with his pass-blocking, which is probably the result of poor technique and a lack of confidence.

There is slight reason for optimism, however.  Mark Tauscher appears ready to play, and should (read hopefully will) start at right tackle this Sunday against the Buccaneers.  Although he cannot run block as well as Barbre, Tauscher has always been a phenomenal pass protector.  And considering that pass protection is problem number one for this offensive line, I’d say that Tauscher’s skill set solves a more pressing need.  In addition, Clifton looks ready to return at left tackle.  Although he has clearly regressed—and whether he’ll even be able to hold up the remainder of the season is a giant question mark—he nonetheless provides experience, which at that position is invaluable.  I’m a big TJ Lang proponent, and I’m confident he’ll be a starter on this offensive line in 2010, either replacing Colledge at left guard or moving over to right tackle.  For the time being, however, the Packers are probably better off with Clifton.  It remains to be seen whether this new line of Clifton—Colledge—Wells—Sitton—Tauscher will be more effective than the other lineups McCarthy has tested thus far, but one has to wonder if it can be any worse at this stage.  How well the Packers play the final half of the season may very well depend on how well these five perform as a unit.

(2)  The commitment on the part of the defense: At times, the Packers’ new 3-4 look has been outright dominant; other times, it’s looked awful.  Perhaps a surprise to no one, the

defensive line

The defense needs to buy into Dom Capers 3-4 scheme.

defense has played well in the four wins and poorly in their three losses.  What’s perhaps most concerning is the postgame comments following both losses to the Vikings.  After the first loss in Week 4, Charles Woodson spoke critically of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ gameplan.  After last Sunday’s loss, Cullen Jenkins suggested that Capers’ scheme and gameplan might have “handcuffed” the team’s defensive playmakers.  The biggest impediment in acclimating successfully to a new defensive scheme is doubt.  And doubt is just the tip of the iceberg:  doubt can easily spiral into malcontentedness, dissention, and, worst of all, mutiny.  Despite the defense’s inconsistent performances, they still rank 4th in the league in total defense.  I trust the players the Packers have on defense; I also trust Dom Capers.  In order for this marriage to work, these two sides need to trust one another.

Worth watching closely will be the play of two rookies:  Clay Matthews and BJ Raji.  Matthews is improving by the week and looks destined to turn into the impact player the Packers envisioned.  Raji, on the other hand, has been a story of understandable disappointment.  He’s shown flashes, most notably against the Browns two weeks ago, but he still seems hampered by his ankle injury.  The Packers need Raji to be healthy down the stretch in order to spell Jenkins, Pickett, and Jolly, especially since Mike Montgomery is no longer receiving any playing time.

(3)The mental discipline (or lack thereof): As you can guess, I’m talking about penalties.  Week after week, McCarthy expresses his disappointment at the number of

mccarthy

McCarthy needs to change his approach to dealing with the Packers surfeit of penalties.

penalties—in particular, the number of undisciplined penalties—the Packers continually amass.  I’m clearly someone who puts stock in the power of the word, but this is a case where actions need to speak louder than words.  Whatever McCarthy has done to this point, it obviously isn’t working.  And guess what:  telling us you’ll fix the problem hasn’t resulted in any fixing.  Penalties have plagued this Packer squad for too many years running.  It’s officially time for McCarthy to change his approach.

**

At the beginning of the season, I predicted that the Packers would get to 10 wins.  With a win at Tampa, they’ll be 5-3 and halfway toward achieving that number.  As I’ve noted above, however, the Packers will face tougher competition in route to those other 5 wins.  Can they do it?  I believe they can.  I think the players believe they can as well.  But as with the Vikings and whether they can continue at this pace, only time will tell.

It’s going to be an interesting second half of the season, folks.  The NFC North Division might already be signed, sealed, and delivered to the Vikings, but there’s a lot of football left to be played.  As I’ve said before, the NFL is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’m intrigued to see how both teams (as well as the Bears, lest we forget about them) play from here on out.

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