Prepping for the playoff push

The day:  November 8th.

The forecast:  gloom and doom.

After two disconcerting losses in a row, one to the Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings and another to the hapless and winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers’ season appeared, essentially, finished.  A season ripe with promise was seemingly spoiled.  With the Packers at a disappointing 4-4, the question circling through Packerland wasn’t what it would take for the Packers to regroup and make the playoffs but whether the Packers should (or could afford to) fire coach Mike McCarthy.

I too was unable to find any silver lining in one of the worst two week stretches the Packers had endured over the last decade.

Now, five weeks later, many of us look back and see this two week stretch as a blessing in disguise—a wake-up call of sorts.  Since the ignominious loss to the Buccaneers, the Packers have won five straight games.  And with three games left in the 2009 season, the current question isn’t whether the Packers can make the playoffs—in fact, barring a strange turn of events, they seem like a lock to make the playoffs and can even secure a spot this Sunday against the Steelers with a win and some help.  Instead, the question is whether this streaking Packer team can make a playoff push toward the Super Bowl.  In order for that to happen, however, the Packers would have to win three straight playoff games, all three of which would most likely be on the road since the Packers, despite their record, can do no better than a Wild Card.  Improbable?  Perhaps.  Impossible?  Not in the slightest (just ask the 2007 New York Giants).

However, if the Packers are truly serious about making a deep playoff run, then they need to use these next two games—and possibly the last game against the Cardinals depending on how everything unfolds—to focus on a few key aspects of their game.  With that in mind, here are two lists:  (1) what the Packers need to continue doing and (2) what the Packers need to start doing.

What the Packers need to continue doing:

The offensive line has only given up 6 sacks the last 4 games

Keep Rodgers upright: As we all know, this was a major concern through the first eight weeks of the season, where Rodgers was sacked an embarrassing 37 times.  During the five game win streak, however, Rodgers has been sacked only 10 times, and 4 of those came against the Cowboys.  In other words, the Packers haven’t allowed more than 2 sacks in a game over the last month.  That’s a major improvement from the obligatory 5 sacks per game Packer fans were unfortunately becoming accustomed to seeing.  Part of the improvement is due to stability along the offensive line, who after partaking in an unsuccessful game of musical chairs throughout the first half of the season have now been starting the same five for over a month.  Another reason for the decline in sacks is Rodgers getting rid of the ball quicker.  Rodgers is playing at a Pro Bowl level, but he’s also benefited greatly during this stretch from the return of JerMichael Finley and Jordy Nelson.  Both, especially Finley, allow the Packers to spread the field and capitalize on the short, quick passes that are a staple of the West Coast Offense.  By eliminating the sacks and, to a degree, the pre-snap penalties, the Packers have found themselves in more favorable downs and distances, and as a result, they have capitalized.  They still aren’t the offensive juggernaut we saw in the pre-season, but that is more the result of red zone struggles.  More on that later.

Collins has been an interception machine, picking off a pass in 5 of his last 6 games

Force turnovers: The Packers are a NFL best +18 in the turnover ratio, and they are 3rd in the league with 23 interceptions.  14 of those interceptions have come from Charles Woodson and Nick Collins, both of whom intercepted Jay Cutler last Sunday.  Although Woodson was beat on consecutive throws, one even for a touchdown, he put together a solid game overall, breaking up 3 passes, the last of which sealed a win for the Packers, and making yet another impressive shoelace tackle at the line of scrimmage.  Overall, Woodson just continues to pad his stats and to make his case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year (if not MVP of the league).  For Collins, it was his 4th straight game with an interception, and his 5th INT in the last 6 games.  Can we finally agree that Collins is an All Pro caliber safety and that the Packers need to sign him to a long-term deal—like now?  If the Packers continue to win the turnover battle, they’ll find themselves with a chance to win most of their games, and that includes playoff games.

Get solid play from the rookies: Clay Matthews has been a constant force since becoming a fulltime starter, and fellow rookies BJ Raji and Brad Jones have put together impressive performances as well.  Last week I devoted a lot of attention toward the rookies, so for the sake of being redundant, I’ll just say that I hope these three continue to improve and don’t tire down the most important stretch of the season.

What the Packers need to start doing:

Convert in the red zone: The Packers’ offense has turned into a well-oiled machine over the past few weeks—until they reach the red zone, that is.  Recently, the red zone has been the Packers’ kryptonite, and in settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, they let inferior teams hang around.  They let the Ravens close within 3 points two weeks ago, and rather than jump out to a 21 point lead against the Bears last Sunday, they settled for field goals twice and actually were trailing 14-13 heading into the 4th quarter.  Yes, the Packers are finding ways to win these close games in the 4th quarter, something they couldn’t do last year, but if the Packers want to make a Super Bowl run, they cannot continue to settle for field goals.  They have been able to do so and win against inferior teams, but good teams—you know, teams that make the playoffs—will make the Packers pay for not taking advantage inside the twenties.  Getting touchdowns instead of field goals is doubly important since the Packers are still displaying an unfortunate proclivity for disappearing for quarters at a time.

The special teams coverage was good against the Bears, but it is still a lingering concern

Improve their special teams: This is two-fold.  First, the special teams need to do a better job of punt and kick coverage.  Far too many times this year, the Packers have scored and grabbed some momentum only to give it back a play later by allowing a big kick return.  I actually expected a big return after the Packers went up 21-14 early in the 4th against the Bears.  Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.  The Packers covered well against the Bears, and this needs to continue.  Right now, it appears as though the Packers will play either the Cardinals or the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs, and both of them have dangerous returners.

The other area in which the special teams needs to improve is in the field goal department.  Yeah:  I’m looking at you, Mason Crosby.  Despite what the coaches are saying, Crosby’s slump is starting to become a major concern.  He’s turned into a liability, missing very makeable field goals at crucial points in the game.  Two weeks in a row, Crosby has had a chance to extend the Packers’ lead to 10 points in the 4th quarter, and both times, he’s missed.  The Packers have been able to hold on to these leads, so the misses don’t seem as damaging now, but if this trend continues, it is going to hurt the Packers sooner rather than later.  If the Packers find themselves driving for a game-winning field goal late in the 4th quarter, I’d have to say I don’t like their chances.

Cut down on the penalties: Penalties were a major story following the Ravens game two weeks ago, and they have been a concern all year:  the Packers have amassed 102 penalties this season, the most in the league.  Last Sunday, however, the Packers watched the Bears play the role they were accustomed to playing:  the Bears committed 13 penalties for 109 yards, while the Packers only committed 4 for 30.  Considering the horrible field conditions in Chicago, I expected the Packers to be flagged quite regularly, but that surprisingly wasn’t the case.  Like the special teams coverage against the Bears, the low amount of penalties is something the Packers will want to replicate going forward.

What I’ve attempted to articulate here isn’t new.  And on some level, much of what I said are fundamental musts for good football teams, such as protecting the quarterback and the football.  Still, whether we like to admit it or not, a penalty here and there, a missed field goal late, and a missed opportunity in the red zone can make all the difference between winning and losing.

**

Next on the docket for the Packers is a trip to Pittsburgh, a game many Packer fans penciled in as a loss earlier in the year.  But with the Steelers reeling, losing five straight games, some of which to dreadful opponents such as the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns, many of those same fans are using the other end of the pencil and erasing that early prediction.  The Steelers are all but eliminated from the playoffs, and the hell that coach Mike Tomlin said would be unleashed has yet to come to fruition.  In fact, it’s quite cold in Pittsburgh.  Talk about your all time backfires.

At this stage, one would have to consider the Packers losing to be an upset.  And with a chance to secure a playoff spot, the Packers should be amped up.  That said, the Steelers, at least to me, appear to be a prideful team; furthermore, they’re at home, and they’ve had essentially a week and a half to prepare for the Packers coming off their Thursday night loss to the Browns.  Nonetheless, the Packers are the better team right now, and I hope they show that Sunday.

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