Archive for January, 2010

Where does this playoff loss rank?

Posted in Rory on January 13, 2010 by big.ror

After being eclipsed in the 70s and 80s, the Green Bay Packers returned to prominence the following two decades, wherein they made the playoffs 12 times.  In fact, since 1993, the Packers have missed the postseason only 5 times.  During this 20-year span, the Packers have had far more winning seasons (14) than losing seasons (4), but aside from winning Super Bowl 31 in 1996, they have been on the losing end of many playoff games.  11, to be exact.

So where does last Sunday’s 45-51 loss to the Arizona Cardinals rank amongst those losses?  In what follows, I’ll rank the Packers’ playoff losses over the past two decades, starting with the easiest losses to stomach and working toward the most difficult losses, the ones that to this day still stick in your craw and conjure up a plethora of unpleasant memories and emotions.  This will get painful.  You’ve been warned.

The first playoff loss against the Cowboys in 1993 was an unfortunate sign of things to come

11.  1993:  17-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. This year marked the first time the Packers made the playoffs since 1982, so winning the Wild Card playoff game against the Detroit Lions the week prior, in stellar fashion no less (Favre to Sharpe, for those who’ve forgotten), was a major accomplishment.  Still figuring out how to be a winning team, especially in the playoffs, the Packers traveled to Dallas for a game many didn’t think they had a chance to win.  Those people were right.  It was easy to see that the Cowboys were the better team that year:  after all, they were the defending champs, and they did eventually go on to defend their title in Super Bowl 28.  Nonetheless, the Packers’ season had to be considered a success overall.  As such, this was definitely the easiest loss to stomach.

10.  1994:  9-35 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. New year, same story—though the score was more lopsided this year than the year before.  Prior to this game, the Packers had beaten the Lions in the Wild Card round for the second consecutive year after holding Barry Sanders to -1 yards rushing.  Unfortunately, they had to play the Boys yet again, who proved, yet again, to be unquestionably the better team.

The Rams destroyed the Packers, a game in which Favre threw 6 interceptions

9.  2001:  17-45 loss to the St. Louis Rams in the Divisional Round (“The 6 Interception Game”). As with the two Divisional Round games against the Cowboys, many didn’t give the Packers a chance against the St. Louis Rams—and for good reason:  the Rams were the far superior team.  The epitome of offensive juggernaut, the Rams controlled the entire game.  Brett Favre’s notorious 6 interceptions didn’t help matters, but he was clearly trying to overcompensate for a team that was in well over its head.  It’s never enjoyable to watch your team get dominated from start to finish, but considering the expectations and that the Rams were favored to win the Super Bowl that year, I think we can all agree this loss was not nearly as devastating as the ones below.

The Cowboys' offense was too much of the Packers, as well as the rest of the NFL, in the early 90s

8.  1995:  27-38 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Conference Championship (“Threes a Charm”). This would be the third straight year the Packers would lose to the Cowboys in the playoffs, though this time it would be in the NFC Championship game rather than in a Divisional Round match-up.  Unlike in the prior two playoff games against the Boys, there was a feeling amongst some that the Packers could finally get over the hump this time around.  And while the Packers put forth a much better effort in this game, the Cowboys were still too talented, particularly on offense.  Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Alvin Harper, and Michael Irvin led a high-powered attack that the Packers (read the entire NFL) could just never contain.  Continually losing to the Cowboys was becoming quite aggravating, but anyone could see that the Cowboys were, at least in those years, the better team.  And they accrued three rings in four years to prove it.

7.  2002:  7-27 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card Round (“The End of Lambeau Dominance”). Had the New York Jets not destroyed the Packers the week prior, a 17-42 shellacking, the Packers would have earned themselves a first round bye. Instead, they hosted the Falcons in the Wild Card round, a game where Michael Vick had a playoff coming-out party.  At this point in the season, the Packers were a hobbled, dilapidated team, and their lack of depth had become obvious the week prior against the Jets.  Nonetheless, this loss stands out because it marked the first home playoff loss in the Favre era.  Until this game, the Packers appeared invincible in the playoffs at home, where they were 6-0 over the last decade.  After losing this game, however, they’ve been a mediocre 2-2 at home in playoff games.  The Packers not only lost the game but they also lost much of the Lambeau mystique.

Despite our best efforts, I'm sure none of us have fogotten the Moss Moon

6.  2004:  17-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round (“The Moss Moon”). We can all admit it:  losing to the Vikings sucks.  Hard.  It sucks even worse losing to them in the playoffs.  At home.  After losing to the Packers twice during the regular season, Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss came in and had their way with the Packers’ defense.  Culpepper threw 4 touchdowns, 2 of which went to Moss.   Oh, and after one of those touchdowns, Moss proceeded to celebrate by faux mooning the Lambeau crowd.  This, more so than Favre’s 4 interceptions, is my most palpable memory from this game.  I’m sure that’s true for many other Packer fans as well.  Oh joy.

5.  2009:  45-51 OT loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round. I’m not sure this game has a moniker to attach to it, but I’m sure it will in due time.  What a crazy game.  The Packers seemed out of it early after turning the ball over on their first two possessions of the game, but they fought back valiantly, coming from behind to tie the game twice in the 4th quarter.  The defense, which was ranked number 2 overall during the regular season, absolutely imploded during this game, looking far more like the 2008 unit than the dominating one they were for most of the 2009 season.

This will be a lasting image of the 2009 season for many Packer fans

Many are still complaining about the no-calls, ones I will agree were quite egregious, but placing the onus squarely on the refs ignores the fact that the Packers clearly lost the game themselves with their early turnovers and their abominable play defensively.  What puts this game higher on the “man, that loss really sucked” list is the fact that the Packers were the better team.  The Cardinals played as close to a flawless game as they could, particularly on offense, had a couple of lucky bounces go their way, and benefited from some no-calls from the refs.  Despite this, the Packers still had a very good chance to come away with the victory on the road.  Making this loss even more arduous to swallow is the potential this team had.  Having won 7 of their last 8 games, this Packer team seemed to have hit their stride, and with many of the top NFC teams struggling, the Packers, despite being only a 5 seed, had a great opportunity to get to the Super Bowl.  This was clearly a missed opportunity, a theme that unfortunately permeates the remaining four losses on this list.

The Catch (2) that should have never been

4.  1998:  27-30 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round (“The Catch 2”). This was the fourth straight playoff meeting between the Packers and the 49ers.  The Packers had won the prior three games, and quite handedly.  In this sense, we were to the 49ers what the Cowboys were to us.  This time, however, Steve Young and Terrell Owens did everything in their power to end the 49ers’ skid.  The Packers took the lead late in the 4th quarter, but not late enough, as they gave the 49ers just enough time to make the game winning drive.  As we all know, that drive should have ended early, as the Packers recovered a Jerry Rice fumble, but this game pre-dated the return of instant replay (in fact, this game was a major impetus in bringing back instant replay).  With the Rice fumble voided by the ref’s early whistle, the 49ers continued their drive, one that ended with the famous strike to Terrell Owens, aptly named The Catch 2.  Having beat up on the 49ers for years, the Packers probably owed the 49ers one, but the fumble coupled with the Owens catch is still a painful memory for many Packer fans.

4th and 26 ... nuff said

3.  2003:  17-20 OT loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round (“4th and 26”). The Packers came into this game riding a giant wave of both emotion and momentum.  Over the past 5 weeks, aside from winning 5 straight games, they had coped with the death of Favre’s father; they won the division via the Cardinals beating the Vikings in the last game of the season on a last second touchdown catch by Nate Poole; and they beat the Seattle Seahawks in overtime when Al Harris picked off Matt Hasselbeck for a touchdown.  The Packers used that emotion and momentum to jump to 14-0 lead at the end of the 1st quarter and a 14-7 lead at halftime.  After a scoreless 3rd quarter, the Eagles tied the game at the start of 4th quarter, but the Packers retook the lead with a Ryan Longwell field goal.  This is where the loss becomes particularly disconcerting, as the Packers had multiple opportunities to finish the Eagles and move on to the NFC Championship Game.  Facing a 4th and 1 on Eagles’ 41 yard line with 2:30 left in the game, the Packers opted to punt rather than go for it despite having a 1,883 yard rusher in Ahman Green and one of the best offensive lines in football.  It was downward spiral from then on.  Here’s the cliff notes:   the Packers allowed Donavan McNabb to hit Fred Mitchell on the infamous 4th and 26; David Akers ties the game; the Packers have the ball in overtime; Favre throws an interception; the Eagles drive down and kick a field goal; Packer fans around the world receive a collective headache, trying to wrap their heads around how the Packers lost that one.

Tines celebrating the game-winning kick in overtime

2.  2007:  20-23 OT loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. Heading into this game, I really thought the Packers were Super Bowl bound.  And those thoughts didn’t change at halftime when the Packers were up 10-6.  But the second half was one dominated by the Giants, both offensively and defensively.  The Packers, however, had numerous chances to change the direction of the game; in particular, the Giants fumbled the ball 5 times, but the Packers didn’t recovery once.  The cold, bitter weather paralleled the feeling many Packer fans espoused following Lawrence Tines’ 47 yard field goal in overtime, a field goal set up by Favre’s second interception of the day.  Much has been made of the interception, including snapshots of the play where every receiver except Driver, whom Favre threw to, appeared to be open.  Nonetheless, Favre is not the only one culpable for the loss.  Put frankly:  the Giants simply wanted it more, and though it pains me to admit it, they deserved it.  They were the better team that day.

Even though Elway didn't play a very good game in Super Bowl 32, we all remember this play

1.  1997:  24-31 loss to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl (“This One’s for John”). If the Packers had regressed in one area coming off their 1996 Super Bowl Championship, it was in their run defense.  Ranked 4th against the run in 96, the Packers fell all the way to 20th in 97, and it ended up being their achilles heel in the Super Bowl.  The Broncos’ Terrell Davis rushed for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns, allowing John Elway to finally win his first ring.  This game tops the list of gut retching playoff losses because it happened in the Super Bowl; that said, this loss continues to sting because the Packers were the better team.  The Broncos were a hell of a team, no doubt, and they proved that the following year by doing what the Packers couldn’t:  win back-to-back championships.  But the Packers were 11½ point favorites for a reason.  Everything about this game was frustrating, but topping them all was Mike Holmgren’s inability to adjust to Denver’s innovative defensive style.  It was a classic case of hubris, where Holmgren believed, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, that his offense was better and that it would prevail in the end.  We saw an almost identical situation occur in Super Bowl 42, where New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick refused to adjust this offensive game-plan.  Both coaches, as we know, lost those games.

**

I hope that wasn’t as agonizing to read as it was to write.

Looking back, we can see that the Packers had some incredibly close yet frustrating playoff losses.  What resonates most to me is the overtime losses.  After beating the Seahawks in overtime at home in the 2003 Wild Card Round, the Packers lost every playoff game since that has gone into overtime.  In fact, excluding the loss to the Vikings at home in 2004, the last three playoff losses have come in overtime.  Worse, perhaps, is the circumstance under which they lost those games:  all three overtime losses stemmed from quarterback turnovers.  Favre set up both the Eagles’ and Giants’ losses with overtime interceptions, and Rodgers’ overtime fumble was returned for a touchdown against the Cardinals.  In that regard, that’s a string of really excruciating losses, amplified all the more by the hysteria and magnitude surrounding the playoffs.  Compared to, say, a Detroit Lions fan, Packer fans don’t have much to complain about:  in the past two decades, we’ve seen our team go to two Super Bowls, win one, and make the playoffs 12 times out of 20.  Yet when I look back at some of these losses—in particular, the way the Packers lost—I can’t help but think we are due.

I truly believe the Packers have put themselves in a fortuitous situation heading forward.  They have a lot of potential, and more importantly, they have key players at key positions on both offense and defense (outside of left tackle, of course).  Depending on how the off-season shakes out, they should be considered one of the favorites for 2010.  Let’s hope the Packers can continue their winning ways in the next decade, but at the same time, let’s hope we have a few more season that end like 1996 and less that end like 1997, 1998, 2003, 2007, and 2009.

5 Keys to the Packers/Cardinals Playoff Game (this time, it matters)

Posted in Rory on January 7, 2010 by big.ror

As we near this week’s first round playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals, many are speculating as to whether the Packers have a mental advantage.  This purported mental advantage stems from the fact that the Packers beat the Cardinals decisively in the pre-season, a game in which they were up 38-10 at halftime, as well as last week in the regular season finale, 33-7.  Both games were played in Arizona.

Both games also come with an important caveat:  the Cardinals, at least more so than the Packers, treated both contests as exhibition games.  The pre-season game was, of course, just that, and in the regular season finale, the Cardinals pulled many of their starters prior to the beginning of the second quarter.  In other words, it’s difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from these games when the starters aren’t playing and the coaches aren’t scheming—well, at least not scheming to the extent they will come Sunday.

Nonetheless, the discussion over a mental advantage lingers on, and players on both teams have been queried as to the effect those previous games will have this Sunday.  Both teams could potentially use the discussion as motivation.  The Cardinals, for instance, could take umbrage with those who believe the score won’t vary much this Sunday; they could be motivated to debunk the idea that the Packers are that much better than they.  Conversely, the Packers could take umbrage with the “Well, they weren’t playing their starters” card; they could be motivated to prove that those scores do reflect the disparity between the two teams.  But honestly, I don’t think any of this will matter much:  neither of these teams should need additional motivation.  As Daryn Colledge said, “Obviously, the playoffs should be motivation enough.”

With that in mind, allow me to turn to what I perceive to be the five keys to the Packers/Cardinals game this Sunday, the more pressing and intriguing match-ups whose importance will be readily noticeable during the game and will, I believe, determine who makes it to the divisional round of the playoffs next week.

1:  The Cardinals’ receivers versus Jarrett Bush. When Al Harris was lost for the season to an ACL tear in Week 11, the trickledown effect forced Bush to become the Packers’ nickel cornerback.  And since the Packers employ a heavy amount of nickel formations, Bush has been on the field quite regularly the last 6 games.  Perpetually maligned by many in Packerland, Bush hasn’t done much to silence his critics since taking over the job:  he was a popular scapegoat after the loss to the Steelers, a game in which the Packers gave up 503 passing yards, and he has become the go-to read for opposing quarterbacks.  The Cardinals field one of the best receiving corps in the league, headlined by Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.  Third receiver Steve Breaston is no slouch either:  he had 1,006 yards last year and has 712 this year.  I’m worried (and I’m sure the coaches are as well) about how Bush will fare against this stout group of receivers.  There are, however, two reasons to think Bush won’t be exploited too severely this Sunday:  (1) Bush’s major fault is covering routes longer than 15 yards, and outside of Fitzgerald, who should be locked up with Charles Woodson, the Cardinals receivers run a lot of shorter, underneath routes, and (2) Boldin appears questionable for this Sunday’s game.  I’m sure I’ll find myself screaming Bush’s name coupled with some expletives this Sunday, but I’m hoping (read praying) that those times are few and far between.

Finley is a tough match-up for opposing defenses

2:  Jermichael Finley versus the Cardinals’ secondary. As much as the Cardinals are drooling at the prospect of throwing at Bush, the Packers are drooling, perhaps even more so, at the prospect of lining Finley up against the Cardinals’ secondary.  Simply put, Finley is a mismatch for opposing teams.  His size and speed is perhaps second to none at the tight end position, and his hands are arguably the best on the team, and that’s quite the praise considering the depth and talent the Packers possess at the wide receiver position.  In both games against the Cardinals, Finley has a combined 8 catches, 62 yards, and 3 touchdowns.  I assume that the Cardinals will try to lock up Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson on Finley, but doing so would preclude them from moving Wilson around the field ala how the Packers use Woodson.  As for Sunday’s game, I’m expecting more of the same from Finley, who continually appears to be an All-Pro in the making.

Bridges might need extra help trying to contain the Claymaker

3.  The Claymaker versus Jeremy Bridges. Clay Matthews has been on an absolute tear since becoming a starter in Week 4.  Sure, he hasn’t registered a sack in his last two games, but he has been making a name for himself and making his presence felt in other ways than just sacks, most notably in the form of inducing offensive holding penalties.  He drew one such penalty against the Cardinals last Sunday that resulted in a safety.  Matthews has caused problems for many left tackles this season, and throughout last week’s game, it was highly apparent that trend was continuing.  Bridges, the Cardinals’ left tackle, struggled mightily trying to contain Matthews—so much so that I’d be surprised if the Cardinals don’t continually bring over a tight end or running back to help chip Matthews off the line this Sunday.  I’m sure the Cardinals are hoping that Bridges can hold his own against Matthews this time around, but Bridges has struggled in pass blocking quite a bit this season.  I doubt he finds his stride against Matthews, who should be amped more than usual (which is a scary thought) for his first playoff game.

4.  Ben Graham versus the Packers’ special teams. The Packers’ special teams has been scrutinized frequently this season, and compared to the offense and defense, it is surely the team’s weak link.  However, aside from Mason Crosby’s kicking woes, the special teams have shown slight improvement as of late, especially in terms of punt and kick coverage.  Helping matters is the potential return of Derrick Martin, who has been the Packers best coverage man the last half of the season.  Graham, the Cardinals’ punter, is one of the best in the league, particularly when it comes to pinning teams inside the twenty:  Graham pinned the Packers inside the twenty 3 times last week, and he’s done it a career high 42 times this season.  In a playoff game, where field position becomes all the more important, Graham could be a difference maker for the Cardinals.  The Packers are a team that has struggled in the red zone this season; Graham’s ability to make the field that much longer for the Packers only exacerbates those red zone woes.  Oh, and the Cardinals sport the best red zone offense in the league.

Sunday will be Rodgers' first playoff game as a starter

5.  Rodgers versus playoff pressure. Sunday’s game against the Cardinals will be Aaron Rodgers’ first playoff game as a starter.  Atlanta Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan faced almost identical circumstances last year:  he was playing in his first playoff game, he was playing the Cardinals in Arizona, and he was playing on a team with a better record, a team that was expected to win.  And Ryan, unfortunately for the Falcons, folded under the pressure, throwing 2 interceptions and fumbling once.  As many coaches and players will attest, the playoffs are a different beast; as such, there is reason to be nervous about how Rodgers will handle the pressure that comes with playing in the playoffs.  That said, I just can’t fathom Rodgers becoming unglued and rattled in this game.  I’m not suggesting that he is unflappable, but at the same time, the pressure and circumstances that he’s faced already in his young career are extraordinary, starting with the way he was drafted to the way the entire Favre-saga unfolded over the past two or so years.  Moreover, while he hasn’t played in a playoff game, he surely has played in playoff-type atmospheres, including both games against the Vikings and the game against the Steelers.  Come Sunday, I expect nothing less from Rodgers:  a calm demeanor, and a steady, accurate arm.

There are, of course, other intriguing match-ups to watch this Sunday, including All-Pros Fitzgerald and Woodson going head-to-head as well as Kurt Warner’s ability to handle the Packers’ aggressive blitzing defense.  Similar to the other five match-ups listed above, these two will greatly affect the outcome of Sunday’s game.

As a whole, I think the Packers have the edge this Sunday and should be victorious.  Offensively and defensively, the Packers are the better team.  My only main concerns are the Cardinals exploiting Bush and Graham continually putting the Packers in unfavorable field position.  If the Packers can avoid giving up the big play and score touchdowns rather than settle for field goals in the red zone, they should find themselves playing next week in the divisional round.  That said, the Cardinals are an experienced squad that was able to turn it on last year at this time, and if that team shows up Sunday, the Packers could be one and done.  It’s an interesting match-up containing two high octane offenses, and it should cap off an entertaining weekend of playoff re-matches from the regular season.