Sunday, December 10, 2006

Game Review: Packers 30, San Francisco 19

And, for at least a week, all is again right with the world.

The Packers' roller-coaster season took another upturn on Sunday with an impressive 30-19 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park. The 49ers had the road map to beat the Packers, if they only followed what the Jets had done the previous week. But San Fran either had not the talent or the coaching to do it. As a result, the Pack climbs to 5-8 and 1-1 over this four-game stretch of “winnable games” for Mike McCarthy’s young players.

It started out shaky, though. Poor footwork by wide receiver Greg Jennings and some shoddy tackling by Marquand Manuel and the defense allowed Frank Gore to gash the Packers for 72 yards. Many a Packer fan who witnessed the past three games sighed and thought, “Here we go again.”

But the Packers held the 49ers to a field goal, and then Brett Favre went to work, completing several passes for a score to Ruvell Martin, the young player’s first NFL touchdown.

The score established a lead for the Packers that they would never relinquish, although the 49ers certainly put up a good fight at times. They did have several explosive plays against our defense, including a 52 yard touchdown to rookie tight end Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter and a couple of deep passes to their wide receivers.

But in the end, the 49ers made the critical mistakes, and the Packers did not. Frank Gore took a lot of wind out of the 49ers’ sails with a critical fumble on their second possession, deep in their own territory. While the Packers only managed a field goal, they did make the 49ers pay for that mistake on the scoreboard.

Alex Smith, the second-year quarterback often compared to the Packers’ injured Aaron Rodgers, didn’t show much of a spark today, throwing two interceptions to usually quiet (and stone-handed) Nick Collins and to surging rookie AJ Hawk. Favre again made the 49ers pay almost immediately for the Collins turnover, tossing a beautiful strike to Donald Driver, who dipped and juked his way past five defenders for a classic 68-yard touchdown.

The Hawk interception, snagged in the Packers’ end zone in the fourth quarter, sealed the victory for the team.

What made the difference today?

The early establishment of the run game, including Ahman Green’s 23 yards on four carries on the first drive. While the Packers didn’t score on that drive, it sent a message to the 49er defense that they had to hold the run game accountable today. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the defense able to contain the run with minimal players in the box, and get away with rushing only four players on the pass.

Because Green and Morency were able to create positive yardage (and a nifty 1 yard plunge for a touchdown by Green, to boot), the 49ers were not able to overplay the downfield coverage as other teams have done recently. Given the 49ers were playing with a battered secondary, it made them even more vulnerable to Favre’s mixture of safe passes, then making them pay with longer passes to wide-open receivers.

Give the offensive line some credit (or the 49ers defensive front seven some raspberries)…they allowed Green and Morency to combine for 146 yards on only 28 carries: nearly five yards a shot. After being much-maligned the past few weeks, including the revelation by Scott Wells that they weren’t even using half the playbook because of the greenness of the young players, they gave us a little hope that this line could develop into a solid one.

Brett Favre had one of his best games of the season, complete with some fun plays to watch (and of course, the heart-skip-a-beat close calls). He went 22 for 34 for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw a single interception, his seventh game this season without a pick. A fumble at the end of the second quarter, under heavy pressure, ended what appeared to be a lackluster drive, and was inconsequential: so inconsequential that the timer didn’t bother to stop the clock and allow the 49ers to have one final play before the half.

The defense, despite their recent sieve-like performances, did one thing very well today: After allowing Frank Gore that first big play, he gained only 58 yards on 18 carries the rest of the game. It was refreshing to see the run defense return to the form we felt they were achieving earlier this season, after a couple of alarming rushing performances during the three-game losing streak. And, as Frank Gore is the heart of that offense, the Packers did to the 49ers what other defenses had done to the Packers the past few weeks: made them one-dimensional.

Aaron Kampman, who was also invisible over that three-game skid, came back with a vengeance, scoring five sacks against Alex Smith, who seemed to be skittish most of the day. Mike McCarthy kept his word and did what many fans have been screaming about for years: he took KGB out on several rushing downs and kept him rested for his pass rush. While Gbaja-Biamila finished with only one tackle and no sacks today, his presence was felt more consistently in the backfield that we’ve seen in a couple of years.

Finally, the special teams had a solid game. Dave Rayner was 3/3 on his field goal tries, and Charles Woodson broke a 40 yard punt return, his longest of the season. While the kick return coverage was still a little sketchy, Rayner didn’t have to add to his five special team tackles this year, and Patrick Dendy made a “dandy” punt coverage to down the ball on the one yard line at one point.

All in all, it can safely be said that Mike McCarthy knew a lot more about his former team that his former head coach knew about the Packers. McCarthy stated in the pre-game, perhaps tipping his hand more than he wanted, that “these are the games you want to win”. This was a meaningful game for McCarthy and for the Packers, who won a game they “should have” won today.

The Packers played with passion, but also played with discipline today, and allowed the 49ers to make the mistakes and suffer when Green Bay capitalized on them. This is a young team that has had little to celebrate recently, but today, we witnessed a team that saw its fragile ego keep up its confidence and momentum over four quarters, and put the game away with moxie.

As the Packers finish off this four-game stretch of matchups against teams with losing records, let’s hope that McCarthy also views next week’s games against division rivals Detroit and Minnesota as “games you want to win”, too. It would be a very encouraging sign for the McCarthy regime to finish with a couple of wins at home against their arch-rivals.

Hopefully, the Packers will be up to the task, and the roller coaster can finish at the top of the ramp before facing off against the Bears in the season finale.

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