It was a matchup of two struggling teams that seemed to get a little momentum going the previous week against middling competition. In this game, one team would establish the run game, avoid penalties, and rattle a struggling quarterback. The other team would come apart at the seams, rack up crippling penalty yards, and make big mistake after big mistake.
If I read this before the Packers/Colts game, I can bet most of you would have thought the latter team would have been Green Bay. Contrary to what many of us thought might happen, it was the Packers that dominated this game, start to finish.
And, I was among the throng who predicted the Packers to lose this game. My concern wasn't whether not not they might win, but rather, whether or not they would let the game spiral out of control. In the end, it was a frustrated Peyton Manning crying on the sideline, trying desperately to draw penalties, and quite simply, getting beat.
So, who gets the game ball? Ryan Grant for finally running like he did last year. Aaron Rodgers for again playing mistake-free ball through pain? Nick Collins or Aaron Rouse for their defensive picks and scores (that ended potential scoring drives for the Colts)?
Nope...I give it to Mike McCarthy, and I will tell you why.
* I have long been of the theory that when a team comes out and fails in every phase of the game, there is one person who bears the burden, and that is the head coach. I have, in the past, defended those that blamed Brett Favre for playoff losses by proving that every phase of the game...defense, running game....all failed in most of those games, and the blame for that poor overall performance goes directly on the coach.
So, when I think of a Packer team that showed up in every phase of the game this past Sunday, a invigorated running game finding holes created by a suddenly competent offensive line, a swarming defensive line and linebackers, and shutdown corners backed up by playmaking safeties, Aaron Rodgers hardly had to pass at all. And yet, he did, very efficiently and mistake-free.
The credit has to go to Mike McCarthy for, perhaps finally, getting this team on the right page. I don't know if had to do with "pad level" as much as motivating a team to rise to its competition, defend its home field, and execute on every play.
* After decrying the move to hire Mike McCarthy as it happened, I have resolved to give MM a fair shake in evaluating him, and what I have usually found in his coaching style is this: he does struggles in game-day adjustments. As we've seen against Dallas and Atlanta, a team can get the upper hand and keep going. We saw this last year against Dallas and Chicago, also.
But where he excels is in game-to-game adjustments. McCarthy has been a master of going back to the drawing board, viewing game film, and implementing his spit-and-wire solutions to stop the leaks that he finds. Sunday's game was, in my humble opinion, the beginning of the end-of-the-season run that he often makes, building off of past failures to solidify the team.
We've seen this before. In his first season, the Packers finished 4-0. Last year, while they finished 7-2, the Packers established a running game that was inexplicably invisible the entire first half of the season.
With a week off for the bye, the Packers are riding a two-game win streak and have an extra week of rest before facing the undefeated Titans. You couldn't imagined this going much better than this two weeks ago.
* One thing that had me worried these past few months is that some of the 2007 success may have gone to McCarthy's head a bit. I don't have anything substantial to base that on. There just seemed to be a certain air about him this offseason, a different kind of candor in how he spoke. He didn't seem to be that grunting workaholic that we'd grown used to the past few years.
As the team started out 2-3. I saw a coach that was far more frustrated on the sideline than at any other time I'd seen him. He seemed angry, almost indignant. Press conferences were punctuated with catchphrases like "pad level" and "our house is messy" instead of identifying the problems head-on. I have been waiting for some of that patented McCarthy adjustments to show up, but even against the Seahawks, we didn't see much of it.
But this week, I think we've seen the old McCarthy, the real McCarthy, the one that isn't afraid to get his hands dirty with his team. The McCarthy that isn't afraid to get in there and tell Ryan Grant how to run the ball, or figure out how our offensive lineman can take advantage of a smaller defensive line. We saw him sit down AJ Hawk and play Brandon Chillar, adding a new dimension to a struggling defense. We saw him whip his team into a mental and emotional state worthy of a Super Bowl contending team.
If this is truly a sign of McCarthy's abilities to take a team and make whatever adjustments that need to be made from week to week, the outlook for the 2008 Packers just got a lot better. Surely, it is only one game, and it was against a team that has mirrored our own: a playoff team that had been slowed by injuries and lackluster performances. The Titans will bring a far stronger defensive challenge and one of the most powerful running games in the league this season.
But, for now, the Packers appear to have their own swagger back, with some new faces (like Chillar) adding wrinkles while some old faces (like Nick Collins) appear to be finding their own place on this team.
Struggling young vets like Ryan Grant and the O-Line appear to be finding their groove, and Aaron Rodgers seems to be a steadying force, consistent and accurate.
But, as I have always asserted, the coach is the cook that puts those ingredients together, and it looks as if we have our chef back in the kitchen again.