As the bye week comes to a close, the Packers are looking into a non-stop stretch of twelve straight games that will endeavor to define who they are: the exhilarating team from the preseason that had even the national media thinking deep post-season, or the uninspired team that stumbled to a 2-2 start.
There's probably no better recipe for renewal if you are the Packers: the Lions come to town on Sunday, and most Packer fans would have already added this one to the win column just two weeks ago. And while the game should still be considered a given, there's an increased sense of urgency among the Packers and their fans.
Let's face it. This is a must-win. Not in the traditional, "this is imperative for our playoff run" sense, but in the "we have to establish that we are a team that is not going to beat ourselves". Because, you see, the Lions will not beat us this weekend. The Packers really should be in in control of this game.
When the 2009 NFL schedule was announced, the Packers celebrated in that we had one of easiest schedules in the league. In all actuality, the Vikings and Bears claimed the two easiest schedules in the league, with the Packers in fourth place. Any why was that? Because all three teams got to play the Lions twice this year.
That's an automatic two wins for each team, just like last year. The Lions are an assumed victory.
And that is the danger of this upcoming weekend. It's important that the Packers maintain their focus on each game, one at a time. The Lions pose a threat, however small, to really rock the Packers' boat. The Packers are reeling from a pasting by the Favre-led Minnesota Vikings, and will be looking for redemption in just two weeks when the boys in Purple return to Lambeau Field.
Sandwiched in the middle are two of the worst teams in the league: the Lions and the Browns, both 1-4 and by any stretch of the imagination, inferior to the Packers...especially if you are still believing that the Packers are just a blitz scheme or an offensive tackle away from being the team they were in the preseason.
But, come on...this isn't Division I college taking on Division III. The Lions operate under the same rules and have the same opportunities as any other team in the league. They pick from the same talent pool and on any given Sunday, can win a game. No game is 100%, and the way the Packers have struggled along both of their lines as late, there's a nervous energy at 1265. Positive energy, to be sure. But with just a dash of urgency.
The Packers will be bringing some familiar faces back to the lineup. Atari Bigby returns at strong safety, and everyone from Mike McCarthy to Ryan Pickett has been vocal in their excitement in having his physical presence back. Pickett went as far to compare Bigby to Bob Sanders, and I'm guessing he meant the Colts' safety, not our former defensive coordinator. That is certainly a stretch, since Bigby hasn't looked like the playmaker he was in 2007 since the first game of 2008, but it sure can't hurt to have him next to Nick Collins instead of Aaron Rouse/Derrick Martin/Jarrett Bush.
Chad Clifton returns to his left tackle position, which should improve the blocking for Aaron Rodgers as it allows Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz to return to their normal positions. I'm sorry to say this, but the injury to one player causing two other linemen to have to play out of position is inexcusable. Here's hoping Clifton returns for good.
The line should be able to open some more holes for Ryan Grant, too, and may be helped by the addition of rookie Quinn Johnson, who will likely be active for the game in place of injured Korey Hall. I'm looking forward to sitting in the stands this weekend and hearing the snaps of shoulder pads when he goes in to block.
Mark Tauscher, sadly, will be out this week as he continues to get himself back into playing shape, which means that Allen Barbre will still be on an island on the right side with few options available if he struggles. I'm hoping Tausch can return to form, but I'm not going to bet on it at this point. Tough injury to bounce back from, and you sure wish he had been rehabbing with the Packers training staff all this time.
Actually, on the other hand, he might be better off without them.
Meanwhile, the Lions may be going without two of the only bullets in their pistol: both Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson are listed as questionable, leaving the Lions further behind the eight ball.
So, by every measure, a rested, reloaded, rejuvenated Packer teams already with the advantage in the talent column will be going against a beat-up and discouraged Lions team at Lambeau Field. Everything seems to favor the Pack. So, why the worries?
The Packer Blogosphere has noted some cracks in the armor that belie the confidence this team should have right now. Nagler over at CheeseheadTV noted Mike McCarthy's defensive rambling when asked about Greg Jennings' comments to the media about not getting the ball more. Carriveau over at Railbird Central chimes on on McCarthy's talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Donald's Designated Driver over at all kinds of time has already declared 2009 as a rebuilding year, a far cry from the Super Bowl predictions being made in August. And while Charles Woodson has been universally chastised for criticizing his coaches and gameplan (going so far as to make a somewhat-forced mea culpa with the media), Tom Pelissero makes every single one of Woodson's points the same day in his article questioning the pass rush.
In McCarthy's own words, someone needs to clean up this house. As more veteran players grumble in the locker room, the more pressure this team is under to play to its potential.
I wrote a couple articles over the bye week, both critical (but not damning) of Ted Thompson and McCarthy. As I took some lumps from some of the defenders of the present administration, one of the points brought up several times was that this is a 2-2 team, and there is a lot of football to be played before we can make any final assessments.
Of course, I disagree...if we were 4-0, I think there would be a lot of people willing to make final assessments, but that is neither here nor there. The point is, if this team is going to exceed an 8-8 record this season, they have to win the games they are supposed to. The Packers have only looked remotely like the dominating team from the preseason against the lowly Rams, and the other win this season was a poorly played game throughout, won on a broken long pass play in the fourth quarter.
But, even if the Packers are no more than a middle-of-the-road team, you have to beat the Rams. You have to beat the Lions. You have to beat the Browns. You have to beat the Bucs. You have to beat Seattle. You have to beat the Lions again. This puts you at seven wins, and now you are looking at the rest of the schedule against teams that are all .500 or better.
The Lions are hungry, too. While the Packers are looking to move from 6-10 back into a playoff hunt, Detroit is looking for respectability, to break a string of humiliating losses, and they've played well in every game. They don't have the talent right now to win, but they're playing with a lot more heart than they did when the Packers danced over them in the season finale last year.
And in the Lions' four losses, they came against teams that are a combined 15-3. The team they beat, the Washington Redskins, are 2-3. Could they play the Packers close enough to have us end up 2-3, too? Let's not forget this is the team we routed in the finale last year, making them the first 0-16 in NFL history. Redemption is a powerful intangible.
My guess is no, they won't. The Packers should win this game, and win it handily.
But, I coined the phrase "antergy" in my last article, a term used to describe a level of teamwork and play that actually results in a team playing worse than the sum of its parts, dragging down the most talented players with it. As we look at our most talented players--Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Aaron Kampman, Charles Woodson--it's pretty clear that they've had their performances affected by the level of play around them more than they've raised it.
That "antergy", the opposite of synergy, is what has Packers fans cheering cautiously, hopefully, passionately...and with urgency. Just like the team they are cheering for.