The Green Bay Packers, for all of the topsy-turvy emotions we've ridden this season, have found themselves at 6-4 and a legitimate contender for the playoffs. What a ride this roller coaster has been this season.
With a 30-24 victory at home over another wild card hopeful, the Packers earned the victory with the effort of two teams: the first-half team, which seemed to hit on all cylinders, discouraging the opponent, and wasn't looking back or letting up; and the second-half team, which played an ultra-conservative gameplan that bent, bent, bent, and very nearly broke, but still preserved the win.
While question marks still abound, there are enough exclamation points to go right along with them. With that, here are this week's QuickHits:
* The standings will come more into focus as the week's games come to a close, but at 6-4, the Packers would be contending with the 5-4 Eagles (who have yet to play as of the writing of this article) and the 6-4 Giants. Eliminating the sub-.500 teams in the NFC for the time being, the Packers are also contending with the Falcons and the Panthers for one of the two wild-card spots.
None of these teams are hitting on all cylinders by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact, one could easily make the case that the Packers have had the best two weeks of any of the bunch.
The biggest challenge is going to come from the NFC East, where the 7-3 Cowboys are starting to wane. They still have games against the Giants and the Eagles, which means there's a chance that all three teams could combine to finish with good records and steal both wild cards.
* For all the positives that the Packers had coming out of this game, there are two incredibly huge negatives: Al Harris has been lost for the season with an ACL injury, and the initial prognosis for Aaron Kampman suggests a similar fate: certainly, he's not going to be back for the Lions game on Thursday.
This is a great example of winning the battle but losing the war. Just like the rest of the game, we saw a reversal in the injuries by half. In the first half, it seemed like a player from the 49ers was being helped to the sideline every couple of plays. But in the second half, with the game seemingly well in hand early on, two of the Packers' most talented and experienced players appear to be lost for the season.
The ramifications are deeper with the loss of Harris: it means we're going to see a lot more of Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood in the nickel and dime package, and of course, it also means the usually-capable Tramon Williams moves to our starting corner. Make no mistake, even Williams is a minus from what Harris offers, and going from Williams to Bush at nickel is an even steeper drop.
Brad Jones continues to do a steady job filling in for Kampman, and the Packers are fortunate to have a good stable of linebackers. But again, make no mistake that even as AK has been miscast as a 3-4 OLB, there is no one on this roster that is going to equal his statistics, much less his emotional leadership role.
I was calling early on to take the starters out and rest them up for the Thanksgiving Day game. Yes, the 49ers came back, but they came back on Brad Jones and Jarrett Bush anyway. It would have been nice to be able to reinsert our veterans back in at the end of the game if we needed them. Now, we have to look forward to seeing #24 on the field on a regular basis for the rest of the season.
* The "Tale of Two Teams" is a pretty stark contrast, and again, a critical eye needs to be placed on coach Mike McCarthy. When you are 5-4 and struggling for a playoff spot (especially after suffering two devastating losses to the Vikings early on) you don't let up on an opponent. The Packers outpaced the 49ers with 362 yards of offense to SF's 57 in the first half, and Alex Smith could barely complete a pass. Effectively, the Packers gained confidence and put the boot to the 49ers throat and kept it there. Until halftime.
But the Packers decided to play back on their heels in the second half, going very conservative, as opposed to the team that called timeouts at the end of the first half to add to a 14 point lead. If you are playing a team like the Lions and are way ahead, that's one thing. But this is a team that is just as hungry as you are to stay in the playoff hunt, and you could palpably see the confidence grow as the second half went on.
It's like a prevent offense. If you play not to lose, there are two very bad things that can happen. 1) You give the other team more chances to drive and place more pressure on your defense; and 2) You transfer your momentum away and often find it hard to get it back when you actually need it.
The Packers were outscored in the second half 21-9, and if a couple of calls had tipped in the 49er's favor, the game might have had a different outcome. McCarthy has to realize that you never let up. If you need to substitute players, great...and you keep them playing 100% with a full playbook.
It's funny how when the Packers were playing lights out in the first half, they had no injuries. But, when they started playing back on their heels, the injuries mounted.
* Aaron Rodgers started looking more and more like the quarterback we've been waiting to show up. The gameplan change for quick drops has really paid off, and the Packers' offense has begun to look like the one we saw in the preseason.
Most importantly, Rodgers has avoided getting sacked, although he did have one very ugly intentional grounding call. His accuracy, particularly in the first half, was back to its usual pinpoint self. This is important, because Rodgers' accuracy is really his most deadly asset. As his pressure awareness has certainly been in question this season, it seemed to coincide with a drop in his accuracy, too.
The less he has to worry about pressure, the more accurate he is. The more accurate he is, the more complete of a game we get from the quarterback position. I don't count his legs as a tremendous asset. While they make for good gains once in a while, playoff time is not good to offenses that gain their yards with a quarterback's legs.
* Speaking of running backs, I had to check the roster to find out if there had been a switch in numbers...maybe Green got his #30 back, Kuhn switched to #34, and newly-signed LaDanlian Tomlinson took #25.
Seriously, Ryan Grant looked pretty awesome today, gaining 129 yards on 21 carries. This was due to two events happening: the offensive lines were able to push around the 49ers defensive line (who were ranked third in the NFL against the run by Football Outsiders. Were.). Secondly, Ryan Grant actually found the holes and ran through them.
At times, the 49ers looked to be playing without any heart at all, just watching Grant go by and hoping someone else would make the play. But, this is what happens when you demoralize a team and keep the boot on their throat.
* Welcome back to Green Bay, Mr. Screen Pass!
I've often hypothesized that the screen pass may have gone the way of the wishbone offense. It seems that any time the Packers really tried to get it going, even back in the Sherman years, it was rather ineffective. My thought is that the smaller, quicker defenses that evolved to counter the WCO in the 90's made it a priority to guard against the misdirection that the screen pass brings to the table.
But there was none of that today against the 49ers. Brandon Jackson, in particular, may have finally found a consistent reason to be on the field, as he hauled in 6 passes for 65 yards, most of them via the screen. Moreover, it seemed that the linemen that were lead blocking for the back were always where they needed to be and did a great job escorting him up the field.
So much of making a screen pass work is the delayed misdirection, and then having the back allow the linemen to set up their blocks. Today, it seemed to work in perfect harmony.
* Welcome Back to Green Bay, Mr Jennings!
Greg Jennings looked like his old self, again particularly in the first half, when he brought in two passes for huge gains. The first was a perfect touch pass from Rodgers down the left sideline that would have been a touchdown if not for a saving tackle by Shawntae Spencer. The other was a bullet pass that Jennings deftly took, juking two 49er defenders into each other and cruising into the end zone.
Jennings has been counted on as the big play receiver, but has been nearly invisible the past several weeks. If the return of Jermichael Finley allows coverages to stop rolling towards Jennings, that might be the best news for fans of #85 we've had all season.
Finley, incidentally, led all Packer receivers with 7 receptions, and while he only racked up 54 yards, his possession receiving forced the 49ers to honor him and opened up the field for the other Packer offensive weapons.
* Frank Gore broke off a 42 yard run to start the game, but afterwards had only 17 yards on 6 carries. Again, the Packers are able to boast one of the best run defenses in the league. By forcing the 49ers to play from behind, Gore was a non-factor for much of the game, despite finishing with 8 yards per carry.
* As I watched both the ESPN and FOX pre-game shows, I noticed there was precious little coverage of the Packers. This was kind of concerning to me, because I don't think you want the Packers to fall out of the public and national radar. Yes, we used to complain incessantly that Brett Favre got all of the media attention in nearly every Packer game, but even that kind of attention kept the Packers in the national spotlight.
Without Favre, the Packers have to establish a new identity without him (and unfortunately, our two biggest televised games this season were mostly because of Favre, too). The Packers have already turned off some fans and observers with the drama of Favregate, but even worse is having people stop caring about the Packers.
The best way to prevent that is to win.
* Mason Crosby is going to end up being a liability in the stretch run. For that matter, so is Kapinos. When the Packers didn't even think about sending Crosby out for a 55-yarder at the beginning of the fourth quarter, it sent a message that they no longer trust him for much outside of 40 yards, especially in crunch time. If Crosby could make that field goal, the 49ers would never have gotten within 9 points of the Packers. Instead, the Packers were playing for their lives at the end of the game.
The Packers were able to eak it out despite their lack of faith in Mason Crosby's lead foot. But you are going to need those long field goals in the playoffs, when you're not playing inconsistent teams like the 49ers.
Kapinos, on the other hand, ranks 31st in the NFL in net yardage per punt, and shanked a 34 yarder in the third quarter that might have really cost the Packers had the returner not muffed the punt.
If the Packers make the playoffs, they cannot afford to lose the field position battle, because their kicker needs to be inside the 30 before we can count on him to make a field goal.
Completely unrelated stat: Jon Ryan averaged almost 50 yards per punt today for the Seahawks. Just sayin'.
* I'm lovin' Clay Matthews. Just all over the field. He's like a kid off his ADHD medication, both on the field and on the sideline. Lori Nickel commented on her Twitter feed that "Clay Matthews does not stand still. Paces/jumps during these boring timeouts." And, he's making plays, with two hits on the quarterback. He's like AJ Hawk, except he has a better motor and makes the plays instead of trailing them.
With Kampy a huge question mark, a lot more is going to fall on him to make plays from the all-important OLB spot. Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga will be manning the other side, and while both can be solid, neither are established playmakers. This means a lot more pressure on the rookie who has already earned a starting spot with his great play.
* The penalty situation wasn't as glaring this week (6 accepted penalties for 64 yards), but they did show up at inopportune times, particularly on special teams. A critical holding call on Derrick Martin pinned the Packers deep in their own side of the field, hanging on to a six-point lead late in the game. A five-yard pass to Finley on a 3rd and 4 was the difference between that holding call being dismissed and it being cataclysmic.
* I think the Packers caught a break at the end of the game, when Mike Singletary decided to use his last challenge to try and see if he could pin the Packers back another yard on a 3rd an inches at midfield. The gambit failed, and Singletary was left with both no more challenges and no more time outs.
On the next play, Rodgers pulled a sneak, and aided by Quinn Johnson, sailed over that yellow line. But, hidden from view of the cameras, the ball came loose and the 49ers claimed that they had it. Without a challenge, and with the time still being just over two minutes, there was no hope for the 49ers to give themselves one last chance.
If you watch the play slowly, you can clearly see that a 49er is already pointing for a first down in the opposite direction before Rodgers' legs slide off the pile and onto the ground. Now, you can't see the ball from either of the angles that were shown by FOX, and therefore, there's a strong chance that it wouldn't have been overturned anyway. The point is, for a silly challenge earlier, the 49ers lost the chance to potentially get the ball and have one more two-minute offensive drive to win the game.
* I have yet to understand why Quinn Johnson isn't getting more play. Seems like every time he is in there, he does something good. I know there are three fullbacks on the roster and they all have to get some playing time (and Kuhn does a great job receiving out of the backfield), but Johnson's lead blocks opened up some of our biggest runs of the day.
In the end, the Packers came out on top. It's amazing how the Packers nearly repeated the debacle at Tampa Bay, but this time, prevailed and stay in the middle of the playoff hunt. The cost for this win, however, may be dear...two of our defensive veteran leaders will likely be out for the rest of the season.
That stated, the Packers have a very favorable schedule the rest of the way, with only Pittsburgh and Arizona sporting winning records. In fact, the Steelers got beat today by the Kansas City Chiefs, so nothing is impossible.
But the Packers have to find a way to put together four quarters of football over these last six weeks. While games against the Lions and Seahawks are probably easy ones, it is the games against the also-inconsistent teams that will be the test for the Packers. 5-5 Baltimore, and 4-5 Chicago have the potential to do what the 49ers did against us today, and the Packers have to stay on top of them.
And put the boot to the throat. If you want to win, you can't let up. If any lesson is to be learned from today, let it be that one.