Saturday, January 16, 2010

Impact Of Cardinal Loss Yet To Be Seen...

I was an fill-in guest on Around the Lounge over at Packers Lounge the other night (a great experience, if not a little harrowing for someone who never used a webcam before), and we were asked a question that I wish I had more time to think over before I answered.

And, so I have.  And, here it is.  Less stammering and stuttering, which is probably for the best.

The question was:  was the loss to the Cardinals a great game, or a Packer meltdown?

And the answer is:  yes.

The Packers were essentially out of that game.  Foolish errors on our first two possessions led to a 14-0 hole before A-Rodge got the offense moving.  The ballyhooed defense was shredded by Kurt Warner, particularly in the middle of the field, and our #1 rushing defense looked somewhere closer to the mid-twenties.  Mason Crosby missed a kick that would have prevented overtime.  Dom Capers had no answer for the Cardinals, and Kurt Warner brashly claimed that there wasn't anything he saw the whole game in which he didn't know what the Packers were doing.

So, yes, it was a meltdown.

But, the Packers came roaring back, sailing on the arm of Aaron Rodgers and some fantastic receiving by Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, and Donald Driver.  McCarthy made a gutsy onside kick call that was executed perfectly by Crosby and Brandon Underwood.  They came back from being 21 points down and sent the game into overtime.

So, yes, it was a great game.

Some of my fellow Loungemates really decried the game as being a complete and utter debacle, which I find it hard to agree with.  After all, in a world of "what ifs", what if Scott Green would have thrown the flag he should have for the illegal late hit on Aaron Rodgers in overtime? The Packers would have had offsetting penalties and would have repeated second down from the 20-yard line instead of trying to go for it all (again) on 2nd and 20 from deep in their own end zone.

(Incidentally, I still think that the facemask non-call is the one we focus on too much.  It's a judgement call that wasn't made, just like how you could call holding on every offensive lineman on every play.  When the NFL comes forward and fines a player for a late hit, they are admitting they missed it, and that one made a big difference in how the Packers approached their next two downs.)

The point is, if the Packers had driven down the field and scored a field goal and won that game, that would completely change how we saw the game...and we certainly wouldn't be calling it a complete and utter debacle anymore.  With a week to cool down, looking objectively at the game, the Packers shot themselves in the foot (actually, both feet), and then nearly overcame it to win anyway.

So, what's the impact?  It's interesting, because I don't think we're really going to know for a couple of years.  It really depends on how the Packers organization responds to it.  If this was the kind of game that leaves a bad taste in your mouth and makes everyone work harder to get past that point next year, it's a good game.

If it deflates the entire organization, and the Packers don't even get back in the playoffs in 2010, well, it was a very negative loss.

I hearken back to the 1990's and some of the important playoff losses the Packer endured.  We can look back now at the early part of the decade as the ascension of a great team that had to repeatedly take its lumps in the playoffs whenever they matched up with the Cowboys.  And, let's be honest, as the Packers were escorted out of the playoffs by Aikman and Co. in 1993, 1994, and 1995, none of the games were remotely close at the end (27-17, 35-9, 38-27).

Yet, in retrospect, we tend to look at those games as stepping stones...hard losses that convinced Ron Wolf to sign veteran free agents, that drove Mike Holmgren to not only win the division, but get home-field advantage throughout, and motivated the players to do whatever it took to win (even play special teams).  In the end, the Packers entered the 1996 season fully aware of their goals, and then achieved them.  "The Journey is its own Reward" was the theme and, in essence, the struggles of those playoff losses forged an iron team that knew exactly what it needed to do to persevere.

Today's Packers have much in common with those teams in the early 1990's: they're young, fiery, have all the potential in the world but haven't quite figured out how to put it together against formidable competition yet.

Fast-forward now to the end of the 1998 season, and the frustrating first-round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.  Like the Cardinal game this year, the defeat of the 49ers was almost a foregone conclusion in the minds of most Packers fans (and perhaps the Packers), and it was a surprisingly close game.  And, just like this past week (and unlike the earlier Cowboy losses), this game came down to the wire.  And, just like last Sunday, a late bad call by the officials left the Packers wondering what could have been.

In that game, the Packer defense was holding a 27-23 lead when Scott McGarrahan recovered a fumble by Jerry Rice, a play that would have likely been "the dagger".  But the officials ruled (incorrectly, by most accounts) that Rice had been down and the 49ers kept the ball.  With three seconds on the clock, Terrell Owens caught a 25-yard touchdown in a crowd that left the Packers stunned.

The following year saw a huge transition...the loss of Holmgren and Reggie White, and a 17-15 record over the next two seasons, missing the playoffs in both years.  It took two head coaching changes and some considerable rebuilding before the Packers returned to the playoffs in 2001.

In retrospect, that 49er loss in 1998 was more of a harbinger of chaos than a stepping stone to greatness.  Obviously, our present-day Packers have little in common with that aging 1998 team, but the way both teams left the playoffs are uncomfortably familiar.

The Packers have a lot going their way for next year.  Many players have already stated that this game was indeed a stepping stone, and the team is loaded with young talent that should only get better.  The team went on a 7-1 run to finish the season, and can look forward to a strong draft class.

But there are omens that are looming on the horizon, too.  An unsettled collective bargaining agreement may put the Packers in a disadvantage when it comes to free agency, both this offseason and in the future, getting in the way of Ted Thompson's usual patterns of re-signing players from within.  Thompson will not have the ability to sign veteran free agents to fill out his roster and special teams like Ron Wolf did in the mid-1990's.

The potential is there to lose several key players...Kampman, Spitz, Colledge, Collins, Jolly...and not have the resources to adequately replace them, much less fill the holes already on the team.

So, there is the potential for the Packers to rise or to fall.  We've seen it before, and one way or another, we'll see it again.  Either way, I have a strong feeling we will be looking back at last Sunday's game as a watershed moment in the tenure of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson:  either a stepping stone to better days, or a meltdown that will take years to recover from.

Time will tell.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dear Ted, Can You Please Get A Free Safety This Offseason?

Dear Ted,

Hey, just wanted to express my condolences on the loss last Sunday.  I know its a tough loss after such high hopes and ups and downs in the season.  The Defensive Player of the Year honors for Charles Woodson had to be a bit of a pick-me-up, though.

Anyway, let's be straight here.  I know you and I haven't always seen eye to eye.  I mean, I've never (ever) been a part of any of the tactless "Fire Ted" movements, but I have never been a part of the "Bronze a Statue of Ted in the Atrium" movements, either.  I've offered my criticisms and praises, each when deserved.

I'm here to offer you a little piece of advice for the offseason, one that I've offered before but has seemed to fall on deaf ears.  I'm hoping the Pittsburgh and Arizona games have perhaps made you a little more open to new ideas now.

I know you have a lot going on right now.  I mean, you have to be strategizing two different gameplans on whether or not there is a Collective Bargaining Agreement, evaluating your coaches, looking at your roster, scouting talents in the bowl games, deciding whether or not to put that franchise tag on Aaron Kampmann.  But it's time that you face the facts.

It's time to bring in the next Eugene Robinson.  The Packers need a free safety.  A real free safety. 

Oh, I know your former-linebacker mentality.  You love having tough, strong, interchangeable safeties back there.  Bigby, Rouse, Bush, Manuel...all strong-nosed guys who can hit hard and can be a force in run support, but don't have that knack for seeing the whole field and struggle in coverage.  Nick Collins is another one in that mold, but he's managed to do a serviceable job at free safety over the past two years.

But you know that Collins is miscast.  Oh, sure, he makes a ton of great plays, but one out of every ten plays or so, he makes a gaffe that's glaring and costly, and invariably, they are the kind of plays that a good FS needs to be able to make.  Maybe it is taking the best angle to the ball, choosing the right route to play over-the-top in coverage, seeing the decoy routes and picking the right receiver to cover.

I'm guessing you know that, which is why he's still working on a rookie contract despite making the Pro Bowl two years in a row.  You're still "evaluating" him in some way.  And, let's face facts...he's a strong safety trying to play free safety.  He doesn't have the vision or the awareness that a free safety should have.  His physical freakishness allows him to compensate for it...maybe nine times out of ten. 

But it is that one play out of ten that really hurts the team.  And it showed on Sunday.

For all that is ballyhooed about Dom Capers' great defense, ranked #2 in the NFL this past season, a good quarterback can easily crack the code:  work the ball in the middle of the field.  This has been a problem for the last several years, Ted.  You've tried to compensate for it.  The 3-4 put more big bodies in the middle of the field.  Capers unloaded defensive schemes that tried to place more DBs in the backfield.  Three of your four first-round picks have been defensive players.

But, when you are hoping that adding Brandon Underwood and Jarrett Bush is going to be the solution on defense, it brings new perspective to the term, "Psycho". 

The problem isn't the scheme or even the linebackers.  It's making the adjustments and the right angles when the offense shows you sets that multiple plays can be run out of.  And when you don't have a quarterback in the defensive backfield who can recognize what to do, get people where they need to go, and then make the right decisions himself...well, you leave yourself open for what Big Ben and Warner did to us. 

Eugene Robinson wasn't some great physical specimen.  He was just smart.  He could be trusted in the backfield by himself, making those adjustments and taking the most efficient angles to the ball.  It allowed the strong safety, LeRoy Butler, to playing closer to the line...and more in the middle of the field.

When Robinson left the team, Butler bemoaned the loss of his security blanket.  He now had to play more in the backfield, because the new young FS, Darren Sharper, couldn't do it all himself.  That's how important a good free safety can be.

I know you love those physical strong safety types, but opposing offenses, particularly the ones that we will have to face in playoff games, have cracked the code in beating the Packers.  More linebackers and more safeties-that-play-like-linebackers aren't going to help.

I've been pressing you for years to get a guy like this.  I nearly threw my remote through the television two years ago at the draft, when you traded out of the first round and passed up a chance at Kenny Phillips, who went #32 to the Giants.

We both know that free agency isn't going to be the answer.  For one, you tend to blow smoke, but in the end, you're not going to invest the kind of money that FAs are going to ask for, even moreso this year.  If there is no cap, the top FAs will be off the market and the remaining ones will be asking for even more inflated prices.

So, I'm going to give you a name to highlight on your draft board:  USF's Nate Allen.  I know a lot can fluctuate between now and then, but right now he's slated to go as a second or third rounder.  As Railbird's Brian Carriveau reports today, however, an influx of underclassmen will likely make this one of the deepest drafts in a long while, and could push a guy like Allen well into the third round.

But don't overlook him.  Consider what he brings to the table, according to draftcountdown:

Classic centerfielder who is renowned for his playmaking ability --- Possesses solid physical tools and exceptional intangibles --- Leader of the secondary who functions as an extension of the coaching staff --- Profiles as a starter in the NFL.

No, he's not blessed with freakish athleticism or mad speed.  But Eugene Robinson proved years ago that you don't necessarily need that to be the quarterback of the defense.  He has what our safety position sorely lacks:  instincts, vision, zone coverage skills, excellent awareness of all that is happening in front of him.

In some ways, he's the opposite of Nick Collins, an athletic freak who lacks those intangible skills.

In getting a guy like Allen, you kill many birds with one stone.  The free safety position is improved, perhaps not from an experience or pure talent standpoint, but with a guy whose skills fit the needs of the position.  As a result, the strong safety position improves, because Collins is allowed to do what he does best:  play closer to the line in run support and become a headhunter in the middle of the field.  Finally, having a free safety who can recognize what the offense is running at them allows for smarter called adjustments of the corners and linebackers, and then he can make the better angles in over-the-top coverage or playing the ball.

I know I've said this before, and I'm saying it again.  I'm trying to help, really.  Talk to Dom and Mike about it.  For the most part, we've got the running defense figured out.  It's time to fix our pass defense, and in an offseason that looks like it is going to be difficult to make a lot of moves in, this could be an easy (and effective) upgrade.

Yours truly,

CD Angeli

Sunday, January 10, 2010

TundraVision QuickHits: The Wild Card Aftermath

Yep.  It's a punch in the gut.  It's a game that had us all on the edge of our seats, all the way to the bitter end, a game that we should have owned.  As Packer fans, we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to in the future.

That stated, the game went very much as I figured it would.  I thought that the Cardinals would come out like gangbusters, given a Lovie Smith-esque shot of adrenaline and revenge by head coach Whisenhunt.  Unlike most, I predicted a close game and a shootout, with the Packers even falling behind early until the sugar rush of the Cardinals wore off.  Some folks scoffed at my prediction of 36-31, but in the end, even that was conservative.

The Packers gave us a roller coaster season and finished it off with a roller coaster game that, despite the loss and early exit from the playoffs, left Packer fans proud of the fight and determination of a team that fell behind and clawed its way back.

With that, here's the last QuickHits of the 2009 season:

*  Perhaps the Packers defense came into this game with a little bit of statistic inflation from blowing out so many inferior teams over the course of the season.  All I know is that I expected the #2 overall defense (and #1 rushing defense) to at least slow down the Cardinals offense a little bit.  I realized that Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald would get their share of yards, but without Anquan Boldin, I figured that our D would have the edge in the matchup on the field.

How wrong I was. The vaunted Packers defense and highly respected defensive coordinator Dom Capers allowed 531 net yards today, along with six touchdowns, and perhaps most disappointing, 156 yards on the ground with a 6.3 ypc average.

The pressure on Warner was simply not enough, with only one sack and a mere handful of pressures.  Clay Matthews was bottled up much of the day while rushing from the outside by offensive tackle Jeremy Bridges, easily deflecting him away from Warner and giving the Cardinals time to keep the pocket secure.

On one play in the first half, I watched Brad Jones try to bulldoze Levi Brown, but the Cardinal line did such a good job on that play that Jones and two other rushers encircled Warner, who remained safely in a 3'x3' pocket and completed the pass.

Capers didn't unload the Psycho scheme until the fourth quarter--perhaps he should have brought it in sooner, as it was the only time the Cardinals seemed to be nervous with where the rush was coming from.

*  There may be some folks who would like to pile on Aaron Rodgers after this game.  After all, it was his overtime turnover that will make some hearken back to a certain other quarterback's playoff performances against the Eagles and Giants and try and draw some comparisons.  And, there's some merit to that.

But it never should have come down to Rodgers' fumble to begin with.  Rodgers finished with one interception to four touchdowns and 422 yards through the air.  More importantly, he found his rhythm in the second half and brought the team back from oblivion on his arm, when it looked like the rest of the team (and coach) were ready to fold.

I will be the first to admit that I believe that Rodgers reverted back to hanging on to the ball too long after his interception, as he appeared to be tentative for a time.  And, that final fumble was, in part, due to him not being aware of the pressure around him.  But just as Brett Favre had his Achilles heel, so does Rodgers, and he does more than enough to make up for it.  At some point, the onus has to be on the rest of the team to pull their weight, too, and they simply didn't do it enough, particularly on defense.

*  Injuries opened up the lack of depth at key positions for the Packers.  When Chad Clifton went down, TJ Lang came into the game and the Packers were back where they were early in the season, worried if the line could hold up against a strong rush.

When Atari Bigby went out with a hamstring injury, the Packers were forced to play Matt Giordano at strong safety, another difficult substitution when you already have Jarrett Bush on the field against three-wide sets.

Injuries are always part of the game, but this season the Packers made some interesting final roster cuts, gorging on fullbacks and linebackers and leaving the secondary and offensive line devoid of veteran depth.  Yes, the goal was to keep players that could play special teams, but apparently, that gambit failed when the Packers finished 32nd overall.

*  The final play was interesting.  The Cardinals rushed four linemen, which were picked up by the Packers' five offensive linemen.  The left guard and tackle (presumably Lang and Colledge) doubled up Calias Campbell, leaving Packer Rag Doll Michael Adams as an extra rusher on the right side of the offensive line.  He came in virtually untouched, with Donald Driver giving him a rather quick chip block as he went out on his route.

With the Packers in an empty backfield shotgun, you would have to expect that the intent was for the ball to come out very quickly, or to have assumed the Cards would have been playing a more prevent coverage.  Either way, Adams redeemed himself for his miserable play the past two weeks in a big way.

*  I've made the case many times that this year's version of the Green Bay Packers were Creatures of Momentum.  While all teams rise and fall to some degree with the breaks of the game, the Packers seemed a bit more susceptible to gaining confidence as they rode the waves, as well as losing focus when the waves crashed down on top of them.  Today was a picture-perfect example of that.

In the first half, neither squad could get much of anything going consistently, and there were some sad looks on some of the players' faces.  Only when Charles Woodson made a beauty of a strip of the ball on Larry Fitzgerald (with CMIII recovering) did the Packers put together a concerted drive.  However, that was quickly lost when the Cardinals responded with their own scoring drive

In the second half, the offense seemed to find its footing, and then a absolutely perfect surprise onside kick seemed to keep the tide going on the Packers side.  For the rest of the game, the Packers' offense seemed to rule the field when they were out there.

On the other hand, the Packers' defense never seemed to get its feet under them from start to finish.  Warner and the Cardinals offense dictated the pace throughout the entire game.

This is shocking, because when you are talking about a defense with a Defensive MVP candidate, a Defensive ROTY candidate, three Pro Bowlers, as well as solid players in the front seven, you would expect that someone would step up and assert themselves.  But our pass rush was nearly non-existent, and our coverage was shoddy.  Even when Tramon was doing another patented arm bar (no flag) on Steve Breaston, he simply caught the ball one-handed.

AJ Hawk reverted to his concerning form, missing tackles and looking out of position.  Nick Barnett was nearly invisible the entire game.  Matthews was contained, and Woodson lost more battles than he won.

I said many times that I believed that the Packers were going to make the playoffs, but still have to prove they are a Playoff Team.  While I have a lot of hope for the future, today was hopefully a sour lesson for a young team.   Let's hope it teaches them the resolve they need to have when everyone amps it up in the second season.  Momentum (and the other team) do not dictate a how a great team plays.

*  Speaking of Woodson, Larry Fitzgerald got away with two pretty overt offensive holding calls when he essentially pushed Woodson down on his coverage and made some big-time catches.  The first play was when he clearly put his forearm into CW's chest, knocking him down.  The second, which was on his one-handed touchdown, was essentially a shoulder tackle, knocking Woodson over backwards.  Woodson looked completely in awe at the officials when he stood up after that one.

Is Fitzgerald the new "Michael Irvin", able to get away with stuff other receivers can't?  The greatest receivers shouldn't have to do stuff like that, and I do think he is one of the best in the game.  He doesn't need to cheat, and the refs don't have to look the other way, either.

*  For as great as Rodgers performed over the second half, we cannot leave out the men who were catching those passes, particularly Greg Jennings, who after an inconsistent season, asserted himself as the Yang to Fitzgerald's Yin, making spectacular catches and a highlight reel one-handed touchdown after batting down a bullet by Rodgers.

Donald Driver also atoned for his first-half fumble by catching a couple of great passes, included a 28 yard catch in the fourth quarter in which he stopped on a dime to allow a defender to fly past him, then carried another tackler down to the one-yard line.  It wasn't Driver's best game, but in the second half, he had as much heart as anyone.

Credit must also be given to Jermichael Finley, who spent much of the game bracketed in double coverage, but came loose in the second and third quarters to set up scores.  The kid is drawing a lot of attention from defensive coordinators, which means he may even be better than we think.

*  I was a little disturbed by the lack of "attack" in the red zone in the first half.  It seemed that when the Packers finally got near the end zone, they were attempting out passes and misdirection runs instead of simply taking it down the Cardinals' throat.  In their first attempt, after a poor run by Green and a sack of Rodgers, the Packers got a couple of penalties that allowed for a quarterback sneak.

On their second possession before the end of the half, the Packers had first and 9 yards to go. They attempted a run by Brandon Jackson, an out route by Jennings for minimal gain, and then Rodgers was sacked running around the backfield from the four-yard line.

Obviously, the aggressiveness in the red zone kicked up a notch in the second half, but it seemed to illustrate how the Packers played that first half:  tentative.  In many ways, it was a reversal of how the two teams played last week.

*  Lost in all of this is the missed field goal by Mason Crosby.  Yes, it was a 54-yard attempt while down 17-0, and many of us still question why we would have given the Cardinals such great field position knowing Crosby is not that reliable.  It was a couple of plays later that Woodson stripped the ball, but it could have easily been a 24-0 ball game at that point, as the Cardinals were driving in Packer territory.

Even more glaring is that, once again, Crosby had plenty of leg for that kick and, again, missed it by a hair to the right.  Crosby makes that field goal (and Woodson still strips the ball on the next possession) and this game doesn't go into overtime.

Naturally, you can point out Neil Rackers missed an even more important (and much shorter) field goal at the end of regulation.  The difference is, however, that the Cardinals won despite that miss. 

The Packers have to ask themselves some hard questions regarding Crosby this offseason.  Leg strength is great, but if it isn't going to be accurate, does it really matter?  Whomever the special teams coach is in 2010 (and I'm hoping it isn't Slocum) needs to evaluate whether or not Crosby's "wide-right" syndrome can be fixed.  If not, the Packers would be better off with an accurate kicker that maybe has only has a 47-yard range, rather than an inaccurate kicker who can barely miss them from 60 yards.

*  The biggest complaint after the game was that Aaron Rodgers had his face mask held after he fumbled the last play.  I don't know how much of a difference that may have made.  Since he had lost the ball, the penalty might have only taken back the TD but given the Cards the ball in field goal range.  There's a chance that, if a flag was thrown, the Packers might have maintained possession if they determined that the ball did not trade ownership yet.

But, as I said earlier, this wasn't a game you could count on the refs to win or lose for you (Tramon's arm bar, Fitzgerald's push-downs).  Complaining the refs lost a game for you reminds me of Viking fans, to be honest.  Let's be proud of our team and how they played.  There's plenty to be proud of, and enough blame for the loss to go around for the players and coaches, too.

*  There's a kumbaya spirit among Packer fans, with many of them praising Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy's regime for the 2009 comeback.  Certainly, Thompson and McCarthy solidified their job security, which (whether we like to remember it or not) was not nearly as secure nine weeks ago.

I still am trying to figure out, however, the difference between the team that went 4-4 and the team that went 7-1.  I asked that question last week to some folks at Cheesehead Nation, and invariably, the answer was the "Come to Jesus" meeting following the Tampa Bay game--that somehow, the players finally bought in after hitting rock bottom.

Amusingly enough, for a guy who understands more of the intangibles of the game than the Xs and Os, I still find that explanation incomplete.  There were a lot of things that physically came together around that time also, such as the ascending of Clay Matthews (and the loss of Aaron Kampmann), the return of Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, better decision-making from Rodgers in the pocket, and of course, the re-emergence of Ryan Grant.

So, which came first:  did these players individually improving their performances lead to the rise in confidence and synergy, or was there a team collective intervention that spurred those individual performances to improve?

In any case, the Packers have compiled a very intriguing series of records in McCarthy's first four years, especially when you sort them by streaks.


What will be interesting is to see how this offseason goes for the Packers, with the threat of the uncapped year on the horizon, and with a couple of holes yet to be filled in the draft and free agency.  Will this close-but-not-quite season spur Thompson to break from his modus oporandi again and trade up in the draft?  Will McCarthy start out picking up where he left off, or will the team have trouble getting out of the gate again?

*  All in all, this has been a fun year to be a Packer fan.  We went from Super Bowl aspirations at 0-0, to the sky falling at 4-4, to Super Bowl aspiration again just two months later.  We've seen young players grow and mature and become household names with bright futures.  We've celebrated and swore, cheered and thrown foam bricks at the screen, booed Brett Favre and cheered wildly for Aaron Rodgers.

The optimism will fade slightly when the playoffs continue next week and we come to grips with the fact that we won't see the Packers play again until next August, and we start wondering what might have been, what will be, and what needs to happen in between.

In other words, another memorable season for a great team and the greatest fans in the world.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Packers Need To Play to Win. Period.

I'm probably in the extreme minority here, but I think the Packers need to go into Arizona on Sunday afternoon, keep their starters in the game until the end (unless it is a blowout like we had against the Seahawks), and start broadly experimenting with their schemes with the base personnel.

I've heard far more fans and experts say that, since we have a 6 out of 8 chance of replaying the exact same game a week a game that "matters"...that the Packers should hold back.  Hedge their bets.  Our playoff spot is guaranteed, and there's nothing to be gained with a win.  So why put your starters at risk in what is essentially a meaningless game and tip your hand for when it counts?

And, great points all.  The perfect world, of course, would be to go in and play completely vanilla, remove the starters at halftime, and still come away with an emotional win that sends us into the playoffs geared up.  And, had we been playing the Seahawks this week, I think we could get away with it.

You see, the Packers have demonstrated a knack for blowing out bad teams, and they've had plenty of practice.  They have won five games against Really Bad Teams this year (Rams, Lions twice, Browns, and Seahawks), and won them by a margin of 175-42.  Don't doubt for a second that the Packers live on momentum and can beat inferior talent. Then, of course, there was the loss at Tampa Bay, which drops that record against Really Bad Teams to 5-1.

They've also not fared too badly against Pretty Mediocre Teams, ones that are at or around .500 (Chicago twice, San Fran, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh).  They Packers went 4-1 against those teams, the only black mark the one-point loss to the Steelers, otherwise outpacing those teams by a margin of 136-103.  So, the Pack plays well against middling teams:  teams that are/were struggling for wild-card berths, somewhat like themselves.

But here's where the problem is:  the Packers have played only four games against Good Playoff Teams (Minnesota twice, Cincinnati, and Dallas), and have come up short in all but the Cowboy game.  That's a 1-3 record against the caliber of team that the Packers will be facing in the playoffs as the likely fifth seed.  In those games, the Packers got outscored by the competition 90-106, and most of us who watched them can attest to how the Packers were simply "taken out" early by the Bengals and the Vikings.  They never got the momentum going.

Incidentally, you might be able to slide the Steelers into that "Good Playoff Team" category, despite their 8-7 record and scant chances for making the playoffs this year.  Face it...those were the defending Super Bowl Champs and they played like it against the Packers.  And, it looks even better to say that the Packers were undefeated against the Mediocres.

But, the point is simply this:  the Packers have only gone against one true playoff team since before their devastating loss to the Bucs, which followed two emotional losses to the Vikings.  I believe, as many Packer fans do, that Mike McCarthy and the team reached their rock bottom that day in Tampa, and reinvented themselves into the team that has gone 6-1 since that day, clawing their way back into the playoffs.

In many ways, this is a totally different team than the one we saw early on in 2009, the team that nearly lost to the Bears in the opener, then were shocked by the Bengals.  In fact, after watching both the Vikings and Packers the last few weeks, many of us would be willing to put some coin down on the Packers in their third-matchup, if it happens.

But, you see, it's not the point.  The Packers, like many teams, thrive on momentum.  And it seems like the Packers have gone up and down all season.  When the Packers can't seem to get it going early, they struggle the rest of the game.   But, more importantly, this is a team that most of us gave up all playoff hopes on following the Bucs Debacle, and the Packers have played with a renewed vigor that, even in the loss against the Steelers, you felt like they had left it all out on the field.

So, the question you take that chance, and give up that momentum?  The Arizona Cardinals are the ONLY team the Packers will face in the last seven games of their season that has already wrapped up a playoff spot, the only team besides Pittsburgh that they really have a chance to test their mettle against.  Was the 17-7 victory against the Cowboys a rebound victory after Tampa?  Was it a trap game for the Cowboys, who had just won a huge game on the road against division rival Philadephia, and was looking ahead to another division game against the Redskins?

The Packers took that Cowboy victory (perhaps our most reviled rival outside the division) and have carried that momentum all the way through today.  The fact that it came a week after the most half-assed performance of the season isn't lost on me.

The Packers thrive on momentum, and that's a sign of a team that isn't quite in the upper echelons of the league yet.  The truly great teams take those cold stretches or days they don't start out on the right foot and find a way to methodically chip away and recover, whether in be in the game itself or over the course of several games.

That's not to say that the Packers can't make it to the NFC Championship game.  In fact, I would say that the momentum that they have carried over the last seven games have been exactly what you want entering the playoffs, especially as a wild-card team.

Which is why the Packers can't afford to whittle this game away.  Coach McCarthy does many things well, but he's not always great at outsmarting the other team.  In fact, one might go as far to say that Mike can outsmart himself, and that is a huge concern going into the game on Sunday.

As Mike Vandermause astutely notes, McCarthy did exactly that two seasons ago, resting everyone in the season finale against the Lions.  The results for a 13-3 team seeded #2 overall?  After a nineteen-day layoff for most of the starters, they fell behind 14-0 against the Seahawks before pulling it out in the snow, then laid an egg against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship.  The Giants, on the other hand, played their darndest against the Pats in their "meaningless" season finale, and despite the loss, kept their momentum going.  It paid off when they upset the Cowboys and Packers on the road, then got the rematch in the Super Bowl, didn't it?

The Packers are not the Saints or the Colts right now.  Sure, they're one of the hottest teams over the second half of the season, but in the playoffs, it doesn't matter.  Every team is going to kick it up a gear in the playoffs, and the Packers simply aren't a team that can afford to coast and keep their momentum going.

The Packers have got to put themselves in their best position to win their first playoff game.  There's no moral victories here.  There's no "win" in coming out of the game without any major injuries or not giving up any major secret gameplans if you are playing not to win to begin with.

Heck, I've got enough respect for Dom Capers to believe that he can come up with new wrinkles in his gameplan despite having to play the same team twice in a row.  That's the kind of attitude you have to take if you want to go deep in the playoffs.  "We don't care if you know what we're going to do.  We're going to beat you anyway."

Mike McCarthy's reputation has taken many of the same roller-coaster rises and falls that the team has had this season.  Let's hope that he can solidify his reputation by playing hard against the Cardinals two weeks in a row and getting two wins...or at least, the win that counts.  The repercussions for repeating past mistakes of taking the air out of your team's tires going into the playoffs are well-documented.  If Matt Flynn is taking too many snaps on Sunday, and the Packers are one-and-done in the playoffs, that will land right on MM's shoulders.