In lieu of a QuickHits, I figured I'd just get to the heart of the matter following the 28-26 Packer victory over the Detroit Lions today. Yes, I am happy the Packers got a win, by hook or by crook. Yes, I am thrilled the Packers are 3-1 and have a chance to tie for the division lead if the Giants come through and paddle the overconfident Bears tonight.
But, I called it just as the game started on Twitter: this isn't the kind of game that much good can come from. If you win, even convincingly, you were supposed to win. If you lose, panic rightfully should ensue. For all those trying to puff up the Lions as "not your father's Lions" as the Packers lead became more and more tenuous in the second half, the fact of the matter is that the Packers are supposed to be a Super Bowl favorite, playing a terrible team that hasn't won on the road in 22 games, and haven't beaten the Packers in the Aaron Rodgers era, much less in Wisconsin since 1992.
This was, and should have been, a slam-dunk game. This should have been the Buffalo game redux, with the offensive players taunting the defense. It was not. Even including the Packers' final game-sealing 73-yard drive, the Lion...the LIONS...dominated the Packers in nearly every statistical category: First downs (24-16), Third down efficiency (59% - 43%), total yards (431-261), time of possession (37:37 - 22:23), and even turnovers (3-4).
Where they Lions put their own nails in their coffin was with penalties, piling up 13 for 102 yards and snuffing out several drives, not unlike the Packers last Monday night against the Bears, when they lost by three points.
In fact, there's quite a bit in common with that game. The Packers, a team we believed to be far superior to the Bears, narrowly lost the game after imploding with penalties and special teams' gaffes. This week, the Lions were the ones who seemed to implode with self-destructive penalties, but only lost by two points to a Packers team that shouldn't even be spoken in the same breath as them.
This is because the Packers, once again, intermixed several brilliant plays and drives (great picks by Hawk and Woodson, fantastic precision touchdowns by Rodgers) with bone-headed gaffes (two rare interceptions, a shanked punt, and fumble after fumble on special teams). It took those brilliant plays and some stiff red-zone defense in the second half to hold the Lions to field goals that spelled the difference in a game that should have been won by double-digits going away.
The Bears and Lions are not the class of the NFC North, much less the NFC. But, it is looking more and more nerve-wracking each week as the Packers lower themselves to the level of their competition and allow division rivals to remain in games they have no business being in.
I know I will get some backlash: "Sheesh, C.D., you would think we just lost the game instead of putting up the W!" It's not my goal to be negative. However, I think you do the team a disservice to ignore issues that we've seen two games in a row simply because we edged one out against inferior competition.
I boil down the critical factors to two areas: discipline and commitment to the running game.
Discipline: Last Monday night, the Packers piled up 18 penalties for 152 yards, but as the game went on, the penalties became more and more foolish and emotional. While Mike McCarthy may try to sell you on the idea of gray-area penalties, and dividing them into "good-ol' combat penalties" and "bad mental errors", the fact that such a team can go from 18 to 3 in six days is a good indication that, when a team concentrates on its self-discipline, it is able to control either kind of penalty.
In other words, if the Packers were averaging 10 penalties a week, you'd start questioning a lot of things. But the Packers aren't staying consistent in their focus, and when things start derailing, so does their discipline.
Another good example of this is the performance of special teams the past two weeks. After making good showings the first two games of the season, the special teams have hurt the Packers greatly the past two weeks. Last Monday, a blocked field goal, a kick out of bounds, and a punt return for a touchdown. The critical fumble by James Jones in the fourth quarter, setting up the winning field goal, didn't help, either.
This week, while the penalties didn't hurt the Packers, the mental mistakes did. A shanked punt by Tim Masthay and not one, but two fumbles by Jordy Nelson on kickoff returns led directly to ten points for the Lions, and could have been the critical 13 points had Jason Hanson converted a 55 yard field goal at halftime.
Again, I can hear many of you out there decrying me for not emphasizing Charles Woodson's pick-six, or Tramon Williams' perfect end-zone coverage, or John Kuhn putting the game away on the ground. I appreciate each and every one of those things, but those are examples of excellent execution, which depends on good, disciplined play. We should celebrate those plays when we are up against equal or superior competition, not the clearly inferior talent that we were up against today.
A team that has aspirations of Super Bowl or Die can't continually be allowing inferior teams to stay in games and have chances to win it in the fourth quarter...especially division rivals.
Lack of commitment to the running game: I can fully expect to take Aaron Nagler's wrath for this one, but you have to call a spade a spade. The Packers made a beautiful drive to end the game, mostly on the back of fullback John Kuhn, who ran seven times for 34 yards amidst three nice passes by Aaron Rodgers for first downs. [We won't mention that Brandon Jackson also got a carry on that drive for -3 yards]
And as we slap hands and celebrate that game-winning drive where the run and the pass seemed to live in perfect harmony, we should note that the 6:32-minute drive almost doubled the longest drive we had at any point in the rest of the game.
When the Packers have a running game, the whole team seems to respond, and I don't mean just the offense. You can go all the way back to the 2007 playoff game against the Giants, when Ryan Grant rushed for 29 yards and the entire team, offense and defense, seemed completely out of their element. You saw it last January, when the Packers couldn't manage a single drive to last more than four minutes as they played a game of Madden with Kurt Warner. And you saw it last week when the Packers imploded with penalties.
I can't explain why, but these McCarthy-coached teams will never...I repeat, never...be able to win a Super Bowl without a running game. There may be teams that can do it, but the Packers depend on their running game to somehow maintain some sort of balance that the whole team feeds off. It takes nothing away from Aaron Rodgers and his ability to pass, but we know that when you are protecting a lead against a team that is gaining momentum and catching up, a nine-minute drive ground out with a running back is far more effective than going empty-backfield shotgun and launching long passes downfield, as we saw today.
Without Kuhn's final march, the Packer running backs finished with 38 yards on 11 carries, and only three attempts in the second half before the last drive. Think about that: three designed rushes while up by seven points, then fourteen points after Woodson's early pick-six. While protecting a lead that slowly diminished over the course of the half, the Packers attempted nine passes, with six of those out of the shotgun.
That's a 25/75 run/pass ratio, and as we know, it didn't work against a team ranked #30 in total defense coming into the game. That's unacceptable, and inexplicable. When the Packers went to the run game in the final drive, you saw the whole team seemingly come back together.
As much as we ballyhoo the "screen is really a rush" mantra and give this team excuses to not rush the ball, the evidence is pointing more and more to the conclusion that the Packers are not a team that can effectively win games without a consistent commitment to the running game...and for some reason, it affects the psyche of the entire team, not just the offense.
Next week, the Packers will be taking on a Redskin team that defensively ranks even lower than the Lions, at least before their game today with the Eagles. It's another trap game for the Packers, a game against a team that they should clearly outclass. It will beg the question whether or not the Packers will enter FedEx Field as the 3-1 Super Bowl favorites we all want to believe them to be, or if they will allow an inferior team to linger around again in the fourth quarter, requiring heroic plays to spell the difference.
As we saw last season, when you lower yourself to the level of your opposition, it makes it that much harder to rise to the level of quality opponents.