Aaron Rodgers took time out of his offseason schedule this week to bash a fan who had ripped his use of hard counts. While the criticism was silly, it was nice to know that Rodgers has such pressing matters on his mind. Rodgers will turn 33 in December and the clock is ticking on his push to be a multi-Super Bowl winner.
Green Bay fans have seen this movie before. Brett Favre started his Hall of Fame career in Green Bay in 1992 and played there through 2007. The Packers, after winning the Super Bowl in 1996 appeared to have more ahead of them. But they didn’t. Rodgers took over in 2008 and by 2010 the franchise had another ring. There appeared to be more ahead of them, especially when they won the first 13 games of 2011.
That season ended in bitter disappointment though and since then the Packers have spent their Januarys getting ousted by the NFC West—San Francisco in 2012 and 2013, Seattle in 2014 and Arizona in 2015.
It all brings up a question and it’s this—would Rodgers’ time in Green Bay be a disappointment if they fail to win a second Super Bowl? It’s a question that has obvious subtext and it’s whether Favre’s run in Lambeau was a disappointment for that same reason.
How you answer goes right to the heart of the question of just how important the quarterback is to a team’s ultimate success. If you hold the QB accountable for wins and losses then the inability of the Packers to turn the Rodgers era into at least two Super Bowl rings would have to count as a significant failure. But I think football is just too complex for that.
“The most important position in sports” is how an NFL quarterback is often described. But why? How is a quarterback—one of 22 players on the field at a given time more important than the best player on a basketball team, who is one of 10 players and can impact the game on both offense and defense. The best player on the floor tends to win more often than not in hoops. Not so in football, where the game is much more nuanced. It’s reasonable to measure LeBron James by rings. Less so with Aaron Rodgers.
Having said that, an elite quarterback does tend to assure teams of at least getting to the playoffs and more often than not to the round of eight. That leaves three games to win. If a team goes through an entire career and only gets those three wins one time, that is a little disappointing. I would put it at the feet of the organization as a whole more than the quarterback, but it is a letdown. Not a failure—that’s too harsh—but a disappointment.
That answers the question about Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre individually, but when you combine the two for Packer fans, the disappointment becomes deeper. Green Bay will have about thirty years being quarterbacked by great quarterbacks. Favre is already in the Hall of Fame and Rodgers is almost certainly headed there. To get as many Super Bowl wins combined in that time period as the New York Giants got with Eli Manning can’t be seen as a good thing.
Rodgers still has at least five good years ahead of him, maybe more with the way the game continually changes to protect its quarterbacks. It’s hardly unthinkable that Green Bay could win two of the next three Super Bowls, become a dynasty and change this whole conversation entirely. But the quarterback is no spring chicken anymore and he has bigger things to focus on then whether some random fan approves of hard counts.
Where I live in southeastern Wisconsin, the atmosphere is rife with despair as the Green Bay Packers head into the playoffs as a 5-seed following their blowing of the NFC North title last night at home to the Minnesota Vikings. No one can deny how poorly the 10-6 Packers have been playing for over two months, but it’s a serious mistake to casually dismiss this team.
I write from the perspective of a Redskins fan, who hosts Green Bay this coming Sunday in the wild-card round. Admittedly, when it comes to that game I’m following the adage of the great Joe Gibbs, which is always to elevate and praise your opponent. What kind of odds could one have gotten in August that not only would Washington and Green Bay meet in the playoffs, but the game would be a pick-‘em in Las Vegas and that it would be the Redskin quarterback that comes in on a roll?
But it’s that very fact that makes me nervous and should make the entire NFC still keep a wary eye on Green Bay. To the precise extent that the Packers problems are traceable to the play of Aaron Rodgers are the precise extent that they can hope for an immediate turnaround out of nowhere.
Green Bay’s defense is actually playing pretty well this season. They’re 12th in the league in points allowed, and were as high as fifth two weeks ago before 21 points allowed by the offense killed the ranking position. The offensive line has problems on the edge to be sure, but they have great players on the interior, with T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton at guard. The offensive line frankly was not a lot better—in fact was probably worse—during Rodgers’ MVP season of 2011.
The receivers are a problem as well, and the failure of the team to ever adequately replace Jordy Nelson—or at least minimize his loss—is a serious indictment of the coaching and organization, especially when compared to the Kansas City Chiefs losing Jamaal Charles midstream and still adjusting on the fly to win ten straight games.
But great quarterbacks can usually compensate—at least somewhat for the loss of one receiver. The simple fact is that Aaron Rodgers has not been himself this season and the decisive play last night illustrates that. A fourth-down throw into the end zone had an open receiver if Rodgers throws it outside. Instead, he threw a bad pass inside that was intercepted and clinched the game for Minnesota.
So my question, not only to fellow Redskins fans, but to fans of Carolina, Arizona, Seattle and anyone else is this—how confident are you that Rodgers will continue to struggle. Maybe it’s a bad year that takes the offseason to correct. But maybe all it takes is one good game. The Washington defense has played well this year, but they’re far from great and their biggest strength has been in quality tackling after the catch, as the complete lack of discipline from the Mike Shanahan years has become a thing of the past.
That means Rodgers will have a chance to get in a rhythm and complete some throws on Sunday in FedEx Field. What if that’s not only enough to win that game, but gets #12 feeling better and in a groove? We’ve seen stranger things happen in the playoffs. Joe Flacco got hot in 2012 and spent four weeks looking like Joe Montana. Eli Manning has built an entire career on two magical Januarys. Does anyone really believe Aaron Rodgers suddenly reversing field and doing the same is more improbable than that?
In their own, the Packers are more dangerous than the Patriots right now. Let me clarify that carefully—Green Bay is not better than New England. But I’ve watched the Patriots all year and the injuries on the offensive line and at the skill spots have finally overwhelmed Tom Brady and they just can’t move the ball consistently. The problem isn’t Brady—he’s hitting receivers like the open one Rodgers missed at the end of Sunday Night. Brady’s opportunities to make plays are reduced drastically, but he’s still made the ones that are on the table.
But that also means the players who are struggling aren’t likely to get better in the next week or two. As Rick Pitino said when he coached a bad Celtics team “Larry Bird is not walking through that door. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door.” Barring a massive return to health by at least three players, New England is what they are at this point in the year.
But that’s not the case with Green Bay. If you’re looking for a turnaround spot, there’s no safer bet than a proud athlete who’s playing poorly and needs to rescue himself and his team immediately. That’s Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this January. And those 35-1 odds that Vegas is giving on the Pack to win the Super Bowl look enticing.
Aaron Rodgers made his 100th career start for the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night, as his team won a 43-37 shootout with the Atlanta Falcons. The comparison of Rodgers’ first 100 games to that of his predecessor, the presumptive Hall of Famer Brett Favre, began in the aftermath. About a week earlier I had a text-message debate with a friend about which quarterback was better in their prime. Frankly, I don’t see this as even being all that close—prime-for-prime, Favre is better than Rodgers. Here’s why…
*Let’s start with their won-loss records. Both players are 68-32, which favors Favre. Does anyone remember just how awful the Green Bay Packers consistently were when Brett Favre took over the job in the third week of the 1992 season? Observe my favorite team, the Washington Redskins today, and you have a grasp on what the Packers of the previous twenty years prior to Favre were.
Yet when Favre became the starting quarterback, the winning began immediately. Green Bay went 9-7 in his first year and nearly made the playoffs. In 1993 they did make the postseason and a long era of franchise success began.
Rodgers took over a team in 2008 that had reached the NFC Championship Game in 2007. Admittedly, that ’07 team had a little bit of a magic ride quality to it, and some regression would have happened under Favre. But with Rodgers on the learning curve, the Packers slipped all the way to 6-10. Thus, Favre developed much quicker and in a much worse situation.
*Favre’s critics have pointed out that the arrival of Hall of Fame defensive tackle Reggie White on the free-agent market was at least as big a development in the emergence of the Packers in the 1990s. This is true, just as the drafting of Clay Matthews was necessary for Rodgers’ Packers to win the Super Bowl in 2010.
In the case of Favre though, White explicitly said the presence of Favre was a key reason for his decision—the “Minister of Defense” believed Favre to be the kind of quarterback you could win a Super Bowl with. This, in spite of the fact that Favre had only played for a year at the time White made his decision and the defensive tackle was playing with a dynamic quarterback in Randall Cunningham with Philadelphia. Favre commanded the respect of his contemporaries as much as any quarterback I’ve seen
*Favre had a much tougher hill to climb to reach the Super Bowl. In the early 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys of Jimmy Johnson and the San Francisco 49ers were far and away the best two teams in the NFL. They combined to win four straight Super Bowls from 1992-95. No current NFL team is as good as either of these teams were then, as the era of free agency was just beginning and neither team had yet been broken up by salary cap considerations.
That was the roadblock the Favre-era Packers kept running into and when Favre led an upset win over the 49ers in the divisional round of 1995 and then had the Cowboys on the ropes for three quarters on the road in the NFC Championship Game, it was an achievement far more difficult than anything the Rodgers-era Packers have had to try.
If this year’s Green Bay team goes to Seattle and wins the NFC Championship Game that equation can change. But for the most part, the power of the NFL during the Rodgers era has been in the AFC (Brady/Belichick, Peyton Manning, etc).
*Brett Favre won the MVP three straight years. Not just three times, but three years in succession. You have to start crisscrossing sports to find points of comparison. The only ones you can come up with are all-time great basketball legends (Larry Bird, Michael Jordan), the greatest hockey player of all-time (Wayne Gretzky) and disgraced former baseball players (Barry Bonds). As far as I’m concerned, this fact alone is where the debate should cease. And that’s even allowing for the fact I assume Rodgers will win this year’s MVP and give him two in a four-year span. That’s incredibly impressive—the stuff of a Hall of Famer. What Brett Favre did from 1995-97 is on a level even higher.
*But we don’t have to stop to debate there, because the crown jewel of Favre’s career has yet to be mentioned—The Streak. The insane 297 consecutive starts he put out as the Iron Man of the NFL. The focal point of this article is just the first 100 starts, or more generically, each player’s prime, but Rodgers missed a key game in 2010, where his team lost at New England and nearly cost them a playoff berth (the wild-card spot they would eventually turn into a Super Bowl trophy).
More notably, Rodgers missed half the season last year with his broken collarbone and only the monumental incompetence of the Jim Schwartz-led Detroit Lions and the ever-inept Chicago Bears allowed Green Bay to stay close enough and eventually allowed Rodgers to come riding into Soldier Field on his white horse in Week 17 and steal a division title with an 8-7-1 record.
But as each week went by last season and the Packers’ hopes seemed to get more precarious, if any Packer fan says they didn’t at one point think Brett would be playing, I frankly wouldn’t believe them. Not because Rodgers is soft. But because Favre was insanely tough.
The Rodgers case is not without ammunition of its own, and it boils down to interceptions. Favre threw 104 in his first 100 starts, Rodgers threw 50, a huge, huge gap. While concededing the obvious—the Rodgers is clearly more careful with the football, here’s why I don’t find that argument persuasive…
*The first is everything that’s written above. The fact Rodgers has one point in his favor doesn’t overrule everything else that came before it. The interception issue only makes this discussion worth having, it isn’t an automatic win for Rodgers.
*The second is that statistical comparisons between eras are incredibly difficult in football. With each year, life gets easier and easier for quarterbacks. Let’s pick just one example—today, you can intentionally ground the ball. Just get outside the pocket, get the ball to the line of scrimmage and you can throw it in the ground. In Favre’s prime, you had to at least put in the direction of a receiver, no matter where you were.
Undoubtedly, the ever-stubborn Favre would have still forced some passes, but how many more times might he have just settled for avoiding the sack? How many times would Rodgers, forced to find a receiver in the area, have thrown a pick?. This is an area Rodgers would still have an edge, but it would be nowhere near as pronounced.
When you review as many past football seasons as I do, when putting together NFL history articles for the website, the first thing that jumps out at you is how many interceptions quarterbacks threw in previous eras. To pick an example, John Elway threw 18 picks for the 1989 Denver Broncos, my most recently completed article. That’s a team that went 11-5 and went to the Super Bowl. A quarterback who throws 18 interceptions today is looking for work. And it gets worse the further you go back.
The bottom line—any statistical disparities among quarterbacks must always have a huge benefit of the doubt given to the player who came first. To the backers of Aaron Rodgers, remember this—someday we’ll be saying the same thing when people try and compare the careers of Rodgers and Andrew Luck or some other up-and-comer
Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback and a good guy. He’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Maybe, when all is said and done, his career could still eclipse Favre. The body of work for #12 is still unfolding. Green Bay could win two straight Super Bowls, Rodgers could tack on back-to-back MVPs and change the dynamic.
But right now, to not acknowledge that Favre is better than Rodgers is more about either forgetting just how good the Brett of the 1990s was, or it’s a display of Packer fan bitterness.
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The Green Bay Packers are hoping their month in the quarterback desert comes to an end after their Thanksgiving Day game with the Detroit Lions. Aaron Rodgers won’t play on Thursday, but there is hope that with a long week ahead that Rodgers can get back on the field for his team’s final four games. TheSportsNotebook will look at what the Packers have to do to make the most of December.
Green Bay’s defense has come under fire, especially in the last few weeks and they’ve earned the disgust of the fan base. This is a unit that ranks in the lower half of the NFL in points allowed and have done some of their worst work at a time when they were needed most.
The Packers, in spite of getting outside linebacker Clay Matthews back at the same time Rodgers went out, played poorly in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, and then dug the team a 23-7 hole last Sunday against Minnesota.
When Matt Flynn came off the bench and Eddie Lacy kept running hard, and the Packers took a 26-23 lead in overtime of that game, the defense had a chance to redeem itself. Instead, they let Christian Ponder drive the field for a game-tying field goal.
Now Green Bay sits on a 5-5-1 record and this same defense has to deal with Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. For the moment, let’s assume the Packers lose on Thursday to the Lions. Do they have any chance of rallying?
The answer to that question is still yes, as unappetizing as going 0-4-1 without Rodgers (including the Chicago Bears game where he was injured early in the game) would be. Green Bay has been bailed out by their rivals, with the Lions and Bears missing chances and letting the Packers stay in the race.
Green Bay’s worst-case scenario would be trailing both teams by a game and a half with four to go, and a head-to-head game with the Bears still ahead.
If we assume Rodgers in the lineup (and may as well, because if we don’t this entire conversation is pointless), the offense does everything well. Lacey has given the team one of the NFL’s better running games. Head coach Mike McCarthy has done a fine job piecing together an offensive line that was shattered early by injuries and the Packer protection is in the league’s top ten.
Defensively, any kind of turnaround can be built around a pass rush that’s tied for the NFL lead with 37 sacks. What’s more, this has come about with Matthews missing several games. The Packers get a good balanced pass rush where opposing protection schemes can’t key in on a certain player or side of the field.
The problem comes when opposing passers get the ball off. Green Bay is in the lower third of the league in percentage of opposing passes completed and yards per pass. They’re also terrible at getting interceptions. Tramon Williams, the corner whose emergence in 2010 was the missing piece to a Super Bowl defense, has struggled badly.
When you’re getting a pass rush, the coverage has to at least do something well. Either play more aggressively and force incompletions and interceptions. Or back off, and reduce the yardage allowed. Right now Green Bay has two possible results–they either sack the quarterback or watch something bad happen. It’s made worse by the lack of an effective run defense.
Green Bay will come out of Thanksgiving with consecutive road games to Atlanta (correction: Atlanta is a home game) and Dallas, followed by a home date with Pittsburgh and a season-ending road game in Chicago. If the Packers don’t win on Thursday, they’ll need to sweep those four games, have Detroit lose twice and Chicago would have to lose one additional game. In that scenario, the Packers win the NFC North at 9-6-1 and would go into the playoffs a healthy and dangerous team.
Aaron Rodgers gives a team a chance to win every time he steps on the field, but that’s not an easy schedule the team has in December. Somewhere along the line, the Packers are going to have play some defense, and so far that’s a unit that’s failed every time they’ve had to stand up and be counted.
Are the Green Bay Packers dead in the water? That’s the question the NFL world is asking in the wake of the Aaron Rodgers injury, a fractured collarbone last night on Monday Night Football, a game his team lost 27-20 to the Chicago Bears, slipping into a three-way tie with the Bears and Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North.
Rodgers will reportedly miss up to three weeks. TheSportsNotebook will seek to answer the question of whether this is the death knell for the Packers’ playoff hopes or for a Super Bowl run.
Let’s deal with the easy question first–this is not the end of the Green Bay playoff hopes. Even if the Packers lose all three games they would presumably miss Rodgers for, the quarterback would still come back at 5-6, and we see teams every year get on December runs that push them into the postseason. What’s more, the NFC is exceptionally mediocre this year and it seems a virtual certainty that 9-7 will take the last wild-card spot. So no, the Pack isn’t done.
Realistically though, Green Bay needs to think about winning at least one of these upcoming games, and ideally two. The opponents are all manageable–home games with the Eagles and Vikings sandwiched around a road game with the Giants. What has to happen for the Packers to steal a victory or two?
We begin by pointing out that this Packer team has been exceptionally good running the ball. Eddie Lacy has given the offense a new dimension, and they rank 5th in the NFL in yards-per-rush. That’s going to get a stiff challenge, as opposing defenses will follow Chicago’s lead from last night and put eight defenders in the box, but Green Bay at least has a foundation to build on.
They do a similarly good job on the defensive side. If you only watched last night’s game you might not have guessed it, but the Packers have played good run defense all season, ranking in the top five of the NFL in yards-per-rush.
Green Bay also takes care of the football, it’s 10 giveaways being among the league leaders. The formula of controlling the line of scrimmage and taking care of the ball is being used to great effect in Kansas City. No one is suggesting the Packers are about to imitate a 9-0 team, but our standard is only stealing a win or two against mediocre teams. Why can’t it happen?
That’s the rosy scenario. Now let’s look at the downside. The first is that Green Bay’s other playmakers are also injured. Randall Cobb, the receiver most likely to make a big play after the catch, and Clay Matthews, the outside linebacker who can change a game plan by himself, are already out. Truth be told, Green Bay was already in survival mode, with the hope being that Rodgers could keep the ship afloat until everyone else got healthy.
The pass defense absolutely has to improve. Even without Matthews, and even without Nick Perry rushing the passer on the opposite side, Green Bay still ranks 12th in the NFL in sacks. But they are a subpar 19th in yards-per-pass. That was tolerable when Rodgers could bail the team out in a scoring race. It’s going to be completely unacceptable when the Packers have to win games by controlling tempo the same way the Wisconsin basketball team does–controlling the pace in the halfcourt offense.
Matthews may return either this week or next week, but in looking through the Packers healthy players, the first one I would single out to step up would be Tramon Williams. The corner that was such a big playmaker in the 2010 Super Bowl run and the 15-1 regular season a year later, has not played well. We can add in free safety Morgan Burnett, who hasn’t been quite as mediocre, but needs to make some more big plays.
The Packers are one of the NFL’s worst at forcing turnovers, the worst in the NFC and better than only three teams in the league overall. To put in stark perspective, the Jacksonville Jaguars force more turnovers than Green Bay, and that needs to change immediately.
Seneca Wallace is the new quarterback, and while he looked hideous on Monday night, he’ll now get the full week of practice reps with the first string and be prepared to start. Head coach Mike McCarthy has shown himself capable of making lemonade out of lemons before, at least on the offensive side. The coach has covered up a bad offensive line for a few years now with some rolling pockets, and he’s pieced together a running game.
I’m not saying McCarthy is going to turn Wallace into Johnny Unitas, but the coach might find a way to put 21 points a game on the board. Then it’s up to the defense.
I think the Packers can still beat the Vikings at home. Minnesota is having a disaster a season, one that seems to just have a dark cloud hanging over it, and even in the best of times, the Vikes don’t play well outdoors. Even handing a 6-5 team over to Rodgers keeps the season manageable. If Green Bay can then pull out one of the games against the lousy NFC East, they can well-positioned when #12 comes back.
All of this presupposes though, that Rodgers makes it back in three weeks and that he can be immediately effective upon his return. If we use the three-week timetable, that would make his return on Thanksgiving Day at Detroit. That’s going to be a must-win, at least as far as the NFC North title goes. The same goes for a Week 17 visit to Chicago, a point in which Cobb might also be back.
The Packers have a stiff challenge ahead the next three weeks, but I believe they’ll survive it. The real hinge on which their 2013 hopes will swing is whether these injured playmakers–most notably the quarterback–can all come back and hit on all cylinders in December. Right now, Green Bay fans are living in a world they haven’t occupied since the early weeks of the 1992 season–one where the quarterback position is up in the air.
Sunday’s NFL second-round games start with Houston-Baltimore (1 PM ET, CBS) and conclude with NY Giants-Green Bay (4:30 PM ET, Fox). You can scroll down one post for the previews of Saturday’s games (New Orleans-San Francisco & Denver-New England). Here’s how the Notebook sees Sunday…
Houston-Baltimore: This game reminds me a lot of the 2008 AFC playoffs when the Ravens were coming off a first-round win and going on the road to Tennessee. They pulled out a 16-13 win and made the AFC Championship Game. Now it’s Houston coming off a win and bringing a rookie quarterback on the road and hoping the run game and defense can carry him to an upset.
I’ve heard people who follow the NFL closely say that this Baltimore defense is not as good as it’s been in recent years and that the Raven D is living on past reputation. I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t agree—or at the very least, I think it overstates the point. While it’s true Ray Lewis and Ed Reed aren’t the game-changers they used to be, the Baltimore defense still ranks 3rd in the NFL in points allowed. Terrell Suggs is a game-changer at outside linebacker with 14 sacks and they’re better on the corners then has been the case in recent seasons. I don’t think we’ll see a blown coverage down the sideline like we did last year in Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger hit a bomb on 3rd-and-18 in the waning minutes to set up the winning touchdown. Furthermore, Reed and Lewis strike me as the kind of veterans who, even though they’re well past their prime, find a way to make a big play at the biggest time. It’s kind of like watching Curt Schilling or Andy Pettite go to the mound, or when an aging Larry Bird or Magic Johnson were on the floor (see video below). Dramatic moments weren’t a daily part of life anymore, but the vets could still gut it up at crunch time.
There’s going to be a tremendous battle at the line of scrimmage when Houston has the ball, because the Texans’ rush game is outstanding, with both Arian Foster and Ben Tate able to run both inside and out. If Houston can win this battle, and left tackle Duane Brown can keep Suggs from going crazy, Houston will have a chance to run a safe no-mistakes offense and then see if they can get Andre Johnson open down the field in play-action.
Houston’s defense is extremely good in their own right. As with most 3-4 defenses, they get their heat from the linebacking spots, especially Conner Barwin on the outside. One factor not to overlook is how their ends, J.J. Watts and Antonio Smith can come up with some pressure as well, a difficult thing for an end to do in a three-man front. It’s going to be important for Baltimore to get Ray Rice established and keep this aggressive defense at home. If I were the Ravens, there would be some draws, traps and other misdirection plays to keep Houston on its heels. What Baltimore can’t do is can’t overly creative with their offensive game plan and decide they have to throw the ball to win. That’s going to be tempting, because there’s a lot of pressure on the Ravens at home and teams under a lot of heat and favored solidly to win don’t necessarily like being in a dogfight. But if Baltimore gets away from Rice and tries to force things to Torrey Smith downfield, it’s going to give Houston a tremendous opportunity for the sacks and interceptions they need to win.
Baltimore is favored by 7.5, an absurdly high line. I understand T.J. Yates is a rookie quarterback on the road who’s only beaten Cincinnati (both regular season and postseason) in his career. But when you run the ball like Houston does, have a defense like they do and a game-breaking receiver like they do, you should never be that type of an underdog. The Over/Under is a low 36, so we can project out the Vegas final score as being in the 21-14 range. The total sounds right, and I see Baltimore winning, but it will be closer than the experts say.
NY Giants-Green Bay: The Giants played the Packers better than anyone outside Kansas City this year (the one game Green Bay lost) and they won the 2007 NFC title game (see a great ground-level shot of the decisive interception in that game in the video below) here in frigid conditions. Combine that with New York winning its final two games of the year to make the playoffs and then hammering Atlanta last week, and you have people believing an upset is in the works. We should note that the smart money in Las Vegas is not as taken, and the current line is Green Bay (-8), a huge number for a playoff game against a team with New York money behind it, and the Over/Under is 52.5. Will the final score be roughly 30-21 Green Bay? Let’s take a look…
Both defenses allow opposing offenses to routinely drive the field, so this game is going to be settled in the red zone, or by who can get the most big strikes over the top. The matchup of Giant receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks against the Packer corners of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams is an absolutely huge battle. All four players have shown themselves capable of the big play and any hope New York has of an upset has to start here. No matter how well your defense plays, you are not going to stop Aaron Rodgers and if the Giants are going to put 31-35 points on the board and steal a win, Cruz and Nicks need to be seen running in space for a long time after the catch. On the flip side if notorious ballhawks Woodson and Williams get it going back the other way, that (-8) line is going to look small by early evening in Wisconsin.
When we go to the other side of the ball, it’s the interior that matters most. Green Bay must keep Rodgers upright against a pass rush where Jason Pierre-Paul, with his 16.5 sacks comes off the edge, Justin Tuck can still cause problems on the other side and Chris Canty comes up the middle. For a team that’s had pass protection problems all year, this is an awfully good front four to have to deal with. What the Packers have going for them is the extraordinary combination of Mike McCarthy’s ability to get receivers open on short notice and Rodgers pinpoint precision in finding the right one and delivering the ball. It’s asking a lot of #12, but he’s capable of winning this game even if the protection collapses, especially now that Greg Jennings is back in the lineup at wideout
The running game for both teams is a huge question mark. The Giants did a great job last week as Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw woke up the echoes of 2007. But should that wipe out an entire year of poor production on the ground? Green Bay got its running game going for the playoffs last year, but is it asking too much for McCarthy to suddenly dial it up at the right time again. In both cases, I’m not expecting much from either team on the ground, but this is an area where the pendulum could swing to other an NYG upset or a Green Bay blowout.
But there’s no bigger X-factor in this game than Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley, a big and fast tight end who can dazzle and frustrate, sometimes within the same play. I like Finley and he’s impossible for anyone to match up with when he’s playing well—too fast for linebackers, too big for strong safeties. While New York presents an intriguing matchup that the 15-1 Packers would probably have preferred to avoid, I think Green Bay has too many playmakers. I’ll take them to win and cover, in a 35-24 final.
Before we start talking the NFL playoffs, we’ve got some business to close out with the regular season and that means handing out some hardware for MVP and Coach of the Year. Today the Notebook starts with a look at an MVP vote that deserves to be a lot closer than it’s been portrayed.
Aaron Rodgers has been the odds-on favorite to win the award all season. He was my preseason pick to win the honor and he’s been even better than I expected, but due diligence requires thoroughly vetting other candidates. Drew Brees has gotten increased love in the voting and I wouldn’t be surprised if he snuck in and won a close vote, and we also need to get give a look at Tom Brady and Eli Manning.
When you dig into the numbers, it makes you realize two things—just how bad pass defenses were this year, and also why it’s important to do your due diligence. Not only is Rodgers not a slam dunk choice, but you can come up with a credible reason to vote for all four. Let’s pretend we’re in a courtroom and we’re going to hear the arguments pro and con…
Aaron Rodgers: The case for Rodgers’ attorneys is this: 45-6. That’s the number of touchdowns Rodgers threw compared to the number of interceptions. Now I’m a Brett Favre fan, but my first reaction to those numbers was that Favre once threw six picks in a single playoff game (2001 in St. Louis). Furthermore, Rodgers did it without adequate pass protection, without support from a good defense and with a running game that was 26th in the league in yards-per-carry. He can credibly claim to have led his team to a 15-1 record, not just been along for the ride.
The prosecution will point out that among the four contenders , Rodgers 4,643 yards is the lowest, and that he had a dazzling corps of receivers to work with. Furthermore, the problems with the Packer defense don’t account for the fact that same defense could force turnovers seemingly at will and produce points, easing the pressure on the Green Bay passing game.
On redirect, Rodgers’ attorney points out that you can also make a credible case that it’s Rodgers who makes the receivers, not vice-versa and that perhaps only Greg Jennings would be as good in another offense. The judge (in this case me) agrees with this position and instructs the jury to ignore the high praise of Packer receivers. It’s also pointed out that Rodgers was the lone quarterback among the four to sit his last game, thus hurting his yardage totals. The judge acknowledges this, but also reminds the jury that Rodgers would still have had to throw for 300 yards just to get up to third, so the critique there is allowed to stand.
Drew Brees: Ladies and gentleman of the jury, my client threw for 5,476 yards and set a new NFL single-season record. In spite of what you hear from NFL announcers about how the previous record was set in an era that was defense-friendly, this is demonstrably not true. Dan Marino’s 1984 mark came in a year when analysts were also pointing out how tough the rules were on secondaries. Brees hit 71% of his passes, the best in the game and the raw yardage totals, as well as the fact the Saints have a good running game, demonstrates that completion percentage didn’t come from quick “passes” that are really sweeps in disguise.
The prosecution takes pains to remind the jury that pointing out the strength of the New Orleans game is in fact an argument against Brees’ candidacy, as he is the only one of the four to have a running game even in the top two-thirds of the NFL—and again, these numbers are based on yards-per-carry, which don’t penalize teams that throw the ball a lot.
Tom Brady: Jurors, you can’t hold it against my client that he’s so consistently good that we take it for granted. He’s either the most valuable or he’s not. And consider that he threw for over 5,200 yards himself, while the running game was terrible and the defense lousy. Unlike Brees, his yardage didn’t come in the climate-controlled environment of a dome and he still only missed him 200-plus yards over a 16-game schedule.
Moving to the prosecution’s side of the table, we note that at 65.6%, the completion percentage is lower than Brees or Rodgers, the 39-12 TD-INT ratio trails the first two quarterbacks covered. And at this point, the prosecution realizes that Brady’s attorneys fell into a trap when pointing out the weather conditions in comparison to Brees. Maybe it wins that battle, but it loses a larger war, because Rodgers doesn’t exactly play in a dream passing environment down the stretch.
Eli Manning: The jury might not be aware of this, but the once-powerful New York running game collapsed and became the worst in the league. The vaunted defense that carried Eli to a Super Bowl ring in 2007 finishes in the league’s lower third. New York’s a lousy place to throw the ball year-round because of the wind currents in the stadium And yet the Giants won the NFC East, with Eli throwing for more yards than Rodgers.
The prosecution compliments Eli on his season, noting that many, including the judge laughed uproariously in August when the quarterback compared himself to his brother and to Brady. But 61% completions is the lowest among the contenders, the 16 interceptions are the highest, the 29 TDs are the lowest. And that whole winning the NFC East thing? They went 9-7 and lost to the Redskins at home three weeks ago to nearly shoot themselves in the foot. Ladies and gentleman, let’s not get carried away with a breakout year and call it better than any of the three quarterbacks above. In fact, the judge rules that the Manning attorneys have failed to meet their minimum burden of proof and removes him from consideration before deliberations begin.
Is it Rodgers, Brees or Brady? The jury recesses and gets set to vote. The judge watches them, feeling that while the cases for Brees and Brady should’ve received more attention than they get, #12 in Green Bay is still the winner when all is said and done.