Sunday, January 06, 2013

Packers storm Vikings 24-10

The NFL Wildcard game at Lambeau Field last evening between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings unfolded a bit differently than expected. The outcome was the same: a victory, as most had predicted, including yours truly, by a final score of 24-10. But how it all played out was...different.

Ponder out, Webb in
First, and to the surprise of many, ViQueens QB Christian Ponder was declared inactive a mere few hours before the game. The injury to his passing arm elbow sustained when it hit Packers' defensive back Morgan Burnett's helmet in last week's game led to a bad case of bursitis. So bad, he couldn't throw.

Enter back up QB, Joe Webb, who hadn't taken a snap or thrown a pass the entire regular season. Playoff game. Primetime Saturday night. January. Lambeau Field. Against the Packers. Good luck with that, young man. To no one's surprise, Webb's efforts came up woefully short. He had 6 passing yards in the first half. He finished with 180 yards, 1 touchdown and one interception. Fifty of those total yards came on a blown pass coverage that went for a late TD. Webb was also stripped of the ball in the pocket by LB Clay Matthews who then recovered the fumble. He ran 7 times for 68 yards, usually being flushed from the pocket; his longest run was 17 yards.

The other key difference to this game as compared to the first two times these teams met was that the Packers defense was able to keep likely league MVP RB Adrian Peterson from having his usual breakout game. The Pack actually kept him to 99 yards...a good day for any normal running back, but about half his average against the Packers this season. By bottling up Peterson -- who carried 22 times with a long run of 18 yards -- the Packers put the game in Webb's hands. In this regard, the Packers' defensive scheme was the same as they had planned for going into the game. The difference was that it was Webb not Ponder who would then have to win the game for the 'Queens. That became an impossibility almost from the moment the game started, despite Minnesota's first drive which resulted in them going up 3-0.

The return of Charles Woodson
Another difference from both of the two prior games between these two teams was the presence this time of future Hall of Fame cornerback, Charles Woodson. After missing about two months of the regular season with a broken collarbone, Woodson returned last evening and was his usual relentless self. He made tackles, got after the short, all the things that Woodson does best. He also seemed to be quick last night, no doubt due to having fresh legs from the time off. For sports reporters, asked about the difference Woodson makes, compare him to LeRoy Butler late in Butler's career. He makes sure everyone is lined up correctly and has their assignments. He provides the real veteran leadership among a generally young defensive unit. If some Packers fans were wondering what difference Woodson would make given how well the young secondary has performed going down the stretch of the season, I think you saw it last night. And with another young and playoff un-tested QB coming up this Saturday in the person of 49ers rookie Colin Kaepernick (born in Milwaukee, by the way), Woodson can again play a big role in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' disruptive schemes.

A tale of two offenses
For as dominating as the Packers offense was in the first half and opening drive of the second half, it stalled out for most of the second half. In fact, the Pack only had one first down in roughly the final 25 minutes of the game, and finished with five three-and-outs on the team's final six possessions. Not great. What they were doing, some might argue, was protecting a three touchdown lead, being up 24-3 early in the third quarter. Others might say they took their collective foot off the pedal. Aaron Rodgers mentioned the latter in an on-field post-game interview. He alluded to not really throwing a knockout punch when you have a team on the ropes. Guard T.J. Lang mentioned it in an article by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sportswriter, Tyler Dunne. Lang said, among other things, "Whenever you're not playing up to your capabilities, that's very disappointing, very frustrating. I'm just speaking for the line here, but we have to do a better job. We had way too much penetration, guys in the backfield, negative yardage. We have to make sure we clean up what we're doing up front."

For as moribund as the Packers offense was for most of the second half, it earlier was able to put the Minnesota defense back on its heels through a balanced run-pass attack. RB DuJuan Harris got the start last night and made the most of his opportunities, accounting for 100 yards in total combined yardage. Rodgers spread his passes around to 10 different receivers on the night, all of whom combined to give the Packers' QB 274 yards passing for the evening. The ViQueens defenders took away most of the deep threats, so Rodgers and company used swing passes and short routes to go underneath. Oh, and did we mention that FB John Kuhn had two rushing TDs on the night?

San Francisco here we come...
With the Wildcard victory the Packers now travel to San Francisco for a meeting with the 49ers next Saturday evening. The Packers are 4-1 all-time in playoff appearances vs. San Francisco, 2-1 at Candlestick Park, with the only loss being in 1998.

This is Aaron Rodgers' neck of the woods. He'll want to perform well, and all expectations are that he will. The Niners beat the Packers in this season's home opener at Lambeau. But Alex Smith was the quarterback then. Kaepernick is the QB now. He'll bring a different set of challenges to the Packers defense. But as a rookie starting his first playoff game, the Packers should be able to throw enough at him to benefit from any mistakes. How well the Packers offense can perform, for a full 60 minutes, against one of the best defenses in the NFL, will likely ultimately be the key to the game. Early odds have the Packers as 3 point underdogs going into the game.

We'll have more on this game as the week unfolds. Stay tuned...