Sunday, January 22, 2017

NFL NFC Championship: Packers vs. Falcons preview and prediction

After the epic win in Dallas in the NFC Divisional Playoff, and for the second time in three years, the Green Bay Packers are in the NFC Championship Game. As Packers fans, we can only hope and pray that this game turns out better than the last (the horror...the horr0r...).

We awoke to good news for starters: according to the NFL Network, wide receivers Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison are all expected to play today. This was very much in question over the last few days as all have been nursing injuries, none more so than Nelson who has two broken ribs. The thinking might be (OK, this is my thinking) that even if Nelson can only be on the field part of the time, and not even be thrown to (to try to protect those ribs), he will have to be covered; that takes one defender away from another receiver who could perhaps otherwise receive double coverage. In other words, Nelson as decoy. The Pack have three additional receivers active today (not including Ty Montgomery), which is one more than typical...for insurance purposes, it would seem.
The Packers need to get pumped and play 60 minutes of outstanding football -- on both sides of the ball -- to win today.
Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It is interesting to note, however, that the Packers did elevate one of their practice squad receivers yesterday to the 53-man roster: Max McCaffrey. (If that name sounds familiar it is because he is the son of former Pro Bowl receiver Ed McCaffrey and the older brother of Christian McCaffrey, whom we know is currently projected as a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft.) The Pack signed him to the practice squad in December after he was released by the Raiders. He was undrafted out of Duke and has yet to play in an NFL game. To make room for McCaffrey, the Packers put center JC Tretter on the injured reserve list.

The Packers, fortunately, have great depth at receiver and that depth will be needed today. Of course, the Pack also has TE Jared Cook who has been nothing short of amazing since returning from injury earlier in the season. Recall that he did not play in the earlier loss to the Falcons, nor did Montgomery. It's all hands on deck.

Atlanta is averaging over 35 points per game at home. The Falcons earlier season win against the Pack was by one point, 33-32. So stop the presses! There will be points scored today. The record for points for a NFL championship game is 73. We believe it will be more than that today.

Neither of these two teams boasts outstanding defenses. Both are near the bottom of the standings. Atlanta is actually 32nd in red zone defense. So the more often the Packers can get into the red zone, the better. Pass protection for both teams is very good. Atlanta is the only team in the league that has had all five starters on the offensive line start every game this season. Amazing. The Packers O-line give Rodgers time to work outside of the pocket and find receivers downfield. So it's going to be an offensive battle and the defense that can generate a turnover or two, or make a stop, is likely the team that will come out on top. It may very well come down to "whoever has the ball last wins," just like last weekend versus the Cowboys. So get your heart medication ready again, Packer fans.

It's getting close to about 2 hours to game time and we could go on and on. But we won't. Let's get to the prediction.

The Prediction
You've already read here and elsewhere that the expectation is for a high-scoring game. The Falcons are favored by 5 points, which seems a bit off, despite Atlanta coming into this game arguably as hot as the Packers. It is the final game in the George Dome so that might generate some additional energy for a while for the Dirty Birds. But if the Packers can get out early as they did last weekend, and the defense can get a turnover or two and make some key stops -- don't let that two-headed running attack of the Falcons get going, for example -- Rodgers and company should come out on top. Ty Montgomery should have a big day...and not just because it's his 24th birthday. Mike McCarthy will have a game plan in place to take advantage of the defense's weaknesses. Dom Capers will be as creative as he can be given the walking MASH unit that is the Packers' secondary. And if it comes down to the leg of kicker Mason Crosby, say it with me, "It's good!". (By the way, there's a great story about Crosby by Ryan Wood of the USA-Today Network-Wisconsin. Really gives you great insight into the mind of a kicker...especially this kicker.)

The Pack will be packing for Houston after this game's over. We're calling this one Packers 41 - Falcons 38.

Go Pack Go!!!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

NFL NFC Divisional Playoffs: Packers vs. Cowboys Preview and Prediction

Today's the day, Packer fans: the Green Packers take on the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas for the right to meet the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game next weekend. How are you feeling about today's game? If you have mixed feelings, you are clearly not alone. On the other hand, if you're riding high off the Pack's seven-game winning streak you'll see them as an unstoppable force no matter what. So let's look at just a few particulars to consider.
Head coach Mike McCarthy and QB Aaron Rodgers
need to come up big today against the Cowboys.

Photo by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Deserving of all the praise it gets, the Dallas offense ranks fifth in the league overall in terms of both points scored (26.3) and yards per game (376.7). It is 23rd-ranked in terms of passing yards per game (226.9), which might be expected behind a rookie quarterback...a very good one, admittedly. Where the team gets its bump up the rankings comes via the rushing game and another outstanding rookie, Ezekiel Elliott. The 'boys generate 149.8 rushing yards per game, giving them the number two spot overall in terms of rushing attack. While QB Dak Prescott and Elliott may get the headlines, it's the Cowboys offensive line that provides the basis for everything that happens behind it. Led by Travis Frederick at center (both a southeastern Wisconsin native and UW-Madison Badger, by the way), this was and still is the best offensive line the Packers have faced all season. The Packers defense will need to keep the mojo going the way they did in the win against the Giants at Lambeau last weekend in order to stay in the game today. Elliott could take over the game if the Pack doesn't play the game of their season so far. Add to the offensive mix the fact that number one receiver Dez Bryant will return to play today. Coming off a week's rest, Dallas will put up points, no doubt.

As for the Packers offense, the Pack actually ranks ahead of the 'boys in terms of points scored during the regular season, at 27 points per game (4th overall). The Packers are a few spots behind Dallas, at number 8, in terms of yardage per game: 368.8. Not surprisingly, behind the arm of Aaron Rodgers and the hands of his many capable receivers, the Pack finished seventh overall in terms of passing yards per game: 262.4. The rushing game ranks 20th overall with 106.3 yards per game behind an efficient, albeit not explosive, attack now led by Ty Montgomery. Christine Michael, having now been with the team for sufficient time to get the playbook down, also offers a burst and rushing threat the Pack didn't have in the first match up. And, of course, FB Aaron Ripkowski can move the pile and also provide a pass outlet for Rodgers if needed. The Packers offensive line doesn't get the credit it deserves for its incredible protection given to Rodgers, allowing him time to move in and out of the pocket to find his receivers downfield. One of the strategies Dallas used in its October win over the Pack at Lambeau -- and will try to use again today -- was to keep Rodgers in the pocket. There's no secret to the fact that Rodgers is at his most dangerous when he breaks out of the pocket to scramble and find his receivers. The Cowboys frustrated Rodgers and the Packers offense in the first meeting. We'd expect Dallas to apply the same strategy as before and also expect the Packers to make adjustments. One of the biggest adjustments in that regard today will be playing without WR Jordy Nelson who was injured in the game against New York. Luckily, Randall Cobb returned in good form last weekend, Davante Adams is making big plays and undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison is in position to have a breakout game if other receivers are covered. Add another weapon the Pack didn't have in the first match up: TE Jared Cook. Cook's return from injury has coincided a great deal with the Pack's winning streak. Coincidence? We think not. Finally, neither the Packers nor the 'boys turn the ball over much; Rodgers, in particular, has been amazing during the winning streak, with no interceptions vs. the touchdowns thrown. That trend must continue today. So does the need for the Pack to get at least one or two takeaways. The Dallas strategy will be to keep Rodgers on the sideline by running the ball as much as it can to eat the clock and thus play defense by playing great offense.The Packers -- like Dallas -- will put up points, no doubt.

Let's just cut to the chase here and say that the Dallas defense ranks higher than the Pack, 14th overall vs. 22nd. In terms of each statistical category, Dallas ranks ahead of the Pack. So given basically a "push" in terms of offenses (for argument sake), shouldn't the nod go to the team with the better defense? You'd think so. But one of the elements which factored heavily into the earlier Dallas win was an inept Packers offense that still hadn't found itself...AND...four turnovers by the Pack. You may be surprised that the Packers actually ranked ahead of the 'boys in terms of season turnover differential. This is particularly the case, as fans know, for the Packers during their winning streak. The Packers tied with several other teams for second in terms of interceptions, with 17. Defensive back Damarious Randall appeared on the injury report yesterday and just how much he's able to play, and at what level, is a concern given the already thin defensive backfield. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has done a masterful job of cobbling together a defense given the injuries. The Packers will need a pass rush as well as run stuffers today. Veterans Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers need to play at the level they are capable of, that is disrupting the other team. The Packers defense has often given up yardage...big yardage on big plays. As long as touchdowns don't accompany all of those big yards, the Packers are in it. That will have to be the case again today: bend don't break.

The Prediction
We could go on and on, of course. But your head is already spinning, we know. Whether from all the data presented here or pre-game tailgating, we don't know. But either way, let's get to it, shall we?

The Packers will need to do something they really haven't done in the past three weeks, which is get out to a fast start. If they are able to do that, that will go a long way to easing the pressure on the defense to win this game...which, in fact, is something they may need to do anyway: come up with a couple big stops. But forcing Dallas to win behind a rookie QB in his first playoff game is preferable to having to grind it out against trying to stop a running back of Elliott's calibre.

The Packers will need to play their best game of the season on offense, defense and special teams to walk out of Dallas with the win. Luckily for Packer fans, they have been doing just that in recent weeks. They'll do it again today.

We're calling this one Packers 34-31 over Dallas.

Go Pack Go!!!

Thinking of going to the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl?
If you're thinking of going to the NFC Championship Game or the Super Bowl, you'll want to keep an eye on ticket price trends. The folks at Vivid Seats have offered us some helpful information in that regard. Check out this article for more information.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

NFL Wildcard Weekend: Packers vs. Giants Preview and Prediction

After winning the NFC North Division Championship last weekend with their impressive victory over the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers earned the right to host a home game today at Lambeau Field on Wildcard Weekend. Their opponent: the 11-5 New York Giants. (We can also thank the Giants for their win over Washington last weekend despite the fact they were already in the playoffs and couldn't do anything to improve their position. That win meant -- win or lose vs. Detroit -- the Packers would also be in the playoffs. Thankfully, though, the Packers kept their momentum going and got in by winning the division. Yay.)

But as Packer fans with even short memories know all too well, the Giants behind QB Eli Manning have won playoff games in recent years at Lambeau Field. So don't expect the Giants to be intimidated despite the cold, the crowd, or the opponent. And despite losing to the Pack earlier this season, the Giants are a very good team as evidenced by their overall record. They are a team that is the only one in their division to have beaten the Number 1-seeded Cowboys twice this season, delivering two-thirds of the 'boys three season losses. It's also fair to say that it's a different team in many respects than the one that last played here. The Giants really had no effective running game the last go-round, now they seem to. In that first meeting, the Packers defense could come after Manning as they didn't have to worry about a rushing attack; now, it seems as if they are more balanced. But getting to Manning early and often can make him quite mortal indeed. And that's what needs to happen or he will definitely be going after the porous Packers' secondary with very good receivers.

Still, the Giants success this season is primarily due to an extremely good Giants' defense. The secondary is one which some Packer fans would no doubt trade for right now. They will force QB Aaron Rodgers and his receivers to be very accurate today as coverage will be exceptionally tight. Good thing for the Pack that (a) Rodgers is accurate almost beyond compare and (b) the Packers have a pool of receivers and offensive schemes which present match-up issues for most defenses.
The Packers will need another big game out of the versatile Micah Hyde if they are to move on to the next round of the playoffs.
Photo by Adam Wesleym USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin

As a point of comparison -- within the Giants themselves -- the Giants' offense scored just over 19 points on average per game this season. The defense has held opponents to just under 18 points per game. That's living tight, shall we say, in terms of point differential. But it was good enough to capture 11 wins and be the lowest points-against defense in the NFC. That means you're in every game down to the end.

In contrast, this season's Packers scored 122 more points over the course of the season than did the Giants, or 27 points per game on average, third highest among NFC teams. But defensively, the Packers gave up, on average, slightly more than 24 points per game. Not the greatest, as we know all too well. The secondary itself is ranked 31st in the league, which we might argue has been largely due to the rash of injuries that has beset that unit since the start of the season. And the fact that the Packers secondary experienced even more injuries in the Detroit game...well, that doesn't help much against a very good set of Giants receivers, does it? The Packers pass rush will have to step up in a way they have shown they can do on occasion. The overall defense will also have to rectify its disturbing trend of fourth quarter collapses or near-collapses that have allowed other teams back in the game late.

The Prediction
What we can take from this comparison is what essentially every analyst, pundit and fan has come up with at this point: the Giants win by shutting down their opponent's offense while the Packers win by outscoring their opponent. Which of the two scenarios will play out today?

The oddsmakers have listed the Packers as 5-1/2-point favorites in today's game. Given the nature of playoff football, as well as the Giants success in playoffs at Lambeau Field, many pundits are very reluctant to see the Packers as the favorites to win this game. Others are putting their faith in the capable and hot hands of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, and counting on the Packers' offense to outscore the Giants no matter what the Pack's defense does today. How well and how often the Packers' defense is able to get to Giants QB Eli Manning is also going to be key. The Pack's "D" doesn't have to win the game, they just have to not lose it.

Defenses win championships, they say. If the Packers defense was half as good as its offense, we wouldn't have to worry. The Pack would be an odds-on favorite to win it all. But, that's not the reality. As good as the Packers offense is, if the defense doesn't hold up its end of the bargain for 60 minutes today, and doesn't generate a turnover or two, we'll all be be watching golf next weekend instead of the Pack vs. the Cowboys.

As good as the Giants defense is, though, we have to believe that the Packers can outscore them offensively, barring uncharacteristic turnovers. The Packers will win this game in a close one.

We're calling it 27-24 Packers.

Go Pack Go!!!

Sunday, January 01, 2017

2016 NFL Week 17: Packers vs. Lions Preview and Prediction

Happy New Year, Packers fans and those who wish they were! (And, yes, even though the headline says 2016, hopefully you woke up realizing that we are now in the year 2017. Just for a point of reference for those of you who perhaps aren't quite sure right now.) Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Pack beat Minnesota last weekend to set up tonight's division battle. Now that we have that bit of housekeeping taken care of, let's move along, shall we?

The NFL schedule makers really pulled one out of their ying-yangs when they set the final weekend schedule with the Green Bay Packers facing the Detroit Lions, didn't they? Yes, division games have been going on for the last few weeks, but they could have scheduled the lemming-like Minnesota ViQueens or that semi-pro team from Illinois. Instead, the league rolled the dice and set a match between the Pack and the Lions.
Packers and Lions head coaches, Mike McCarthy and Jim Caldwell,
prepare to dance, at least metaphorically, tonight.

Photo by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A Refresher of Sorts
You'll remember at the start of the season that the Packers were one of the odds-on favorites to go to and, in some quarters, win the Super Bowl. They were favored in virtually every game of the season...before the season began, that is. Detroit was projected to be a playoff team by some, perhaps even a division championship contender and maybe even a Super Bowl contender (a stretch, c'mon). But then teams have to play. The Packers, due to a rash of injuries at key positions, the inability of the offense to find an identity by mid-season and that of the defense to stop big plays particularly late in games, found themselves sitting at 4-6 at their low point after four consecutive losses.

As for the Lions, they were one of the early surprises of the season. Behind in seemingly most of their games, they somehow managed eight fourth-quarter comebacks in their nine wins, an NFL record. With the Pack stuck in the mud, the 'Queens fading after key injuries of their own and Da Bearz still sucking as usual, Detroit jumped out to a two-game division lead for a few games. But coupled with their own two-game road losing streak in Weeks 15 and 16 along with the Packers' resurrection and five-game winning streak down the stretch, the Lions now find themselves tied at 9-6 with the Pack going into this final regular season game...although technically, the Packers have the tie-breaker at this point because of their 34-27 September win at Lambeau Field.

Tonight's Game
Contrary to what some surmise, this is not a "winner-take-all" game, although the build-up to it certainly makes one view it that way. And, perhaps, that's the way the teams and fans should look at it. Winning, for either the Packers or Lions (eeeeewwwww!) gives that team the NFC North Division Championship and a guaranteed home playoff game. But even with a loss, it's possible that that team could still grab a wildcard spot depending upon whether Washington wins or loses today. With a Washington loss, both the Packers and Lions can grab a spot in the playoffs regardless of whether they win or lose. But a win is just so much better, don't you think? Especially if it is the sixth win in a row, led by an offense that is really clicking and a defense that, while suspect, can do just enough to keep an opponent from outscoring the offense. We are, of course, talking about the Packers taking this game for the NFC North Division Championship.

The Packers have gotten healthier over the last several games, especially QB Aaron Rodgers, TE Jared Cook and LB Clay Matthews. Yay. WR Randall Cobb is expected to be in uniform tonight but he may not play much or at all as he's still nursing his injury from a few weeks ago. If the Packers do make a playoff run, a healthy Cobb would be an asset. In his stead, the receiving corp may see more play from rookie Geronimo Allison, who is a big target and caught several passes in last week's win against the ViQueens. It appears as if he and Rodgers are starting build a chemistry and that bodes well short and long-term.

The biggest absence for the Packers this game, as it has been all season, is CB Sam Shields. The secondary has really not had anyone step up to come close to replacing him in terms of consistent pass coverage and closing speed ability. Plays have been made in the recent wins, particularly by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But neither of the second-year players, Damarious Randall or Quinten Rollins, has lived up to year-two expectations. Randall, by the way, is questionable for tonight's game. If there has been one constant in the secondary, and generally an overlooked one at that, it has been the play of LaDarius Gunter.

The question mark for the Packers tonight and into the playoffs is their secondary. They have made fourth quarters a Pepto Bismol time for Packer fans everywhere most of the season, playing soft and giving up big plays particularly over the middle. Lions QB Matthew Stafford, despite his recently dislocated middle finger on his passing hand, and the Lions generally proving to themselves and others that they can come from behind late to win games, can take this game down to the wire; he's done it before against the Packers and others.

If the Packers don't put up points early -- and throughout the game -- the defensive question mark as the game goes into the fourth quarter becomes more of a concern. You don't want to keep the Lions hanging around, as the saying goes. The Packers should be able to force Stafford into making at least one turnover somewhere during the game and that may be the difference. Getting a turnover or two in games has been key during the Packers' winning streak, and it may be so again tonight.

Conversely, Detroit can also put up points with Stafford and his receiving corp. The running game doesn't count for much at this point, but the Packers will need a consistent pass rush to pressure Stafford into a bad throw or two. If you give him time, he has the arm to make you pay for bad coverage or an ineffective pass rush. The Packers' front seven needs to really bring it tonight.

Defensively, however, the Lions should be able to be exploited by the Packers offense, particularly if Detroit's top defensive back, Darius Slay, is slowed by his hamstring injury. He'll probably try to go and, if so, look for the Packers to test his coverage ability early. Without Slay, Rodgers should be able to take advantage of that secondary. The Lions linebackers are nicked up, too, so that should open up the middle if the Pack decides to spread things around. Based upon recent history, that's a reasonable expectation today.

Also look for RBs Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael to keep the Lions off balance with a solid rushing game. During the Packers stretch run, the balance between the number of rushing plays and pass plays called by McCarthy has been part of the formula. On a fast track of indoor turf, it would be great to see what Christine Michael might be able to do if he gets loose. We think even the Packers coaches are interested in seeing what might transpire in that regard.

The Prediction
We view this as a high-scoring game. The Packers are favored by 3 points at the time of this writing. We see the Pack going up in the first half and then holding on in the fourth quarter for the win. These are the recent trends for both teams. We'll go with that.

We're calling it 38-34 Packers.

Go Pack Go!!!