Archive for January, 2011

Super Hype Week One Wrap-Up
January 28, 2011

Even though I publicly denounce it as sharply and defiantly as Seinfeld’s Mr. Lippman denounces his Judaism in hopes of scoring with Elaine (“The Serenity Now”), I’m frankly OK with the week off between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

The week off from football provides at once both a sneak peek and a reminder of what life is like without America’s Greatest Game. But as much as I miss the NFL, its absence isn’t all bad, as it frees up time to catch up on other news and happenings around the world.

Some of my favorite recent stories:

1. Diddy Sued For $1 Trillion, Blamed For 9/11. The best Onion headline not to appear in The Onion. You may laugh about the fact that some lawyer somewhere decided to take this case on, but look at it this way: If the case is successful, lawyer’s fees will probably amount to “100 zillions of dollars.” I’m hoping that this woman’s next target is Justin Bieber.

2. Glee‘s Ryan Murphy Being A Big Poopyhead. To be honest, I know little about Glee. I bought the first season of the hit show on Blu-Ray so I could see what I was missing, but I have been too busy enjoying the box set of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to check it out. But the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, has obvious problems with other artists not willing to kiss his show business rings. When Kings of Leon refused to allow their songs to be used in an episode, Mr. Murphy called the band “self-centered a**holes.” Mr. Murphy also referred to Slash from Guns ‘N Roses as “uneducated and quite stupid” when Guns N’ Roses wouldn’t license their music to the FOX show. Hey, Mr. Murphy, where is it written that artists need to feel obligated to help improve the quality of your show? I can’t blame Slash for not wanting an entire generation to immediately associate classics like “Mr. Brownstone” or “Paradise City” with a perky and impossibly cute high school choir. Sort of causes the songs to lose their edge.

3. Charlie Sheen Wants To Start Porn Family. Hey, CBS, cancel Two and a Half Men and give this guy a reality show. Now that I would watch.

4. Gorilla walks upright. Apparently he’s found that walking upright is faster than dragging your knuckles on the ground, and speed is important when trying to outrun Taco Bell workers from making so-called “seasoned beef” out of you.

But hey, there’s been plenty of NFL news this week, much of it related to the Championship Games and the Super Bowl. Here’s some of it broken down by day:

Monday: I already wrote my NFC Championship Game reaction Sunday night, but in that piece I didn’t really address the Jay Cutler mess. But to me the bottom line is this: When the going got tough, he got going. To the sidelines. With seemingly no need for medical attention. Now, I’m not going to argue that he wasn’t injured or that he isn’t “tough” (he was sacked an inordinate number of times early in the season before the Bears shored up their offensive line), but you don’t just take yourself out of the biggest game in your career. However, given how much more effective Caleb Haine was, Bears fans should not only be happy Cutler took himself out but should be seriously considering if Cutler – a decided non-leader in a position that needs to be filled by a leader – is worth the baggage (turnovers, attitude) he brings to the team. I can’t imagine any fan of any team, no matter how bad the QB situation is on that team – and there are some bad situations around the league – wanting Jay Cutler.

Tuesday: But for how much of a cancer Jay Cutler seemed on Sunday, he didn’t deserve to get beat up on Twitter by his NFL brethren. Nor did the Packers front office deserve the negative Twitter posts from disgruntled stars Jermichael Finley and Nick Barnett when it looked like they and the 14 other players on injured reserve would not be included in the team’s Super Bowl photo. But the Packers are a world-class organization and I knew as soon as this story broke that the team would find a way to correct the situation. (They did and the players will be included in the photo.) But just because the Packers are a class act doesn’t mean that they always employ class players. (Would you want Najeh Davenport to spend the night at your house?) Finley and Barnett should have shut the hell up. The Packers don’t need the distraction any more than they needed either player to get to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl. Kudos to head coach Mike McCarthy for referring to the social media site as “the Twit-Tweeter,” implying rather bluntly that Finley and Barnett are a couple of upper-class twits.

Wednesday: President Obama can’t catch a break. Despite its continued improvement, only 45 percent of Americans approve of the way he’s handling the economy. He faces an uphill battle over health care, there is still no clear end to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now he’s facing unrest in Egypt that threatens to send gas prices skyrocketing, which he will inevitably be blamed for. Oh, and his beloved Chicago Bears lost on Sunday. Then, on a visit to America’s Dairyland, he unwisely vowed revenge on the green and gold saying, “We will get you next year.” Hey, Obama, don’t you realize that just that statement alone probably cost you tons of support in 2012 from Wisconsinites who would vote Kim Kardashian for president if it somehow guaranteed a Packers Super Bowl victory? Given the timing of his visit, Obama’s team should have secured a popular former Packer great like Bart Starr, LeRoy Butler, or Brett Favre to join him on his trip. Eh, on second thought, maybe not Favre.

Thursday: Need more proof that the Packers had an incredible season? Some smart statistican figured out that not only had the Packers not trailed by any more than seven points all season, but it has been 48 years since a football team went wire-to-wire in such an impressive manner. (Oddly enough, it was the 1962 version of the usually-lowly Detroit Lions that could last claim that feat.) None of this will likely matter should the Packers not win the Super Bowl, but no matter what the outcome in Arlington, perhaps no other stat speaks more to the impressive season Green Bay has had. Or how crazy it is that this team almost missed the playoffs entirely.

Friday: The first bit of bad injury news for the Super Bowl, and surprisingly enough, it doesn’t concern the injury-ravaged Packers. Word has come out that due to a left ankle injury suffered in the victory over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game, the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to be without their Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. While it’s not as sexy a story as if a so-called skill position player would miss the game, Pouncey is a crucial part of the Steelers’ pass protection and run-blocking schemes. In a close game like the Packers-Steelers matchup looks like it is shaping up to be, Pouncey’s loss could prove important.

See you back here next week with a review of the second week of pre-Super Bowl hype and a game prediction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to read more about what Tracy Morgan said about Sarah Palin.

Have a good weekend.

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Bears Get Haine(s) Whooped By Swarming Pack Defense
January 24, 2011

In the end, it wasn’t the sort of victory that Packers fans were hoping for.

Not that they’ll mind.

After a massively impressive opening drive that saw Aaron Rodgers cut up the Chicago Bears defense — the heart and soul of their archrivals — to the tune of 76 yards on 4-for-4 passing and a beautifully-designed rushing touchdown, the high-flying Packers offense was thereafter largely grounded.

Instead, Rodgers found himself almost upstaged by Caleb Haine, a little-used third-string quarterback out of Colorado State who improbably rallied the Bears to two fourth-quarter touchdowns after Jay Cutler (ineffective and injured) and Todd Collins (about as effective as Phil “Sussudio” Collins might have been) were chased from the game by the Packers’ swarming defense.

The problem for Haine was that for every touchdown drive he led his team on, he also threw an interception, both of which were killers for the home team.

The biggest undoubtedly came midway through the final quarter, as nose tackle B.J. Raji caught a poorly thrown ball from Hanie and lumbered 18 yards into the end zone to make the score 21-7.

Given the Bears’ ineptitude on offense, it seemed that Raji’s unlikely score was going to ice the game for Green Bay.

But Haine and receiver Earl Bennett had other ideas, as they connected for an impressive 35-yard touchdown just four plays later to again narrow the Packers’ lead to seven points.

On the play, Bennett made Packers safety Nick Collins look ridiculous, as the Bears receiver simply tiptoed past Collins for an all-too-easy score.

Had the Packers lost Sunday evening, Collins may have been the goat of Packers fans everywhere.

Fortunately for Collins, rookie cornerback Sam Shields — who played a spectacular game — was there to rescue him from that unseemly fate.

After another three-and-out by the Packers’ suddenly comatose offense — the unit gained a total of 40 yards on their last three meaningful drives — the Bears were threatening to send the game to overtime, this despite a questionable intentional grounding call against them on the final drive. They had already converted on one crucial fourth-down situation and were now facing another.

With 37 seconds left and the Bears facing another fourth down (this time at the Packers’ 29-yard line), Shields made a diving grab of a Haine pass to effectively end the game and send the Packers to Dallas for their fifth Super Bowl appearance and first since 1997.

(“Effectively” because instead of falling on the ball, Shields unwisely got up and ran, which could have proved disastrous had he fumbled. He did not.)

Raji and Shields – who in the second quarter had nearly caused a turnover with a sack of quarterback Jay Cutler before earning his first interception of the game near the end of the first half — were the defensive MVPs of a game dominated by defense.

How much did the defenses overshadow the offenses? So much so that what proved to be perhaps the Packers’ biggest offensive play came when the unit was playing defense.

The play came on the Packers’ first offensive series of the second half. Already up 14-0 and having knocked Cutler out of the game, it appeared that the Packers, who were in the midst of a 77-yard-drive that had gotten them to the Bears’ six-yard-line, were about to put the game out of reach.

But on a 3rd and 6, Rodgers made one of his few poor red zone decisions, hitting Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher right in the gut. Urlacher ran the interception back an impressive 39 yards, but he would surely have stumbled, bumbled, and rumbled for six points the other way had he not been tackled by the only man left to make a play.

Aaron Rodgers.

Thanks to the utter futility of backup Todd Collins, the ensuing Chicago drive ended with a whimper three plays later, underscoring the importance of Rodgers’s tackle.

Despite his heroics on that play and on the first drive, the always self-critical Rodgers is not likely to crow much about his play on Sunday. Nor should he. Take away that first drive and Rodgers was a pedestrian 13-of-26 for 168 yards and two interceptions.

But give Rodgers credit for his mobility and evasiveness in the face of a heated Bears pass rush and for making something out of seemingly nothing several times.

In contrast, Jay Cutler, who faced similar pressure from the Packers’ pass rush, was absolutely terrible, completing just six of 14 passes with one interception before a knee injury forced him out of the game early in the second half.

For anyone who thought the NFC Championship Game would come down to who would play better – Rodgers or Cutler – they were partially right, though not in how they would have expected.

Rodgers was OK. Cutler was awful.

Besides Caleb Haine, Sam Shields, and BJ Raji, there were other stars – some likely, some not – in this game.

Perhaps the most unlikely of all was punter Tim Masthay, who, after not punting at all last week, was brilliant, landing five of his eight punts inside the Bears’ 20-yard-line. His kicks made Devin Hester, the Bears’ return threat extraordinaire, a complete non-factor. Hester returned three punts for a total of 16 yards.

Receiver Greg Jennings was Aaron Rodgers’s uncontested favorite receiver, finishing with eight catches for 130 yards. For anyone paying attention, his eight catches counted for nearly half of Rodgers’s completions.

And in defeat, Bears running back Matt Forte surely moved up some 2011 fantasy football projection sheets, touching the ball on 27 of Chicago’s 64 plays. Forte finished with 70 yards rushing and 90 yards receiving, more than half of Chicago’s 301 total yards.

Despite the best efforts of Forte, Jennings, and Haine, in the end Sunday’s NFC Championship Game belonged to the defense that made the most plays.

And that was – aided of course by Rodgers’s takedown of Urlacher – undoubtedly the Packers’ unit.

Bears-Packers matchups are rarely pretty, and the defensive victory like the one earned by Green Bay Sunday certainly wasn’t.

Not that Packers fans mind.

Not in the least.

Another View: Can The Bears Win?
January 19, 2011

Will The Shufflin' Crew Shuffle Again?

Last August, while previewing the upcoming 2010-2011 NFL season, I tried to separate myself from my Minnesota upbringing and Wisconsin residency in order to write a blog in which I asked the question “Can the Bears Compete in 2010?”

At the time, more people would have predicted the return of the disastrous The Jay Leno Show then would have predicted a Chicago Bears NFC North division title.  After all, Brett Favre had just agreed to return to the Minnesota Vikings, and if any team was going to stop the Purple from winning its third straight division crown, surely it would be the Green Bay Packers, who had looked so strong the previous season before its defense inexplicably melted down in the first round of the playoffs.  

But even though I erroneously predicted the Packers would win the division this year, I felt like the Bears could leapfrog over the Vikings, in large part due to the arrival of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who I thought could help Jay Cutler immeasurably (he did). I also felt that Matt Forte would have a  much better season than the sophomore slump he suffered the year before (he did), and I knew that the Bears defense, especially if Brian Urlacher could stay healthy (he did) and new acquisition Julius Peppers could contribute (he did), was rock solid. 

I also said that the Bears’ main problem would be their porous offensive line, which, for the first third of the season, it was: Cutler was sacked 27 times in their first seven games, including nine sacks against the Giants and six sacks against the Seahawks (not surprisingly, both losses). Despite holding a 4-3 record after those seven games, it looked as if my prediction that the Bears would be scratching their way back to relevancy was as ill-conceived as, well, The Jay Leno Show.  

(BTW, I highly recommend the book The War for Late Night: I’m devouring it right now, which should help to explain the none-too-timely Jay Leno references.)

But then, something incredible happened: The heretofore pass-happy Martz, who liked to call running plays about as much as the work-obsessed Jay Leno liked to take vacations (seriously, read the book) realized that Jay Cutler was no Kurt Warner, that Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett were no Issac Bruce and Torry Holt, and that his offensive line wasn’t strong enough to hold for those seven-step drop pass plays that he called when he coached the St. Louis Rams.

Realizing that relying on Cutler to throw the ball 35-plus times a game was a recipe for disaster, Martz started to call more run plays. He started to call for shorter pass plays, eliminating the pressure on Cutler that seemed to result in either sacks or interceptions (Cutler went from 27 INTs in 2009 to 16 in 2010). The defense continued to play terrific. And the Bears went from being a much-maligned 4-3 team to, well, being a much-maligned 11-5 team.

Why can’t the Bears, an underdog for this weekend’s much-hyped and much-anticipated NFC Championship Game against the Packers despite the fact that they are: A) at home; B) the #2 seed to the Packers #6 seed; and C) coming off a resounding playoff victory, get much respect?

I think the reasons football fans deny the Bears love to the same extent that “Tiger Mothers” deny their children love are many:

1. They weren’t supposed to be there. As late as week seven, Cris Colinsworth, during NBC’s broadcast of  the Packers’s 28-24 victory over the Vikings, said that despite records, the Packers and Vikings were the two teams who would be battling over the division title.

2. Lack of stars. The Bears arguably have bigger names patrolling the sidelines (Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli, Mike Martz, Mike Tice) than they do on the football field. That’s not the way to generate excitement about your team.

3. One Night Only — Rodgers vs. Favre. Last year some were drooling over a Rodgers-Favre Round 3 in the playoffs. Surely we would get one this year, many said. But instead, Favre was too busy battling injuries, his head coach, a sexting scandal, and old age to survive even the regular season, much less the postseason.

4. Big Collapses. The Bears laid complete eggs during two of their most-viewed games, an October Sunday night game against the Giants during which their offense gained a total of 110 yards, and a much-hyped late-Sunday afternoon game against the Patriots that the Bears lost at home 36-7. For many, the images they have of the 2010 Bears season are from those games.

5. Beating the Unworthy. Despite the fact that they completely dismantled them, the Bears impressed few with their beating of the Seahawks in the divisional round. Seattle, the experts said, were a terrible team and they played like a terrible team. Most seemed to quickly forget how the Seahawks had dispatched of the defending Super Bowl champs just the week before.

It also doesn’t help the Bears’ cause that they lost to the Packers 10-3 just three weeks ago. This weighs on people despite the fact that the Bears had nothing to play for and, being an elimination game for Green Bay, the Packers had everything to play for.

Well, the Bears did have something to play for: Keeping a potential threat out of the postseason (and the Packers were perceived as a “threat” to all NFC teams even though they were just 2-3 in their previous five games). But since they failed that test, can they pass a much more important one Sunday in order to reach their third Super Bowl?

Here’s five reasons they could:

1. Their running game. The clearest advantage that the Bears have over the Packers is they have Matt Forte and Chester Taylor in their backfield. Matt Forte is more than just a weapon for the Bears — he’s their best offensive player, totaling over 1,000 yards on the ground and 547 yards receiving this season. And while Packers rookie James Starks turned heads with his Wild Card performance over the Eagles, he was far less spectacular last weekend, averaging just 2.6 yards a carry.  Note also that Forte had one of his best games of the season January 2 against the Packers, with 151 all-purpose yards. If the Bears can get similar production from Forte with Taylor providing some relief, they can win.

2. Their defense. Football pundits are so high on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense that most of them seem to have forgotten that just three weeks ago, the Bears more than held Green Bay’s high-flying offense in check; they kept them out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. They also kept Seattle, a team that laid 41 points on the World Champs the week before, scoreless for almost three quarters last week. If they can repeat those two defensive performances, anything is possible. 

3. Their kick returner. With two defenses as strong as the Packers and the Bears, Sunday’s game could come down to a big play on special teams. And if it does, you can count on Devin Hester being the one to make it. Hester returned five punts for 128 yards in the two games against the Packers this season, including a 62-yard TD in the Bears’ week 3 victory over the Packers. If the Packers can score enough points to limit their need to punt the ball (as they did last week against Atlanta when they had exactly zero punts), then Hester becomes a non-factor. But you can’t count on that against the Bears.

4. History. The last thing Packers fans want to hear about is their team’s recent history in close games. But as much as they may want to shut it out, the truth is unavoidable: The Packers were 2-6 this year in games decided by four points or less. The oddsmakers — and most others  — seem to think the game will be decided by four points or less. That doesn’t bode well for the green and gold.

5. The Oprah factor. Oprah is from Chicago. Oprah wants a Bears victory. From what I can tell, Oprah gets what she wants.

Despite these reasons, I believe in the end the Packers will prevail. For two simple reasons:

1. Aaron Rodgers is better than Jay Cutler. And frankly, it’s not even close.

2. The Packers are mentally tougher. In my head, I keep going back to that 36-7 pasting the now-we-know-they’re-not-perfect Patriots laid on the Bears in week 14. I know it was only one week and one game, but the Packers didn’t get blown out a single time this year (and really haven’t been soundly beaten since a 51-29 loss to New Orleans in 2008), and in fact gave the now-we-know-they’re-not-perfect Patriots a very close game the very next week with Matt Flynn under center. That tells me that on the rare occasion that Chicago finds itself outmatched, it can emotionally, physically, and mentally surrender. The Packers under Mike McCarthy simply don’t do that. Should the Packers jump out early, I could see them blowing the Bears out. Should the Bears jump out early, I could see the Packers coming back to win it in the end. Either way, I see the Packers winning.

Final score prediction: Packers 23, Bears 20. 

An Anniversary Celebration For Packers Fans And A Divisional Round Preview
January 14, 2011

It was ten years ago today that Green Bay Packers fans had a marvelous reason to celebrate.

The cause for joy on January 14, 2001, had nothing directly to do with their favorite team, which first-year head coach Mike Sherman guided to a mediocre 9-7 record, good enough for just third place in the NFC Central behind the 11-5 Minnesota Vikings and 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (though the Packers did finish the season with an impressive four-game win streak against its four division rivals).

No, the reason that Packers fans lifted up their voices in glorious exultation that cold January day was because on that day the Minnesota Vikings suffered one of the worst losses in a history filled with embarrassing defeats — a 41-0 humiliation against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.

The defeat triggered a series of awful events in Vikings lore: The sudden retirement of stud running back Robert Smith, the training camp death of Korey Stringer, two consecutive losing seasons, the collapse at the end of the 2003 season that shut them out of the playoffs despite a 6-0 start (and secured the Packers a postseason berth).

Ten years later, the Vikings seem to be on the cusp of another string of bad luck and losing seasons; not only do they have huge issues at quarterback and along the offensive (ineptitude) and defensive (age) lines, but they have huge stadium issues, they have an inexperienced (though reportedly well-liked) head coach, and they are facing a resurgent Bears and Lions teams. Not to mention the Packers themselves, who seem, with their youth and impressive depth, built for several consecutive seasons of success.

But with the biggest game of the careers of both head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers coming up this weekend, Packers fans aren’t necessarily thinking about future seasons. They’re thinking about now.

And what they’re thinking is: Can this roller-coaster season, that started out with such high expectations only to be derailed in October with a rash of crushing injuries before rebounding with four straight victories only to come to what seemed like a crashing halt with an inexplicable loss to the Lions in week 14, only to rise again with two must-wins to close the regular season and an upset playoff victory last weekend against the dangerous Eagles, continue?

(And what this writer is thinking is, could I possibly compose a more convoluted sentence?)

In short, can the joys in January 2011 continue to overshadow the joys of January 2001?

Let’s take a quick look at the four divisional games this weekend:

Packers at Falcons.

What we know. The Packers suffered a heartbreaking 20-17 loss to the Falcons in week 12 that came down to Matt Wilhelm committing a stupid facemask penalty on a late kickoff return that gave the Falcons great field goal position with under a minute to go. A 47-yard Matt Bryant field goal with nine seconds left resulted in the winning score.

What we don’t know. The Packers, like much of their season, could not run the ball in week 12. But James Starks, with a 123-yard rushing performance, gave Green Bay the offensive balance last week over the Eagles that they had been seeking all season. Can he do it again over a better defense? Can the Packers offense as a whole, which has been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde show as of late, score enough to send the Falcons to only their second home loss of the season? In what should be a terrific match-up, I’m guessing not. Falcons 27, Packers 20.

Ravens at Steelers.

What we know. These teams, two of the most physical in football, usually beat the hell out of each other in close, low-scoring games. The division rivals split their games this year with each winning on the other’s field.

What we don’t know. In the age-old battle of rest vs. rust, will the Steelers be able to shake off a team coming off the only dominant victory in the Wild Card round? Since before playing the Chiefs, the Ravens hadn’t had a decisive victory since a week 11 rout of the awful Carolina Panthers, I’m saying yes. It’s also worth mentioning that when the Ravens beat the Steelers in week four, Charlie Batch was behind center for the Steelers. Not this time. Steelers 17, Ravens 10.

Jets at Patriots.

What we know. This time, according to Jets head coach Rex Ryan, it’s personal.

What we don’t know. Is there any reason to believe this Jets team is any different than the one that lost to the Patriots in Foxboro 45-3 in week 13? More importantly, is there any reason to believe the Patriots, after a week off, are any different from the team that laid that whipping on the Jets? I say no. New England 35, Jets 17.

Seahawks at Bears.

What we know. The 7-9 Seahawks had undoubtedly the most impressive win of Wild Card weekend, shocking the defending champs the New Orleans Saints 41-36. A team that many said didn’t belong certainly looked played like they did last Saturday. Oh, and the Seahawks beat the Bears in week 6.

What we don’t know. Can the Seahawks, and particularly Matt Hasselbeck, catch lightning in a bottle again against an immeasurably better defense in the Chicago Bears? Can the Bears win their first postseason game in four years, when by coincidence they beat Seattle en route to the Super Bowl? Can Jay Cutler, who many feel is the worst quarterback remaining in the playoffs (hey, it’s either him or Mark Sanchez), play a relatively mistake-free game in a contest where really all the pressure is on him and his offense to produce? I say sure. Bears 24, Seahawks 13.

Enjoy the games. And, Packers fans, if the Green and Gold come up short Saturday night, remember the good times. Specifically, the ones you were enjoying ten years ago today.