An Anniversary Celebration For Packers Fans And A Divisional Round Preview

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.


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