I love professional sports – specifically NBA, NFL, MLB, and boxing – but I don’t typically go there with my writing. However, someone needs to come to the defense of my team right now. My hometown Green Bay Packers are competing this weekend in the NFC Championship on the road against the heavily favored San Francisco 49ers. I’ve been listening to podcasts and reading articles all week about the Packers’ chances in this game and to sum up: They don’t have one. I haven’t seen one article or heard one pundit picking them. In many cases people are picking the Niners -7.5, so it’s not just that people don’t think the Packers will win. They don’t think they’ll keep it within a touchdown.
You can find any viewpoint on the internet if you look hard enough, so I’m sure some spiteful fan of another team could easily silence this whining Packer fan with a link to a website somewhere picking the Packers. I haven’t seen it. Admittedly, I don’t listen to sports radio 24/7 like I used to. In fact, I don’t listen to it at all. My NFL-related podcast listening is limited to whatever Bill Simmons, Cousin Sal, Joe House, Mallory Rubin, and guests are saying on The Ringer podcast network. My reading is limited to The Ringer, The Athletic, ESPN, and the occasional link from other sites that a friend might send me. All of that said, I haven’t seen or heard a single “expert” picking the Packers. I’m sure there are exceptions. I haven’t encountered them.
As I’m getting mildly irritated wondering where the people are making the case for the Packers it occurred to me: I’ll do it. Someone needs to rep my Packers. At least I can provide something for my friends to share with each other on Facebook. What qualifies me? I don’t know. My brother and I used to have a James Lofton and John Jefferson poster in our bedroom growing up. I rocked a Tim Harris t-shirt in junior high. I was there in the freezing rain with my sister when Desmond Howard and Edgar Bennett blew the Niners out of Lambeau Field in January of 1997. I was there with my brother a week later when they hoisted the Halas trophy as NFC Champions for the first time in 29 years. I suffered frostbite in my toes at that game I’m not sure I ever recovered from and it was completely worth it. I can still name the entire starting lineup from that team. I was at Lambeau when Matt Hasselbeck said, “We want the ball and we’re going to score.” I was also there when Michael Vick handed the Packers their first playoff loss at Lambeau. My brother and I braved a harrowing Missouri blizzard in his Subaru Forester nine years ago just to witness Super Bowl XLV. The snow and roads were so bad there was a brief time we thought we might not get past Rolla, Missouri. It took us about 28 hours, but we made it and were there to watch the confetti fall when the Packers won their last title. It’s still easily the greatest sporting event I’ve ever attended. I’m no analyst, but I know my Packers.
Know this about me: I’m not a homer…I don’t think. I definitely used to be. I think I’m realistic now about the Packers’ chances. Count me as one of those people who definitely uttered the phrase, “This might be the worst 3-loss team I’ve ever seen,” at times this season. I know what happened two months ago in San Fran. I’m not here to tell you the Packers should be favored. They shouldn’t. However, if you think this is going to be a walk in the park for the Niners, you’re wrong. Let’s examine…
Sunday, November 24, 2019. Niners 37. Packers 8. To call that game discouraging would be an understatement. Soul-crushing is more accurate. You think your team is good and then 37-8 happens. No doubt, the Niners dominated. It was one of those, “When it rains, it pours,” games. It was obvious by halftime it just wasn’t the Packers’ night. It was also just one game. I don’t think it should be completely dismissed, but I am going to do just that for a moment. I’ll get back to the 37-8 game a bit later.
A lot has changed in that time. Does anyone realize that? These are not the same teams. The Packers haven’t lost since. The Niners have. The Pack is 6-0 since. It hasn’t always been pretty…it’s actually rarely been pretty. There aren’t bonus points for pretty. 6-0 is 6-0. I’m sure the Packers will gleefully take “it wasn’t pretty but they won” all the way through the Super Bowl. I know I would. They do what it takes to win. The Niners are 4-2 since then. Would you rather go 6-0 and win ugly or 4-2 and win a few pretty ones…but also lose at home to the Falcons? You mean to tell me the Packers don’t have a chance against the team that lost at home to the Falcons? Come on.
The Packers beat the Seahawks last week and all I heard after the game was, “The Seahawks weren’t that good.” Really? The same Seahawks that beat the Niners once and came two inches shy of doing it a second time three weeks ago? The Niners handled the Vikings last week. Congratulations. You know who else handled the Vikings? The Packers. Twice. I’m not sure how the Niners deserve all of this credit for taking care of business against the Vikings but the Packers seem to need to apologize for only eeking one out against a Seahawks team that was 12-5 this season going in to the game. Have you seen Russell Wilson play football? He’s incredible. The Packers had to chase his ass all over Lambeau Field last week. He’s legitimately terrifying. Have you seen Kirk Cousins play? Is anyone afraid of Kirk Cousins, especially in a big game (aside from the Saints, apparently)? Congrats on your win against Big Game Kirk Cousins last week, San Fran.
Quick tangent for my Viking fan friends and family who might see this. A sincere question: Do you enjoy having Stefon Diggs on your team? What did it tell you about him two weeks ago when he was having a fit about not getting the ball while his team was winning in New Orleans. The Vikings should trade his malcontent ass now because they aren’t going to win with him in the locker room. What he adds in talent he more than takes away in team chemistry. I don’t need to be in the room to see that. I’d hate that dude if I was a Viking fan. As a Packer fan I love him because I know he’s going to do some dumb shit like rip his helmet off and start F-bombing an entire stadium, get flagged for it, and cost his team like he did at Lambeau in September. He’s like having Jay Cutler at wide receiver. The talent is enticing, but it’s not worth the bullshit. It doesn’t seem like he’d be a fun teammate. They should get something for him now while they can.
But enough about the Vikings. They’re not playing this weekend.
My next topic is a quick rebuttal to my favorite guy, Bill Simmons, and something he said on his podcast Thursday night. He picked the Titans and the Niners this week. Part of his reasoning for picking the Titans: They are the “nobody believed in us” team. He also said, “beware the team that looked a little too good the week before.” The team he’s referring to that looked a little too good last week was the Chiefs. My question is, don’t both of those apply to the Packers? Why do those rules apply to one and not the other? Again, I go back to the Niners seemingly getting a ton of credit for beating the Vikings. Suddenly the Niners are a juggernaut because of their convincing win over the 6 seed Vikings?
I’m more focused on the “nobody believed in us” part anyway. You know what take is getting old already? The football analyst who thinks he’s going out on a limb by saying, “I think I’m gonna take the Titans this week in a shocker!” We haven’t even made it to the Sunday pregame shows and I’m tired of that one. Is that really going out on a limb? Would anyone be shocked? You think the team that knocked off the defending champs and the #1 seed on the road in back-to-back weeks with a young Jim Brown in the backfield and a coach who’s apparently willing to cut his own dick off might have a chance against the Chiefs this weekend? I hear at least as many people picking the Titans this week as I do the Chiefs. How can a team that people are picking to win this game be the “nobody believed in us” team? It seems a lot of people believe in them. Their bandwagon is beyond full. Are you saying nobody believed in them three weeks ago? I agree with that. Can you blame anyone? They went 9-7. They didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The Packers are 14-3. You know who else is? The team they’re playing against. The Packers are now 8-1 this season in games when the team they’re playing against has a winning record. You know who else has that record? Nobody. So why is nobody picking the Packers? Doesn’t that make them the “nobody believed in us team?”
Ultimately, I don’t really care. It just bothers me to hear someone make that argument to help support their point of view in the Titans game, then conveniently ignore it when they’re picking the Niners in the other game. You know if the Titans and/or Packers win this weekend every player that has a mic within earshot will be screaming “nobody believed in us except the 53 men in that locker room.” I guarantee you someone will say that after the Super Bowl no matter which of the four remaining teams wins. It’s one of the most tired takes in sports. I know players use it for fuel to stay motivated, but it sounds like sour grapes to hear someone yelling angrily about how nobody believed in them after they just won a big game. You sound so bitter. Shut up and enjoy it. Who cares who believed in you? You won. You’ve already proven your point.
Now let’s analyze a few advantages I believe the Packers may have on the field this weekend since that’s what really matters.
First, I’m not ready to admit just yet that superhuman, 2-time MVP, all-time great, certain first ballot Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers is completely gone now and he’s deteriorated in to the 37-year-old-late-in-his-career-relying-on-Terrell-Davis-to-carry-the-load-shell-of-his-former-self 1998 version of John Elway everyone seems to be comparing him to this week. I see the parallels, but I believe Rodgers still has more magic left in him than that. We saw it last week now that he’s had a healthy Davante Adams in the lineup and their timing is back. Did you see that 3rd down throw to Davante on the final drive? The last time these two teams played it was Adams’ first game back from injury. The timing wasn’t there. If you watched last week, you know it is now. I’m not saying this will happen, but I believe it’s possible that Rodgers has been rope-a-doping a bit this season with a new offense and there could be another gear coming that he hasn’t had to use yet. Rodgers and LaFleur might have something up their sleeves. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. Doubt Aaron Rodgers if you want. The NFL is full of people who took Ls after doubting him.
Another tangent: If the Packers win and at some point during the game Rodgers leaps for a first down and gets spun around like a helicopter in the air I hope I get to watch that replay for the rest of eternity. Every time I see that Super Bowl XXXII clip of Elway spinning sideways through the air and hear someone screaming about what an ageless wonder he is it makes me want to fucking puke. Bronco fans know which play I’m talking about. Packer fans definitely know which play I’m talking about. In case you’re not aware, the 37-year-old Elway that people keep using as an Aaron Rodgers comparison this week defeated the Packers in that Super Bowl.
On the other side of the ball, what has Jimmy Garoppolo done? He’s good, but after dealing with Russell Wilson, I’m pretty sure the Packers pass rushers are relieved to see a more stationary target. The Packers’ pass rush was relentless last week. Jim G will not be able to evade rushers like Wilson did. I look forward to a steady dose of Messrs. Smith making his life miserable on Sunday. I know, I know…the Niners’ pass rush is the best in the business. They’ll do the same to Rodgers. Alex Light isn’t playing right tackle this time. That will help. Brian Bulaga is…assuming he’s not still throwing up. He’s not, is he? I should check on that. Let’s assume he’s not.
So, who would you rather have in this situation? I’ll take the proven veteran former Super Bowl MVP and 2-time league MVP who’s been there before and is still dropping darts in Davante Adams’ hands over the guy who has done none of that. Garoppolo had a brush with that kind of greatness backing up Tom Brady in the past, but greatness-adjacent doesn’t count. Rodgers is great and has been for a decade. He’s been there and knows what it takes.
Not that it should’ve needed to be done, but we’ve established that Rodgers is better than Garoppolo. Let’s talk skill players for a second now. Aaron Jones. The best back we’ve had in Green Bay since Ahman Green. Led the league in TDs this season. The Niners have good speed at the position, but you can’t tell me Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman are better. The Niners also don’t have a WR near the level of Davante Adams. Yes, they have George Kittle. He’s a beast for sure. Let’s not make him out to be the next Gronk just yet because he barely cracked 1,000 yards and scored 5 TDs this season. He might have a lot of Gronk’s frat boy tendencies, but he’s not even Travis Kelce yet, much less Gronk.
Seriously, though…when did every good tight end in the NFL turn in to a guy who seems like he enjoys crushing beer cans on his forehead? They should let tight ends wear #69. Tell me Gronk, Kelce, and Kittle wouldn’t all wear 69 if the league let them.
It’s foolish to compare offensive skill players anyway. It’s about matchups. It doesn’t matter whose running backs are better. It matters if Green Bay’s running backs can run on San Fran’s defense and vice versa. It matters if Packer DBs can cover Niner receivers. What matters most is if the Packers’ line can protect Rodgers long enough to get the ball to someone. It doesn’t matter if Rodgers is better than Jimmy G if Rodgers is on his ass half of the game. Slowing that pass rush long enough for Rodgers to find Adams, Graham, and company is the key to the entire game. The Packers are better positioned to do that now than they were in November. Adams is fully healthy. The line is healthy.
All of that said, there’s a reason the Niners are the favorite and everyone is picking them. They’ve earned it. I’m trying to make the point that they’re more beatable than we’re being led to believe. Here’s how I think the Packers do it:
They need a haymaker early to let the Niners know 37-8 isn’t happening again. It’s not like the storied, raucous atmosphere at Levi’s Stadium is scaring anyone, but it is the Conference Championship and the crowd will be loud. I also think they’ll be easy to shut up with an early big play. The Packers are going to need to throw a few wrinkles in to the offense that they haven’t shown yet this season. Richard Sherman is feeling himself right now. He picked off Kirk Cousins last week and he’s been talking a lot. I heard him earlier in the week saying he’s not going to shadow Adams this week. He’s going to cover whoever is on his side of the field. I want to go on record saying I love Richard Sherman. He’s not the most physically gifted defensive back in the league. He makes up for it with brains and heart. His best years are behind him, though, and I think the Packers could take advantage of that. His overconfidence and pride could be taken advantage of early. Marquez Valdes-Scantling has been mostly silent for months now. It’s time to unleash that speed. Put him on Sherman’s side of the field and send him deep on play action. If the help bites on a run fake MVS should be able to run by Sherman. An early 7-0 lead will quiet the crowd and let the Niners know 37-8 isn’t happening again.
Next, they need to get the same heat on Garoppolo this week that they did Russell Wilson last week. They’ve proven with the Smiths and Kenny Clark (among others) that they can. I wouldn’t mind seeing Kyler Fackrell in the backfield a few times as well. They should be able to force Jimmy G in to some ill advised throws. He tried to throw a few to Minnesota last week and the Vikings didn’t capitalize. I know who does: Playoff Tramon Williams. That’s right. Playoff Tramon Williams is real. Ask the Falcons and Eagles. We need the old man to bring back some of that magic. He’s shown flashes this season. If not him, it’s time for Kevin King, Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage, and company to step up. The young secondary has shown the playmaking ability this season. It needs to be there this week. I’m predicting a key interception for Tramon.
Finally, someone needs to step up and be the X-factor. Another difference maker the Packers have now that they didn’t have two months ago is return man Tyler Ervin. He changes field position for the Packers in a way they weren’t able to before he arrived. He can also make plays on offense if they get him touches like they did last week. They need Tyler Ervin to bust one this week like Desmond Howard in 1996. He’s gotten close, but he needs to change the game this week.
The last thing I think the Packers can use to swing the game in their favor? Let’s go back to 37-8. Who do you think benefits from that 37-8 game now? The team that won or the team that lost? I’ve never been in an NFL locker room and can’t comprehend what goes through their heads before a game, but I understand human nature at least a little bit. You think there aren’t a few guys on that Niner team thinking, “We beat their ass easily. We can do it again.” I’m not saying they’re not working hard. I’m not saying they’re dismissing the Packers. I’m saying there might be a small part of them subconsciously somewhere taking their foot off the gas just a bit because of how easily they dismantled the Packers in November. There is reason for overconfidence.
Let’s look at it from the other sideline. What do you think the Packers are thinking about 37-8? Do you think they’re crying about it? Scared that it’ll happen again? I doubt it. If there was a Hall of Fame for dudes with chips on their shoulders Aaron Rodgers would be voted in unanimously next to Michael Jordan. He remembers everything. He damn sure remembers the humiliation they felt in November. So do the rest of the Packers. You think Za’Darius Smith has a chip on his shoulder? He’s been walking around with a “snubbed” shirt on. I believe losing that game in humiliating fashion is far better fuel than winning. The Niners have the weight of expectations now. The Packers have the freedom of having nothing to lose.
Remember: This is not a series. It’s one game. Anything can happen in one game. I don’t believe the Packers need to play a perfect game to beat the 49ers. The Niners didn’t go 16-0. They lost three games just like the Packers did. It’s going to take a damn good game, though. A throwback performance from an all-time great quarterback. Consistency from the skill players. An advantage in the turnover battle. A relentless pass rush. Some big plays from an opportunistic defensive backfield. Maybe a surprise here and there. Some help from special teams. No doubt in my mind if the Packers play the way they’re capable of for 60 minutes they will get this done and fly out of Northern California with the Halas trophy.
Now the Packers can’t say nobody believed in them.
GO PACK GO