Monday, December 30, 2013

The 53 - Packers beat Bears to win the NFC North

The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears met for the 188th time on Sunday, which is the most of any two teams in NFL history.  That will continue to be a renewing NFL record unless the NFL makes radical changes to divisional alignment or scheduling.  The official NFL game preview was cut before we knew whether Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was going to play.  As it turns out, we knew by Thursday that the Packers were finally going have the services of Rodgers against the Bears for the first time since Week 9 when Rodgers was injured against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field.

The Packers were 5-2 before they lost Rodgers to a broken collarbone and went 2-5-1 using the services of three other quarterbacks (Seneca Wallace, Scot Tolzien, and Matt Flynn) in place of Rodgers.  Somehow the Packers played just well enough to make their Week 17 game against the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago meaningful.  The winner of the game would win the NFC North, get the 4th seed in the NFC playoffs, and hosts a home playoff game next weekend.  Here were the inactives for the Packers against the Bears: Chris Harper (WR, healthy scratch), Brad Jones (MLB, ankle), Clay Matthews (OLB, broken thumb), Jumal Rolle (CB, healthy scratch), Lane Taylor (G, healthy scratch), JC Tretter (G/C, healthy scratch), and C.J. Wilson (DE, healthy scratch).

As we we all know by now, the Packers beat the Bears in dramatic fashion.  The person that likely suffered the most from the loss, besides the one Bears fan that plays for the Wisconsin Badgers football team, is Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.  For his career, Cutler is now 1-9 (1-8 with the Bears & 0-1 with the Broncos) against the Packers.  Both Cutler and their geriatric but possibly better backup quarterback Josh McCown are both set to become free agents this year.  The sensible approach is the re-sign McCown to a short-term deal and draft a developmental quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft.  As a Packer fan that lives in Chicago, I hope the Bears resign Cutler so that even if he wins a couple games against the Packers over the next few years he will take up a ton of cap space while driving the entire city of Chicago nuts with his horrible body language that accompanies each of his interceptions.

The Packers and Bears played 186 times in the regular season, the Bears lead the series 92-88-6 but the Packers won nine of their last 11 games against Bears, including six in a row before losing to the Bears earlier this season at Lambeau.  Soldier Field is turning into Lambeau Field South given that the Packers are now 23-19-0 all-time at Soldier Field winning their last four and five of the last six.

Despite playing 186 times in the regular season, the Packers and Bears only met twice in the playoff, both times in Chicago.  The Bears won the first game 33–14 in 1941 at Wrigley Field.  The Packers won the second game 21-14 at Soldier Field in the NFC Championship Game en route to winning Super Bowl XLV.

Their win over the Bears gave the Packers their 3rd consecutive NFC North title and fifth consecutive playoff appearance.  The Packers are now 7-1 in regular season finales against Bears since 1934, wining their last five, with their most notable win in that streak being their 10-3 win at Lambeau in 2010 to start their run toward winning Super Bowl XLV.  It is not just the Bears that have struggled against the Packers in regular season finales.  The Packers won 18 of their last 20 regular season finales, including seven of their last eight against NFC North foes with their only lose coming in a meaningless game on the road against the Minnesota Vikings in 2012 that was quickly remedied by a playoff win the following week over the Vikings at Lambeau Field.

I am often critical of in-game decisions my Packers head coach McCarthy but give him, check that Rodgers credit, for being very impressive at the end of the regular season.  The Packers are now 18-6 in regular season in December/January since 2009, which only trails the Patriots (21-4) and the Chargers (19-6).  Taking a slightly longer timeline, McCarthy has a winning divisional record in all eight seasons in charge of the Packers.  The Bill Belichick coached New England Patriots are the only other team in the NFL to match the Packers.

Without further adu, here are my updated player rankings following the Packers/Bears game:

The 53
1. Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1)
2. Clay Matthews (OLB, LR 2) 
3. Randall Cobb (WR, LR N/A)
4. Jordy Nelson (WR, LR 3)
5. Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 4)
6. Sam Shields (CB, LR 5)
7. Josh Sitton (G, LR 7)
8. T.J. Lang (G, LR 6)
9. James Jones (WR, LR 8)
10. Tramon Williams (CB, LR 12)
11. David Bakhtiari (T, LR 16)
12. Evan Dietrich-Smith (C, LR 10)
13. Morgan Burnett (S, LR 9)
14. Mike Daniels (DL, LR 11)
15. Micah Hyde (CB, LR 13)
16. B.J. Raji (DL, LR 14)
17. Jarrett Boykin (WR, LR 18)
18. Don Barclay (T, LR 15)
19. A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 17)
20. James Starks (RB, LR 24)
21. Brad Jones (MLB, LR 19)
22. Datone Jones (DL, LR 21)
23. Nick Perry (OLB, LR 22)
24. Davon House (CB, LR 20)
25. Tim Masthay (P, LR 25)
26. Ryan Pickett (DL, LR 31)
27. Andrew Quarless (TE, LR 27)
28. John Kuhn (FB, LR 30)
29. Josh Boyd (DL, LR 26)
30. Mason Crosby (K, LR 34)
31. Mike Neal (DL/OLB, LR 28)
32. Jamari Lattimore (LB, LR 29)
33. Jarrett Bush (CB, LR 32)
34. Derek Sherrod (T, LR 33)
35. Jerel Worthy (DE, LR 37)
36. Sean Richardson (S, LR 36)
37. Brett Goode (LS, LR 35)
38. Andy Mulamba (LB, LR 38)
39. Matt Flynn (QB, LR 23)
40. M.D. Jennings (S, LR 39)
41. Ryan Taylor (TE, LR 40)
42. J.C. Tretter (C, LR 42)
43. C.J. Wilson (DL, LR 43)
44. Chris Banjo (S, LR 44)
45. Scott Tolzien (QB, LR 41)
46. Victor Aiyewa (LB, LR 45)
47. Jake Stoneburner (TE, LR 46)
48. Nate Palmer (LB, LR 50)
49. Lane Taylor (G, LR 47)
50. Chris Harper (WR, LR 48)
51. Marshall Newhouse (T, LR 49)
52. Kahlil Bell (RB, LR 51)
Injured Reserve
1. Jermichael Finley (TE)
2. Bryan Bulaga (T)
3. Casey Hayward (CB)
4. Johnny Jolly (DL) 
5. DuJuan Harris (RB)
6. Jonathan Franklin (RB)
7. Brandon Bostick (TE)
8. Robert Francois (MLB)
9. Greg Van Roten (C/G)
10. Sam Barrington (LB)
11. Myles White (WR)
12. Seneca Wallace (QB)
13. James Nixon (CB)
14. Kevin Dorsey (WR)
15. Sederrik Cunningham (WR)
1. Jeremy Ross (WR, Lions)
2. Jerron McMillian (S, free agent)
3. Michael Hill (RB, Buccaneers)
1) Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1): Bears outside linebacker Shea McClellin was one of my former NFL draft crushes from the 2012 NFL Draft.  McClellin has been somewhat underwhelming so far in the NFL with his more notable play coming when he sacked Rodgers and broke his collarbone earlier this season.  The difference between Rodgers and the three other quarterbacks on The 53 (Flynn and Tolzien) or injured reserve (Wallace) that played meaningful snaps this season is quite dramatic.  The offense averaged almost 9 points less with Wallace, Tolzien, or Flynn under center instead of Rodgers.  The NFL picks league that I am in with my buddy Sug where we pick every game against the spread had the line at +7 for the Packers even though Rodgers was scheduled to play.  Needless to say, we loaded up on that line making it a pick of the year.  I know this sounds like piling on at this point but in case you missed it, here is the video about Rodgers returning to play the Bears, if you didn't get chills watching that video then I can safely say you are not a Packer fan.  Rodgers looked tentative at times on a handful of his incomplete passes and downright rusty on his two interceptions but take a look at his stat line against the Bears after missing essentially eight games: 25 for 39 throwing for 318 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions for a quarterback rating of 85.2 (QBR of 57.7).  I hate the "big time players make big time plays" but it applies to Rodgers against the Bears.  With the Packers down 28-27 with 46 seconds left in the game and facing a 4th and 8 from the Bears' 48-yard line, Rodgers propelled the Packers into the playoffs.  It is really hard to rank the Top 10 plays of Rodgers' career and that doesn't even factor in that I expect him to have a bunch more over the next decade, but when it is all said and done I think you would be hard pressed to keep his game winner to Cobb out of the Top 10, even if he leads the Packers to more Super Bowl win(s).

3) Randall Cobb (WR, LR N/A): After breaking his leg on the road against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6, the Packers placed Cobb on IR designated for return so he could have been added to The 53 for the Packers/Cowboys game.  Unfortunately Cobb was still not healthy enough to play against the Cowboys or in the Packers/Steelers game. That meant that Cobb ultimately missed 10 games before the Packers activated him from the IR designated for return to The 53 yesterday.  The Packers clearly benefited from having Cobb back in the lineup considering he caught two balls that both resulted in touchdowns.  Although the second touchdown is the one that Packers fans will be talking about for many years to come, Cobb's first touchdown catch on 3rd and 4 at the Bears 7-yard line with 7 and half minutes left in the 3rd quarter down 14-13 is something the Packers been missing with Cobb out.  Wide receivers James Jones and Nelson do a great job working outside while Cobb thrives in the slot.  Often people say take this with a grain of salt but in this instance don't take this with a grain of salt, I think if Cobb was out this week the Packers would not have beaten the Bears.

5) Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 4): Another week, another gutty (no pun intended) performance by Lacy playing with a heavily taped sprained ankle: 21 carries for 66 yards and 1 touchdown to go along with 2 catches for 15 yards.  Although that stat line does not seem that impressive given the fact that the Bears have the worst rush defense in the NFL, it is Lacy's mere presence on the field alone that gives the Packers a legitimate running threat, which opens up a number of options in the passing game.  I've said many times that I am not a fan of running draws out of the shotgun but runs like Lacy's touchdown run against the Bears show that sometimes it is in fact an effective play call since it allows a patient running back like Lacy time to bounce a run outside instead of getting tackled for no gain.  Lacy's touchdown run pulled the Packers within two points with just under 12 minutes to play in the game.  At the time I was fine with McCarthy kicking the extra point to make it 28-27 but upon further reflection today, I think McCarthy should have gone for two in that situation to try to tie the game.  Assuming McCarthy went for two, I would have run Lacy up the middle on that attempt instead of calling a passing play like McCarthy did when he actually went for two in the dying moments of the game.  There is no question that Lacy had the best rookie season for a Packer that I can remember, which is why I thought he got snubbed not getting invited to the Pro Bowl.

6) Sam Shields (CB, LR 5): A little over a month ago I broke down how Packers general manager Ted Thompson should approach their impending restricted and unrestricted free agents this off-season.  At that time I thought Sheilds was a long-shot to return to the Packers but my opinion has dramatically changed.  Part of the reason why I thought Sheilds would not be on The 53 for the Packers in 2014 is the fact that the Packers have a number of young, talented cornerbacks on The 53 for the next few years on cheap, combined with the fact that Shields is going to demand a very large contract.  At the risk of pricing Shields out Green Bay, let's not forget that he holds the distinction of coming up with a game ending interception in two of the most dramatic Packers/Bears games of all-time: 2010 NFC Champion Game & last night.  I know this sounds like me being more of a fan than thinking like a general manager but at some point you need to pay players that make big plays, especially when those guys are just entering their prime like Shields is given that he just turned 26-years old.  There is no question Shields is the best cornerback on The 53 right now.  The real question is whether Thompson can fit a five-year, $50 million contract with at least half of that deal guaranteed into the salary cap for 2014 and beyond to keep Shields on The 53 for the Packers long-term.

8) T.J. Lang (G, LR 6): Apparently McCarthy had to be talked into going for it by his offensive line on the first of three 4th down conversions by the Packers on their final drive  Just to set the stage, the Packers trailed the Bears 28-27 where they faced a 4th and 1 from their own 22-yard line with 4:41 to play and only one timeout left.  Had the Packers not picked up the first down, the game would have essentially been over.  I've said many times that one prism that I look through when dissecting coaching decisions is what an educated fan of the other team would not want a head coach to do.  In that instance, I am sure that Bears fans would rather that the Packers punt instead of going for it.  The Packers ultimately picked up the first down on a one-yard run by fullback John Kuhn but I guarantee you that a smart Bears fan, I know that seems like a non sequitur, would rather the Packers punted in that situation.

10) Tramon Williams (CB, LR 12): A gang tackle of Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey by Williams and Business HJ results in a fumble that was recovered by safety Morgan Burnett.  As Burnett scampered tried to return the fumble for a touchdown, he pitched the ball to cornerback Sam Shields.  Ultimately Shields was tackled after running a few more yards.  That is the kind of group defensive play that we came to expect the last few years from the Packers but have not seen so far this season.  The lack of big plays partially falls at the feet of the safties since they went the entire season without an interception for the first time since the 1950's.  Fortunately against the Bears, the defense picked a good time to harken back to their play the last few years.  Taking into account the fact that the Packers need to keep Shields long-term, I see the Packers doing everything possible to get Williams to take a pay cut next season.  If Williams will not take a pay cut, as crazy as it sounds, I could see the Packers actually keeping Williams instead of cutting him like Thompson cut cornerback/safety Charles Woodson last off-season.

17) Jarrett Boykin (WR, LR 18): How many times is a ball clearly not a fumble or a pass clearly dropped but a player still picks up the ball and runs with it acting as if they have a live ball?  Luckily Boykin with a little help from Rodgers and the sideline realized it was actually a live ball so he scooper it up and ran in for a touchdown.  There is a lot that happened on that play so let's break it down piece-by-piece.  The Packers faced a 1st and 10 on the Bears' 17-yard line down 7-3 with just over three and a half minutes left in the first half.  Bears defensive end Julius Peppers knocked the ball out of Rodgers' hand.  In real time it looked like Rodgers' arm might be going forward, which I presume is why Bears linebacker James Anderson didn't scoop up the ball and run.  If Anderson did, the Bears would have been up 14-3.  Instead Boykin recovered the fumble and ran it in for a touchdown to give the Packers a 10-7 lead.  Boykin's post-game comments gave some interesting insight into what is actually happening on the field during an NFL game.  Even though the fans in the stadium were screaming and the entire Packers' sideline was telling Boykin to pick up the ball, he said that the only thing he could hear was Rodgers telling him to pickup the ball and run.  The emergence of Boykin as a legitimate NFL wide receiver is simultaneously a good and bad thing.  It is a good thing because I could see him starting for a handful of teams in the NFL so that is a nice, cheap commodity to have on The 53 as a 3rd or 4th wide receiver.  It is a bad thing because I could see the Packers letting wide receiver James Jones leave via free agency because they have to extend wide receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson in the next year so having a cost-effective third wide receiver makes more sense than having three expensive wide receivers.

20) James Starks (RB, LR 24): Besides the injury to Rodgers, I will remember 2013 as the season that the Packers started being able to run for first downs on 3rd and 1 again for the first time in what felt like a decade. Whether it be fullback John Kuhn, Lacy, or Starks; it seems like the Packers finally have the physically backs on The 53 to pick up their every tricky one yard.  Case and point, Starks' 41-yard run against the Bears.  I would prefer the Packers use Lacy as opposed to Kuhn or Starks but the fact that we are even discussing the Packers picking up first downs on the ground is amazing.  Starks is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent following this season.  When healthy, Lacy is clearly the bell cow at running back.  The Packers have two running backs currently on injured reserve in Jonathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris that are under contract for at least next season so they will most likely be on The 53 in 2014.  I would be shocked if the Packers drafted a running back after drafting Lacy and Franklin in the 2013 NFL Draft.  Since Kuhn and Starks are both set to be free agents after the season, it will be interesting to see if both return in 2014.  Usually the Packers keep four or five backs on The 53.  Given Kuhn's versatility in being able to play special teams and serve as a great blocking back, I see the Packers keeping Kuhn and then deciding whether they want Starks as a 4th running back on The 53 in 2014.

Enjoy the full game highlights & post-game celebration from one of the five best Packers/Bears games of all-time.  As I said earlier, the Packers and Bears have played 188 times, which should put into context how special their most recent meeting was in the history of the NFL's best rivalry.  Thanks to having uncles with Bears season tickets, I've been to a ton of Packers/Bears games over the years including every game since they renovated Soldier Field.  For some reason I did not get tickets from my uncles this year but we still had a great time watching the game with Cheesehead Chick, Fernando, E-Dogg, Bryn, and James.  After the game Cheesehead Chick and I met Dre, Sug, and Tessa at Wells on Wells for some celebratory drinks.  I don't often gives Bears fans credit but at least the Bears fans at Wells on Wells deserve credit because there were still a handful of them in the bar hours after the game was done and all they did was chuckle at us as we danced around the bar like we just won the Super Bowl.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, the 8-7-1 Packers need to re-group because they host the 12-4 San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs next week. The 49ers are 0-2 at Lambeau Field in the playoffs and the Packers are 8-4 in NFL Wild Card games.  In terms of more recent head-to-head comparisons, after the Packers dominated the 49ers for a very long-time winning eight straight, the series shifted in favor of the 49ers the last few years with the 49ers winning three consecutive games including the regular season openers the last two years (2012 & 2013) and the playoffs last year.

I do not expect a ton of turnover to The 53 this week but if there are any changes, check back for full coverage.  Otherwise make sure to check back early next week for my extended thoughts on the Packers/49ers playoff game.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The 15 - Forever Young...May You Stay...Forever Young

Sorry it has been almost a month since my last post about the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks but things have been crazy for the Green Bay Packers and Manchester City, which has precluded me from posting more about the underwhelming Bucks.  Later today we will know whether the Packers beat the Chicago Bears on the road, which will determine whether the Packers or Bears win the NFC North and host a home playoff game.  Since I am doing everything in my power to distract myself until kickoff of the Packers/Bears game, I decided to post something about the Bucks as a nice reprieve for Cheesehead sports fans.

The Bucks are 1-5 in overtime games so far this season.  Losing that many games in overtime can be chalked up to two different things: inability to make clutch shots or lack of depth.  Given their injury issues, I would chalk it up to lack of depth.  Following their home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves last night, the Bucks are currently 6-24 ahead of their three game road trip out West (Lakers, Jazz, and Suns), which usually means three loses.

The Bucks have a very good chance to lose the most games in franchise history, which was set in the 1993-94 season when head coach Mike Dunleavy lead the Bucks to a 20-62 record.  The Buck suffered a myriad of injuries to almost everyone on The 15 so far this season so even though they did not want to tank this year per owner Herb Kohl's mandate, the Bucks currently have the worst record in the league and it looks like things will only get worse to close out 2013 and start 2014 on their three game West coast road trip.

Earlier this month Kohl held a press conference to say he wants to broaden ownership as a means to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee long-term.  Kohl was a United States Senator from Wisconsin from January 4, 1989 to January 3, 2013 and has owned the Bucks since 1985.  Some thought once Kohl retired from the Senate that he would have more time to focus on the Bucks and the push to get a new arena built in Milwaukee.  I am not against Kohl and his new investors building a new arena in Milwaukee as long as the tax payers of the state of Wisconsin do not have to pay for the new arena.  Presumably any new owners that Kohl would add would have deep pockets, which would allow them to foot the bill for a new arena.  If Kohl and his new investors expect the tax payers to foot the bill, I am fine with the Bucks becoming the new version of the Seattle SuperSonics.

One quick piece of advice for small market NBA general managers before we get to my updated rankings of The 15.  Small market NBA general managers are inherently at a disadvantage because even if they have cap space, they are unable to attract big-time free agents so they need to change how they approach putting together The 15 by giving themselves more roster flexibility.  Following the 2013 NBA Draft, Bucks general manager John Hammond made some questionable moves that essentially handcuffed any roster flexibility on The 15 given that Hammond filled The 15 with guaranteed contracts.  The problem with that approach is that when The 15 goes through a rash of injuries like the Bucks have to start the 2013-14 NBA season, there is no way to bring in short-term help since everyone on The 15 has a guaranteed contract.  That means Hammond cannot cut anyone without fairly significant financial ramifications but if he left a spot or two open on The 15 he could have added undrafted rookie free agents on a rotating basis where warm bodies are needed to fill out the rotation.

With than unfortunate introduction that pretty much shows you how depressing things have been for the Bucks so far this season out of the way, here are my updated thoughts on The 15:

The 15
1. John Henson (PF/C, LR 1)
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (SG/SF, LR 3)
3. Larry Sanders (C, LR 7)
4. Brandon Knight (PG, LR 6)
5. Khris Middleton (SF, LR 8)
6. Gary Neal (SG, LR 4)
7. Ersan Ilyasova (PF, LR 2)
8. O.J. Mayo (SG, LR 5)
9. Caron Butler (SF, LR 9)
10. Nate Wolters (PG, LR 10)
11. Miroslav Raduljica (C, LR 14)
12. Ekpe Udoh (PF, LR 13)
13. Luke Ridnour (PG, LR 12)
14. Zaza Pachulia (C, LR 11)
15. Carlos Delfino (SG/SF, LR 15)
2) Giannis Antetokounmpo (SG/SF, LR 3): Bucks head coach Larry Drew is finally starting The Greek Freak, unfortunately it took a bunch of injuries to force Drew to play the most exciting player on The 15. Why do I love The Greek Freak?  Check out his drive past Kevin Garnett for an easy dunk as one of many examples from his young NBA career.  The Greek Freak was listed at 6'9" before the 2013 NBA Draft and apparently has the growth plates of a 16-year old so he already grew an inch and a half in the last six months.  Given that The Greek Freak is currently the youngest player in the NBA, there is a good chance that he will end-up growing another inch and a half to be a 7-footer with ball handling and shooting skills of a guard to go along with the defense and rebounding skills of a forward.  The Greek Freak is also making other players on the court better.  Case and point, starting point Brandon Knight doubled his scoring, rebounding, and assists since The Greek Freak joined the starting lineup. Am I excited for The Greek Freak's potential upside?  Let's have Marv Albert give my response.

5) Khris Middleton (SF, LR 8): Before the season I said that I had very low expectations for Middleton.  Most of that was due to the fact that Middleton was projected as a borderline lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft going into his junior season at Texas A&M.  Unfortunately Middleton struggled due to a knee injury and a coaching change but still decided to come out early.  The Detroit Pistons drafted Middleton 39th overall and buried him on the bench throughout his rookie season.  After joining the Bucks this off-season in the Jennings for Knight et al. trade, the team committed to giving Middleton regular minutes so he already appeared for the Bucks more times this season than he did for the Pistons all last season.  Early results are positive as Middleton is the only player to appear in every game for the Bucks this season and is fourth on the team in PER with 14.4.

11) Miroslav Raduljica (C, LR 14): With centers Zaza Pachulia and Larry Sanders out for extended periods of time so far this season, Drew was essentially forced to play Raduljica and he has responded well so far.  Raduljica is currently second on the team in PER with 19.1.  Take that with a grain of salt thought because Raduljica is only averaging 10 minutes per game in 17 appearances (2 starts).  I look at backup centers like backup catchers in baseball, they are necessary but you should never overpay for them.  Injuries aside, the Bucks clearly overpaid Pachulia when they signed him to a three-year, $15.6 million deal.  The Bucks properly paid Raduljica when they signed him to a three-year, $4.5 million deal. I am not saying that Raduljica is better than Pachulia right now but for a team that has no legitimate playoff aspirations, it make much more sense to pay Raduljica $1.5 million than Pachulia $5.2 million to play backup center.

Given how much the Bucks have struggled this season, the only thing to look forward to is the NBA Trade Deadline on Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 2 pm CST.  The Bucks really only have two untouchable players on The 15: John Henson and The Greek Freak.  Besides those guys, Hammond should make everyone else available even if it hurts the Bucks immensely in the short-term in the hopes of building a long-term winner.  I will do my best to work ESPN's NBA Trade Machine to construct a number of ridiculous trades for Hammond that will never happen but are fun to discuss.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

#TweetBeat - City beat Crystal Palace at The Etihad

Twice earlier this month I gave my real-time thoughts on Manchester City's EPL matches via Twitter and aggregated them as #TweetBeat posts.  The first time was when City thumped Arsenal 6-3 at home at The Etihad.  Although not as impressive as dismantling then league leaders Arsenal at home, City followed up that performance with a 4-2 win over Fulham on the road.  After defeating then league leaders Liverpool at home on Boxing Day, City hosted Crystal Palace just two days later.  Here are my real-time thoughts on City's ho-hum 1-0 home victory over Crystal Palace at The Etihad:

A win is a win, especially given that City faced Liverpool just two days ago on Boxing Day.  Thanks to their win over Crystal Palace, City temporarily go to the top of the table pending the outcome tomorrow of Arsenal's match on the road against Newcastle.

For how impressive City have been at home in the EPL taking a maximum 30 points, they have only managed 11 points in 9 matches on the road.  City are going to try to improve on their road form on New Year's Day when they face Swansea.  Despite the early start for City/Swansea match, make sure to check my Twitter account (@CheeseheadSN) because I will do my best to live-tweet the match.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The 53 - 2013 Pro Bowl Thoughts

The NFL is implementing some changes for the Pro Bowl this year in hopes of somehow keeping an irrelevant game relevant.  Instead of naming AFC and NFC teams, there were pools of players picked irrespective of conference.  From the pools of players picked, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders will select the teams that play in the Pro Bowl.  I am sure that ESPN loves the idea of having Rice and Sanders pick the teams because it will allow them to fill hours of airtime dissecting their meaningless draft decisions.

I hope this slight change in the Pro Bowl format serves as a bridge to a radical way to replace the Pro Bowl all together.  I like the idea of recognizing the best players in the NFL and I like idea of having captain choose teams but I hate the actual game itself so here is my plan for making the Pro Bowl relevant again.  Instead of using former NFL greats, make the two players that finish with the most votes the captains.  Since the NFL is apparently pushing to improve player safety, instead of picking teams for a joke of a game that the Pro Bowl has become, I say pick teams for an all-day skills competition.

Sure we can have a quarterback challenge and other quasi on the field competitions but I am much more interested in the off-the-field stuff.  I know each of the competitions will not get as good of television ratings as the Pro Bowl but I have solution to fill that void.  The easiest off-the-field competition is an eating content that involves all the offensive and defensive lineman.  Since we know the NFL loves to push any advertising it can, they can call it the BW3's Wing Eating Competition.  While we are getting branding in the mix, how about an EA Sports Madden video game competition?  As the Real World/Road Rules Challenge has shown us, adult spelling competitions always provide high comedy so let's add in the Spelling Bee.  I am sure there are ten more that we could come up with but you get the point.

I am not an advertising genius but the NFL might even be able to make more money off the Pro Bowl Skills Competition presented by Miller Lite than the actual Pro Bowl game itself currently makes depending on how much the NFL charges the advertisers for each competition.  Leaving money aside for a moment, the NFL can use the downtime during the competitions to tell the back stories of the players involved in the Pro Bowl Skills Competition presented by Miller Lite, which will help them increase interest with women by making these freakish athletes seem more like regular human beings.  Unfortunately since this idea makes too much sense I am sure NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will never let it see the light of day.

With my Pro Bowl Skills Competition presented by Miller Lite idea out of the way, let's take a look at the actual 2013 Pro Bowl from a Cheesehead sports perspective.  The Green Bay Packers were one of five NFL teams without a player selected to the Pro Bowl.  The other four teams without a Pro Bowler are the Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, and New York Jets.  That marks the first time since 2005 that the Packers did not have a single player named to the Pro Bowl.

The Packers did have eight players named as Pro Bowl alternates: John Kuhn (FB), Eddie Lacy (RB), Clay Matthews (OLB), Jordy Nelson (WR), Aaron Rodgers (QB), Sam Shields (CB), Josh Sitton (G), and Tramon Williams (CB).  Here are my thoughts on the three biggest Packer Pro Bowl snubs, in reverse order:

#3) Josh Sitton (LG): There were six offensive guards selected to the Pro Bowl ahead of Sitton: Jahri Evans (Saints), Ben Grubbs (Saints), Mike Iupati (49ers), Logan Mankins (Patriots), Louis Vasquez (Broncos), and Marshal Yanda (Ravens).  I am fine with Iupati, Mankins, and Yanda making it ahead of Sitton.  I am even fine with either Evans or Grubbs making the Pro Bowl at guard but not both given that the New Orleans Saints offensive line was not that dominate this season.  I presume giving Vasquez the nod is just a tip of the cap to the Denver Bronco offensive line given that the Broncos had one of the most potent offenses in NFL history this season.  In terms of Sitton's case for the Pro Bowl, not only did he seamlessly transition from right guard to left guard but he lined up next to rookie offensive tackle David Bakhtiari and blocked for a backup quarterback for almost half the regular season.  Accurately comparing offensive lineman is more of an art that a science but given all that I just discussed, it would have been nice to see Sitton named to the Pro Bowl this season.

#2) Jordy Nelson (WR): There were eight wide receivers selected to the Pro Bowl ahead of Nelson: Antonio Brown (Steelers), Dez Bryant (Cowboys), Josh Gordon, (Browns), A.J. Green (Bengals), Andre Johnson (Texans), Calvin Johnson (Lions), Brandon Marshall (Bears), and Demaryius Thomas (Broncos).  I honestly think if Nelson was more flashy, he would get more recognition because he made a number of highlight reel catches like his touchdown catch that helped spark the comeback against the Dallas Cowboys. Given how much the Texans have struggled this season, I probably would have given Nelson the nod over Johnson.

#1) Eddie Lacy (RB): There were the six running backs selected to the Pro Bowl ahead of Lacy: Jamaal Charles (Chiefs), Matt Forte (Bears), Frank Gore (49ers), Marshawn Lynch (Seahawks), LeSean McCoy (Eagles), and Adrian Peterson (Vikings).  If I was starting a franchise tomorrow and could have any of the aforementioned group, I would have a hard time choosing between McCoy and Peterson.  After that, it would be a tough choice between Lacy and Lynch when you factor in that Lynch is four years older than Lacy.  I am biased in my love for Lacy so I would probably take Lacy ahead of Lynch but that is a very tough call.  Oddly I am fine with Lacy getting snubbed by the Pro Bowl if that helps him win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year because I actually think that is a more important benchmark in a player's career given what a joke the Pro Bowl has become.

Let's hope no one on The 53 for the Packers can compete in the 2013 Pro Bowl because they are preparing to play in Super Bowl XLVIII.  Their first step towards that goal is beating the Chicago Bears in the winner-take-all battle for the NFC North title.  No matter the outcome of the game, make sure to check back early next week for my full thoughts on the Packers/Bears game.

Building The 53 - Rolle In, One Spot Still Open

The Green Bay Packers received a huge boost when head coach Mike McCarthy announced yesterday that quarterback Aaron Rodgers is medically cleared to start in their pivotal Week 17 match-up on the road against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.  The winner of the Packers/Bears game on Sunday wins the NFC North and hosts a home playoff game next weekend while the loser starts preparing for 2014.  The positive injury news on Rodgers is the headline grabber but that does not mean that all is well otherwise on The 53.

As I covered at the beginning of my review of the Packers/Steelers game last week, the Packers played the Steelers with only 51 players on The 53.  By NFL rule, only 46 players suit up for each game.  I can't remember another time over the last few seasons that the Packers went into a game with only 51 guys to choose from to fill those 46 gameday roster spots.  I am not saying that is the reason that the Packers lost to the Steelers, I am just shocked that Packers general manager Ted Thompson did not fill out The 53.

Earlier today Thompson signed cornerback Jumal Rolle to The 53 off the practice squad to fill one of the two openings on The 53.  To add injury to insult, after losing Clay Matthews against the Steelers to the same Bennett's fracture that Claymaker suffered earlier in the season against the Lions, the Packers really only have 51 viable options on The 53 for their 46-man gameday roster against the Bears since Matthews is most likely done for the season unless the Packers reach the Super Bowl.

Instead of adding Rolle to give the Packers their sixth cornerback on The 53, Thompson should have added a veteran outside linebacker.  With Matthews out, the two most logical starting outside linebackers are Mike Neal and Nick Perry but both missed practice today.  Somehow despite both missing practice, Neal and Perry are listed as probable, which means there have a 75% chance of playing against the Bears.  May be McCarthy gave both of them the day off to rest their injuries but if the Packers are without the services of their top three outside linebackers (Matthews, Neal, and Perry) that leaves just Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer to play at outside linebacker against the Bears.

I know signing a veteran, let a lone a veteran this late in the season flies completely in the face of how Thompson operates, it worked earlier this season.  Despite having some rough patches, signing quarterback Matt Flynn to fill-in for Rodgers kept the Packers in the playoff hunt.  Thompson loves to sign undrafted rookie free agents instead of veterans but the learning curve for any player is very high when they join a new organization, let alone an inexperienced player like an undrafted rookie free agent.

There are a number of veteran defensive end/outside linebackers that are currently free agents but the best of the bunch in my opinion is defensive end/outside linebacker Mark Anderson.  Besides Claymaker, the Packers have not had another player generate a consistent pass rush this season.  After a successful college career at Alabama, the Bears drafted Anderson in the 5th round of the 2006 NFL Draft.  Anderson registered 12 sacks in his rookie season in the NFL in 2006 for the Bears and 10 sacks for the New England Patriots in 2011.

I've long been a fan of Anderson.  I wanted the the Packers to sign Anderson before the 2012 season, ultimately he signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Buffalo Bills.  Sure Anderson was an injury riddled disappointment for the Bills, which is why they cut him after only one season, but I like his combination of speed and pass rushing skills.  That is why even after being injured and under-performing for the Bills in 2012, I advocated for the Packers to sign him earlier this year.  Even if Anderson got injured, it is potentially the last game of the season so longevity is not paramount.  Plus since Anderson played for the Bears from 2006-10, he might have been able to inflict some revenge on his former employer.  That is all moot now unless Thompson places Claymaker on injured reserve because Thompson added Rolle instead of Anderson, which leave one more open spot on The 53.

There is a very simple way to fill the last opening on The 53.  The Packers need to add a wide receiver to fill-out The 53 since they only have four healthy wide receivers (Jarrett Boykin, Chris Harper, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson) and three healthy tight ends (Andrew Quarless, Jake Stoneburner, and Ryan Taylor) currently on The 53.  Earlier today McCarthy said the Packers would see how wide receiver Randall Cobb responded tomorrow to his vigorous workout today to determine if Cobb is healthy enough to face the Bears.  If Cobb is healthy, it is a no brainer to activate him from the physically unable to perform list.  If Cobb is not healthy enough, the Packers should promote wide receiver Tyrone Walker from the practice squad.

Check back for my thoughts if Thompson adds someone other than Cobb or Walker to The 53 before the Packers face the Bears on Sunday.  If Thompson just adds Cobb or Walker to The 53, make sure to check back on Monday for my extended thoughts on the Packers/Bears game.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 53 - Packers lose to Steelers at home but playoff hopes are still alive

Before I get into the 38-31 loss that the Green Bay Packers suffered to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field in Week 16, let's handle the oddity of why I could have called this post The 51 instead of The 53.  For the uninitiated, I call this weekly post The 53 because that is the number of players normally on an active NFL roster.  I re-rank The 53 for the Packers each week based on each player's relative trade value taking into account age, contract, and their position through the most recent game.

The reason I could have called this post The 51 instead of The 53 is that the day before the Packers hosted the Steelers, Packers general manager Ted Thompson placed tight end Brandon Bostick and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly on injured reserve so the Packers will be without their services for the rest of the season.  Thompson normally adds players to The 53 in place of anyone that he puts on injured reserve.  Given the Packers had less than 24 hours to fill two spots on The 53, they most likely would have only been able to rely on internal options.

The Packers had nine such internal options: the eight guys on the practice squad and wide receiver Randall Cobb currently on injured reserve designated for return.  The Packers currently only have four wide receivers and three tight ends on The 53 so if he was healthy, adding Cobb to The 53 was a no brainer.  Given that Thompson did not add Cobb to The 53, it tells me he is a long-shot to play again this season.

The Packers have two wide receivers on the practice squad: Alex Gillett and Tyrone Walker.  Based on how well Walker played in the preseason, I would have added Walker to The 53 even if it was just for the Packers/Steelers game.  Besides Gillett and Walker the Packers have an offensive center, offensive guard, offensive tackle, and two cornerbacks on the practice squad.  None of those positions are a big area of need.  As crazy as it sounds, despite being majorly disappointed by recently cut safety Jerron McMillian's play this season, I would have resigned him just to fill The 53 for the Packers/Steelers game.  By going with 51 instead of 53, Thompson most likely saved the Packers a little less than $50,000 (rookie minimum deal is $405,000 a year divided by 17 weeks = $23,823.53 a week times two players), which is a pittance in NFL terms when teams are trying to compete for palyoff spots.  Trust me, a home playoff game is worth 40 or 50 times what Thompson saved by going with The 51.

Normally the Packers would have seven inactive players since only 46 players can be active for each game.  Let's leave the ridiculousness of the 46-man game day roster alone and focus on the fact that the Packers only had 51 guys on the active roster since Thompson did not replace Bostick or Jolly so they only had five inactives against the Steelers: Nate Palmer (LB), Aaron Rodgers (QB), Lane Taylor (G), JC Tretter (C/G), and Jerel Worthy (DL).  Here are my updated thoughts on "The 53" following the Packers/Steelers game:

The 53
1. Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1)
2. Clay Matthews (OLB, LR 2) 
3. Jordy Nelson (WR, LR 3)
4. Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 4)
5. Sam Shields (CB, LR 5)
6. T.J. Lang (G, LR 6)
7. Josh Sitton (G, LR 7)
8. James Jones (WR, LR 9)
9. Morgan Burnett (S, LR 8)
10. Evan Dietrich-Smith (C, LR 10)
11. Mike Daniels (DL, LR 13)
12. Tramon Williams (CB, LR 14)
13. Micah Hyde (CB, LR 20)
14. B.J. Raji (DL, LR 11)
15. Don Barclay (T, LR 15)
16. David Bakhtiari (T, LR 12)
17. A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 19)
18. Jarrett Boykin (WR, LR 16)
19. Brad Jones (MLB, LR 18)
20. Davon House (CB, LR 21)
21. Datone Jones (DL, LR 22)
22. Nick Perry (OLB, LR 17)
23. Matt Flynn (QB, LR 23)
24. James Starks (RB, LR 37)
25. Tim Masthay (P, LR 24)
26. Josh Boyd (DL, LR 41)
27. Andrew Quarless (TE, LR 25)
28. Mike Neal (DL/OLB, LR 26)
29. Jamari Lattimore (LB, LR 30)
30. John Kuhn (FB, LR 33)
31. Ryan Pickett (DL, LR 27)
32. Jarrett Bush (CB, LR 32)
33. Derek Sherrod (T, LR 31)
34. Mason Crosby (K, LR 29)
35. Brett Goode (LS, LR 34)
36. Sean Richardson (S, LR 36)
37. Jerel Worthy (DE, LR 35)
38. Andy Mulamba (LB, LR 46)
39. M.D. Jennings (S, LR 38)
40. Ryan Taylor (TE, LR 40)
41. Scott Tolzien (QB, LR 43)
42. J.C. Tretter (C, LR 42)
43. C.J. Wilson (DL, LR 44)
44. Chris Banjo (S, LR 45)
45. Victor Aiyewa (LB, LR 49)
46. Jake Stoneburner (TE, LR 48)
47. Lane Taylor (G, LR 47)
48. Chris Harper (WR, LR 51)
49. Marshall Newhouse (T, LR 52)
50. Nate Palmer (LB, LR 50) 
51. Kahlil Bell (RB, LR 53)
IR, Designated for Return
1. Randall Cobb (WR)
Injured Reserve
1. Jermichael Finley (TE)
2. Bryan Bulaga (T)
3. Casey Hayward (CB)
4. Johnny Jolly (DL) 
5. DuJuan Harris (RB)
6. Jonathan Franklin (RB)
7. Brandon Bostick (TE)
8. Robert Francois (MLB)
9. Greg Van Roten (C/G)
10. Sam Barrington (LB)
11. Myles White (WR)
12. Seneca Wallace (QB)
13. James Nixon (CB)
14. Kevin Dorsey (WR)
15. Sederrik Cunningham (WR)
1. Jeremy Ross (WR, Lions)
2. Jerron McMillian (S, free agent)
3. Michael Hill (RB, Buccaneers)
1) Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1): A report by ESPN broke before the Packers/Steelers game that quarterback Aaron Rodgers requested Packers head coach Mike McCarthy use certain words to describe his injury when ruling him out for the 7th game in a row due to the broken collarbone he suffered against the Chicago Bears. Apparently Rodgers doesn't want to be perceived as soft since he is following legendary tough-guy quarterback Brett Favre that started every game for the Packers from September 20, 1992 to January 20, 2008.  Favre even played half a season with a hairline fracture on the thumb on his throwing hand in 2003.  I get that Rodgers is sensitive but just own what is going on.  No rationale Packer fan questions your testicular fortitude.  Even Favre playing with a broken thumb can be explained by the fact that he was able to wear a splint that protected his broken thumb sufficiently.  Sometimes those breaks do not allow you to play with the proper splint (see Claymaker below).  I hope this report is overblown because otherwise I've lost a small amount of respect for one of my favorite Cheesehead athletes ever if he is trying to control the message of how his injury is discussed by the head coach of the team that he plays for.

2) Clay Matthews (OLB, LR 2): Claymaker has not been the same player since Week 5 when he suffered a Bennett's fracture on his right thumb in a win over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.  Claymaker has only registered 4.5 sack in the 7 games since he injured his thumb, which he re-injured against the Steelers.  Sure Claymaker made a couple plays here and there since he returned to the lineup but the Packers have become accustomed to Claymaker making at least an impact play or two a game.  In McCarthy's post-game new conference he said Claymaker suffered a similar injury to the one that kept him out four weeks last time so unfortunately I expect him to miss the rest of the season.

4) Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 4): Butterball needlessly sprained his ankle on a throwaway play at the end of the first half against the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago.  The Steelers are lucky that Lacy left the game after he re-injured his left ankle at the end of the third quarter because he was carving up the Steelers on the ground with his power runs to the tune of 15 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns.  Lacy's first touchdown against the Steelers was much more impressive than his second touchdown, unfortunately he was not healthy enough to score a third.  Thanks to another impressive rushing performance, Lacy now has the most rushing yards of any rookie running back in franchise history.  With Rodgers out roughly half the season there is no question that Lacy has been an absolute life-saver.  The question now is whether Lacy will be healthy next week?  Based on his post-game comments, at least Lacy sounds somewhat confident that he will play Week 17.

13) Micah Hyde (CB, LR 20): Things looked bleak after the Packers essentially let the Steelers score to go up 38-31 with 1:25 to play.  On the ensuing kickoff Hyde mustered a timely 70-yard return to give the Packers great field position.  Hyde has done well on punt returns but has yet to do anything of note on kickoff returns until today.  Before the season I called for the Packers to try Hyde at safety.  Unless the Packers add a safety at the top of the 2014 NFL Draft (a distinct possibility) or actually sign a starting safety in free agency (don't hold your breathe), my guess is that this off-season the coach staff will do everything in their power to morph Hyde into a dual-threat return man that lines up at safety on defense.

17) A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 19): Cheesehead Chick and I got up early to drive from Chicago, IL to Dayton, OH to spend Christmas with In-Law Cheese.  We got to Dayton in time to catch the UD/USC basketball game.  Unfortunately UD lost on a three-pointer at the buzzer in overtime.  We high-tailed it home after the game to In-Law Cheese's house to catch the Packers/Steelers game on tape dealy. I refer to Hawk as the Business HJ but didn't have the gall to tell Sister-In-Law Cheese that is his nickname when she asked me my thoughts on Hawk so when Hawk makes an impressive play, I am obligated to give him his due.  Hawk's athletic interception at the Pittsburgh 45-yard line couldn't be more timely coming at the dying moments of the 3rd quarter with the Packers trailing the Steelers 31-21.  Unfortunately the Packers could only muster a field-goal on the ensuing drive that started at the Pittsburgh 23-yard line.

21) Nick Perry (OLB, LR 17): Following Claymaker's injury, it looked like Perry got some more snaps on defense but he failed to register even one tackle.  Sure Perry is fighting a nagging foot injury but almost every player in the league is nicked up at this point in the season.  Perry's only imprint on the game came with less than two minutes left in the game.  The Steelers lined up for a field goal attempt on 4th and 3 at the Green Bay 10-yard line with the game tied at 31.  Perry jumped off-sides to give the Steelers a first down.  Two plays later the Steelers scored to push the score to 38-31, which turned out to be final score line.  When the Packers drafted Perry in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft they thought they had a perfect compliment to Claymaker.  Perry says that he would rather play on the right side, which is where Claymaker normally lines up.  With Claymaker most likely out for the rest of the season, let's see whether the Packers give Perry a chance on the right side.  Perry has done nothing to earn the right to play on the right side other than getting drafted in the first round, but draft status has a strong correlation to playing time, so look for Perry to take significant snaps on the right side with Claymaker out.

23) Matt Flynn (QB, LR 23): I know Flynn will never be Rodgers but subtle things like his first touchdown pass to wide receiver Jarrett Boykin show the differences between Flynn and Rodgers. That throw was supposed to be a back-shoulder throw, which Rodgers completes in his sleep.  Instead Flynn threw a front-shoulder throw, which usually results in an interception but luckily Boykin was able to pluck the ball away from the defender much like wide receiver Jordy Nelson did last week against the Dallas Cowboys. Much worse than the front-shoulder throw was how Flynn bungled the final drive.  Down 38-31, the Packers faced a first and goal from the 5-yard line with just over 40 seconds to play.  McCarthy called a rush for James Starks that got the Packers down to the 1-yard line.  It looked like the Packers had plenty of time to get into the end zone but they struggled to get organized so with just over 20 second to play the Packers called another run play that never launched because the entire right side of the offensive line (right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Don Barclay) moved early for their last penalty of the day as the cherry on top of the team's nine penalties for 90 yards sundae against the Steelers.  That resulted in a 10-second run off.  Once the ball was spotted, McCarty claims that Flynn could not snap the ball because the umpire was blocking Flynn but my vantage point Flynn did not realize the clock was running.  The play in that situation is once the ball is spotted, spike the ball to preserve 7 or 8 seconds on the clock to give yourself two or three chances to throw quick to the end zone.  Unfortunately Flynn barely got a play off before time expired and overthrew Boykin for the Packers to lose 38-31.  For the day Flynn was 21 for 39 throwing for 232 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 pick-six, and 1 fumble that essentially cost the Packers the game.  Flynn is supposedly a "gamer" but let's hope we've seen him play his last game for the Packers this season because they desperately need the precision and poise of Rodgers to beat the Bears to make the playoffs.

26) Josh Boyd (DL, LR 41): After being a healthy scratch for the first part of the season, Boyd is now a regular contributor along the defensive line.  Although Boyd hasn't made any real impact plays so far, he is among friends along the defensive line since what looked like a position of strength going into the season has been very underwhelming this season.  The defensive line quintet of Jolly, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, and C.J. Wilson are all due to become free agents; I tried to unwind how to deal with pending free agency of the defensive line quintet.  Just a few weeks later, I could see the Packers totally reversing course given how underwhelming Raji and Pickett have been over the last month. Wilson has been injured so I give him a slight pass while Jolly's status for next season is up in the air due to a serious neck injury that landed him on injured reserve.  The Packers love to error on the side of going young so given that the Packers have the young, cost-effective defensive line quintet of Boyd, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, and Jerel Worthy; we might be seeing some of the last snaps that Raji and Pickett play for the Packers.

34) Mason Crosby (K, LR 29): The Packers needed the aid of a coach's challenge by McCarthy to credit middle linebacker Jamari Lattimore with a forced fumble that was recovered by cornerback Tramon Williams at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line.  Following an unsuccessful drive despite taking over with amazing field position, the Packers settled for a 23-yard field goal attempt.  Crosby's attempt was blocked but somehow the Packers got the ball after the Steelers batted the ball forward.  The Steelers clearly possessed the ball before they batted it forward but when Steelers head coach Omar Epps, check that Mike Tomlin tried to challenge the play he was told that possession on a play like that is not reviewable.  I floated my "Ultimate Challenge" Theory a few weeks ago that teams should have an ultimate challenge on one play of a game.  Not sure if Tomlin is on the competition committee but given how the Steelers got hosed on that play, why wouldn't Tomlin support the rule change?

The Packers lost a game they should have at least taken to overtime but for Flynn and the right-side of the offensive line's brain farts down the stretch, which put their playoff hopes on life support.  Luckily the Detroit Lions lost on the road to the New York Giants to extinguish their playoff hopes.  More importantly the Chicago Bears absolutely imploded on Sunday Night Football on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles losing 54-11 to set-up a winner-take-all game next weekend for the NFC North crown at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL.  I've attend every Packers/Bears game at the revamped Soldier Field so I hope to attend this one with Cheesehead Chick.  Whether I attend the game in-person or watch on television, let's hope the Packers use some of the tactics that the Eagles employed to blow-out the Bears.

Leading up to the game each weekend the last few weeks it has been the Rodgers collarbone watch.  With Cobb eligible to return to The 53, Claymaker re-injuring his thumb, and Lacy re-injuring his ankle; it looks like it is going to be a week of team health watch.  In terms of order of importance (most important to least important) my rankings of how much the Packers need each player next week against the Bears are as follows: Rodgers, Matthews, Lacy, and Cobb.  What sweet symmetry if Rodgers returns against the team that knocked him out of the lineup a little less than two months ago to lead the Packers over the Bears to win the NFC North and host a home playoff game?

Given the two open spots on The 53, make sure to check back throughout the week for full coverage on how Thompson decides to complete The 53.  In the meantime, even those the Eagles and Giants are two of my least favorites fan bases in the world, make sure to spread the Christmas cheer this week with them by thinking them for keeping the Packers in the playoff hunt.