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.

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