Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The 53 - Packers miracle road win over Cowboys

The Green Bay Packers knew they had to win in order to stay in the playoff hunt with a record of 6-6-1eading into their Week 15 game on the road against the Dallas Cowboys.  If the playoffs implications did not add enough drama to the Packers/Cowboys game for me personally, the fact that it was most likely the last Packer game my buddy Uncle Patty (aka Dirty Nasty) was going to watch with Sug and me in Chicago before he moves to Texas for a new job only increased my pregame nerves.  We watched the Packers/Cowboys at Sug's place, where I used to live as well, so we've seen many memorable games there over the last seven years.  Little did I know the Packers/Cowboys game was going to be the most memorable of them all.

After the first half the Packers trailed the Cowboys 26-3 and the three points came on a 57-yard field goal from Packer place kicker Mason Croby so it looked like our last game together was going to be a bust.  I made a few comments ingest at halftime that luckily Packers head coach Mike McCarthy makes great in-game adjustments.  Things were looking so bleak I even asked Sug and Uncle Patty whether the Packers should replace quarterback Matt Flynn with backup Scott Tolzien despite the fact that Flynn proved me wrong marching the Packers back to a tie against the Minnesota Vikings when Tolzien was ineffective.

Instead the Packers scored five consecutive touchdowns in the second half to put together the most improbable regular season comebacks in franchise history to win 37-36.  By the end of the game we were drinking whiskey on the rocks and celebrating like we were three guys on The 53 for the Packers that helped beat the Cowboys.

I have a hard time remembering a single good play for the Packers from the first half other than Crosby's field goal but there are at least a dozen from the second half that I will remember for the rest of my life.  Instead of doing my traditional post about the game with updated player rankings with comments, I thought I would rank the 10 best plays from the second half  in reverse order by their impact on the final result:

Honorable Mention - Crosby's 57-yard field goal: As I discussed above, the Packers trailed 26-3 going into halftime and their only points came courtesy of Crosby's foot so it does NOT qualify for the Top 10 plays of the second half since Crosby made the kick in the first half.  Thanks to that make, Crosby continues his stellar season now converting 30 of his 34 attempts.  Besides missing two kicks against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field in a loss, Crosby has been consistent all season making important kicks almost every game.  In college Crosby kicked for the University of Colorado but has struggled when the weather gets colder so the next two weeks will determine whether Crosby kicks for the Packers next year since he will have to kick in frigid conditions at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Soldier Field in Chicago, IL against the Chicago Bears.

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 12)
6. T.J. Lang (G, LR 6)
7. Josh Sitton (G, LR 8)
8. Morgan Burnett (S, LR 7)
9. James Jones (WR, LR 10)
10. Evan Dietrich-Smith (C, LR 9)
11. B.J. Raji (DL, LR 5)
12. David Bakhtiari (T, LR 11)
13. Mike Daniels (DL, LR 13)
14. Tramon Williams (CB, LR 14)
15. Don Barclay (T, LR 15)
16. Jarrett Boykin (WR, LR 22)
17. Nick Perry (OLB, LR 16)
18. Brad Jones (MLB, LR 17)
19. A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 18)
20. Micah Hyde (CB, LR 20)
21. Davon House (CB, LR 19)
22. Datone Jones (DL, LR 21)
23. Matt Flynn (QB, LR 29)
24. Tim Masthay (P, LR 23)
25. Andrew Quarless (TE, LR 34)
26. Mike Neal (DL/OLB, LR 24)
27. Johnny Jolly (DL, LR 25)
28. Ryan Pickett (DL, LR 27)
29. Mason Crosby (K, LR 28)
30. Jamari Lattimore (LB, LR 30)
31. Derek Sherrod (T, LR 31)
32. Jarrett Bush (CB, LR 32)
33. John Kuhn (FB, LR 40)
34. Brett Goode (LS, LR 33)
35. Jerel Worthy (DE, LR 26)
36. Sean Richardson (S, LR 36)
37. James Starks (RB, LR 35)
38. M.D. Jennings (S, LR 38)
39. Brandon Bostick (TE, LR 39)
40. Ryan Taylor (TE, LR 41)
41. Josh Boyd (DL, LR 42)
42. J.C. Tretter (C, LR N/A)
43. Scott Tolzien (QB, LR 37)
44. C.J. Wilson (DL, LR 43)
45. Chris Banjo (S, LR 44)
46. Andy Mulamba (LB, LR 45)
47. Lane Taylor (G, LR 47)
48. Jake Stoneburner (TE, LR 48)
49. Victor Aiyewa (LB, LR 49)
50. Nate Palmer (LB, LR 51) 
51. Chris Harper (WR, LR 52)
52. Marshall Newhouse (T, LR 50)
53. 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, LR 16)
4. DuJuan Harris (RB)
5. Jonathan Franklin (RB)
6. Robert Francois (MLB)
7. Greg Van Roten (C/G)
8. Sam Barrington (LB)
9. Myles White (WR, LR 46)
10. Seneca Wallace (QB)
11. James Nixon (CB, LR 53)
12. Kevin Dorsey (WR)
13. Sederrik Cunningham (WR)
1. Jeremy Ross (WR, Lions)
2. Jerron McMillian (S, free agent)
3. Michael Hill (RB, Buccaneers)
#10) Williams INT Overturned (2:32 mark): With the Packers trailing 29-24, the Cowboys got the ball back with just over 12 minutes to play.  On a 2nd and 5 from their own 25-yard line it looked like Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's pass was picked off by Williams.  Every turnover is reviewed by the head referee.  Ultimately the refs overturned the call.  Uncle Patty made a very astute comment saying that if that play happened in Green Bay the call most likely stands as an interception because refs are human so although they don't want to admit it, they might let the crowd impact their thought process ever so slightly.  I initially thought that was a crazy notion but the more I think about it, the more I think Uncle Patty is correct and that the refs incorrectly overturned the called.  Unfortunately the Cowboys moved the ball down the field once that drive got a second life and wide receiver Dez Bryant caught an impressive touchdown to put the Cowboys up 36-24 with just under eight minutes to play.  What a swing, if the Williams interception stood the Packers most likely would have taken the lead, instead the Packers trailed the Cowboys by 12 points following that drive with just under 8 minutes to play.

#9) Nelson's One-Handed Catch (1:48 mark): Cheesehead Chick's first Packer jersey was wide receiver Donald Driver's home jersey.  With Driver retired, I had to get her a jersey of a current Packer so I decided to get her wide receiver Jordy Nelson's home jersey.  One-handed catches like White Lighting made against the Cowboys is just the tip of the iceberg of why that decision was a no-brainier.

#8) Quarless's TD Catch: The Packers lost tight end Jermichael Finley for the season and possibly his career Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns due to a horrific spinal cord injury, which made Andrew Quarless the nominal starter at tight end.  Quarless has been fairly ho-hum all season until last week when he had a breakout performance with six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown for the Packers in their win over the Atlanta Falcons.  With the Packers down 29-10, Quarless caught a 3-yard touchdown from Flynn to pull the Packers within 12 points.  In one of the more random coincidences of the season, Quarless finished with the same exact stat line two weeks in a row against the Falcons and Cowboys: six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown.

#7) Starks's TD Catch: Rookie running back Eddie Lacy was out of the game when the Packers faced a 2nd and 11 at the Cowboy 11-yard line down 29-17.  I hate to take anything away from running back James Starks but I think I could have scored on the screen pass to Starks given how well the offensive line blocked on that play.  That play allowed the Packers to cut their lead to five points at 29-24 with 13 minutes to play.

#6) Jones's TD Catch (3:53 mark): There are very few players that quarterback Aaron Rodgers publicly called for general manager Ted Thompson to re-sign but Jones is one of those, which puts him in rarefied air.  The knock on Jones throughout his career is that he has shaky hands but that has not been the case the last two seasons.  Three plays at totally different points in the game by Jones were particularly impressive: his pregame catch, his first-half catch, and his second-half touchdown catch.  There is a perception around the NFL that Rodgers makes his wide receiver but that perception might be changing given how well guys like Nelson, Jones, and Jarrett Boykin have performed for backup quarterbacks Flynn and Tolzien.  Timing could not be more perfect for Jones because he is scheduled to become a free agent this off-season.  Given that Jones is 29-years old, this will most likely be his last big payday so I expect to see him playing elsewhere in 2014 unless he takes a hometown discount.

#5) Lacy's TD Run: The Packers trailed 36-31 with the ball on first down from the Cowboy 1-yard line with 1:34 remaining in the game.  The Packers lined up in a wishbone formation with defensive lineman B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels in the backfield to block for Lacy.  There was no question that Lacy was going at some point.  The real question was whether Lacy would score on first down or take a few attempts, which would force the Cowboys to use a timeout.  With the Packers up 37-36, going for two was a no brainer.  I would rather see a run play called instead of a pass play by McCarthy on the two-point conversion.  If you don't believe me, since 2001 the two-point success rate via a passing play is just 44 % and while the success rate via a running play is 57 %.  Let's not forget the guy that scored the touchdown either.  Lacy is a freaking bowling ball that can carry defensive lineman two yards, which makes McCarthy's decision to call a pass that fell incomplete even more confounding.  Luckily that decision did not matter thanks to the next play.

#4) Williams Acrobatic INT: With the Cowboys facing a 2nd and 1 on their own 29-yard line with 1:24 minutes remaining, Romo dropped back to pass and found Williams instead of his wide receiver.   Originally the pass was called incomplete on the field but Williams immediately got up signaling for the Packers to challenge.  Since the play occurred with less than two minutes in a half, only the booth can review the play.  It looked like the booth was slow to buzz down so McCarthy took a timeout to give the refs more time.  Get ready to read something that I unfortunately can only write a couple times a season. The decision to call a timeout by McCarthy was a smart in-game move because he actually thought on his feet.  If we are being honest it is much more likely that McCarthy got advise from someone on his headset...see, I can still take a dig at McCarthy even when I am giving him a compliment.  The refs gave the Packers the timeout back because the booth initiated the review just before the next play was run by the Cowboys.  More importantly they overturned the ruling on the field so Williams sealed the victory for the Packers to them in the playoff hunt.  I only ranked Williams's game ending interception as the 4th best play of the second-half, which shows you how crazy the second half was for the Packers.

#3) Nelson's TD Catch: By now we all know the Packers started the second half down down 26-3.  After a nice drive thanks to a huge run by Lacy that I haven't covered yet, the Packers faced a 3rd and 3 from the Cowboy 13-yard line.  When the ball left Flynn's hand, it looked like he threw a jump ball that gave Nelson a chance to make a play.  Worst case scenario it is an interception and best case scenario it is a touchdown but most likely the pass falls incomplete.  If the ball fell incomplete, the Packers would have settled for a field goal to make the score 26-6.  Instead, Nelson plucked the ball away from the defender to pull the Packers within 16 points at 26-10.  I can't understate how impressive of a play that was by Nelson.  Again just another one of the 10,000 reason it made sense to get Cheesehead Chick a Nelson jersey.

#2) Shields's Athletic INT: Let me set the stage, the Packers were down 36-31 with just under three minutes to play and one timeout.  The Cowboys faced a 2nd and 6 from their own 35-yard line. Instead of sticking with a run, which is what was called, Romo checked to a pass.  Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews got a free shot at Romo because of the blocking scheme called.  Luckily Matthews missed Romo but hurried him enough to force a bad pass that was intercepted by cornerback Sam Shields.  I've been on the fence about whether the Packers should break the bank for Shields given all the young depth they have at cornerback.  Plays like the one just described are why the Packers ultimately have to back up the Brinks truck and pay Shields but make sure there are some strings attached because the Packers lucked out that somehow Shields did not get a penalty for throwing the ball into the stands following that play.  That play reminded me of when Packers quarterback Seneca Wallace (since place on injured reserve) checked out of a run to a pass on Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears shortly after he took over for injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  I mention that play for two reasons.  One, it feels like a lifetime ago that Rodgers was actually healthy and playing for the Packers.  Two, you better be darn sure that you have the right defensive look if you are going to check from a run to a pass.  Sure the Packers had nine in the box with no safety help over the top but I always judge those decisions on what I want the other team to do in that situation.  The Cowboys were gaining 7.5 yards a carry so I would much rather see them throw than run given that an incomplete pass would stop the clock.  Never in a million years did I think that play could result in an interception by Shields.

#1) Lacy's 60-yard run: The first play from scrimmage in the second half gave the Packers life they desperately needed given their struggles in the first half.  Avid readers of this space know that I am critical of how much the Packers are paying fullback John Kuhn.  If you watch this play again, you'll see a huge down field block by Kuhntang that turned Lacy's modest run into a game-changer.  Heading into the 2013 NFL Draft I had a huge football crush on Lacy.  With 141 rushing yards against the Cowboys, Lacy eclipsed 1,000 for the season to confirm my football love for Lacy.  Given Lacy's injury history and physical running style he might have a short NFL career but there is no doubt that every time he touches the ball it will be fun to watch.  Lacy's 60-yard spark plug run thanks to a big assist form Kuhntang is the most impressive on his NFL resume.

All of a sudden the palace to football that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones built is starting to look like Lambeau Field South given that the Packers won Super Bowl XLV over the Pittsburgh Steelers a few years ago and pulled off one of the most improbable regular season comebacks in NFL history in Jerry's Dome over the weekend. Just like Sug, UP, and I did sans all the drinks and going to a sausage-fest video game bar post-game, the Packers celebrated their improbable win in the locker room.  Despite the fact that I just cherry-picked the 10 best highlights, do yourself a favor and watch the full game highlights of the Packers/Cowboys one more time.

In even better news, since the Detroit Lions lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football, the Packers now control their playoff destiny.  If the Packers beat the Steelers at home next week and the Bears on the road the follow week, they will win the NFC North and host a home playoff game for the third year in a row.  For the seventh agonizing week in a row we have to play the waiting game to find out whether Rodgers is medically cleared to play.  Even if Rodgers is not cleared to play this weekend, I hope to see a healthy Rodgers under center for a relevant NFL game this season.

I will miss having Uncle Patty in Chicago for sure but what a way to go out.  This weekend I am traveling to Dayton, OH with Cheesehead Chick to celebrate Christmas with In-Law Cheese.  We are going to see the University of Dayton play USC in basketball in the early afternoon on Sunday at UD Arena.  After the game we have to high-tail it to the nearest TV, most likely BW3's, to catch the Packers/Steelers game in the afternoon.  I hope to see a Flyers win followed by a Packers win.  Either way, make sure to check back in this space for my extended pre-Christmas thoughts on the Flyers/Trojans and Packers/Steelers games.

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