Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Streaking Pack

How about them Packers?

Great Expectations

Before the 2010 season started, the Packers were everyone's trendy pick to go deep into the playoffs. The Packers were entering their third year with Aaron Rodgers as their starter. Mike McCarthy was building up this potent attack, which on the face of it might look like a full fledged passing attack.

Apart from their deep group of Wide Receivers, a lot of the offense was going to be run through TE Jermichael Finley, whose size and speed would be a big match up problem for most opponents. But the un-advertised, less fancy ingredient in the success of this offense was a steady rushing attack. RB Ryan Grant was the steady, one-cut runner that was a perfect fit for the needs of this offense.

On the other side, the 3-4 defense was in its sophomore year under Dom Capers. The off-season hopes were for, apart from steady improvement of the defense as a whole, they needed a big jump in production by the cornerback and linebacker positions (other than Clay Mathews, of course).

That meant, CBs Tramon Williams, Pat Lee, Brandon Underwood or any of the rookies had to pick up their game. Or else, they would have to hope that Al Harris comes back from ACL surgery as a savior mid-way through the season. Among LBs, all eyes were on how Brad Jones would develop his second year. And yeah, Atari Bigby was supposed to be the starting Strong Safety opposite Pro-Bowler Nick Collins.

The Plague

Ryan Grant would go down Week 1 of the season for the year, making Brandon Jackson the No.1 running back for the team. That was followed by a slew of injuries, including the center piece of the passing offense, Finley as early as Week 4. The loss of Mark Tauscher was big for the offensive line. Not to mention Rodgers missed a game (and a half) due to a concussion.

Same with the important LB positions with Nick Barnett, Brad Jones, Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga all going down at various points of the season. Especially the OLB position opposite of Mathews seemed jinxed. Frank Zombo, who replaced Brad Jones, was a regular on the injury list.

Atari Bigby was almost always on the injury list, forcing rookie Morgan Burnett as the starting SS, only till he was lost for the season with a knee injury (also in Week 4). That made Derick Martin the starter for a while until he went down. Al Harris never made it to the active roster. Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood didn't pan out as CBs they were expected to be.

Overall the Packers lost 250+ player-games to injuries. That includes about 83 games from starters. All just this year! Un-frickin-believable!

Glory Road

If people knew the Packers would suffer all those injuries at the beginning of the season, I'm sure no one would have expected them to even make the playoffs, let alone reach the NFC Championship game. But in spite of all these setbacks, they were in for a few surprises - good ones.

Tramon Williams transformed from being 'Admiral Arm-bar' last season has turned into a potential top five CB in the entire league. Rookie Sam Shields was a bigger surprise who cemented the Nickel CB position to himself with his consistent play.

Desmond Bishop was a revelation at LB, netting himself a contract extension. Morgan Burnett held his own at safety as a rookie; that carried over to Derrick Martin and then onto Charlie Peprah. Clay Mathews did his thing all year long. BJ Raji started his surge as a big play factor in the second half of the season. Zombo was a beast at OLB while he lasted there.

Brandon Jackson was no Ryan Grant. But he was just effective enough to make the offense work, with some short yardage help from Kuhn. Later in the season, when James Starks was healthy enough to finally play, he took the rushing game of the Packers to a whole new level. The rookie Bulaga at Right Tackle had a few hiccups, but to be fair, held his own. The array of TEs; Lee, Crabtree and Quarless did enough to help block and spread the field. Except for Donald Driver, the rest of the WR core remained pretty healthy.

The Final Push

The Packers through their rough path across the regular season, found themselves facing elimination the last two regular season games. They obliterated the Giants Week 16 and then took care of business in a close game against the Bears the last game of the season, in the process, making the playoffs. Then they managed to pull a win against Mike Vick and the Eagles on the road. And then went into the Georgia Dome and dominated the Atlanta Falcons, who were the No.1 seed in the NFC.

Now, they find themselves in the NFC Championship game. They have to travel to Soldier Field and take on arch-rivals, the Bears this Sunday. That will be the 183rd time they play each other. And people thought the 33 times Ravens-Steelers played each other was a rivalry. This Packers-Bears rivalry is the Grand daddy of all rivalries.

To make it to the Super Bowl, the Packers will have to accomplish something very few teams have done in the history of the game. They will have to win three road playoff games. Add to it, the two elimination games in the regular season (Weeks 16 and 17), that would be an improbable task: five straight elimination games (lose and go home games) to get to the Super Bowl.All this with almost 1/4th of their opening day starters on IR.Crazy! That is what the Packers are facing this week.

Can this magical run continue?

We'll know Sunday, and I'll be there at Soldier Field to witness what happens first hand. But whatever happens, facing so many setbacks, even getting this far constitutes a overwhelmingly successful season. Credit to Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and the coaching staff to get backups, rookies and guys off the streets play and contribute at an extremely high level. I just hope they don't run out of gas.

Go Pack Go!

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