Super Bowl or Bust. At 4-6 that seemed like a farfetched notion. A 10-game table stood in front of us. 8 of those games are behind us. All victories. Now, we're 60 minutes away from achieving what seemed impossible 8 weeks ago. The #1 mission: Put the emotion of Dallas behind you. The sole focus is Atlanta. A Dome that has been good to us. Until then, we enjoy the journey and the sensational buzz that was the Divisional Game in Dallas. Mason. Freakin'. Crosby. Two kicks of 50+ yards in under 100 seconds. In the Fortress that Jerry Jones built. Building a Fortress in My Mind.
My excitement for this weekend needs to be calmed. So, I put on my favorite musician, Michael Franti, in a mellow manner with his Songs from the Front Porch album. I marinate to the soft beats and a chilled out version of his emphatic voice. I poured not one - but two - flavorful beers. A 2015 Evil Twin Lil' B and a Russian River Sanctification from 01/28/14. The Evil Twin Lil' B ages magically. 11.50%. An immaculate Porter that pours like chocolate syrup into a glass. The head on this gem remains perfectly carbonated after 13 months in my beer bunker. Think chocolate, caramel, raisins and brown sugar. Yes, that good. I've coupled it with the classic Sour Blonde from Russian River. Full on Brett. 6.75% ABV. Tastes like a funky, wild, apple glass of wine. Carbonation is still healthy, but slimmed down a bit. Tart. Well balanced. Grandiose!
Here are my quick vibes from the last week:
* Mike McCarthy. Aggressive. Victorious. He's coaching with heightened senses that are singularly focused on utilizing the near super-human powers of his 2-time MVP QB. Giving his season to his XLV MVP QB. Trusting him to be decisive at the line. And, when faced with severe peril, he even gives his brilliant QB the opportunity to utilize his sensational abilities to draft a play in the huddle.
* Aaron Rodgers. Fully concentrated. Focused on a Super Bowl title. He realizes how precious this year resides in the annals of his career. Rodgers needs a title. A 2nd title would do wonders for his legacy. He needs it to solidify his place in the NFL's History. Right now, he's flat out dominating opponents. He's in the zone. He needs to stay there for 120 more minutes. If so, the Packers will be the team to beat. Anything less than Aaron Rodgers' best and the Packers will likely be on the outside looking in.
* Mason Crosby. Man. Just thinking about it makes me tap my head while looking at the computer screen. Tell me that you weren't standing in front of the TV with the same lean that Julius Peppers was offering on the final kick. And, the way Letroy Guion runs away may or not have been a reaction similar to mine.
* I cried after the win. Pure joy. Seriously.
* Ty Montgomery. 17 touches. 81 yards. That's 4.76 yards per touch. He added two TD's. He was fantastic. He has a nose for the first-down marker. He trusts his blocking. He's seeing the field well. I wish he'd hold onto the football a little more carefully as he's punching it up the gut between the tackles.
* RIP! Loved seeing him pound his way for 20 yards. Wish he'd have stuck a stiff arm into the chest of the DB and walked into the end zone. Was really looking forward to that exclamation point as he broke into the open field.
* David Bakhtiari. He might be the 2nd best player on the team this year.
* Jared Cook! What a difference he's making. A match-up nightmare. Utilized in multiple different positions in the formation. Loved seeing him lined up tight in the 3-point stance. He was often looking to get down the seam, but didn't have the explosion to get loose. When utilized in the slot and/or on the perimeter, he was able to get off the line of scrimmage and then utilize his big frame to get separation. 6 catches. 103 yards. 1 TD. He seems to pick up a 1st down every time he catches the ball. And, man, if this season ends in Super fashion, we'll be watching video of his footwork for the rest of our lives.
* Davante Adams. Emerging. Really hope he's healthy to go this weekend. He's matured so much over the last 12 months. He's confident. He's comfortable. He's playing with inimitably jerky movements. He was free off of the line of scrimmage on nearly every play. He was also playing tougher than he has in the past. Really impressive performance.
* Randall Cobb. Lost in the beauty of Cook's end of game sideline footwork was the magnificence of Cobb's footwork when Rodgers was rifling it down the sidelines for a Packers first down. Rodgers leaned on Cobb throughout. On each of the TD drives, Cobb had significant plays.
* GERONIMO! 3 catches. 46 yards. Love watching him work when plays break down. He's always moving. He's elusive on broken plays. Rodgers seems to look for him when scrambling like he used to seek out Cobb. Rodgers trusts Allison over the middle of the field. Also, fantastic to see Allison working in the run game. A willing blocker. Fun to witness the rookie grinding.
* COME ON, JORDY! Be healthy!
* Richard Rodgers. Fantastic concentration. Not an easy catch. Got the Packers off to the quick start that was needed.
* MASON CROSBY! Unbelievable. Amazingly ridiculous.
* Thought McCarthy called a perfect game. Except for 1 call. 2nd & 8. Ball on the 33. 1:48 to play. One more first down and the Packers could have essentially run the ball down to the last 10-15 seconds for a game winning FG. McCarthy should've stuck with Rodgers. Instead, he went conservative. He went jumbo. He brought in Spriggs. He tried to run Montgomery. Spriggs was slow off the ball. Linsley got blown off of the ball. The play lost 5 yards and nearly knocked the Packers out of FG range. I saw the formation. I yelled, "WHY?!?!" at the TV screen. I said, "PLEASE BE PLAY ACTION." The results were so predictable. Totally bummed me out. Thankfully, Crosby was true from 56 yards out.
* TJ Lang. What a gamer. Really hope he stays in GB. Hope he's cap-friendly. Doubt he is.
* Lane Taylor. Really solid game. Even when he was beat near the goal line, Ty's speed allowed him to burst thru. Overall, thought that Taylor played very well. TT made a risky call at the beginning of the year when he released Sitton. Taylor has made TT look wise.
* Bulaga. Bookend. Another terrific game from Bulaga.
* The Packers have to clean up their awareness of blitzes coming from the slot. They were vulnerable. Montgomery was slow to recognize it. It was almost really costly.
* Christine Michael has to catch the kickoff cleanly. Was almost a huge momentum swinging play.
* MICAH HYDE!! Gotta lock him up. On two of the first three possessions, Hyde was present on the third down play that got the defense off of the field. He also had a great sack on the blitz when he beat Witten to the inside. And, oh, that interception. Glorious!
* Kentrell Brice. Really solid game from the rookie. He has such a bright future. Really wish he'd have grabbed the pick. Would've been a nice game changing, confidence building play for him. Luckily, Hyde bailed him out. Still, would really like to see him come through and make the most of his opportunities. Still have an inkling that he could force a turnover with a vicious tackle. Much like the one he had in the open field against Dallas.
* Thought Joe Thomas had a strong game. Since Clay is strictly playing OLB, Thomas has been our best ILB.
* Kenny Clark. Great recognition. Great instincts. Liked to see him slapping at the ball as he made the tackle on the screen as well. He had a solid push most of the game.
* Dean Lowry is offering high-effort, productive snaps. Hasn't been getting box score results per se, but he's been a worthwhile player. He hasn't been offering wasted snaps.
* NICK PERRY! Another super game from Perry. Wish he had two hands. He's a difference maker. Hope he sticks around.
* On the final 3rd down play, it was Clay who got to Prescott to force the throw that Perry knocked down. Still, the Packers need Clay to be a difference maker from here on out. We need sacks. We need a turnover.
* Julius Peppers was quiet. I expect him to be a monster against ATL.
* On the final drive, I felt bad for Josh Hawkins. He was in perfect position on the first play. Had the ball been on target, Hawkins was in position to make a play. Instead, it was just behind Williams and Williams was able to shield Hawkins from being able to make a play.
* Datone Jones. YOU NEED TO MAKE A PLAY. Get to the QB on 3rd down. Burst through. You're on the field with Perry, Matthews and Peppers. We're counting on you. You need to show up, Datone. Be the hero. I believe in you.
* I have a weird attraction to Jordan Tripp. Really like his presence on the sidelines and on special teams. Really good late season signing. Brings natural leadership.
* Still holding onto the thought that Hyde makes a significant special teams play as a PR.
* Hope you are healthy, Morgan Burnett.
* Great punting, Jacob Schum.
* Bene Benwikere. Liked his signing to the Practice Squad. I really liked him coming out of college. In fact, prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, I had him projected as the Packers 6th round pick and I wrote: Round 6 (b) - Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose St. "Not an elite tackler, but he wants it. Plays the ball exceptionally well when it's in the air. Solid playmaking skills with the ball in his hands as well. Could develop into a REALLY good player." Benwikere has played in 27 games and started 14 of them. He has 2 interceptions, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. He hasn't developed into the player I thought. He was having a decent year in 2015 prior to breaking his leg. He started all 4 games that he played for Carolina this year. But, he struggled in those 4 games. Still, I like his addition to the Practice Squad. A lot.
* Ted Thompson. I'm grateful. You've been phenomenal. I'm curious about a couple of things that I read this week and it worries me that he's nearing the end of the line. This is from the Great Blue North Draft Report: "Let me mention the most shocking thing about this week in my world. For the first time in my 8 years covering the Shrine Game, since it’s move to Florida, PACKERS GM TED THOMPSON is conspicuous by his absence. It is clear that he has not and will not be attending the Shrine Venue this year. I fully expect to see him next week in Mobile. If I do not then I will be concerned about his health and/or status as the key football man in the PACKERS organization." And, this from football.realgm.com: "One of the yearly standards of Shrine Game practice is for Packer GM Ted Thompson to wander onto the field during live action, often to accost an unsuspecting punter or defensive back trying to make a play in the end zone. Alas, I have not seen Thompson at any of the practice sessions. It doesn’t mean he’s not here, but if he is he’s far less visible than normal." If it's true that Ted Thompson isn't prowling around the East-West Shrine Game practices, I'm worried about the upcoming NFL Draft. That's where he's done some of his best work.
* Mike McCarthy has coached the Packers for 11 years. 4 of them, the Packers have played in the NFC Championship Game. As a reminder, the year before McCarthy joined the Packers, we finished 4-12.
* Mason Crosby. MASON CROSBY!
This week - it's the Falcons. In Atlanta. The home of the greatest Quarter in my Packers lifetime. I take you back to the Divisional Playoff Game in the heart of the XLV run. If you haven't watched this is a while, do yourself a favor, turn it on. All of the Packers stars show up in vintage form. The Packers were trailing 7-0. But, driving to start the Quarter. Just under 3 minutes into the 2nd Quarter, Rodgers hits Nelson to equalize! A special teams blunder makes it 14-7 Atlanta on the ensuing kickoff return. Then, the nearly unparalleled excitement begins. Kuhn gets the Packers even after he bulls his way into the end zone from a yard out. On this play, the "Freezer" was born as BJ Raji leads the way! Atlanta looks to respond as they move the ball inside the 20. But, Sir Charles wills his way through the Atlanta protection for a big sack to force 3rd and long to slow the Falcons as they entered the Red Zone. The following play, T-Mon kills the drive by baiting Matt Ryan into a bad pass. T-Mon grabs the pick and the Packers get the ball back. The MVP goes back to work. 5 times in the 2nd Quarter, Rodgers connects with passes of at least 20 yards. Yes, 5 passes of at least 20-yard yards in a Quarter. Fancy that! Punctuated with a tremendous 20-yard TD pass to James Jones in the corner of the end zone. Then, on the final play of the Quarter, it's T-Mon to close the half. Ecstasy! I can't get enough of Joe Buck's call of that play. Seriously sensational! "He tried to bite off more yardage. And. He. Just. Got. Burned." Nintendo Nick makes an appearance as he brings the flair and escorts his good buddy, T-Mon, into the end zone. Pure happiness.
That win brought us to the NFC Championship. This one is for the NFC Championship. It's for all of the NFC's marbles. It's all real. And, the Packers need to bring 60 minutes of intensity.
While the Packers offense has been tremendous for the last 8 weeks, Atlanta's has been arguably the best in the NFL all season long. Matt Ryan is playing at an MVP level and he's utilizing all of his weapons. Julio Jones is in the top 2 WR's in the NFL. Mohammed Sanu is a talented #2 WR who is a tough cover for the Packers with his size/speed combination. Taylor Gabriel, where did he come from? All he does is catch first downs and TD's. He can't get over the top with speed. He wins with speed out of the slot. He's shifty. He'll annoy. Justin Hardy is a really good 4th WR. He has the ability to get deep and he's also a talented possession receiver. Austin Hooper is a dependable receiving TE. A good blocker as well. Levine Toilolo is a Red Zone threat. Devonta Freeman is a do-it-all back who hits the hole as well as any back in the NFL. He's also a lethal pass catching RB. He's arguably a top 5 back in the NFL. Tevin Coleman does not get the credit that he deserves. He's one of the best pass catching RB's in football. He, too, hits the hole with a quick burst that is tough to stop. Freeman averaged 4.8 yards per carry this year. Coleman averaged 4.4 yards per carry. They're a dangerous RB duo. The Falcons OL has played better than advertised. Alex Mack is arguably the best Center in football. He's stabilized the line. Jake Matthews has been solid at LT. Andy Levitre, Chris Chester and Ryan Scharaeder have all over-achieved. If the Packers DL can't win the line of scrimmage, this could be a long, frustrating day for our defense. It should be noted that the Atlanta OL gave up 37 sacks on the year.
Defensively, the Falcons will be without Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn had 2 sacks, 2 QB Hits and 2 tackles for loss in the first meeting. In the first meeting, the Packers led 24-19 at the half. The Packers had two 3rd Quarter possessions. Both drives ended due to third down sacks by Clayborn. His loss can't be overstated. Grady Jarrett, Jonathan Babineax and Tyson Jackson will fill in. Babineaux has had a solid career for the Falcons. The veteran is a high intensity DL who offers push. Grady Jarrett plugs holes and offers a decent pass rush for a big guy. Tyson Jackson has all of the talent, but he's been an underachiever throughout his career. Vic Beasley has been a beast. He crushed the Packers in the first meeting. He finished with 15.5 sacks in the regular season. It is imperative that the Packers contain Beasley in the pass rush. If so, I feel really good about the Packers putting up points in abundance. Brooks Reed is a high effort pass rushing OLB. Deion Jones is an active, pursuing ILB who plays with fantastic speed. De'Vondre Campbell is a guy I was high on coming out of college. I thought he'd have fit into the Packers system. Atlanta selected him earlier than I thought he'd go, but he's filled in nicely and had a good season. With Jones and Campbell, the Falcons will have two rookies starting at LB. Hopefully, Rodgers' mind will outthink them. Robert Alford has emerged into a legit CB. Jalen Collins hasn't been the player I thought he'd become. He gets beat on double moves, but he's physical at the line of scrimmage. Keanu Neal is a beast of a safety. Ricardo Allen can be beat. The Falcons have little to no depth in the secondary.
Like most people, I envision a full-on shoot-out. But, I'm feeling good. I believe that the Packers will be able to spread out the Falcons defense. We'll force the Falcons to come on a variety of blitzes and I expect Rodgers to see the blitz. When he does, he'll pick the Falcons secondary apart. With the Packers OL winning the line of scrimmage, Rodgers is quick to release. Cobb gets loose underneath.
Much like the Dallas game, McCarthy calls a number of empty sets. He's looking for Rodgers to get rid of the ball quickly. He's daring the Falcons to send extra blockers to force single coverage. If Rodgers recognizes the single coverage, he'll hit on big plays. If not, the Falcons will get home. I'm betting on Rodgers.
Defensively, we'll struggle to stop Atlanta, but hopefully, we can slow them down. I look for the Packers to rush 4. Often. We'll try to defend the 5 Atlanta receivers with 7 defenders. We'll bank on the front 4 to make plays.
I'm expect Clay Matthews to be motivated as he goes nose-to-nose with his younger cousin. I expect Clay to make two really big plays.
I expect Julius Peppers to have a forced fumble.
I expect Nick Perry to apply pressure.
I expect Mike Daniels to be present in the run game.
I expect Micah Hyde to make a 3rd down play.
We grab 4 sacks. We force a turnover. Atlanta has 2 sacks. They don't force a turnover. That's the difference.
Another big game for Cook. Another nice game from Allison.
Hyde with a big punt return.
We are going to the Super Bowl!
Go Pack Go!