Charles Woodson ensured that everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving. Chuckie, we're thankful to have you.
Three impressive wins against NFC opponents have the Packers holding prime NFC real estate. We're well positioned for one of the NFC Wild Card spots. As the Giants, Falcons & Eagles have struggled for consistency, the Packers seem to be peaking as we enter the December stretch.
I've often talked about the 8 game swing stretch. I've thought that we must finish no worse than 6-2 over that 8 game stretch in order to make it to the playoffs. I stand by my statements. In my mind, this is a must win. While it'll still be conceivable for the Packers to make the playoffs even if they lose, we'll learn more about the Packers this week than we have in any previous week. We'll find out how physically and mentally tough the Packers have become. We've feasted on less than stellar teams. We showed that our stars were flashier than Dallas' star. We jumped out on the 49ers early. We beat an already beaten up Detroit team. Yes, they're all wins. Good wins. Great wins, in fact. But, this week we'll find out just how far the Green Bay Packers have come along.
It's Monday Night Football. At Lambeau Field. This is a game that the Packers must win. No excuses.
The Ravens will provide a stiff test. They are built for December football. They play defense. They force turnovers. They run the ball with a fierce mentality. They're tough to bring down. They'll try to beat you up. No matter the score, they'll continue to fight. I could argue that Baltimore has an unmatched physical determination in the NFL. Additionally, their playoff life is on the line.
While the Packers lead the NFL in rush defense, for a variety of reasons, with the exception of our battles against A.P., we haven't really been tested since the Bengals & Rams stuffed it down our throats in Weeks 2 & 3. Dallas gave up on the run after a successful first drive. So did the 49ers. The Ravens will try to beat us up for 60 minutes - regardless of the score.
We're significantly better than Baltimore on the perimeter. The Ravens have the edge between the Tackles. In order to win in December, you have to win the running game. Especially at Lambeau Field. Thus, I feel this week will be a significant indicator as we attempt to gauge whether the Packers are contenders or pretenders.
The Ravens three headed running monster of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee & Le'Ron McClain will require a persistent fight from our Front 7. Back-to-back weeks Raji has made a play behind the line of scrimmage. Jolly & Jenkins continue to get a quick jump off the ball. Hawk and Barnett have been above average as ILB's. CM3 is quickly growing into a man who makes a play a week. Brad Jones just has to be assignment-sure, mistake-free.
If we can consistently force 3rd & 7 or more, we'll win. Probably by 2 scores. Many think highly of Joe Flacco. I'm not one of them. Frankly, I think he's mightily overrated. He has some decent targets in Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. Mark Clayton is a decent deep threat who has underachieved - nonetheless he has to be accounted for. Kelly Washington has become a solid 3rd down WR who has become proficient at moving the chains in the middle of the field running crossing routes.
If we can force 3rd and long situations, we can get pressure on Flacco. Like many young QB's, he's often guilty of holding onto the football too long. He'll take a hit even though he stands tall in the pocket. It's just that he's not very elusive. You know where to find him. We must pursue.
While the Ravens defense is on the decline, it remains a formidable opponent. Ray Lewis can still intimidate. Ed Reed can still play center field. Haloti Ngata is a premier 3-4 run defender. Dawan Landry is a solid safety. But, this Ravens defense has holes, notably at CB where Dominique Foxworth, Frank Walker, and Chris Carr are all average to below-average CB's. With Suggs not playing due to injury, the Packers should be able to protect Rodgers and if the Ravens come with heavy blitzes, Rodgers should be able to expose the mismatches on the perimeter with an audible to quick, short routes.
Mother Nature calls for mid-20's with a slight snow flurry. Winds of 4 mph. This should be Packer football. It should be picturesque. It should be a Packers victory.
The Ravens start quickly. Pounding it at us. The move into scoring position, only to be held to 3 points.
The Packers respond. Rodgers to J-Mike over the middle of the field for 15 yards. Rodgers to Nelson on a short pass turns into a 1st down. Grant punching it at the Ravens heart. Rodgers to Jennings for 6 points.
The Packers grab a 14-3 lead. The crowd rises. Flacco starts to pick on J-Bush. Getting Mason isolated on Bush, the Ravens pick up consecutive 1st downs. It's Kelly Washington for a first down on a 3rd down. Ray Rice gets loose. 14-10.
With the Packers up 20-10, our pathetic special teams rears its head. The Ravens play solid special teams. The Packers do not. Special teams changes the tide and gives the Ravens sound field position.
Flacco finds Heap. He finds Rice on a screen to get the ball inside the 10. McGahee pounds it in.
6 minutes left. The Packers lead by 3. With the ball. Rodgers goes to work.
***Every year, there is a time when the season changes for the better or for the worse. In 1996, Doug Evans picked off Tony Banks and returned it for a TD. The Packers never looked back. In 2006, Favre connected with Chris Francies on a big third down in Miami. The season looked lost at 1-4 until that play continued an important drive. The Packers finished 8-8. In 2007, it was Favre to Jennings at Denver - in OT - that inspired greatness. In 2008, it was our final drive at Tennessee. We failed to find points with a chance to win. Our season spun downward. In 2009, thus far, it was in Week 10 against the Cowboys. With the score 3-0, the Packers faced 3rd & 11 from their own 34. Rodgers found Jennings for 14 yards. Three plays later, the Packers faced 3rd & 13. Rodgers found Lee for 17 yards. Later that drive, the Packers were staring at 3rd & 6. Rodgers connected with Jordy for 7 yards. The next play Rodgers scored on a 1 yard TD run. Since then, Rodgers has been brilliant.***
Well, Rodgers pulls out his magic wand once again. It's Monday Night brilliance. Completing a big third down to Driver on a quick slant. The check down to Lee. Rodgers continues to show maturity. With under 2 minutes left, it's victory formation.
The Packers win a hard fought, hotly contested battle.
Green Bay 20. Baltimore 17.
After the game, Rodgers has 24 touchdowns. 5 interceptions on the season. He shows that he's Pro Bowl material. In the spotlight on national TV. Rodgers elevates into a premier NFL QB.
Enjoy Sunday. Pay extra attention to the Cowboys/Giants & Eagles/Falcons games. They might impact our season and postseason outlook.