Cook or no Cook, Monday’s defensive effort was impressive
Well that sure changed my perspective about the Green Bay Packers’ playoff chances. How about you?
Until Monday night, I’ll have to admit I was one of those skeptics who felt the Packers were a good team. But visions of the Los Angeles Chargers and, most importantly, the San Francisco 49ers mashing through them earlier in the season prevented this fan from thinking too big about their chances to do much damage in what is going to a tough run for any of the six NFC playoff teams.
But the way the Packers defensively dominated the Minnesota Vikings in a 23-10 win and the way they were able to run the ball against the supposedly fearsome Vikings defense has to make you wonder what the potential is for the Green and Gold. I know, I know, Dalvin Cook didn’t play for the Vikings. Yes, Cook is a difference- making running back and his back-up Alexander Mattison is a load too.
Still, the Vikings are better than the Packers at wide receiver aren’t they? Their tight ends are just as good as Green Bay’s if not better, aren’t they? I know quarterback Kirk Cousins catches a lot of grief, but he has my respect for the damage he’s done to Green Bay in the past and for how accurate he can be when he gets rolling.
The Packers’ utter domination of the Vikings’ offensive line Monday night restored those images from opening night in Chicago when the guys up front couldn’t be blocked. Aaron Rodgers was saying, ‘we have a defense now’ that night and things seemed limitless.
By weeks three and four, when Denver and Philadelphia started making the run defense look like swiss cheese, and in week five, when Dallas almost wiped out a huge deficit in the blink of an eye, the sky high belief for the defense was gone. Watching the 49ers destroy it in the second half of that Nov. 24 showdown had to be pretty humbling at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.
I’m not sure how or why, but something happened with that defense after the San Francisco meltdown and it’s led to four straight wins while allowing just under 13 points per game and leaving one heck of an impression Monday night.
Strong defense in the NFL starts with pass rush and wow, did general manager Brian Gutekunst hit a home run in the off-season by signing edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. The 13.5 sacks for Za’Darius and the 12 sacks for Preston are no joke. Kenny Clark has six sacks himself, which is a pretty high number for a nose tackle. They made Cousins look pretty scared Monday by the fourth quarter.
While the Packers will often bend and give up yardage, they have been pretty good by NFL standards at holding teams to field goals and forcing turnovers. Obviously both are huge when it comes to winning close games in the NFL.
At times, the bend but don’t break approach has looked bad, but if you look back at this season, think about all of the times the defense came up with a stop when it needed it in the fourth quarter.
Even though they lost, the defense got the offense the ball back late against the Eagles, they shut down the Lions in the second half, allowing the Packers (with help from their striped friends that Monday night) come back and win on Mason Crosby’s game-ending field goal. They kept the high-powered Chiefs in check in the second half. Yes, that one comes with an asterisk because of who didn’t play for Kansas City. They made the goal-line stand in the game’s final seconds against Carolina, they held off that late charge by Chicago last week.
Packer fans have said for years, just give us an average defense to pair with our high-powered offense. This year, things have kind of evened out. The defense, though not always perfect, has certainly improved. The offense has been uneven, but I love the fact that the Packers can run the ball. Aaron Jones is a top-10 running back and don’t underestimate the importance of Jamaal Williams in the playoffs, assuming his shoulder injury from Monday won’t keep him out. He’s an impressive back when it comes to straightforward running and getting tough yards. And, he can pass block and pass receive.
Of course, all this giddiness will be lost if the Packers screw up this Sunday and lose in Detroit. Honestly, there is more pressure on them this week to close the deal and earn the number-two seed at minimum by beating a team now playing with its third-string quarterback. The NFC’s number-one seed is very realistically within reach too. Just win and get help from Seattle and bingo, the NFC playoffs go through Lambeau Field.
However, as I said earlier, I don’t see any team cakewalking through the NFC side of the playoffs. All six qualifiers are good, though we don’t know who the NFC East champion will be yet. San Francisco has been really good at times. Seattle has been really good at times.
Minnesota won’t go away easily. If Dallas gets in and that offense ever figures it out, look out. The Eagles are playing with confidence right now.
The team I respect most is New Orleans. Getting the two seed and making sure the Drew Brees and the Saints would have to come to Lambeau is a huge deal. As giddy as I feel as I type this, it would be just the opposite feeling a week from now if the Packers don’t wrap up, at worst, the two-seed and have to face the Vikings again before going to New Orleans in the second round.
*** Not to be forgotten, the Wisconsin Badgers are gearing up for their New Year’s Day Rose Bowl date with the Oregon Ducks.
The Badgers will enter the game as an underdog, as usual. But I like their chances, not necessarily based on any scientific or statistical data.
Just call it a hunch that they are going to play well.
First of all, under Paul Chryst, the Badgers are 4-0 in bowl games. Much like Barry Alvarez back in the day, Chryst seems to have figured out how to get the Badgers to get better during the long December layoff, final exams, the holidays and pre-game hoopla.
Secondly, I just felt like the Badgers ended their season with two pretty strong efforts. The win over PJ Junior and his Ski Masks rowing gently down the stream or whatever they call themselves over the river spoke for itself.
While they came up short in the Big Ten Championship game against the Ohio State Buckeyes, who I would take over the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, what they showed in the first half was pretty impressive. The defense had its early-season swagger back, Jonathan Taylor and the offensive line created space against an elite defense and quarterback Jack Coan continued an underappreciated but solid year.
The mid-season loss to Illinois will always put a stain on this season. But a Rose Bowl win would be a great finish for a team few picked to even contend in the Big Ten West.
Matt Frey is the Sports Editor at The Star News.