I was all set to explore the reasons why—despite being beaten and overshadowed by disgruntled former employee Brett Favre and the rival Minnesota Vikings, despite horrid offensive line play, and despite an embarrassing loss just four games ago to the Tampa Bay Crappaneers—the Green Bay Packers remained a solid choice to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 44.
Then I watched the New Orleans Saints completely dismantle the New England Patriots Monday night.
Long before Bill Belichick—who throughout the game had a look of utter confusion and bewilderment that rivaled my two-year-old daughter’s expression when she accidentally puts on her coat upside down—trotted out Brian Hoyer to mercifully run out the game clock, I realized that my argument was in jeopardy.
But like Tiger Woods stubbornly trying to control the maelstrom of gossip that now surrounds him (he should have followed David Letterman’s example: get out in front of the story and admit everything), I will stubbornly try to forge ahead with my vision of the Packers playing at Land Shark/Joe Robbie/Pro Player Stadium in February even as the vision of Drew Brees’s five touchdowns is upsettingly fresh in my mind.
First of all, the Packers are playing for a Wild Card spot.
Yes, the Vikings have tough games ahead of them against Arizona and Cincinnati and the oft-mentioned Monday night game at Chicago that could be Favre’s only game in bad weather. But they also have games against Carolina, the reeling New York Giants, and, no matter what the weather is (the Bears would have to play in it too), Chicago is extraordinarily beatable.
So, no NFC North championship for Green Bay in 2009. But at 7-4, the Packers are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for a Wild Card playoff spot, and that’s a position that they should be able to hold on to.
Or can they?
Well, some mediocre team is going to win the NFC East and there could very well be an equally mediocre Wild Card team representative from that division. But can the East send three teams as they did two seasons ago? Absolutely not.
Save an easy Thanksgiving game against the hapless Raiders, the Cowboys offense has been stagnant of late, and Tony Romo’s struggles late in the season (5-8 career record in December) have been well documented. Now at 8-3, the Cowboys could easily finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs entirely.
But should both the Cowboys and Packers survive to meet again in the postseason, Packer fans only have to look back to their Nov. 15 17-7 victory against Dallas to like that rematch.
Though currently in second place, the Eagles should finish ahead of the Cowboys thanks to the solid play and clutch game experience of Donovan McNabb. But nagging injuries to some of their best playmakers (Brian Westbrook, DeSean Jackson), and a struggling defense (who gives up 24 points to Washington?) should make the Eagles a fairly easy out in the postseason.
And what of the Giants?
With three divisional games looming, New York controls their destiny, but by losing five of six and by looking awful in the process, they also look like they won’t be a factor in the postseason simply because they won’t be there.
Of the two, the 49ers—especially with a remaining schedule that includes Seattle, Detroit, and St. Louis, and not to mention Atlanta’s injury problems—are the bigger threat, but simple mathematics indicate the Packers have little to worry about here.
Since Green bay beat San Francisco 30-24 just two weeks ago, the 49ers would have to win out while the Packers would have to lose three of their last five games for San Francisco to pass the Packers in the Wild Card standings.
No matter how motivating 49ers head coach Mike Singletary is—and I could listen to that guy talk all day—he’s not going to be able to get that group of players from 3-5 to 10-6.
Moving closer to home, surely every Packer fan remembers the 2004 season. It was a remarkable roller-coaster that saw the Packers start 1-4, only to finish 10-6 including two wins over division rival Minnesota.
The fun ended, though, when the Packers not only had to suffer the indignity of losing to the Vikings at Lambeau Field 31-17 in a Wild Card game, but also had to sit through Randy Moss’s “moonwalk” (which infamously sent FOX announcer Joe Buck into a conniption) in the process.
But perhaps Packers fans could find solace in how that season ended. Could history repeat itself, only this time in a bizarro fashion with the Packers getting the last laugh on the Vikings in the postseason?
While the Vikings have won three straight since beating the Packers at Lambeau, the victories have come against bottom-feeders Detroit, Seattle, and Chicago, with all of the games in the friendly confines of the Metrodome. Excuse me, Mall of America Field.
And while the Vikings’ offense hasn’t been slowed lately, the team has shown an increased lack of discipline (probably stemming from overconfidence) with 28 penalties over the last three weeks.
If that doesn’t seem alarming, consider Adrian Peterson’s four fumbles over the past three games: Given that no one expects Favre’s nearly error-free 2009 streak (just three INTs so far to 24 TDs this season) to continue—FOX’s Troy Aikman suggested on Sunday that head coach Brad Childress must be nervous knowing that his 40-year-old quarterback is bound to start throwing some picks—the Vikings could be in danger of imploding against a good team with a chip on their shoulder.
The Packers certainly fit that bill.
And with the Packers’ offensive line stabilizing a bit lately—granted, that’s like pundits saying the economy is stabilizing while unemployment continues to go up and consumer confidence continues to go down—Rodgers could potentially have more time to pick apart the Vikings secondary (clearly the team’s biggest weakness) in any potential rematch.
So, while Packers fans have to like their team’s chances against many of the opponents they may meet in the postseason, should any doubt be placed on their chances of simply getting there?
While they have some potentially tough games on the horizon, it’s clear that neither Baltimore nor Pittsburgh (despite Mike Tomlin’s laughable horror-movie threat to “unleash hell” for the rest of the season) are the powerhouses they once were, and the Packers’ finale against Arizona could be a cakewalk if the Cardinals choose to rest players (particularly Kurt Warner), if they have the NFC East won by then, which is a real possibility.
Which brings us back to the New Orleans Saints.
Even though I hate this phrase almost as much as I hate the use of the phrase “Tonight on The Jay Leno Show …” I’m going to use it: If the playoffs started today, the Packers would face the Saints in a potential divisional round matchup at the Superdome.
Based on what we saw Monday night, that is not a game that would end well for not just Green Bay, but any team.
But given that the Saints have only won two playoffs games in their history, given that the Packers lead the league in allowing an average of just 281.5 yards a game, given that Aaron Rodgers is running neck-and-neck statistically with Drew Brees, you’d have to like the Packers chances in a showdown with the Saints, wouldn’t you?
Like I said, I would have a few days ago.
After watching Monday Night Football this week, not so much.