When the Packers Go Marching In (To February)

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When the Packers Go Marching In (To February)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the most peculiar things about having children is dealing with their short memories.

For example, recently my wife and I were reminiscing with our son about a friend of his that he had when he was between three and four years old.

My son and this child were inseparable at daycare, enjoyed several play dates together on the weekends, and for months, not a day went by when we didn’t hear our son tell a story about this other child.

He now claims to have absolutely no recollection of this kid. It’s like the preschool version of an adult breakup where someone pretends to have forgotten someone who stole money or who posted naked pictures of their trysts on Facebook.

Except in my son’s case, when he claims to have forgotten, he really has forgotten.

Football analysts tend to have short memories as well. Just a week after declaring the Minnesota Vikings’ 2009 season done after the purple had lost three out of four, many of those same analysts are now touting them as the best team in the NFC simply because they beat up on a completely disinterested Giants team at home to end the season.

It’s like the eighties teen sex romp The Last American Virgin : The movie was full of rottenness, but the ending was so interesting, that some people remember the entire movie fondly.

I wouldn’t necessarily argue that at some point in the season the Vikings were the best team in the NFC. But not now.

As the NFL’s second (or third, if you insist on paying attention to those preseason yawnfests) season starts, the Green Bay Packers are the best team in the conference and will represent the NFC in Jimmy Buffett Stadium on Feb. 7.

Some may assume that I would use the Packers’ beatdown of the Cardinals in Week 17 as evidence as to why I feel they will at least win Sunday’s rematch. But I don’t.

In fact, I disagree with Mike McCarthy’s decision to play his starters for the majority of a meaningless game. McCarthy came out of the game not only unscathed but applauded for his tactics in gaining an undeniable psychological edge over Arizona heading into their playoff meeting.

But what if Charles Woodson would have suffered a more severe injury? What if Aaron Rodgers and not Wes Welker had torn his MCL and ACL while padding a 26-point lead in the third quarter? (And has McCarthy seen his backup quarterbacks lately? That’s a more forgettable group than the cast members from Saturday Night Live ’s 1985-1986 season.)

Should one of his best players gone down on Sunday, McCarthy would have been the least popular person in Green Bay since Brett Favre succumbed to the evil charms of Brad Childress.

But while I disagree with McCarthy, I understand why he did it.

He knows he has a very talented but young and undisciplined team. One look at the total penalties and penalty yards his team amassed this season tells him that his players’ abilities are sometimes overshadowed by their rawness.

McCarthy gambled that the risk of his young players losing their focus while sitting out a winnable game was greater than the risk of one of his stars suffering a serious injury. And of course even the most “professional” of teams (yes, that’s you, Indy) haven’t perfected the art of succeeding in the postseason after purposefully tanking in weeks 16 and 17.

No, I give the Packers the best odds to emerge from the NFC for this basic reason: All throughout the first half of the season, while the Packers were struggling to achieve a 4-4 record, Packers fans’ mantra was this: “If we could just figure out a way to protect our quarterback, we’d be so good.”

Well, they did and they are.

What has made the Packers so good since cleaning up their offensive line issues has less to do with their passing game and more to do with Ryan Grant: Fewer sacks equals fewer negative plays equals more manageable down-and-distances equals more offensive balance equals more Grant. Which has been a very good thing.

Which brings us back to Arizona. No team in the NFL, at only 365 rushing attempts all season, is less interested in running the football than the Cardinals.

Last year, they were able to surprise teams in the playoffs by running the ball effectively, but that’s a strategy they’ll unlikely be able to repeat against the Packers’ No. 1-ranked rush defense. (Arizona tallied 48 yards rushing in week 17.)

With Anquan Boldin at the very least hobbled by a left ankle injury and Charles Woodson being able to cover Larry Fitzgerald one-on-one as well as anybody, the Cardinals’ passing attack will be seriously depleted.

And while I think the Cardinals’ defense will play well, Rodgers will get his while the Packers defense will knock Warner into serious retirement contemplation.

Retirement contemplation? Did someone mention Brett Favre? While the Minnesota Vikings enter the postseason with a ton of issues, Favre’s play—to the annoyance of Packers fans waiting for the December swoon—has not been one of them.

But nearly everything else has been. The offensive line has been lousy, giving Favre no time to throw and Adrian Peterson no room to run.

Peterson has been fumble-prone, with his most glaring gaffe coming in overtime against Chicago that cost the Vikings not only a win but also a chance to secure the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

The Vikings defense has been questionable, with four of their last five opponents able to run for over 100 yards over their usually impenetrable defensive front.

Defensive playmaker Antonie Winfield has been slow to recover from a foot injury. Defensive leader E.J. Henderson is out. Their always-suspect pass defense was exploited in recent weeks by the average likes of Jay Cutler and Matt Moore.

Vikings fans should be downright horrified at the possibility of a third Packers/Vikings tilt this season. Packers fans should be licking their chops at such an opportunity.

They should also be licking their chops to play the Philadelphia Eagles. While it’s not completely unrealistic to expect a bounce-back performance from Philly after being embarrassed last week, Andy Reid’s team simply doesn’t have the running attack or the defense to match Dallas’s.

The biggest concern anyone should have over picking Dallas next week is placing trust that Tony Romo, having at least temporarily silenced his critics by playing well this December, will suddenly turn into the NFL’s version of Reggie Jackson.

As much as I like Dallas’s run game and their defense, Romo is no Brett Favre. Though more experienced, Romo is also no Aaron Rodgers.

Maybe more importantly, Dallas’s receiving corps is to Minnesota’s and Green Bay’s what American Pie 7 (yes, you read that right, there have been seven of them) is to the original.

That leaves us the Saints. The team that not long ago seemed as unstoppable as Phil Collins circa 1986. But just as the days of Sussudio and Invisible Touch (sadly) came to an end, so does it seem it’s time to bring the curtain down on the Saints, who haven’t had a decisive victory since November.

But seemingly every year a team that many have written off makes a run. Perhaps this is the year the Saints pull that trick.

But I doubt it. Regardless of who they have to play or where they have to play it out, it’s the Packers coming out of the NFC.

But if it is indeed New Orleans who travels to Miami in February, then all of us who overlooked the Saints would have to blame it on our short memories.

  
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