The Oakland Raiders are doing better with Al Davis out of the way, but are they ready for this challenge?
I used to feel Philadelphia fans were the worst. While every fanbase has its bad apples, none had as pervasive an attitude that an opposing fan had no right to root for their team without being harassed and even threatened.
Then I moved to the Bay Area and saw the instigating first hand, both at the Oakland Coliseum and Candlestick Park. I have witnessed treatment of fans of other teams in eight cities throughout North America. The worst among Raiders fans go further than any others, actually perpetrating violence on opposing fans.
I know this is only the lunatic fringe of the fanbase, but this level of extremism is not tolerated elsewhere. It is the predictable result of more pervasive attitudes of intolerance—I have yet to meet a Raiders fan who does not hate the Niners and have yet to be given a reason such as some wrong they committed...this includes from people in my own church that is in Oakland.
I have to give the Raiders fans credit for staying loyal through eight lean years. However, hating any group because of a team affiliation does not make you more loyal to your team, and intolerance is never something to be celebrated.
The tongue is the rudder for the soul, and speaking these attitudes fosters such an intolerant environment. Compare the sinister identity the Raiders embrace with the small-town, fan-owned, non-profit Green Bay Packers who dumped a prima donna quarterback for one who takes the high road every time the controversy is brought up.
This is a classic battle of good vs. evil.
It makes for good television, but that storyline would only get you through the first quarter. The Packers pursuit of perfection might get you to check the score regularly after that. But let me tell you why this is the last, best chance for someone to beat the Packers, and why you should watch for the entire game...
Aaron Rodgers is on another plane away from everyone else in the game at the moment.
Okay, so Skip Bayless is not convinced that he's clutch yet because Sunday's last-minute, game-winning drive was not with a four-point deficit. What's he supposed to do, play Tim Tebow-bad for the first 55 minutes so he can get a Tim Tebow comeback in the last five?
(To be fair, Tebow was very good last week. But he has still not had a single start against a team with a record more than one game above .500 in his career. Skip would be all over this stat for a guy he hates on like Rodgers...)
Here's how any rational person knows how clutch he is: Aaron Rodgers is among the best quarterbacks in NFL history in the red zone, on third down, against the blitz, on the run and in touchdown and interception percentage.
It's time to realize that anyone who still doubts this man has no credibility. But then Skip was never on the air for that, anyway—he actually tried to say a high school player raising his arm in the air for two seconds on a go-ahead score in a high school championship game was rightfully called for taunting.
That's about the same as giving him a six on a scale of 1-10 for a 58-second comeback last week.
Rodgers has the highest passer rating at this point in a season in NFL history. He's on pace for 49 touchdowns and just six picks. He could have his fourth 4,000-yard season in four years as a starter by halftime of the 13th game.
But despite losing their best cover corner, the Raiders are a good pass defense. While they are 17th in yards allowed, their opponent passer rating is fourth-best, and only four teams have more sacks. This allows them to exploit the one weakness in the Packers passing attack—protection.
The Green Bay ground game is hobbled. James Starks has been the best running back but is not totally healthy. But the problems with the rushing attack goes much deeper.
Green Bay has failed to get 100 yards rushing or four yards per carry out of the running backs against every terrible run defense faced: St. Louis, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Detroit and New York all rank in the bottom 10, and Packers backs are coming off just 168 yards on 68 carries (2.5 per carry) against the last three in consecutive weeks.
Only a small amount of that is because the team runs late in games to kill the clock. Rarely do these backs succeed even when other teams have to worry more about Aaron Rodgers.
There is no reason to think things will be different against Oakland. But if they ever were, this would be the time.
Four teams give up more yards per game than the Raiders, but they are the only team not holding opponents under five yards per carry (the Rams are at 4.995), giving up more than 5.2 per rush. This even gives hope to their hosts that they could stay in a fight with the Raiders if there was no passing game at all.
As a Packers fan living in the Bay Area, I have a unique perspective on Carson Palmer.
Green Bay went from a Hall of Fame quarterback who is at least in the argument for greatest all time to one playing the position better than it has ever been played. So you can see why I chuckle when I hear Raiders fans and management say he was worth trading a first and second-round pick to acquire because they finally have a great quarterback.
Palmer is not elite just because he's better than anyone the Raiders have had in eight seasons. He has not been one since 2006; the last time he saw a 90-plus passer rating. He is the 31st-rated quarterback this season because he completes under 56 percent of his passes and has thrown more picks than scores.
True, he was thrown into the fire too soon against the Kansas City Chiefs. But he has been under 60 percent with eight scores and six picks in his five starts since. He only has one good game all season, going 14-for-20, 299 yards, two scores and a pick against the San Diego Chargers.
He does get over 270 yards per game and will get those yards against a Packers defense that gives up more of them in the air (292.8 yards per game) than any team in the league but New England. The problem is that Oakland has no receiver on pace for even 60 catches, 800 yards or six touchdowns.
But passing on the Packers is a dangerous proposition. Only five other teams have more picks than touchdowns allowed, and the Packers have six more picks than the next best NFL team. This is why Green Bay ranks 10th in opponent passer rating even though only seven teams are worse in sack percentage.
Even without Darren McFadden, the Raiders have a stout running game. They are fourth in the NFL with over 140 yards per game, and the understudy for "Run DMC," Michael Bush, averaging about four yards per carry, is less than 80 yards per game away from a 1,000-yard season.
Green Bay is ranked 13th in yards per game, but that's because other teams have to pass for most of the second half to keep up. This is the same defense that allowed Brandon Jacobs, who ran like he was on his way out of the league most of the season, to get over seven yards per carry and lead the worst rushing attack in the NFL to a 20-carry, 100-yard game last week.
Only three teams give up more yards per carry than the Packers. Only six get more yards per carry than Oakland.
The Raiders are the best running football team left on the Packers schedule, and that's why they are the best chance left before the playoffs to end the perfect season. If the weather turns nasty enough to neutralize the potent Packers' passing attack or Aaron Rodgers goes down in this game, Oakland may well have a major trophy for its wall.
If games were won through special teams, the Oakland Raiders would not have been the laughingstock of the NFL since their last big win in the AFC championship game of January, 2003. The Packers do not measure up but are not blown off the field by the Raiders on special teams.
For instance, Green Bay is a little better on punt returns and not quite as good on kick returns. Everywhere else, the Raiders have a more definitive edge, but not an overwhelming one.
Tim Masthay is a good punter, averaging 45 yards per punt gross and about 37 net, with four times pinning an opponent inside the 20 for every touchback. The coverage is shaky, allowing a touchdown and almost 15 yards per return.
But Shane Lechler is the best in the world, averaging over 50 gross and 40 net. He does not worry about touchbacks because they often come from over 50 yards away but still has pinned foes back 20 times to seven touchbacks. Despite outpunting his coverage, it allows a lower 13.6 per return.
Mason Crosby is a good kicker, with only two missed field goals and two made from at least 55 yards out. He puts almost every kick in the end zone and about half of them result in touchbacks, and those that do not, average under 25 yards per return without a touchdown.
But Sebastian Janikowski also has just two misses and has made an incredible five of six from 50-plus, including tying the NFL record with a 63-yarder. His kicks are as likely as not to go out the back of the end zone, and on the rare occasions they have been returned, the results are slightly better than Green Bay's returns.
Frequently, the Green Bay Packers get their opponent's best shot. Every week so far, it has not been enough.
The latest in the string of challengers is the Oakland Raiders. They will have no pressure on them and will be at peak emotional level.
Barring weather so inclement as to derail the Packers passing attack, those will be the only advantages outside of the personnel on the field in the favour.
Green Bay has a coaching staff second to none better able to prepare them game in and game out. The Raiders are inconsistent not just because they are young, but because they do not have the stable organization and staff able to keep their emotions from getting the better of them. Even veteran Raiders like Richard Seymour explode in negative ways.
The Packers also have the home-field advantage, and that does mean something when the opposition comes from a mild environment. The disparity between the teams in penalties and turnovers gives Green Bay a stark advantage.