The weekend of December 10 & 11 wasn’t a great one for Wisconsin sports fans.
Oh sure, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team churned out a predictable if uninspiring win against the UNLV Stallin’ Rebels Saturday afternoon, but the sporting news was otherwise mostly bad: The Wisconsin men’s hockey team failed to win a game in its weekend series against the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth. The women’s basketball team dropped its second in a row. Montee Ball finished a distant fourth in the Heisman Trophy vote.
Oh, and Ryan Braun tested positive for the dreaded “performance-enhancing drug,” which means he will probably be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. (If you had to set the over/under on Brewers wins for those first 50 games without Braun and the departing Prince Fielder, where would you put the number? 20? 15?)
The news on Braun was indeed the saddest of all: Even in the unlikely event that Braun, as he believes, can somehow negate the positive test or prove that it was unmistakably fraudulent, the perception of the heretofore extraordinarily popular NL MVP will simply never be the same.
Even Sunday’s blowout Packers victory over the Raiders was somewhat sullied by the injury that wide receiver Greg Jennings suffered to his knee that will likely cause him to miss the remainder of the regular season.
After winning 19 straight regular-season and postseason games, Packers victories have become about as surprising as David Letterman’s nightly Top 10 Lists: You know they’re coming, but you just don’t know how compelling they’ll be.
At this point, what’s interesting about the Packers streak is not who they’re beating up on, but who could potentially spoil the stretch. After all, no NFL team has ever won more than 21 games in a row (2003-2004 Patriots), so even if the Packers break that streak – and they certainly look like they will, with the shambolic Chiefs, Bears, and Lions coming up – they’re of course bound to lose at some point. And, let’s face it, they’ve certainly looked vulnerable at times in recent victories over San Diego, Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants, three teams that could all end up out of the playoff picture.
So who could the end the Packers streak? And could it be ended in this year’s postseason? Here’s five (well, six) teams that could potentially spoil the fun in Titletown:
- New Orleans Saints. Sure, the Packers have beaten the Saints already this year, way back on September 8, but it was hardly a blowout, with New Orleans’s Mark Ingram getting stuffed on the 1-yard-line after Drew Brees led the Saints on a 79-yard drive with barely over a minute to go in the game. In many ways, the Saints are a mirror image of the Packers: The passing game is fantastic while the defense is suspect. But the Saints have a better all-purpose player in Darren Sproles, and tight end Jimmy Graham and Brees have found a connection that Aaron Rodgers and Packers TE Jermichael Finley have largely lost. Seems like a foregone conclusion that these two teams will meet in the NFC Championship Game, where I would favor the Packers by 7 points.
- San Francisco 49ers. Until dropping two of their last three, the 49ers were perhaps the best story in the NFL this year – a former storied franchise returning to prominence after nearly a decade of misery. Even with a likely loss to Pittsburgh Monday night, San Francisco is still probably going to finish the season with an impressive 12-4 record. And the team is doing their damage with defense, allowing a league-low 14 points per game and a league-low 70.5 rushing yards each week. The bad news for the 49ers is that their pass defense is just average, while the Packers pass offense is anything but. More bad news for the 49ers is that their offense has become stagnant: It would be easy to see Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson having their way with Alex Smith and the 49ers offensive line. In the event that the Packers and 49ers meet in the conference championship, San Francisco’s defense could keep things close, but I’d still favor the Packers by 9 points.
- Baltimore Ravens / Pittsburgh Steelers. After embarrassing losses to the likes of Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Seattle, Baltimore has emerged as the most dangerous team in the AFC, improving on offense while maintaining an impressive intensity on defense without leader Ray Lewis, who is scheduled to return this week. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is dealing with a surprisingly-average rushing attack and an offensive line that has been so porous that it is finally putting the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in serious jeopardy. That Super Bowl rematch fans and prognosticators have been talking about? I don’t see it. If Baltimore meets the Packers in Indianapolis, I would give the Packers just a 3 point edge. In the unlikely chance that Pittsburgh wins the AFC Championship, the Packers will beat them in the Super Bowl by ten.
- Denver Broncos. You laugh, but as long as Tim Tebow continues to breathe air on God’s green Earth, the Broncos have a fighting chance. And I’m only half-joking. If Tebow and the Broncos complete a season-turnaround for the ages, I’m guessing they take the Super Bowl to overtime, where the Packers win on a field goal.
- New England Patriots. If there’s such a thing as a quiet 10-3 team, the New England Patriots are it. There’s still a lot to like about the dynastic Pats, but it’s all on the offensive side of the football, where studs Brady, Gronkowski, and Welker reign supreme. Unfortunately for them, their defense is the absolute worst in the league, which is saying something for anyone who has seen any Minnesota Vikings games this year. Even bad teams like the Colts (with Dan Orlovsky!) and the Washington Redskins (with Rex Grossman!) can pile on the yards and points playing the Pats. A Super Bowl showdown with Brady and Rodgers might be NBC’s first choice, but I don’t see the Patriots getting any closer than ten points, and to even get that close, they might have to put up 50. By the end of the third quarter.