Four Downs: Packers-Vikings preview (November edition)
Four Downs is … aw heck … let’s just get into it. Urgency! Comments are welcome here or on our Facebook page.
1. As this week’s photo with the metaphorical subtlety of a Mike Tyson punch illustrates, Sunday the Green Bay Packers are playing football on the edge of the world. Well, the edge of postseason contention at least, and probably the edge of, for us, a functioning level of football fan sanity. We’ll just be blunt: a loss, at home, for the third straight time in Lambeau Field, to the Minnesota Vikings of all creatures, would really be hard to stomach. It would near-sink the chances for anything more than a hopefully-competitive month of December.
So while we’re certainly not at rock bottom yet, we can see down the side, the long and dark tumble below. The Packers are as close to falling off that side for the first time since the 2010 season. (We know this wasn’t long ago and that certain expectations may need to be altered for this season, but we’ll wait at least another week for that talk.) We’ve heard the comparisons between the seasons, the injuries and the At One Time Things Weren’t Looking So Good Back Then Either soundbites. And there’s some room to draw hopeful lines. Just as we said last week, we are happy to still be hoping.
But the biggest difference between 2010 and 2013 is that, now, there is basically more time for Green Bay to slip, more dangerous objects to fall on. Three seasons ago, the Packers had to win their last two games on the schedule and they were in. It wasn’t easy, but it was a simple plan – a direct route to the anything-goes carnival operated by gypsies and fire-breathing elephants that is the NFL playoffs. This season there’s simply too many games left, and more importantly too many questions about this particular team, for anything to be that straightforward.
Which brings us back to Sunday: regardless of who the opponent is or what shape they look to be in (more on that in a moment), this game against the Vikings is merely the first step to staying the playoff course. It is a massive and necessary step; without it there is nothing but the other side of the edge.
2. We are unfortunately not telling you anything you don’t already know. But we’ll continue on this brave path by talking about the defense, sinking statistically at the worst possible time, and also feeling the effects of life without the constant opponent pressure point that is Aaron Rodgers.
These numbers, per ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, show Green Bay not improving in the three games without Rodgers. We’re just not really sure where else there is to go with this. If the defense were playing this way with Rodgers healthy, they’d still be disappointing. The difference when Rodgers is quarterbacking is that his presence impacts the entire game. Opposing offenses know they might need to score a lot, might force the issue. And we weren’t certain, after years of things being primarily offensive-minded in Green Bay, if it could switch to Defense, Lead the Way for a few games, and results thus far in that role reversal are not great.
Now, the defense has occasionally come up with major stops at just-the-right-times, which is a great quality, but at this point in the season a complete, consistent effort is probably going to be the thing that gives the Packers a real chance. Green Bay cannot afford to be down multiple scores, cannot afford the amount of big plays being hauled in with ease through the secondary. These are things we all know. Can it change, quickly?
3. This is as good a time as any to enter Vikings World, where no one seems to be sure why Christian Ponder is still starting at quarterback. We, for one, support Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier in his ongoing battle against that stubborn grain of “truth” called, “Recent Games Played By Christian Ponder for the Vikings,” and we can only hope to be half as courageous in our own lives someday.
This is why we think that even if the Packers defense doesn’t figure itself out entirely, some improvement over their last three moth-eaten games could convert handsomely when you factor in the current value of the Vikings’ offense.
But then there’s the weirdness that’s with us, because of how things have been going and because of this game’s importance. It’s the lightning-bolt-to-the-brain feeling of being afraid of a Vikings team because of what they could effectively do while still engulfed in a raging tire fire of their own. The thought that a Minnesota team in such disarray could woozily stumble into Lambeau and fall through the one open mineshaft leading them out to a win wouldn’t seem to be all that possible. And that’s what is most terrifying, here.
4. Here is what we want to say about Scott Tolzien: yup, the interceptions were bad – the second in particular – and certainly seriously wounded the Packers’ chances of winning. But Tolzien was never going to win these games by himself, and, per Pro Football Focus, here’s what Eddie Lacy had to work with against the Giants: New York made first contact with Lacy no further than two yards past the line of scrimmage on all 14 of his carries. The Giants first hit him at the line of scrimmage or behind it on eight of those runs. So.
And look, Tolzien has to be better. It’s just that he seems to be the easiest example – and really, the most likely – to pick from a team not playing well in many phases.
(In fairness to Ponder in Minnesota, his situation – though he often doesn’t help it – has similarities: the Vikings have an awful defense. Our favorite number: they’re allowing teams to convert on third down a league-worst 49 percent of the time, and while we could pin this on their Minnesotan hospitality, we don’t think that’s what is going on here.)
We’d be surprised not to see Tolzien sprinkle in a few more first-and second-down throws, because predictability only works if you’re Alabama, but also we’d expect to see more than 14 carries for Lacy, who is the kind of bowling ball that pins start to lean away from in the later frames of the game.
Finally, it all comes together to make one machine. All the players, the units, moving singularly, then together, then reacting to the actions of the others and moving again, filling in a complex design. All that offensive stuff works a whole lot better when they’re not down early and continuously in danger of getting buried further beneath a deficit. All that defensive stuff works better the fewer extra possessions it is forced to spend on the field.
The Vikings maybe aren’t the most lethal opponent as far as exposing anything goes, but we of course are wondering about whether or not the Packers can be better in the short term. Because if they can’t win this one somehow, the playoff-wondering will probably be over.
(On the following scale: Ted Thompson is a tough guy to read. In an attempt to pay homage to his flat style of delivery, we will couple our pick with a 1-5 rating scale of our confidence translated into Thompson Confidence, which, we feel, is just as ultimately silly and tough to derive meaning from as choosing a score.)
Honorary Ted Thompson ‘I feel confident’ scale of confidence: 3.9 URGENT ‘I feel confident’-s out of 5.